The war was over and France was occupied by the Germans. The defeated country lay twitching beneath the knee of its conqueror.
The first trains were leaving a collapsed, starved and desperate Paris. Ruined plains and burned hamlets were visible from the carriage doors. Some Prussian officers sat in front of houses. They were smoking and wore black, steel-spiked helmets. Other officers worked or talked as if they formed part of a French family. Regiments carried out drills in town squares; harsh commands were sometimes heard over the din of traffic.
Dubuis was a rich and peace-loving businessman, who had remained fat in spite of the famine. During the siege, he had belonged to the Parisian National Guard. Now, he was going to re-join his wife and daughter in Switzerland. Dubuis had resigned himself to the war by bemoaning the savagery of man. He had kept watch on the ramparts for many cold nights, but he had never seen Prussians until now. They were armed, bearded and seemed to feel at home in France. Dubuis felt a rush of patriotism.
Dubuis shared his train compartment with two fat Englishmen. They were talking loudly and pouring over a guidebook. As the train sat idle in a small town, Dubuis heard the rattle of a sabre on the carriage steps that announced the arrival of a Prussian officer. He was large, bearded and wore a tight-fitting uniform. His red hair seemed to burn and his long moustache cut across the whole of his face. The Englishmen gazed at this new arrival with curious smiles. But Dubuis pretended to read a newspaper and hid in a corner, like a thief under the gaze of a police officer.
The train pulled out of the station and the Englishmen started to talk again. One of them pointed towards a village on the horizon and the Prussian officer announced (laying on his back): I killed twelve Frenchmen in that village and took more than ten prisoners.
The Englishmen asked straight away (in bad French): Oh! What was the name of the village?
Pharsbourg. I seized those French blackguards by the ears! He was laughing as he watched Dubuis.
The train was still passing through occupied hamlets. German soldiers were standing along the length of the track: in fields, at gate posts and in cafés. They covered the ground like locusts.
The officer stretched out a hand: If I were in command, I would burn Paris and kill everyone. No more France!
The Englishmen replied politely: Oh yes.
The Prussian continued: In twenty years, all of Europe will belong to us. Prussia will be stronger than all other countries! The Englishmen became concerned and did not respond. Their faces had become impassive and as hard as wax.
The Prussian (still on his back) began to ridicule both France and Austria. He laughed at the ineffective defence of the districts, at the mobilisation and at the useless artillery. He announced that Bismarck was going to build an iron city out of captured canons. Then, the officer put his boots across Dubuis’ thighs, which caused the Frenchman to go red and turn away.
The Englishmen were indifferent to everything around them. It was as if they were back on their island, closed off from worldly affairs. The officer took out his pipe and asked Dubuis: Do you have any tobacco?
Can you go and buy me some when the train stops? The German began to laugh once more. I’ll give you a tip.
The train whistled and pulled into another burnt-out station. The German opened the carriage door and took Dubuis by the arm: Go and run my errand, quickly, quickly! A Prussian detachment occupied the station and more soldiers were positioned all along the wooden railings. As the train signalled for departure, Dubuis jumped down onto the platform and hurried into the neighbouring carriage, ignoring the gestures from the station master.
Dubuis was alone. His heart was pounding so he unbuttoned his cardigan and wiped his forehead. But, at the next station, the German officer appeared at the doorway again, followed closely by the English tourists. The officer sat opposite Dubuis and asked in a mocking tone: Didn’t you want to run my errand?
I’ll cut off your moustache and fill my pipe with it! He raised a hand towards Dubuis’ face. The Englishmen were still and started ahead. The officer dragged the Frenchman up by the moustache but Dubuis pushed the arm aside. Then, Dubuis flew into a rage: he was shaking and his eyes were blood-shot. He seized the German by the collar and threw him down onto the bench.
Dubuis strangled the officer with one hand and punched his face over and over with the other. The German tried to fight back, reaching for his sabre in an attempt to throw Dubuis off him. But Dubuis was lashing out randomly, without pausing to draw breath. Blood flowed. The German (who was choking) was grinding his teeth with the effort of stopping the fat Frenchman from crushing him.
The Englishmen had come closer for a better look. They were full of joy and looked as if they could happily bet on either man. But Dubuis suddenly became overcome with exhaustion and sat back down without saying a word.
The German was frozen by surprise and pain. When he got his breath back, he said: If you do not give me the satisfaction of a duel, I’ll kill you right now.
I’d like that.
We’re approaching Strasbourg. I’ll take two officers as witnesses. There’s enough time before the train leaves.
Dubuis, who was puffing almost as much as the train, turned to the Englishmen and asked: Do you want to act as my witnesses?
They both replied Oh, yes! The train stopped.
The Prussian quickly found two other soldiers, who brought pistols. Together, they mounted the ramparts (the Englishmen were checking their watches and rushing so as not to miss the train). Dubuis had never held a pistol before. But here he was, standing twenty paces from his enemy.
Are you ready?
Dubuis then noticed that one of the Englishmen had opened up an umbrella to guarantee some sunshine.
Fire! Dubuis didn’t hesitate. He fired at random and watched in astonishment as the Prussian staggered, raised his arms and fell flat on his face. He was dead.
One of the Englishmen cried out with excitement. But the other (holding a wristwatch) took Dubuis by the arm and marched him back towards the station. The first Englishman set the pace, running with hands closed in fists and elbows held tightly to his body.
Left, right! Left, right!
And, in spite of their collective bulk, all three men trotted off like tabloid caricatures. They returned to their carriage and the train pulled out of the station. The Englishmen removed their overcoats, stood up and shook Dubuis warmly by the hand.
Hip, hip, horray!
Then they sat back down, side-by-side, in their corner of the carriage.