Guy de Maupassant
Translated by Matthew Yost
The war was over; the Germans had occupied France; the country still twitched like a beaten wrestler, pinned beneath his victorious opponent’s knee.
The first trains began leaving a panic-stricken, starved and desperate Paris. They plied along slowly, across the landscape and through villages, on their way to the country’s newly contrived borders. The first passengers to leave the city watched wasted fields and razed hamlets roll past the windows of their train. Prussian soldiers—decked out in their black, copper-spiked headgear, smoking their pipes and sitting astride chairs, were in front of any house that remained standing. Others worked or chatted as though they belonged to the families that quartered them. In the larger towns, the passengers saw entire regiments drilling in the squares, and despite the grinding of the wheels beneath them, harsh commands still sometimes reached their ears.
M. Dubuis, who had been in the Paris militia all throughout the siege, was on his way to Switzerland, where he would meet his wife and daughter, whom he had carefully sent abroad before the invasion.
Famine and fatigue had done nothing to reduce the size of that rich and peaceful merchant’s fat belly. He’d survived those appalling times with desolate resignation and bitter quips about mankind’s savagery. Now that he was headed for the border, and that the war was over, he was seeing Prussians for the first time—even though he’d done his duty on the ramparts, and mounted the guard on cold nights.
He gazed with an irritated terror upon those armed and bearded men, who had installed themselves as if they were at home on French soil; and he felt within his soul a sort of impotent patriotic zeal, while alongside that impulse, was the instinct of caution, which seemed newly acquired, but really has only been dormant all this time.
In his compartment, were two Englishmen who had come to have a look. They peeped about with calm and curious eyes. Each one was fat as the other, and they talked in their language, sometimes glancing through their travel guide—which they read aloud—while seeking to identify the locales it described.
The train had stopped at the siding of a small town when suddenly a Prussian officer entered with a great rattling of his sabre on the carriage’s double foot-step. He was tall, squeezed into his uniform, and bearded to the eyes. His red hair seemed to be on fire, and a paler mustache stuck out beyond the edges of his face, which it divided in half.
The Englishmen examined him, wearing curious, satisfied smiles, while M. Dubuis made busy pretending to read a newspaper. He huddled in the corner, like a thief in the presence of a gendarme.
The train began to move again. The Englishmen continued to talk, continued to search for the precise locations of battlefields; and suddenly, as one of them stretched his arm out towards the horizon, the Prussian officer extended his long legs, leaned back, and said,
“I killed twelf Frenchmen in sat fillage. I took more san one hundret brisoners.”
The Englishmen, completely fascinated, asked him right away,
“Aoh! what was the village’s name?”
“Pharsbourg,” the Prussian answered. Then he continued, “I took sose naughty Frenchmen py seir ears.”
He regarded M. Dubuis, while laughing smugly into his beard.
The train rolled on, constantly passing through occupied villages. One saw German soldiers along the roads, at the edges of fields, standing at the gates of railway crossings, or talking in front of cafes. They covered the earth like locusts.
The officer made a sweeping gesture and said, “If I’d peen in commant, I’d haff taken Paris and purned it to the ground and killed efryone. No more France!”
Out of politeness, the Englishmen answered, “Aoh! yes.”
He continued, “In twenty years, all Europe vill pelong to us. Brussia is stronger san efryone.”
The English, now uncomfortable, did not answer. Their faces had become impassive and waxen between their lavish sideburns. The Prussian officer began to laugh. Leaning back, he began cracking jokes. He made fun of subjugated France, and insulted all his worldly enemies. He joked about the recently defeated Austrians; he laughed about the dogged and impotent departmental mitlitae; he joked about their infantry and useless artillery. He proclaimed that Bismarck was going to build himself an iron city out of all the cannons they’d captured. And suddenly he rested his boots against M. Dubuis, who was red to the ears and who averted his eyes.
The Englishmen seemed to have adopted an indifferent pose, as if they were suddenly safely shut away on their island again, far away from all the world’s commotion.
The officer got out his pipe and—staring fixedly at the Frenchman—said,
“You vouldn’t haff any tobacco?”
