We had none left.
With the heedlessness of army drivers egged on by over-wrought officers, we had squandered
thousands of gallons between Paris and the village of the Lot to which we had been shunted by the retreat. We had used up whole tanks-full idling in the traffic-jams; we had distributed it to the civilians who would cluster round the convoy at the stops, as beggars used to do in former days at the barracks doorways; we had soaked the roads with it in refuelling by means of pitchers and pots. Arnault, a civilian, had led the procession at the wheel of the tank-truck in which five thousand liters gurgled; as he limped, he would not even get down from his seat to fill our tanks. “Help yourself,” he would say, and a hard, faintly blue-tinged jet would bespatter the landscape. We had breathed it, smelled it, reeked of it. Now there was none left.
That day Joseph, who had been leaning over the carburetor of his car, looked up and waved the cigarette-lighter which he held in his hand,
“Well, I’m dry!” he said accusingly. “I don’t even have enough to fill my lighter.”
“So what?” asked Arnault. “Anyway, we have no more tobacco.”
From one moment to the next the Germans might stray in our direction. We had not seen any up to this point, except in the sky. Our sole ambition was to end the war, which others had already ended for us, without being made prisoners. Arnault, being both a civilian and lame, did not much care; he had only to get down from his tank-truck to melt into the landscape. But the khaki of our uniforms refused to imitate the vegetation of the Lot.
Joseph was about to lose his temper, and in order to calm him Arnault advised him to put his trust in the officers. “They like war,” he said, “they just don’t like to get their heads blown off.” But Joseph would not be calmed, he was making a point of taking everything to heart—to his uncompromising and vindictive heart of an Oranese Jew.
He was small, wiry, with a hard look whose sharpness was tempered by a sensual mouth; his gray eyes, his red lips, seemed to have been cut out of smooth skin stretched to the breaking-point and tanned by the wind of the desert, where Joseph in his youth had driven caravans of trucks. Only later was he to discover Paris and the devious ways of compromise, and he never learned to conform to them; his new calling as an agent for a perfumery concern had imparted waves to his hair and removed the grime from his nails without going deeper. He made a poor traveling salesman, and twelve years of furnished rooms, boarding houses, and night trains had earned him little more than the nickname of the Prophet, which had followed him even into the army.
“It’s not funny,” he said.
“Sure, it’s funny,” Arnault gently retorted. He passed his hand through his silvery hair, over his blue eyes streaked with tiny veins, and a far-away smile hovered over his lips, the same smile that had greeted our convoy a week before in the Sevres hills, as we were fleeing occupied Paris. We had taken him along because he alone in that beseeching mob of refugees remained on the spot, asking for nothing and smiling absentmindedly; later I found out that on that day, surprised to find the observatory of Meudon where he worked empty, he had gone in search of news, and had found it at the first national highway-crossing, blackened by the exodus.
“Here,” he said, pulling two cigarettes out of his pocket. “The last ones,” and he added, “But I have no light.”
They remained for a moment twirling the cigarettes between their fingers.
“It isn’t funny,” Joseph repeated; one could not tell whether he was speaking of the war or of smoking.
From where they stood, surrounded by the cars of the detachment, they overlooked the village straddling a narrow road that was all tunnels and twists and that followed the high embankments of the Lot River. Starting at the top of a hill, the village reached down the gentle slope and dipped its feet in the river edged with poplars. Urchins and mongrel dogs were rolling in the dust, and some women, all old except Marion, were coming up from the river with baskets of wrung-out wash perched on their heads, and stopping to chat in front of the church, whose bell struck the hour twice, at a few moments’ interval. “Why, sure,” Marion had said when Joseph had inquired the reason for the clock’s stammering, “that’s the way it always is.” Marion had never left the village, and she believed that on all the clocks in the world time suspends its flight once every hour. Joseph had assured her that this was not so; with her polite little voice she had said, “Yes, Monsieur Prophete”—she thought this was his name—without believing him, perhaps without hearing him: foreign voices did not interest her, and “foreign” to her meant anything that was immediately beyond her belly, six months with child.
“I’ll ask Marion for a light,” said Joseph, and he started down the rocky road that led into the main street of the village, across from the grocery store.
Marion was sitting behind the counter as usual. Some drivers were shuffling about on the disjointed wooden floor of the shop; they came in relays from morning till night. We had passed plenty of women on the roads of retreat: flocks of them in flight, galloping, trotting, walking; toward the end, figures slumped on the road-bank, faces leaden with fatigue, semicircular glances in which hope dwindled with the speed of our cars; we drove so slowly that we had time to register those tense faces in which the lights went out one by one. Marion had been the first whom we could examine at leisure, like a plant, whose motionlessness and slowly swelling sap she seemed to have acquired.
On catching sight of Joseph she smiled, without parting her lips: she had a tooth missing. Small, plump, with regular features, her only claims to beauty were her heavy black hair and her complexion, a pink complexion which even her pregnancy had not turned to sallowness. She never laughed, hardly spoke at all; when our bantering grew a little too daring, she would break out with, “Now, Monsieur Fouquet,” or “Aren’t you ashamed, Monsieur Orluc,” and the “monsieur” would fall back into sheepish silence.
