A Coup d’Etat
by Guy de Maupassant
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:
“You are right, Picart, this isn’t the right time.”
The doctor then muttered:
And, leaving his sword and his revolver in the hands of a soldier, he advanced slowly, his eye fastened on the windows, expecting any minute to see a gun trained on him.
When he was within a few feet of the building, the doors at both ends, leading into the two schools, opened and a flood of children ran out,. boys from one side, girls from the ether, and began to play around the doctor, in the big empty square, screeching and screaming, and making so much noise that he could not make himself heard.
As soon as the last child was out of the building, the two doors closed again.
Most of the youngsters finally dispersed, and the commandant called in a loud voice:
“Monsieur de Varnetot!”
A window on the first floor opened and M. de Varnetot appeared.
The commandant continued:
“Monsieur, you know that great events have just taken place which have changed the entire aspect of the government. The one which you represented no longer exists. The one which I represent is taking control. Under these painful, but decisive circumstances, I come, in the name of the new Republic, to ask you to turn over to me the office which you held under the former government.”
M. de Varnetot answered:
“Doctor, I am the mayor of Canneville, duly appointed, and I shall remain mayor of Canneville until I have been dismissed by a decree from my superiors. As mayor, I am in my place in the townhall, and here I stay. Anyhow, just try to get me out.”
He closed the window.
The commandant returned to his troop. But before giving any information, eyeing Lieutenant Picart from head to foot, he exclaimed:
“You’re a great one, you are! You’re a fine specimen of manhood! You’re a disgrace to the army! I degrade you.”
“I don’t give a —-!”
He turned away and mingled with a group of townspeople.
Then the doctor hesitated. What could he do? Attack? But would his men obey orders? And then, did he have the right to do so?
An idea struck him. He ran to the telegraph office, opposite the town- hall, and sent off three telegrams:
To the new republican government in Paris.
To the new prefect of the Seine-Inferieure, at Rouen.
To the new republican sub-prefect at Dieppe.
He explained the situation, pointed out the danger which the town would run if it should remain in the hands of the royalist mayor; offered his faithful services, asked for orders and signed, putting all his titles after his name.
Then he returned to his battalion, and, drawing ten francs from his pocket, he cried: “Here, my friends, go eat and drink; only leave me a detachment of ten men to guard against anybody’s leaving the town-hall.”
But ex-Lieutenant Picart, who had been talking with the watchmaker, heard him; he began to laugh, and exclaimed: “By Jove, if they come out, it’ll give you a chance to get in. Otherwise I can see you standing out there for the rest of your life!”
The doctor did not reply, and he went to luncheon.
In the afternoon, he disposed his men about the town as though they were in immediate danger of an ambush.
Several times he passed in front of the town-hall and of the church without noticing anything suspicious; the two buildings looked as though empty.
The butcher, the baker and the druggist once more opened up their stores.
Everybody was talking about the affair. If the emperor were a prisoner, there must have been some kind of treason. They did not know exactly which of the republics had returned to power.
Toward nine o’clock, the doctor, alone, noiselessly approached the entrance of the public building, persuaded that the enemy must have gone to bed; and, as he was preparing to batter down the door with a pick-axe, the deep voice of a sentry suddenly called:
“Who goes there?”
And M. Massarel retreated as fast as his legs could carry him.
Day broke without any change in the situation.
Armed militia occupied the square. All the citizens had gathered around this troop awaiting developments. Even neighboring villagers had come to look on.
Then the doctor, seeing that his reputation was at stake, resolved to put an end to the matter in one way or another; and he was about to take some measures, undoubtedly energetic ones, when the door of the telegraph station opened and the little servant of the postmistress appeared, holding in her hands two papers.
First she went to the commandant and gave him one of the despatches; then she crossed the empty square, confused at seeing the eyes of everyone on her, and lowering her head and running along with little quick steps, she went and knocked softly at the door of the barricaded house, as though ignorant of the fact that those behind it were armed.
The door opened wide enough to let a man’s hand reach out and receive the message; and the young girl returned blushing, ready to cry at being thus stared at by the whole countryside.
In a clear voice, the doctor cried:
“Silence, if you please.”
When the populace had quieted down, he continued proudly:
“Here is the communication which I have received from the government.”
And lifting the telegram he read:
Former mayor dismissed. Inform him immediately, More orders following. For the sub-prefect: SAPIN, Councillor.
He was-triumphant; his heart was throbbing with joy and his hands were trembling; but Picart, his former subordinate, cried to him from a neighboring group:
“That’s all right; but supposing the others don’t come out, what good is the telegram going to do you?”
