THE LAST LESSON
: For Classes Iv. And V.
: Children Stories To Tell
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 Fren
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
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
_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
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
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."