“Well, Prophet?” Fouquet called out. “You bringing news? We leaving soon?” His eyes narrowed. Some of the drivers smiled.
They did not possess Arnault’s indifference or Joseph’s need for indignation. They were all civilians dressed in khaki; Fouquet was a garage-keeper, Orluc a mechanic, Le-blanc a grocer, Gentil a cabinetmaker, and so forth. Like all Frenchmen they had a tendency to consider a problem settled the moment they had turned it to ridicule, and Joseph’s urgency, the permanence of his anger, had a slightly foreign ring to their ears which was not altogether devoid of zest. That he should take the war to heart, like an illness or a creditor, seemed to them far-fetched. This was a matter for officers; if they were unfit, it was naive to be surprised; one hasn’t gone through military training for nothing. “Self-defense,” in a soldier’s vocabulary, has a precise meaning, which has nothing to do with the defense of the territory.
Joseph lit his cigarette, took a few puffs amid an envious silence, passed it to the man next to him, Leblanc, a beardless little man.
“You can laugh,” he said.
“Got to pass the time somehow,” Gentil observed. He took the cigarette that Leblanc handed him and, closing his big velvety eyes the better to enjoy it, filled his lungs with smoke.
There was a radio in the grocery store which attracted us almost as much as Marion did. Between two pieces of dance music, announcers would stammeringly indulge in fortune-telling. Joseph nodded toward it. “Don’t you realize they’re selling us out?”
“What do you expect us to do?” said Orluc, and he broke off; Gentil was offering him the cigarette.
I noticed that the veins on Joseph’s temples were knotting. “What have I done to God to fall into a bunch of nincompoops like this? They’re wallowing in s—t up to their necks and . . .
“Monsieur Prophete!” Marion exclaimed. We had forgotten she was there.
A voice near the door said, “A few years ago the dalai-lama bought a Rolls-Royce.” It was Arnault who had just joined us. “They shipped off the heap from England to Tibet,” he went on, “and then they discovered that there wasn’t a single road a car could drive on. So they took off the wheels of the Rolls and the dalai-lama got fifty fellows to carry it so he could drive around.”
There was a burst of laughter; Marion herself smiled, out of politeness. “We can’t carry our machines on our backs,” Joseph reflected aloud. There were fresh peals of laughter; he sputtered, “You make me sick, all of you!”; and I in turn took a puff on the stub that burned my lips.
The other radio in the village was in the town hall, where the officers had established headquarters and where they held conferences from morning till night. I don’t know what news they thought they had heard that day, but a lieutenant came to the grocery store to tell us to empty all that was left in the bottoms of the tanks into my car. It was the fastest of them all: I drove the chief of the detachment.
I crushed the stub on the floor and drove my commander to staff headquarters in Cahors. “They haven’t got any,” he said, on coming back from the administrative offices. “It seems there is still some in Castelsarrasin— where’s Castelsarrasin?”
I drove him there. The information was correct, but we could not get our tank truck there, and when I got back my gauge registered five liters.
Joseph was standing in front of the grocery store, moving some sacks. “Well, you seel” he exclaimed, waving his thumb in the direction of the town hall where the officers had gathered once more for a conference. “I’ll bet you a pack of cigarettes I’ll find some here.”
“You mean that?” I pointed to the drum that stood in front of the shop; it contained only twenty liters that the mayor was keeping for the needs of the commune.
He shrugged his shoulders.
I did not see him again the whole following day. That evening, as I was about to curl up in my car for the night, the door opened and the Prophet plumped himself on the seat beside me.
“I’ve found some,” he announced.
“Save me a little for my lighter.”
“No, you nincompoop, I’ve found enough to get a whole motorized division rolling.”
A few kilometers from the village, a county road branched off from the national highway. At the end of this road Joseph had discovered a station where the spur track of a local railroad passed and on a shunting, a whole train of oil tanks. The commander whom I drove there the next day was incredulous.
“They would have told us at headquarters in Cahors,” he kept repeating. “You say a whole train?”
It appeared before us at a distance, at a turn of the road. Its silvery tanks shimmered in the June sunlight like a mirage oasis.
“They must be empty,” the officer remarked.
At least the station was empty. The tracks were grown over with grass that had sprouted between the ties. A broken-down freight-car was jammed up against a terminal bumper, its wheels interlaced with creepers, its buffers submerged in thistles. Only a tiny, six-foot-square garden from, which burst two sunflowers and a tuft of freight-car-red dahlias gave witness of a human presence.
A bald-headed man, in shirt-sleeves, came out of the station with a sprinkling-pot in his hand and headed toward the garden-plot.
“Well, isn’t there anybody around?” cried the commander.
The man examined him as though he had never seen a French uniform, and finally answered,
“I’m here.” He put the sprinkling-pot down on the ground and disappeared into the building. He returned a moment later wearing a white cap. “I’m the station-master,” he said.
He removed the cap and stooped to pick up the sprinkling-pot.
The officer cast a covetous glance at the train and prudently asked, “They’re empty?”
