The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The country was panting like a wrestler lying under the knee of his successful opponent.
The first trains from Paris, after the city’s long agony of famine and despair, were making their way to the new frontiers, slowly passing through the country districts and the villages. The passengers gazed through the windows at the ravaged fields and burnt hamlets. Prussian soldiers, in their black helmets with brass spikes, were smoking their pipes on horseback or sitting on chairs in front of the houses which were still left standing. Others were working or talking just as if they were members of the families. As you passed through the different towns you saw entire regiments drilling in the squares, and, in spite of the rumble of the carriage-wheels, you could every moment hear the hoarse words of command.
M. Dubuis, who during the entire siege, had served as one of the National Guard in Paris, was going to join his wife and daughter, whom he had prudently sent away to Switzerland before the invasion.
Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty at the ramparts, and staunchly mounted guard on cold nights.
He stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded, armed men, installed all over French soil as if in their own homes, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism even while he yielded to that other instinct of discretion and self-preservation which never leaves us. In the same compartment, two Englishmen, who had come to the country as sight-seers, were gazing around with looks of stolid curiosity. They were both also stout, and kept chattering in their own language, sometimes referring to their guide-book, and reading in loud tones the names of the places indicated.
Suddenly, the train stopped at a little village station, and a Prussian officer jumped up with a great clatter of his saber on the double footboard of the railway-carriage. He was tall, wore a tight-fitting uniform, and his face had a very shaggy aspect. His red hair seemed to be on fire, and his long moustache, of a paler color, was stuck out on both sides of his face, which it seemed to cut in two.
The Englishmen at once began staring at him with smiles of newly-awakened interest, while M. Dubuis made a show of reading a newspaper. He sat crouched in a corner, like a thief in the presence of a gendarme.
The train started again. The Englishmen went on chatting, and looking out for the exact scene of different battles, and, all of a sudden, as one of them stretched out his arm towards the horizon to indicate a village, the Prussian officer remarked in French, extending his long legs and lolling backwards:
“We killed a dozen Frenchmen in that village, and took more than a hundred prisoners.”
The Englishman, quite interested, immediately asked:
“Ha! and what is the name of this village?”
The Prussian replied:
He added: “We caught these French blackguards by the ears.”
And he glanced towards M. Dubuis, laughing into his moustache in an insulting fashion.
The train rolled on, always passing through hamlets occupied by the victorious army. German soldiers could be seen along the roads, on the edges of fields, standing in front of gates, or chatting outside cafés. They covered the soil like African locusts.
The officer said, with a wave of his hand:
“If I were in command, I’d take Paris, burn everything, kill everybody. No more France!”
The Englishman, through politeness, replied simply:
He went on:
“In twenty years, all Europe, all of it, will belong to us. Prussia is more than a match for all of them.”
The Englishmen, getting uneasy, said nothing in answer to this. Their faces, which had become impassive, seemed made of wax behind their long whiskers. Then, the Prussian officer began to laugh. And still, lolling back, he began to sneer. He sneered at the downfall of France, insulted the prostrate enemy; he sneered at Austria which had been recently conquered; he sneered at the furious but fruitless defense of the departments; he sneered at the Garde Mobile and at the useless artillery. He announced that Bismarck was going to build a city of iron with the captured cannon. And suddenly he pushed his boots against the thigh of M. Dubuis, who turned his eyes round, reddening to the roots of his hair.
The Englishmen seemed to have assumed an air of complete indifference, as if they had found themselves all at once shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.
The officer took out his pipe, and looking fixedly at the Frenchman, said:
“You haven’t any tobacco — have you?”
M. Dubuis replied:
The German said:
“You might go and buy some for me when the train stops next.”
And he began laughing afresh, as he added:
“I’ll let you have the price of a drink.”
The train whistled, and slackened its pace. They had reached the station which had been burnt down; and here there was a regular stop.
