THE LAST LESSON
BY ALPHONSE DAUDET
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 edge of the woods; and in the open field back of the saw-mill
the Prussian soldiers were drilling. It was all much more tempting
than the rule for participles, but I had the strength to resist,
and hurried off to school.
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--the lost battles, the draft, the orders of the
commanding officer--and I thought to myself, without stopping:
"What can be the matter now?"
Then, as I hurried by as fast as I could go, the blacksmith, Wachter,
who was there, with his apprentice, reading the bulletin, called
"Don't go so fast, bub; 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, with our hands over our ears to
understand better, and the teacher's great ruler rapping on the
table. But now it was all so still! I had counted on the commotion
to get to my desk without being seen; but, of course, that day
everything had to be as quiet as Sunday morning. Through the window
I saw my classmates, already in their places, 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
I jumped over the bench and sat down at my desk. Not till then, when I
had got a little over my fright, did I see 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 that were always empty,
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; and Hauser had brought an old
primer, thumbed at the edges, and he held it open on his knees with his
great spectacles lying across the pages.
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
Lorraine. The new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French
lesson. I want you to be very attentive."
What a thunder-clap these words were to me!
Oh, the wretches; 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 honor 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. What would I not have given to be able to say that dreadful
rule for the participle all through, very loud and clear, and without one
mistake? But I got mixed up on the first words and stood there, holding on
to my desk, my heart beating, and not daring to look up. I heard M. Hamel
say to me:
"I won'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
trouble with Alsace; she puts off learning till 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? I've been to blame also. Have I not often sent you to water
my flowers instead of learning your lessons? And when I wanted to go
fishing, did I not just give you a holiday?"
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--the
clearest, the most logical; that 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, written in a beautiful round hand: France, Alsace,
France, Alsace. They looked like little flags floating everywhere in the
schoolroom, hung from the rod at the top of our desks. You ought to have
seen how everyone set to work, and how quiet it was! The only sound was
the scratching of the pens over the paper. Once some beetles flew in; but
nobody paid any attention to them, not even the littlest ones, who worked
right on tracing their fishhooks, as if that was French, too. 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 first at one thing, then at another, as if he wanted
to fix in his mind just how everything looked in that little schoolroom.
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; the walnut trees in the
garden were taller, and the hop vine, that he had planted himself twined
about the windows to the roof. 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.
But he had the courage to hear every lesson to the very last. After the
writing, we had a lesson in history, and then the babies chanted their ba,
be, bi, bo, bu. Down there at the back of the room old Hauser had put on
his spectacles and, holding his primer in both hands, spelled the letters
with them. You could see that he, too, was crying; his voice trembled with
emotion, and it was so funny to hear him that we all wanted to laugh and
cry. Ah, how well I remember it, that last lesson!
All at once the church clock struck twelve. Then the Angelus. 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 choked him. He could not
Then he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and, bearing
down 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."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~