News of the Sedan disaster had reached Paris and the republic had been declared. All of France was preparing for the terror, which was to last until the Commune. Up and down the country, men were playing at being soldiers. Tradesmen were colonels who acted like generals, their pistols and daggers kept in red belts around peace-loving stomachs. Merchants were now temporary soldiers who commanded platoons of brawlers. They swore like carters in a bid to gain credibility.
In truth, the men were scared even to hold their weapons, since now they used bolt-action rifles and not just shotguns. And yet they murdered innocent people to prove that they could kill. They roamed the countryside, which was empty except for stray dogs, cows and sick horses. Each one believed he held an important, military role. Even cafés in the smallest hamlets were filled with uniformed merchants and were made out to look like barracks, or sick bays.
The terrifying news from the capital had not yet reached the borough of Canneville. There had, however, been unrest for months. As a result, there were now two opposing factions. On one side was the mayor, a slight and balding man by the name of Viscount Varnetot. A short while ago he had rallied to the Empire for personal gain. On the other side was the large and sanguine Doctor Massarel, who led the region’s Republican Party. He was also the Grand Master of the masonic lodge, president of the agricultural society and he presided over the annual dinner of the Fire Brigade. In addition, he organized the home guard, whose duty it was to defend the district.
In a fortnight, Massarel had found sixty three volunteers and had charged them with defending the district. They were all peasants or borough merchants and were all either fathers or husbands. Massarel drilled them in the town square each morning. One day, Varnetot passed by the town hall and he saw Massarel, covered in pistols and carrying a sabre. He heard the doctor shout Long live France and this made him feel uneasy.
On the morning of 5th September, Massarel was giving a consult to two peasants (he was still in uniform and he kept his revolver on the table). Apparently, the husband had been suffering from varicose veins for seven years, but he had put off seeing the doctor until his wife got them, too.
A postman suddenly entered and handed Massarel a newspaper. Reading it, the doctor turned pale. He got up quickly, raised his hands in salute and shouted: Long live the republic! Then he fell back into his armchair.
The peasant carried on as if nothing had happened: It started with pins and needles running down my leg…
Massarel interrupted: Leave me be! As if I’ve got time to deal with your nonsense! The Republic is proclaimed. The emperor has been taken prisoner. France is saved! He ran to the door and bellowed Celeste; quickly!
A terrified looking servant approached. The doctor’s words were running into one another as he spoke: My boots, my sabre, my cartridge belt and the Spanish dagger that’s on the night table. And be quick about it!
The peasant took advantage of a moment’s silence and continued: It grew into blotches. They hurt whenever I walk.
For God’s sake, be quiet! If you washed your feet, this would never have happened.
He seized the peasant by the collar: Don’t you blockheads know we’re a republic, now? Then, all of a sudden, the doctor’s sense of professionalism returned. He ushered the peasants out of his office, repeating Come back tomorrow, my friends. I don’t have time today.
Massarel put on his uniform and barked some new orders: Run to Lt Picard and to 2nd Lt Pommel and tell them I need them here. Also, send for Torchebeuf with his drum. Quickly now!
Massarel pulled himself together: he was determined to face this challenge head-on. The three men arrived in civilian clothes, which came as a surprise to Massarel. Don’t you know anything?! The emperor has been taken prisoner and we’re a republic now. I must act but my position is delicate – it may even be perilous.
The three men looked at Massarel blankly. So he explained: We can’t afford to waste any time: minutes are like hours at times like these. Picard: find the priest and tell him to gather the congregation. Torchebeuf: raise the alarm in the whole commune, right up to the hamlets of Gerisaie and Salmare. Assemble the home guard in the town square. Pommel: put on your shirt and cap. We’re going to the town hall to demand that Varnetot return his powers to me.
Five minutes later, Massarel and Pommel arrived (armed to the teeth) in the town square, just as Varnetot was approaching from the other side. Varnetot was dressed in hunting garters and he had a rifle slung over one shoulder. He was followed by three guards dressed in green tunics, with knives strapped to their thighs and rifles in bandoliers. Massarel looked on stunned as the four men entered the town hall and shut the door behind them. We’re outflanked he muttered. Now we need to wait for reinforcements.
Lt Picard reappeared: The priest will not obey. He’s even locked himself in the church with the beadle and his attendant. The church stood on the other side of the square, silent and black, its large, oak door studded with iron.
Soon the townsfolk grew curious and peered out of windows and balconies. Then Torchebeuf came into view, passionately beating his drum to call for order. He crossed the square with great, athletic bounds and disappeared again into the countryside.
Massarel drew his sabre and stood in between the church and the town hall. He waved his sabre over his head, shouting: Long live the republic! Death to traitors! Then he turned back towards his officers.
Bakers, butcher, pharmacists…All tradesmen were so worried that they closed up their shops. Home Guard troops were trickling in, dressed in a range of clothes but all wearing the same black caps with red bands. They looked like rural policeman, carrying the same rusty rifles that had hung above their fireplaces for thirty years. Once a crowd of around thirty men had formed, the commander quickly brought them up to speed on recent events. All the while, townsfolk were gathering in the square for gossip and news.
Massarel had soon drawn up his campaign plan: Lt Picard: you will go under the windows of the town hall and demand that Varnetot surrender the building in the name of the Republic.
But the lieutenant (a master builder) refused: And end up getting shot?! No thanks. There are good marksmen indoors, you know. You’re a sly one; run your own errands.
The commander reddened: I order you to go!
I have no intention to go looking for a face full of lead for no reason! At this, the town’s notables, who were stood a little apart, began to laugh.
One of them called out: You’re right, Picard. Now’s not the time!
Cowards! Massarel left his weapon behind and advanced slowly, eyes fixed on the town hall windows for fear of cannon fire. He stopped several paces from the building. The doors on either end of the town hall each backed on to schools. And at that very moment the doors opened and a wave of children poured out. They began to play in the empty square, chirruping like songbirds all around Massarel. Nobody heard him.
Then, the last of the children left and the doors closed. Massarel called out for Varnetot in a strong voice. A first-floor window opened and the viscount appeared. Massarel continued: Sir, you know of the events that have now just changed the face of government. The order you represent is no more and the one I represent is gaining power. In painful and decisive times like these, I ask you in the name of the Republic to hand over your inherited powers to me.
Varnetot’s reply was resolute: Doctor, the government has declared me mayor of Canneville and I shall continue to be mayor until the government sees fit to replace me. I’m staying right here, on my own ground…And just you try to stop me! With that, he slammed the window shut.
Massarel didn’t address his troops. Instead, he turned straight to Picard and said: Some hero you are! You’re a disgrace to the army and I’m stripping you of your rank!
I couldn’t care less was the reply. Picard went to join the murmuring crowd.
The doctor hesitated, not knowing how to proceed. Perhaps he should call the assault but, then, could he count on his men to charge? And, even if he could, did he have the right to?
Without warning, he hurried across the square to the telegraph machine. He dashed off three telegrams: first, to the republican ministers in Paris, second, to the chief administrator at Sainte-Inférieure at Rouen; third, to the new republican sous-préfet at Dieppe. Massarel outlined the situation, telling of the danger posed by a former, royalist mayor to his backwater commune. He signed off by listing all of his titles, before returning to his regiment.
Taking ten francs from his pocket, he said: Here, my friends: go for food and drink. We only need a detachment of ten men here to ensure no-one leaves the town hall.
Picard was talking to the clock-maker. When he heard the doctor’s orders, he scoffed: Of course, you know that the only chance you’ve got of getting in is if they leave first. Massarel ignored him and went for lunch. Later, he set up check-points all around the area, as if under threat of surprise attack. He paced up-and-down in front of the town hall without finding anything untoward.
The shops re-opened but there was still a lot of gossip. It had not escaped anyone’s attention that an imprisoned emperor hinted at treason. So nobody could be sure what kind of republic they had ended up with.
Night fell at around nine o’ clock. Massarel made his silent way up to the town hall, under the impression that his enemy had retired to bed. He set about forcing the door open with a pickaxe, but soon beat a hasty retreat when he heard a guard shout Who goes there?
