Paris had just heard of the disaster at Sedan. A republic had been declared. All France was wavering on the brink of this madness which lasted until after the Commune. From one end of the country to the other everybody was playing soldier.
Cap-makers became colonels, fulfilling the duties of generals; revolvers and swords were displayed around big, peaceful stomachs wrapped in flaming red belts; little tradesmen became warriors commanding battalions of brawling volunteers, and swearing like pirates in order to give themselves some prestige.
The sole fact of handling firearms crazed these people, who up to that time had only handled scales, and made them, without any reason, dangerous to all. Innocent people were shot to prove that they knew how to kill; in forests which had never seen a Prussian, stray dogs, grazing cows and browsing horses were killed.
Each one thought himself called upon to play a great part in military affairs. The cafes of the smallest villages, full of uniformed tradesmen, looked like barracks or hospitals.
The town of Canneville was still in ignorance of the maddening news from the army and the capital; nevertheless, great excitement had prevailed for the last month, the opposing parties finding themselves face to face.
The mayor, Viscount de Varnetot, a thin, little old man, a conservative, who had recently, from ambition, gone over to the Empire, had seen a determined opponent arise in Dr. Massarel, a big, full-blooded man, leader of the Republican party of the neighborhood, a high official in the local masonic lodge, president of the Agricultural Society and of the firemen’s banquet and the organizer of the rural militia which was to save the country.
In two weeks, he had managed to gather together sixty-three volunteers, fathers of families, prudent farmers and town merchants, and every morning he would drill them in the square in front of the town-hall.
When, perchance, the mayor would come to the municipal building, Commander Massarel, girt with pistols, would pass proudly in front of his troop, his sword in his hand, and make all of them cry: “Long live the Fatherland!” And it had been noticed that this cry excited the little viscount, who probably saw in it a menace, a threat, as well as the odious memory of the great Revolution.
On the morning of the fifth of September, the doctor, in full uniform, his revolver on the table, was giving a consultation to an old couple, a farmer who had been suffering from varicose veins for the last seven years and had waited until his wife had them also, before he would consult the doctor, when the postman brought in the paper.
M. Massarel opened it, grew pale, suddenly rose, and lifting his hands to heaven in a gesture of exaltation, began to shout at the top of his voice before the two frightened country folks:
“Long live the Republic! long live the Republic! long live the Republic!”
Then he fell back in his chair, weak from emotion.
And as the peasant resumed: “It started with the ants, which began to run up and down my legs —” Dr. Massarel exclaimed:
“Shut up! I haven’t got time to bother with your nonsense. The Republic has been proclaimed, the emperor has been taken prisoner, France is saved! Long live the Republic!”
Running to the door, he howled:
“Celeste, quick, Celeste!”
The servant, affrighted, hastened in; he was trying to talk so rapidly, that he could only stammer:
“My boots, my sword, my cartridge-box and the Spanish dagger which is on my night-table! Hasten!”
As the persistent peasant, taking advantage of a moment’s silence, continued, “I seemed to get big lumps which hurt me when I walk,” the physician, exasperated, roared:
“Shut up and get out! If you had washed your feet it would not have happened!”
Then, grabbing him by the collar, he yelled at him:
“Can’t you understand that we are a republic, you brass-plated idiot!”
But professional sentiment soon calmed him, and he pushed the bewildered couple out, saying:
“Come back to-morrow, come back to-morrow, my friends. I haven’t any time to-day.”
As he equipped himself from head to foot, he gave a series of important orders to his servant:
“Run over to Lieutenant Picart and to Second Lieutenant Pommel, and tell them that I am expecting them here immediately. Also send me Torchebeuf with his drum. Quick! quick!”
When Celeste had gone out, he sat down and thought over the situation and the difficulties which he would have to surmount.
The three men arrived together in their working clothes. The commandant, who expected to see them in uniform, felt a little shocked.
“Don’t you people know anything? The emperor has been taken prisoner, the Republic has been proclaimed. We must act. My position is delicate, I might even say dangerous.”
He reflected for a few moments before his bewildered subordinates, then he continued:
“We must act and not hesitate; minutes count as hours in times like these. All depends on the promptness of our decision. You, Picart, go to the cure and order him to ring the alarm-bell, in order to get together the people, to whom I am going to announce the news. You, Torchebeuf beat the tattoo throughout the whole neighborhood as far as the hamlets of Gerisaie and Salmare, in order to assemble the militia in the public square. You, Pommel, get your uniform on quickly, just the coat and cap. We are going to the town-hall to demand Monsieur de Varnetot to surrender his powers to me. Do you understand?”
“Now carry out those orders quickly. I will go over to your house with you, Pommel, since we shall act together.”
Five minutes later, the commandant and his subordinates, armed to the teeth, appeared on the square, just as the little Viscount de Varnetot, his legs encased in gaiters as for a hunting party, his gun on his shoulder, was coming down the other street at double-quick time, followed by his three green-coated guards, their swords at their sides and their guns swung over their shoulders.
While the doctor stopped, bewildered, the four men entered the town-hall and closed the door behind them.
“They have outstripped us,” muttered the physician, “we must now wait for reenforcements. There is nothing to do for the present.”
Lieutenant Picart now appeared on the scene.
“The priest refuses to obey,” he said. “He has even locked himself in the church with the sexton and beadle.”
On the other side of the square, opposite the white, tightly closed town-hall, stood the church, silent and dark, with its massive oak door studded with iron.
But just as the perplexed inhabitants were sticking their heads out of the windows or coming out on their doorsteps, the drum suddenly began to be heard, and Torchebeuf appeared, furiously beating the tattoo. He crossed the square running, and disappeared along the road leading to the fields.
The commandant drew his sword, and advanced alone to half way between the two buildings behind which the enemy had intrenched itself, and, waving his sword over his head, he roared with all his might:
“Long live the Republic! Death to traitors!”
Then he returned to his officers.
The butcher, the baker and the druggist, much disturbed, were anxiously pulling down their shades and closing their shops. The grocer alone kept open.
However, the militia were arriving by degrees, each man in a different uniform, but all wearing a black cap with gold braid, the cap being the principal part of the outfit. They were armed with old rusty guns, the old guns which had hung for thirty years on the kitchen wall; and they looked a good deal like an army of tramps.
When he had about thirty men about him, the commandant, in a few words, outlined the situation to them. Then, turning to his staff: “Let us act,” he said.
The villagers were gathering together and talking the matter over.
The doctor quickly decided on a plan of campaign.
“Lieutenant Picart, you will advance under the windows of this town-hall and summon Monsieur de Varnetot, in the name of the Republic, to hand the keys over to me.”
But the lieutenant, a master mason, refused:
“You’re smart, you are. I don’t care to get killed, thank you. Those people in there shoot straight, don’t you forget it. Do your errands yourself.”
The commandant grew very red.
“I command you to go in the name of discipline!”
The lieutenant rebelled:
“I’m not going to have my beauty spoiled without knowing why.”
All the notables, gathered in a group near by, began to laugh. One of them cried: