An Affair of State
by Guy de Maupassant
Paris had just heard of the
disaster of Sedan. The Republic was proclaimed. All France was panting
from a madness that lasted until the time of the commonwealth. Everybody
was playing at soldier from one end of the country to the other.
Capmakers became colonels, assuming the duties of generals; revolvers
and daggers were displayed on large rotund bodies enveloped in red
sashes; common citizens turned warriors, commanding battalions of noisy
volunteers and swearing like troopers to emphasize their importance.
The very fact of bearing arms and handling guns with a system excited a
people who hitherto had only handled scales and measures and made them
formidable to the first comer, without reason. They even executed a few
innocent people to prove that they knew how to kill, and in roaming
through virgin fields still belonging to the Prussians they shot stray
dogs, cows chewing the cud in peace or sick horses put out to pasture.
Each believed himself called upon to play a great role in military
affairs. The cafès of the smallest villages, full of tradesmen in
uniform, resembled barracks or field hospitals.
Now the town of Canneville did not yet know the exciting news of the
army and the capital. It had, however, been greatly agitated for a month
over an encounter between the rival political parties. The mayor,
Viscount de Varnetot, a small thin man, already old, remained true to
the Empire, especially since he saw rising up against him a powerful
adversary in the great, sanguine form of Dr. Massarel, head of the
Republican party in the district, venerable chief of the Masonic lodge,
president of the Society of Agriculture and the Fire Department and
organizer of the rural militia designed to save the country.
In two weeks he had induced sixty-three men to volunteer in defense of
their country--married men, fathers of families, prudent farmers and
merchants of the town. These he drilled every morning in front of the
Whenever the mayor happened to appear Commander Massarel, covered with
pistols, passing proudly up and down in front of his troops, would make
them shout, "Long live our country!" And this, they noticed, disturbed
the little viscount, who no doubt heard in it menace and defiance and
perhaps some odious recollection of the great Revolution.
On the morning of the fifth of September, in uniform, his revolver on
the table, the doctor gave consultation to an old peasant couple. The
husband had suffered with a varicose vein for seven years but had waited
until his wife had one too, so that they might go and hunt up a
physician together, guided by the postman when he should come with the
Dr Massarel opened the door, grew pale, straightened himself abruptly
and, raising his arms to heaven in a gesture of exaltation, cried out
with all his might, in the face of the amazed rustics:
"Long live the Republic! Long live the Republic! Long live the
Then he dropped into his armchair weak with emotion.
When the peasant explained that this sickness commenced with a feeling
as if ants were running up and down his legs the doctor exclaimed: "Hold
your peace. I have spent too much time with you stupid people. The
Republic is proclaimed! The Emperor is a prisoner! France is saved! Long
live the Republic!" And, running to the door, he bellowed: "Celeste!
The frightened maid hastened in. He stuttered, so rapidly did he try to
speak" "My boots, my saber--my cartridge box--and--the Spanish dagger
which is on my night table. Hurry now!"
The obstinate peasant, taking advantage of the moment's silence, began
again: "This seemed like some cysts that hurt me when I walked."
The exasperated physician shouted: "Hold your peace! For heaven's sake!
If you had washed your feet oftener, it would not have happened." Then,
seizing him by the neck, he hissed in his face: "Can you not comprehend
that we are living in a republic, stupid;"
But the professional sentiment calmed him suddenly, and he let the
astonished old couple out of the house, repeating all the time:
"Return tomorrow, return tomorrow, my friends; I have no more time
While equipping himself from head to foot he gave another series of
urgent orders to the maid:
"Run to Lieutenant Picard's and to Sublieutenant Pommel's and say to
them that I want them here immediately. Send Torcheboeuf to me too, with
his drum. Quick now! Quick!" And when Celeste was gone he collected his
thoughts and prepared to surmount the difficulties of the situation.
The three men arrived together. They were in their working clothes. The
commander, who had expected to see them in uniform, had a fit of
"You know nothing, then? The Emperor has been taken prisoner. A republic
is proclaimed. My position is delicate, not to say perilous."