M. Dubuis answered, “No, sir!”
“Then I peg you to go buy some, venn se gonfoy stops again.” Then he laughed and said, “I’ll even kiff you a gratuity.”
The train whistled and slowed its pace. They passed before the burned remnants of a train station, then stopped completely.
The German opened the door and, taking M. Dubuis by the arm, said, “Go! do my pidding, quickly, quickly!”
A detachment of Prussian soldiers held the town. More soldiers stood watching from behind a wooden-lattice fence. The train was already whistling to signal its departure. And so M. Dubuis jumped to the platform, and despite the stationmaster’s gesturing, threw himself into the neighboring compartment.
He was alone! Breathing hard, his heart pounding, he opened his vest and mopped his brow. The train stopped at another station, and all of a sudden the officer appeared at the door, came in, and soon enough the two Englishmen followed, driven by their curiosity. The German sat down facing the Frenchman and, still laughing, said, “You vouldn’t do my pidding.”
“ No, sir!” M. Dubuis answered.
The train was about to get underway.
The officer said, “I vill clip your mustache to fill my pipe.”
He reached for his neighbor’s face.
The Englishmen, still impassive, watched fixedly.
Already the German had taken a pinch of hair and was pulling on it, when M. Dubuis, using the back of his hand, slapped the other’s arm away. Seizing the Prussian by the collar, he threw him against the bench. Then, insane with rage, his temples inflated, his eyes full of blood, and still strangling the German with one hand, his other closed to a fist, and he began to furiously pound the Prussian’s face. The other tried to defend himself, tried to draw his sabre, tried to grasp the adversary, who was lying on top of him. But M. Dubuis crushed him with his enormous weight, and beat him—beat him without pause, without stopping to catch his breath, without caring where his blows landed. Blood flowed. The choking German moaned, spat out his teeth, tried vainly to push away the fat, exasperated man who was crushing him.
The Englishmen had risen and came closer to get a better view. They remained standing, full of joy and curiosity, ready to bet on either of the combatants.
Then suddenly M. Dubuis, worn out by the effort, got up and sat back in his seat without saying a word.
In his pain and shock, the punch-drunk Prussian did not launch himself at Dubuis. Once he’d caught his breath, he said,
“If you do not vont to giff me satisfaction with bistols, I’ll kill you!”
M. Dubuis answered, “When you will. I’ll do it gladly.”
“Look here se city of Strasbourg,” the officer said. “I’ll take two officers as my vitnesses. I’ve time pefore se train debarts.”
M. Dubuis, who was panting as hard as the train, said to the Englishmen,
“Would you be my witnesses?”
The two answered together, “Aoh! yes!”
And the train stopped.
Within the minute, the Prussian had found two comrades who brought him pistols and they made for the ramparts.
The Englishmen were constantly pulling their watches from their pockets, hastening their steps, hurrying the preparations, worrying about the time, so they wouldn’t miss their departure.
M. Dubuis had never handled a pistol before. They placed him twenty paces from his enemy, and then asked,
“Are you ready?”
In answering, “yes, sir!” he noticed one of the Englishmen had opened his umbrella to shade himself from the sun.
A voice commanded, “Fire!”
M. Dubuis fired blindly, without waiting; and, to his astonishment, he saw the Prussian stagger, lift his arms to heaven, and fall sharply onto his face. He had killed him.
One of the Englishmen cried “Aoh!” while quivering with joy, satisfied curiosity and happy impatience. The other, who was still holding his watch, seized M. Dubuis by the arm and led him towards the station, taking long athletic strides. The first Englishman set the pace, running flat-out, fists closed, elbows tucked in.
“One, two! one, two!”
Despite their bellies they reached the station, trotting three abreast, like three grotesques in a comical pamphlet.
The train was pulling away. They jumped into their compartment. The Englishmen doffed their travelling caps and waved them. Then three times in a row, they cheered,
Hip, hip, hip, hurrah!
One after the other, they gravely extended their hands to M. Dubuis, then turned and sat down again, side by side, in their own corner.