The new day brought little change. The Home Guard still occupied the square and they were surrounded by a crowd. This time, though, the crowd had swelled with the arrival of neighbouring villagers. Massarel knew his reputation was at stake and he had grown desperate.
Just as he was about to do something rash, a servant girl came out of the post-office holding two pieces of paper. She kept her gaze down (all eyes were on her) as she trotted nervously across the square. She handed Massarel one of the messages before knocking on the town hall door, oblivious to the armed guard that was hidden inside. A hand emerged to snatch the message and the girl hurried back with flushed cheeks.
Massarel called for silence and announced: I have here a telegram from the government. It read:
Former mayor removed. Take necessary action forthwith. Await further instructions’ – Signed, sous-péfet Sapin.
Massarel was triumphant, with soaring heart and shaking hands. But Picard remained sceptical: That’s all very well, but your bit of paper counts for nothing if the others don’t leave. The doctor was crushed. Indeed, if the others did not leave, he would still be forced to order the assault.
He turned to face the town hall, willing the doors to open. But they didn’t. Now the crowd was growing in size and had begun to jeer. One thought in particular horrified Massarel. In an assault, he would have to lead his men into battle. But Varnetot and his men would train their guns on Massarel alone. And his death would bring an end to the uprising.
Suddenly, Massarel had an idea. Hurrying towards Pommel, he said: Go quickly and ask the chemist for a sheet and pole. He was going to make a truce flag. The white colour will surely melt his opponent’s heart, the doctor thought.
Pommel returned with a broomstick and some cloth. He and Massarel made a banner with twine and the doctor held it up with both hands. He approached the town hall and called for Varnetot again. The viscount appeared on the steps, flanked by his three guards. Massarel took a step back in surprise, but he recovered in time to extend a polite salute: I have come, sir, to inform you of my instructions.
Varnetot did not return the salute. Instead, he replied: I am stepping down, but not out of fear or deference to that odious, usurper government. He was spitting out each word: I don’t want to appear to be working for the Republic a single day longer. That is all!
Massarel said nothing as Varnetot left the square, followed as ever by his entourage. The doctor turned back to the crowd, bursting with pride: Hurrah! The Republic is triumphant! His cry was met with a sea of blank faces, so he tried again: The people are free and independent! Have pride! But still the villagers were unmoved and expressionless. Massarel was greatly irritated by their indifference and he searched in vain for the words that could stir their passions. He then addressed Pommel: Lieutenant, bring me a chair and Napoleon’s bust from the municipal council chamber.
After a short while Pommel returned, chair in own hand and a plastered Bonaparte in the other. Massarel placed the white bust on the chair, took several steps back and exclaimed:
Tyrant, here you are, down in mud and mire. The fatherland breathed its last under your regime. Vengeful destiny struck you down. Defeat and shame were brought to you. You were conquered, a prisoner of the Prussians. The young and radiant Republic picks up your fallen sword and stands proud!
There was no applause. The bust (which was like a mannequin with its long moustache and perfectly combed hair) stared back at Massarel with a permanent and mocking smile. Massarel stared daggers at the bust until he could bear it no longer. There must be something he could do to win over public opinion once and for all. His hand fell by chance on the grip of his pistol. Without thinking, Massarel drew his weapon, stepped back two paces and blasted the monarch from point-blank range.
The bullet left a tiny, black hole in the forehead, no bigger than a pimple. The effect was lost so Massarel shot again (which left another tiny hole) and again without stopping until he had emptied the gun. There was a flurry of white dust but Napoleon’s features remained intact.
In a rage, Massarel kicked over the chair and, pressing his foot to the bust in a triumphant post, shouted This is how all traitors die! Once again, the spectators looked dazed. So Massarel addressed his troops: You can now go back to your homes. And he went home straightaway.
No sooner had Massarel got home, he discovered he still had patients, who had been waiting in his surgery for over three hours. He entered to find the two varicose-vein sufferers from before. The old couple had been sitting there since dawn. Upon seeing Massarel, the husband started to explain: It started with pins and needles running down my leg..