He reflected for some minutes before the astonished faces of his
subordinates and then continued:
"It is necessary to act, not to hesitate. Minutes now are worth hours at
other times. Everything depends upon promptness of decision. You,
Picard, go and find the curate and get him to ring the bell to bring the
people together, while I get ahead of them. You, Torcheboeuf, beat the
call to assemble the militia in arms, in the square, from even as far as
the hamlets of Gerisaie and Salmare. You, Pommel, put on your uniform at
once, that is, the jacket and cap. We, together, are going to take
possession of the mairie and summon Monsieur de Varnetot to transfer his
authority to me. Do you understand?"
"Act, then, and promptly. I will accompany you to your house, Pommel,
Since we are to work together."
Five minutes later the commander and his subaltern, armed to the teeth,
appeared in the square just at the moment when the little Viscount de
Varnetot, with hunting gaiters on and his rifle on his shoulder,
appeared by another street, walking rapidly and followed by three guards
in green jackets, each carrying a knife at his side and a gun over his
While the doctor slapped, half stupefied, the four men entered the
mayor's house and the door closed behind them.
"We are forestalled," murmured the doctor; "it will be necessary now to
wait for reinforcements; nothing can be done for a quarter of an hour."
Here Lieutenant Picard appeared. "The curate refuses to obey," said he;
"he has even shut himself up in the church with the beadle and the
On the other side of the square, opposite the white closed front of the
mairie, the church, mute and black, showed its great oak door with the
Then, as the puzzled inhabitants put their noses out of the windows or
came out upon the steps of their houses, the rolling of a drum was
heard, and Torcheboeuf suddenly appeared, beating with fury the three
quick strokes of the call to arms. He crossed the square with
disciplined step and then disappeared on a road leading to the country.
The commander drew his sword, advanced alone to the middle distance
between the two buildings where the enemy was barricaded and, waving his
weapon above his head, roared at the top of his lungs: "Long live the
Republic! Death to traitors!" Then he fell back where his officers were.
The butcher, the baker and the apothecary, feeling a little uncertain,
put up their shutters and closed their shops. The grocery alone remained
Meanwhile the men of the militia were arriving little by little,
variously clothed but all wearing caps, the cap constituting the whole
uniform of the corps. They were armed with their old rusty guns, guns
that had hung on chimney pieces in kitchens for thirty years, and looked
quite like a detachment of country soldiers.
When there were about thirty around him the commander explained in a few
words the state of affairs. Then, turning toward his major, he said:
"Now we must act."
While the inhabitants collected, talked over and discussed the matter
the doctor quickly formed his plan of campaign.
"Lieutenant Picard, you advance to the windows of the mayor's house and
order Monsieur de Varnetot to turn over the town hall to me in the name
of the Republic."
But the lieutenant was a master mason and refused.
"You are a scamp, you are. Trying to make a target of me! Those fellows
in there are good shots, you know that. No, thanks! Execute your
The commander turned red. "I order you to go in the name of discipline,"
"I am not spoiling my features without knowing why," the lieutenant
Men of influence, in a group near by, were heard laughing. One of them
called out: "You are right, Picard, it is not the proper time." The
doctor, under his breath, muttered: "Cowards!" And placing his sword and
his revolver in the hands of a soldier, he advanced with measured step,
his eye fixed on the windows as if he expected to see a gun or a cannon
pointed at him.
When he was within a few steps of the building the doors at the two
extremities, affording an entrance to two schools, opened, and a flood
of little creatures, boys on one side, girls on the other, poured out
and began playing in the open space, chattering around the doctor like a
flock of birds. He scarcely knew what to make of it.
As soon as the last were out the doors closed. The greater part of the
little monkeys finally scattered, and then the commander called out in a
"Monsieur de Varnetot?" A window in the first story opened and M. de
The commander began: "Monsieur, you are aware of the great events which
have changed the system of government. The party you represent no longer
exists. The side I represent now comes into power. Under these sad but
decisive circumstances I come to demand you, in the name of the
Republic, to put in my hand the authority vested in you by the outgoing
M. de Varnetot replied: "Doctor Massarel, I am mayor of Canneville, so
placed by the proper authorities, and mayor of Canneville I shall remain
until the title is revoked and replaced by an order from my superiors.
