A Duel by Guy de Maupassant
The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was
pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious
The first trains from Paris, distracted, starving, despairing Paris, were
making their way to the new frontiers, slowly passing through the country
districts and the villages. The passengers gazed through the windows at
the ravaged fields and burned hamlets. Prussian soldiers, in their black
helmets with brass spikes, were smoking their pipes astride their chairs
in front of the houses which were still left standing. Others were
working or talking just as if they were members of the families. As you
passed through the different towns you saw entire regiments drilling in
the squares, and, in spite of the rumble of the carriage-wheels, you
could every moment hear the hoarse words of command.
M. Dubuis, who during the entire siege had served as one of the National
Guard in Paris, was going to join his wife and daughter, whom he had
prudently sent away to Switzerland before the invasion.
Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic
of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible
events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints
at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the
close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he
had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.
He stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men,
installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in
his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism, at the same time also
the great need of that new instinct of prudence which since then has,
never left us. In the same railway carriage were two Englishmen, who had
come to the country as sightseers and were gazing about them with looks
of quiet curiosity. They were both also stout, and kept chatting in their
own language, sometimes referring to their guidebook, and reading aloud
the names of the places indicated.
Suddenly the train stopped at a little village station, and a Prussian
officer jumped up with a great clatter of his sabre on the double
footboard of the railway carriage. He was tall, wore a tight-fitting
uniform, and had whiskers up to his eyes. His red hair seemed to be on
fire, and his long mustache, of a paler hue, stuck out on both sides of
his face, which it seemed to cut in two.
The Englishmen at once began staring, at him with smiles of newly
awakened interest, while M. Dubuis made a show of reading a newspaper. He
sat concealed in his corner like a thief in presence of a gendarme.
The train started again. The Englishmen went on chatting and looking out
for the exact scene of different battles; and all of a sudden, as one of
them stretched out his arm toward the horizon as he pointed out a
village, the Prussian officer remarked in French, extending his long legs
and lolling backward:
"I killed a dozen Frenchmen in that village and took more than a hundred
The Englishmen, quite interested, immediately asked:
"Ha! and what is the name of this village?"
The Prussian replied:
"Pharsbourg." He added: "We caught those French scoundrels by the ears."
And he glanced toward M. Dubuis, laughing conceitedly into his mustache.
The train rolled on, still passing through hamlets occupied by the
victorious army. German soldiers could be seen along the roads, on the
edges of fields, standing in front of gates or chatting outside cafes.
They covered the soil like African locusts.
The officer said, with a wave of his hand:
"If I had been in command, I'd have taken Paris, burned everything,
killed everybody. No more France!"
The Englishman, through politeness, replied simply:
He went on:
"In twenty years all Europe, all of it, will belong to us. Prussia is
more than a match for all of them."
The Englishmen, getting uneasy, no longer replied. Their faces, which had
become impassive, seemed made of wax behind their long whiskers. Then the
Prussian officer began to laugh. And still, lolling back, he began to
sneer. He sneered at the downfall of France, insulted the prostrate
enemy; he sneered at Austria, which had been recently conquered; he
sneered at the valiant but fruitless defence of the departments; he
sneered at the Garde Mobile and at the useless artillery. He announced
that Bismarck was going to build a city of iron with the captured cannon.
And suddenly he placed his boots against the thigh of M. Dubuis, who
turned away his eyes, reddening to the roots of his hair.
The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going
on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the
din of the world.
The officer took out his pipe, and looking fixedly at the Frenchman,
"You haven't any tobacco—have you?"
M. Dubuis replied:
The German resumed:
"You might go and buy some for me when the train stops."
And he began laughing afresh as he added:
"I'll give you the price of a drink."
The train whistled, and slackened its pace. They passed a station that
had been burned down; and then they stopped altogether.
The German opened the carriage door, and, catching M. Dubuis by the arm,
"Go and do what I told you—quick, quick!"
A Prussian detachment occupied the station. Other soldiers were standing
behind wooden gratings, looking on. The engine was getting up steam
before starting off again. Then M. Dubuis hurriedly jumped on the
platform, and, in spite of the warnings of the station master, dashed
into the adjoining compartment.
He was alone! He tore open his waistcoat, his heart was beating so
rapidly, and, gasping for breath, he wiped the perspiration from his
The train drew up at another station. And suddenly the officer appeared
at the carriage door and jumped in, followed close behind by the two
Englishmen, who were impelled by curiosity. The German sat facing the
Frenchman, and, laughing still, said:
"You did not want to do what I asked you?"
M. Dubuis replied:
The train had just left the station.
The officer said:
"I'll cut off your mustache to fill my pipe with."
And he put out his hand toward the Frenchman's face.
The Englishmen stared at them, retaining their previous impassive manner.
The German had already pulled out a few hairs, and was still tugging at
the mustache, when M. Dubuis, with a back stroke of his hand, flung aside
the officer's arm, and, seizing him by the collar, threw him down on the
seat. Then, excited to a pitch of fury, his temples swollen and his eyes
glaring, he kept throttling the officer with one hand, while with the
other clenched he began to strike him violent blows in the face. The
Prussian struggled, tried to draw his sword, to clinch with his
adversary, who was on top of him. But M. Dubuis crushed him with his
enormous weight and kept punching him without taking breath or knowing
where his blows fell. Blood flowed down the face of the German, who,
choking and with a rattling in his throat, spat out his broken teeth and
vainly strove to shake off this infuriated man who was killing him.
The Englishmen had got on their feet and came closer in order to see
better. They remained standing, full of mirth and curiosity, ready to bet
for, or against, either combatant.
Suddenly M. Dubuis, exhausted by his violent efforts, rose and resumed
his seat without uttering a word.
The Prussian did not attack him, for the savage assault had terrified and
astonished the officer as well as causing him suffering. When he was able
to breathe freely, he said:
"Unless you give me satisfaction with pistols I will kill you."
M. Dubuis replied:
"Whenever you like. I'm quite ready."
The German said:
"Here is the town of Strasbourg. I'll get two officers to be my seconds,
and there will be time before the train leaves the station."
M. Dubuis, who was puffing as hard as the engine, said to the Englishmen:
"Will you be my seconds?" They both answered together:
And the train stopped.
In a minute the Prussian had found two comrades, who brought pistols, and
they made their way toward the ramparts.
The Englishmen were continually looking at their watches, shuffling their
feet and hurrying on with the preparations, uneasy lest they should be
too late for the train.
M. Dubuis had never fired a pistol in his life.
They made him stand twenty paces away from his enemy. He was asked:
"Are you ready?"
While he was answering, "Yes, monsieur," he noticed that one of the
Englishmen had opened his umbrella in order to keep off the rays of the
A voice gave the signal:
M. Dubuis fired at random without delay, and he was amazed to see the
Prussian opposite him stagger, lift up his arms and fall forward, dead.
He had killed the officer.
One of the Englishmen exclaimed: "Ah!" He was quivering with delight,
with satisfied curiosity and joyous impatience. The other, who still kept
his watch in his hand, seized M. Dubuis' arm and hurried him in
double-quick time toward the station, his fellow-countryman marking time
as he ran beside them, with closed fists, his elbows at his sides, "One,
two; one, two!"
And all three, running abreast rapidly, made their way to the station
like three grotesque figures in a comic newspaper.
The train was on the point of starting. They sprang into their carriage.
Then the Englishmen, taking off their travelling caps, waved them three
times over their heads, exclaiming:
"Hip! hip! hip! hurrah!"
And gravely, one after the other, they extended their right hands to M.
Dubuis and then went back and sat down in their own corner.