The German opened the carriage-door, and, catching M. Dubuis by the arm, said:
“Go and do what I told you — quick, quick!”
A Prussian detachment occupied the station. Other soldiers were looking on from behind wooden gratings. The engine was already getting up steam in order to start off again. Then M. Dubuis hurriedly jumped on the platform, and, in spite of the warnings of the station master, dashed into the adjoining compartment.
He was alone! He tore open his waistcoat, so rapidly did his heart beat, and, panting for breath, he wiped the perspiration off his forehead.
The train drew up at another station. And suddenly the officer appeared at the carriage-door, and jumped in, followed close behind by the two Englishmen, who were impelled by curiosity. The German sat facing the Frenchman, and, laughing still, said:
“You did not want to do what I asked you?”
M. Dubuis replied:
The train had just left the station.
The officer said:
“I’ll cut off your moustache to fill my pipe with.”
And he put out his hand towards the Frenchman’s face.
The Englishmen kept staring in the same impassive fashion with fixed glances.
Already the German had caught hold of the moustache and was tugging at it, when M. Dubuis, with a back stroke of his hand, threw back the officer’s arm, and, seizing him by the collar, flung him down on the seat. Then, excited to a pitch of fury, with his temples swollen and his eyes glaring, he kept throttling the officer with one hand, while with the other clenched, he began to strike him violent blows in the face. The Prussian struggled, tried to draw his saber, and to get a grip, while lying back, of his adversary. But M. Dubuis crushed him with the enormous weight of his stomach, and kept hitting him without taking breath or knowing where his blows fell. Blood flowed down the face of the German, who, choking and with a rattling in his throat, spat forth his broken teeth, and vainly strove to shake off this infuriated man who was killing him.
The Englishmen had got on their feet and came closer in order to see better. They remained standing, full of mirth and curiosity, ready to bet for or against each of the combatants.
And suddenly M. Dubuis, exhausted by his violent efforts, went and resumed his seat without uttering a word.
The Prussian did not attack him, for the savage assault had scared and terrified the officer. When he was able to breathe freely, he said:
“Unless you give me satisfaction with pistols, I will kill you.”
M. Dubuis replied:
“Whenever you like. I’m quite ready.”
The German said:
“Here is the town of Strasbourg. I’ll get two officers to be my seconds, and there will be time before the train leaves the station.”
M. Dubuis, who was puffing as much as the engine, said to the Englishmen:
“Will you be my seconds?” They both answered together:
And the train stopped.
In a minute, the Prussian had found two comrades who carried pistols, and they made their way towards the ramparts.
The Englishmen were continually looking at their watches, shuffling their feet, and hurrying on with the preparations, uneasy lest they should be too late for the train.
M. Dubuis had never fired a pistol in his life.
They made him stand twenty paces away from his enemy. He was asked:
“Are you ready?”
While he was answering: “Yes, monsieur,” he noticed that one of the Englishmen had opened his umbrella in order to keep off the rays of the sun.
A voice gave the word of command:
M. Dubuis fired at random without minding what he was doing, and he was amazed to see the Prussian staggering in front of him, lifting up his arms, and immediately afterwards, falling straight on his face. He had killed the officer.
One of the Englishmen ejaculated: “Ah!” quivering with delight, satisfied curiosity, and joyous impatience. The other, who still kept the watch in his hand, seized M. Dubuis’s arm, and hurried him in double-quick time towards the station, his fellow-countryman counting their steps, with his arms pressed close to his sides — “One! two! one! two!”
And all three marching abreast they rapidly made their way to the station like three grotesque figures in a comic newspaper.
The train was on the point of starting. They sprang into their carriage. Then, the Englishmen, taking off their traveling-caps, waved them three times over their heads, exclaiming:
“Hip! hip! hip! hurrah!”
Then gravely, one after the other, they stretched out the right hand to M. Dubuis, and they went back and sat in their own corner.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53