As mayor, I am at home in the mairie, and there I shall stay.
Furthermore, just try to put me out." And he closed the window.
The commander returned to his troops. But before explaining anything,
measuring Lieutenant Picard from head to foot, he said:
"You are a numskull, you are--a goose, the disgrace of the army. I shall
The lieutenant replied: "I'll attend to that myself." And he went over
to a group of muttering civilians.
Then the doctor hesitated. What should he do? Make an assault? Would his
men obey him? And then was he surely in the right? An idea burst upon
him. He ran to the telegraph office on the other side of the square and
hurriedly sent three dispatches: "To the Members of the Republican
Government at Paris"; "To the New Republican Prefect of the Lower Seine
at Rouen"; "To the New Republican Subprefect of Dieppe."
He exposed the situation fully; told of the danger run by the
commonwealth from remaining in the hands of the monarchistic mayor,
offered his devout services, asked for orders and signed his name,
following it up with all his titles. Then he returned to his army corps
and, drawing ten francs out of his pocket, said:
"Now, my friends, go and eat and drink a little something. Only leave
here a detachment of ten men, so that no one leaves the mayor's house."
Ex-Lieutenant Picard, chatting with the watchmaker, overheard this. With
a sneer he remarked: "Pardon me, but if they go out, there will be an
opportunity for you to go in. Otherwise I can't see how you are to get
The doctor made no reply but went away to luncheon. In the afternoon he
disposed of offices all about town, having the air of knowing of an
impending surprise. Many times he passed before the doors of the mairie
and of the church without noticing anything suspicious; one could have
believed the two buildings empty.
The butcher, the baker and the apothecary reopened their shops and stood
gossiping on the steps. If the Emperor had been taken prisoner, there
must be a traitor somewhere. They did not feel sure of the revenue of a
Night came on. Toward nine o'clock the doctor returned quietly and alone
to the mayor's residence, persuaded that his adversary had retired. And
as he was trying to force an entrance with a few blows of a pickax the
loud voice of a guard demanded suddenly: "Who goes there?" M. Massarel
beat a retreat at the top of his speed.
Another day dawned without any change in the situation. The militia in
arms occupied the square. The inhabitants stood around awaiting the
solution. People from neighboring villages came to look on. Finally the
doctor, realizing that his reputation was at stake, resolved to settle
the thing in one way or another. He had just decided that it must be
something energetic when the door of the telegraph office opened and the
little servant of the directress appeared, holding in her hand two
She went directly to the commander and gave him one of the dispatches;
then, crossing the square, intimidated by so many eyes fixed upon her,
with lowered head and mincing steps, she rapped gently at the door of
the barricaded house as if ignorant that a part of the army was
The door opened slightly; the hand of a man received the message, and
the girl returned, blushing and ready to weep from being stared at.
The doctor demanded with stirring voice: "A little silence, if you
please." And after the populace became quiet he continued proudly:
Here is a communication which I have received from the government." And,
raising the dispatch, he read:
"Old mayor deposed. Advise us what is most necessary. Instructions
"For the Subprefect, "SAPIN, Counselor."
He had triumphed. His heart was beating with joy. His hand trembled,
when Picard, his old subaltern, cried out to him from the neighboring
"That's all right; but if the others in there won't go out, your paper
hasn't a leg to stand on." The doctor grew a little pale. If they would
not go out--in fact, he must go ahead now. It was not only his right but
his duty. And he looked anxiously at the house of the mayoralty, hoping
that he might see the door open and his adversary show himself. But the
door remained closed. What was to be done? The crowd was increasing,
surrounding the militia. Some laughed.
One thought, especially, tortured the doctor. If he should make an
assault, he must march at the head of his men; and as with him dead all
contest would cease, it would be at him and at him alone that M. de
Varnetot and the three guards would aim. And their aim was good, very
good! Picard had reminded him of that.