M. Massarel grew pale. He had not thought of that; if the others did not come out, he would now have to take some decisive step. It was not only his right, but his duty.
He looked anxiously at the town-hall, hoping to see the door open and his adversary give in.
The door remained closed. What could he do? The crowd was growing and closing around the militia. They were laughing.
One thought especially tortured the doctor. If he attacked, he would have to march at the head of his men; and as, with him dead, all strife would cease, it was at him and him only that M. de Varnetot and his three guards would aim. And they were good shots, very good shots, as Picart had just said. But an idea struck him and, turning to Pommel, he ordered:
“Run quickly to the druggist and ask him to lend me a towel and a stick.”
The lieutenant hastened.
He would make a flag of truce, a white flag, at the sight of which the royalist heart of the mayor would perhaps rejoice.
Pommel returned with the cloth and a broom-stick. With some twine they completed the flag, and M. Massarel, grasping it in both hands and holding it in front of him, again advanced in the direction of the town- hall. When he was opposite the door, he once more called: “Monsieur de Varnetot!” The door suddenly opened and M. de Varnetot and his three guards appeared on the threshold.
Instinctively the doctor stepped back; then he bowed courteously to his enemy, and, choking with emotion, he announced: “I have come, monsieur, to make you acquainted with the orders which I have received.”
The nobleman, without returning the bow, answered: “I resign, monsieur, but understand that it is neither through fear of, nor obedience to, the odious government which has usurped the power.” And, emphasizing every word, he declared: “I do not wish to appear, for a single day, to serve the Republic. That’s all.”
Massarel, stunned, answered nothing; and M. de Varnetot, walking quickly, disappeared around the corner of the square, still followed by his escort.
The doctor, puffed up with pride, returned to the crowd. As soon as he was near enough to make himself heard, he cried: “Hurrah! hurrah! Victory crowns the Republic everywhere.”
There was no outburst of joy.
The doctor continued: “We are free, you are free, independent! Be proud!”
The motionless villagers were looking at him without any signs of triumph shining in their eyes.
He looked at them, indignant at their indifference, thinking of what he could say or do in order to make an impression to electrify this calm peasantry, to fulfill his mission as a leader.
He had an inspiration and, turning to Pommel, he ordered: “Lieutenant, go get me the bust of the ex-emperor which is in the meeting room of the municipal council, and bring it here with a chair.”
The man presently reappeared, carrying on his right shoulder the plaster Bonaparte, and holding in his left hand a cane-seated chair.
M. Massarel went towards him, took the chair, placed the white bust on it, then stepping back a few steps, he addressed it in a loud voice:
“Tyrant, tyrant, you have fallen down in the mud. The dying fatherland was in its death throes under your oppression. Vengeful Destiny has struck you. Defeat and shame have pursued you; you fall conquered, a prisoner of the Prussians; and from the ruins of your crumbling empire, the young and glorious Republic arises, lifting from the ground your broken sword—-”
He waited for applause. Not a sound greeted his listening ear. The peasants, nonplussed, kept silent; and the white, placid, well-groomed statue seemed to look at M. Massarel with its plaster smile, ineffaceable and sarcastic.
Thus they stood, face to face, Napoleon on his chair, the physician standing three feet away. Anger seized the commandant. What could he do to move this crowd and definitely to win over public opinion?
He happened to carry his hand to his stomach, and he felt, under his red belt, the butt of his revolver.
Not another inspiration, not another word cane to his mind. Then, he drew his weapon, stepped back a few steps and shot the former monarch.
The bullet made a little black hole:, like a spot, in his forehead. No sensation was created. M. Massarel shot a second time and made a second hole, then a third time, then, without stopping, he shot off the three remaining shots. Napoleon’s forehead was blown away in a white powder, but his eyes, nose and pointed mustache remained intact.
Then in exasperation, the doctor kicked the chair over, and placing one foot on what remained of the bust in the position of a conqueror, he turned to the amazed public and yelled: “Thus may all traitors die!”
As no enthusiasm was, as yet, visible, the spectators appearing to be dumb with astonishment, the commandant cried to the militia: “You may go home now.” And he himself walked rapidly, almost ran, towards his house.
As soon as he appeared, the servant told him that some patients had been waiting in his office for over three hours. He hastened in. They were the same two peasants as a few days before, who had returned at daybreak, obstinate and patient.
The old man immediately began his explanation:
“It began with ants, which seemed to be crawling up and down my legs—-“