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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Le Tour de la France (3)—The Last Words of Michel Volden

Translated by Robert André LaFleur
Le Tour de la France par deux enfants (A Journey Around France Undertaken by Two Children) is a little 119-chapter book about French geography and culture. Written in 1877 by Augustine Fouillée (under the pseudonym G. Bruno), it was geared toward primary school students in their fourth and fifth years (cours moyen).  It has been read by generations of French students, and has played a small but important role in the development of a French national imagination. It was the little book that launched the Tour de France.

1            2            3            4            5            6            7            8            9            10            11
Click here for the introduction to Round and Square's series on this 1877 classic. 
The Last Words of Michel Volden—
Brotherly Love and Love of Country [1]

Oh, my brother, walk always hand-in-hand, united by
a selfsame love of our parents, our country, and our duty.

While Julien slept, André sat across from Père Etienne.[2] He continued to relate the events that had obligated them—he and his brother—to leave Phalsbourg, where they had been born. Let us return with him in his narrative to a time several months before.

We find him back then in 1871, not long after the last war with Prussia. Following that war, Alsace and a part of Lorraine, comprising the city of Phalsbourg, became possessions of Germany; the inhabitants who wished to remain French were obliged to quit their cities of birth in order to establish themselves in old France.

André and Julien's father, a kind carpenter and young widower, had raised his sons with a love for their country, and dreamed, along with many others from Alsace and Lorraine, of emigrating to France. He therefore put together funds for the journey's expenses, and he set himself to working even more resolutely than ever before. André, for his part, worked gamely as an apprentice at the home of an ironsmith.

Everything was ready for the journey. The time for their departure was set, when one day the carpenter fell from the scaffolding. They returned his dying body to their home.

While the neighbors rushed to get help, the two brothers remained alone next to the bed, where their father lay immobile, like a cadaver.

Little Julien had taken his father's hand in his, and he softly kissed it repeatedly as tears streamed down his face. In an even more tender voice, he intoned "Père!...Père!...[2]

As though this precious little voice had awakened what remained of his life, Michel Volden started. He tried to speak, but it was in vain. He remained lying there while not a single word came from his mouth. Then a deep anxiety showed itself on his face. He seemed to reflect, as though searching with anguish for the means to relate to his two children his last wishes. Then, after several moments, he made a supreme effort and, raising Julien's tender little hand, he put it into the hands of his oldest son. Weakened by this effort, he looked for a long time at his two sons in an expressive fashion. His penetrating gaze and his sad eyes seemed to want to speak to them—Love each other, my poor children, who will now be left alone. Live united always, as you stand before me now, hand in hand.

André understood his father's look and leaned toward the dying man:

          —Père, he responded, I will raise Julien and will instruct him, as you did, in love of duty. We both will strive to become good and virtuous.

Their father gave a weak sigh, but his eyes—still sad—seemed to wait for something else from André.

André perceived this anxiously, and sought to divine what his father might mean. He leaned more closely to the dying man, the better to search his gaze. A barely audible word met André's ears: France!

          —Oh!, cried the eldest son with vigor, rest assured, cherished father, I promise you that we shall be children of France. We will leave Phalsbourg to go there. We will remain French, and will endure even difficult circumstances for it.

A sigh of relief escaped from the paternal lips. The icy hand of the man nearing death pressed weakly those of his two children; then his eyes turned toward the open window, where could be seen a small corner of great, blue sky. He seemed to search beyond the horizon for the remote frontier of his beloved country, which he would never see again, but where his two sons—albeit with little support—had promised to go.

A few moments later, Michel Volden breathed his last. This whole scene lasted only a few minutes, but it was imprinted indelibly on the heart of André and on that of little Julien, as well.

***  ***
Some time after their father's death, the two children determined to go to France, as they had promised. All that remained of their family was an uncle living in Marseille, but he had not responded to any of their letters. There was no one who could serve as their guardian. In these circumstances, the Germans refused the young orphans permission to leave, and considered them perforce as subjects of Germany.

André and Julien had no other recourse than to remain faithful to their country and the dying wishes of their father. They would attempt to cross the border without the knowledge of the Germans, and would then proceed to Marseille, where they would try to find their uncle. Once they had found him, they would ask for his help in regularizing their situation in Alsace. For there remained an entire year granted by law for people of Alsace and Lorraine to chose their country and declare that they either wished to remain French or become German.

Such were the reasons that the two children had begun their journey and asked hospitality of Père Etienne in his mountain cabin.

***  ***
When André had finished giving his account of the events we have just read, Etienne took his two hands with emotion:

          —You and your brother, he said to André... You are two brave children, worthy of your father, worthy of the ancient land of Alsace-Lorraine, and worthy of the French homeland! There are many French souls in Alsace-Lorraine. We will help you. And, as you start out, André, you have a protector in I, an old comrade of your father.

[1] Chapter three in Le Tour de la France par deux enfants has no illustration. It is one of only a handful of chapters without one, and I will keep strictly to the original's form in this translation. 

[2] Père (father) is used widely in French for both real and fictive kinship. Please note that "père" requires a bit of juggling from a translator at this point in the narrative. When we first meet père Etienne, I translate it as "old Etienne," to convey the mountain man's years and place in the little social group coming into being (the boys and the old couple). He is harsh and distant at first, but quickly warms into a paternal figure. As the story continues, I have begun to use "père" to convey the growing sense of "fictive kinship" in the story, and the emotional bonds between the characters.

The Care of Mère Etienne—
André's Papers, A Secret Gift, and Charity for the Poor
Kind and hardworking, Mère Etienne helps the boys prepare for their journey.

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