I was very late that morning on my way to school and was afraid of being scolded. The master had told us he would question us on verbs, and I did not know a thing about them, for I had not done my lesson.
For a moment I thought of playing truant. The air was so warm and bright, and I could hear the blackbirds whistling on the edge of the woods, and the Prussians drilling in the meadows behind the sawmill.
I liked this much better than learning the rules of verbs, but I did not dare to stop, so I ran quickly towards school.
Passing the mayor"s office, I saw people standing before the little bulletin board. For two years it was there that we had received all the news of battles, of victories and defeats.
"What is it now?" I thought, without stopping.
Then, as I ran along, the blacksmith, who was there reading the notice, cried out to me, "Not so fast, little one, you will reach your school soon enough."
I thought he was making fun of me and ran faster than ever, reaching the schoolyard quite out of breath.
Usually at the beginning of school, the noise of desks being opened and closed, and lessons repeated at the top of the children"s voices could be heard out in the street. Occasionally the master beat the table with the heavy ruler as he cried, "Silence, please, silence!"
I had hoped to be able to take my seat in all this noise without being seen; but that morning the room was quiet and orderly.
Through the open window I saw my schoolmates already in their places. The master was walking up and down the room with the iron ruler under his arm and a book in his hand.
As I entered he looked at me kindly, and said, without scolding, "Go quickly to your place, little Franz; we were going to begin without you. You should have been here five minutes ago."
I climbed over my bench and sat down at once at my desk. Just then I noticed, for the first time, that our master wore his fine green coat and his black silk embroidered cap.
But what surprised me most was to see some of the village people seated on the benches at the end of the room. One of them was holding an old spelling book on his knee; and they all looked sadly at the master.
While I was wondering at this, our schoolmaster took his place. "Children," he said, "this is the last time that I shall give you a lesson. An order has come from Berlin that no language but German may be taught in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. A new master will come tomorrow who will teach you German. Today is your last lesson in French. I beg you to pay attention."
These words frightened me. This was what they had posted on the bulletin board then! This was what the blacksmith was reading!
My last lesson in French! I hardly knew how to write, and I never should learn now. How I regretted the hours wasted in the woods and fields, the days when I had played and should have studied!
My books that a short time ago had seemed so tiresome, so heavy to carry, now seemed to me like old friends.
I was thinking of this when I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say the rules without a mistake! But I could not say a word, and stood at my bench without daring to lift my head. Then I heard the master speaking to me.
"I shall not scold you, little Franz. You are punished enough now. Every day you have said to yourself, "I have plenty of time. I will learn my lessons tomorrow." Now you see what has happened."
Then he began to talk to us about the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful tongue in the world, and that we must keep it among us and never forget it.
Finally he took the grammar and read us the lesson. I was surprised to see how well I understood. Everything seemed easy. I believed, too, that I had never listened so attentively; and it almost seemed as if the good man were trying to teach us all he knew at this last lesson.
When the lesson in grammar was over we began our writing. For that day the master had prepared some cards on which were written, "Alsace, France; Alsace, France."
They seemed like so many little flags dotted about the schoolroom. How we worked! Nothing was heard but the voice of the master and the scratching of pens on paper. There was no time for play now. On the roof of the schoolhouse some pigeons were softly cooing, and I said to myself, "Will they, too, be obliged to sing in German?"
From time to time, when I looked up from my page, I saw the master looking about him as if he wished to impress upon his mind everything in the room.
After writing, we had a history lesson. Next, the little ones recited in concert their "Ba, be, bi, bo, bu".
Oh, I shall always remember that last lesson!
Suddenly the church clock struck twelve. The master rose from his chair. "My friends," said he, "my friends, ... I ... I ..."
But something choked him; he could not finish the sentence. He returned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and wrote in large letters, "VIVE LA FRANCE."
Then he stood leaning against the wall, unable to speak. He signed to us with his hand. "The lesson is over. You are dismissed."