But an idea shone in upon him, and turning to Pommel, he said: "Go,
quickly, and ask the apothecary to send me a napkin and a pole."
The lieutenant hurried off. The doctor was going to make a political
banner, a white one, that would, perhaps, rejoice the heart of that old
legitimist, the mayor.
Pommel returned with the required linen and a broom handle. With some
pieces of string they improvised a standard, which Massarel seized in
both hands. Again he advanced toward the house of mayoralty, bearing the
standard before him. When in front of the door, he called out: "Monsieur
The door opened suddenly, and M. de Varnetot and the three guards
appeared on the threshold. The doctor recoiled instinctively. Then he
saluted his enemy courteously and announced, almost strangled by
emotion: "I have come, sir, to communicate to you the instructions I
have just received."
That gentleman, without any salutation whatever, replied: "I am going to
withdraw, sir, but you must understand that it is not because of fear or
in obedience to an odious government that has usurped the power." And,
biting off each word, he declared: "I do not wish to have the appearance
of serving the Republic for a single day. That is all."
Massarel, amazed, made no reply; and M. de Varnetot, walking off at a
rapid pace, disappeared around the corner, followed closely by his
escort. Then the doctor, slightly dismayed, returned to the crowd. When
he was near enough to be heard he cried: "Hurrah! Hurrah! The Republic
triumphs all along the line!"
But no emotion was manifested. The doctor tried again. "The people are
free! You are free and independent! Do you understand? Be proud of it!"
The listless villagers looked at him with eyes unlit by glory. In his
turn he looked at them, indignant at their indifference, seeking for
some word that could make a grand impression, electrify this placid
country and make good his mission. The inspiration came, and turning to
Pommel, he said "Lieutenant, go and get the bust of the ex-emperor,
which is in the Council Hall, and bring it to me with a chair."
And soon the man reappears, carrying on his right shoulder Napoleon II
in plaster and holding in his left hand a straw-bottomed chair.
Massarel met him, took the chair, placed it on the ground, put the white
image upon it, fell back a few steps and called out in sonorous voice:
"Tyrant! Tyrant! Here do you fall! Fall in the dust and in the mire. An
expiring country groans under your feet. Destiny has called you to
Avenger. Defeat and shame cling to you. You fall conquered, a prisoner
to the Prussians, and upon the ruins of the crumbling Empire the young
and radiant Republic arises, picking up your broken sword."
He awaited applause. But there was no voice, no sound. The bewildered
peasants remained silent. And the bust, with its pointed mustaches
extending beyond the cheeks on each side, the bust, so motionless and
well groomed as to be fit for a hairdresser's sign, seemed to be looking
at M. Massarel with a plaster smile, a smile ineffaceable and mocking.
They remained thus face to face, Napoleon on the chair, the doctor in
front of him about three steps away. Suddenly the commander grew angry.
What was to be done? What was there that would move this people and
bring about a definite victory in opinion? His hand happened to rest on
his hip and to come in contact there with the butt end of his revolver
under his red sash. No inspiration, no further word would come. But he
drew his pistol, advanced two steps and, taking aim, fired at the late
monarch. The ball entered the forehead, leaving a little black hole like
a spot, nothing more. There was no effect. Then he fired a second shot,
which made a second hole, then a third; and then, without stopping, he
emptied his revolver. The brow of Napoleon disappeared in white powder,
but the eyes, the nose and the fine points of the mustaches remained
intact. Then, exasperated, the doctor overturned the chair with a blow
of his fist and, resting a foot on the remainder of the bust in a
position of triumph, he shouted: "So let all tyrants perish!"
Still no enthusiasm was manifest, and as the spectators seemed to be in
a kind of stupor from astonishment the commander called to the
You may now go to your homes." And he went toward his own house with
great strides, as if he were pursued.
His maid, when he appeared, told him that some patients had been waiting
in his office for three hours. He hastened in. There were the two
varicose-vein patients, who had returned at daybreak, obstinate but
The old man immediately began his explanation: "This began by a feeling
like ants running up and down the legs."