“Full,” said the station-master.
“How much is there?”
“Seven hundred and fifty thousand liters.”
Joseph had been right: there was enough to supply an armored division, an aviation field.
“And where does this train come from?” the officer asked.
“How should I know?”
“Where is it going?”
“If I could tell you that . . .” The employee shrugged his shoulders and took a step in the direction of his little plot.
“Very good,” said the commander. “I’ll be back shortly to fetch some.” And he got ready to leave.
The station-master stopped. “No,” he said. “Impossible. I have orders.” “What orders?”
“Not to touch it. Not to touch it without orders.”
The discussion lasted half an hour. “This is war,” the officer would say. “This is war,” the civilian agreed. It did not take five seconds for them to agree on this. Then the question of orders came up. On this point, too, the two men found themselves in agreement. The conversation would come back to its starting-point. A brief silence, and it would begin all over again. “The Germans are advancing,” one would say, and the other would echo, “They’re advancing.”
A hen appeared, hopping between the tracks. In the distance the village clock struck the hour, hesitated, struck it again. The sun glistened on the tanks’ silvery flanks. The two officials buzzed like flies against a window-pane. ”They may come upon us by surprise at any moment,” the officer would say. “Sure, they may,” the station-master approved. This reminder seemed to awaken in him a need for action. “Excuse me,” and he started off toward the garden-plot. He stooped as he walked. His bald spot, edged with wisps, shone in the sun. A rainbow burst from his sprinkling pot and landed at the foot of the taller of the two sunflowers.
Joseph was waiting for me in front of the town hall. “Well?” he said, and after having listened to me, “Ah, the nincompoops! The commander had only to pull out his revolver. If I had been in his place . . .”
Arnault came over, listened in turn, asked Joseph, “Well, do you still want to save the world in spite of itself?”
Other drivers had come and joined us, and the story of the train which I had to tell once again aggravated their bad humor. I find no other words to describe it: for ten days, beneath their bantering manner, my comrades had been gnawed by bad humor. The surrender of Paris, which they were slow to appreciate, had a good deal to do with it. And then, no one is very anxious to be taken prisoner. From a bird’s-eye view our convoy, immobilized a few kilometers from a train from which it was more surely separated by orders than it would have been by continents, had its ridiculous side, but it took Arnault’s astronomical detachment to perceive it.
“As far as they’re concerned, France can go to hell,” said Fouquet. A week earlier he would have said, “. . . the world can go to hell.”
My commander appeared, signalled to me to approach, and asked, “How much have you got left?”
“Nearly a can-full.”
He hesitated before giving me the most courageous order that had passed his lips since the beginning of the campaign. I am not trying to make fun of him; he was an old man who had a wife and children somewhere in Provence. He was not eager to fall prisoner, either. He could have fled, like so many others. Instead of this, he was willing to sacrifice his own family.
“Drive me to headquarters in Cahors,” he said.
While I waited for him on the boulevard, the thought came to me that perhaps he had only acted like a desperate player who bets his last chip on a number. However this might be, I realized on seeing him again that he had lost.
“They don’t know anything,” he said. “They can’t give orders for the train.”
I drove back slowly, keeping in gear except on the downgrades, when I would coast. As we approached our parking lot, the engine died, and all I could do was to let the car roll into place. The commander had to make his way back to the town hall on foot.
I found Joseph at the grocery store, with his ear glued to the radio. “I nearly got Ankara,” he said, and immediately added, “I went back to look at the train. It’s still there. You noticed how well it’s sheltered? All it will take is one German plane, just one. It only has to drop to fifty meters and let go its bomb. No more station, no more station-master, no more sprinkling-pot. Nothing.”
So he too had noticed the railway garden-plot, and we both knew that the flowers, at least, did not lack liquid fuel.
The radio spat out a communique: the front was approaching from all directions at once, a front in the form of an octopus. Behind the counter Marion sat in silence.
“Is it true, what Arnault told about the dalai-lama?” Joseph asked, and suddenly, “What do you intend to do?”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“You make me sick, too,” he exclaimed. “You’re no better than Arnault.”
“All right, now look,” and I counted on my fingers. “In the first place, I’m not armed; in the second place, I don’t intend to desert. If you have any solution to offer, I’ll be glad to hear it.”
He became thoughtful.
“As for the officers, I agree,” he said finally, though I. hadn’t mentioned them. “That leaves the cars and the men.”
“We put fire to the machines, and we fall back on foot toward the Pyrenees, into Franco’s arms? Thank you, not for me. I’m like truth: good only on this side of the Pyrenees.” Ashamed of my attempted witticism, I added, “That’s in Pascal.”
“I haven’t read Pascal,” said Joseph meditatively. “What did he say about truth?” Without waiting for my answer he went on, “I’m not talking about Spain, nincompoop. There’s North Africa.”
I had not thought of this. “There’s North Africa,” I repeated mechanically.
“I know it as I know my own pocket,” said Joseph, “from Agadir to Sfax. I used to drive a truck there. It’s big— you’ll see. It’s nice country. And where I come from, in Oranie, the fellows are fighters, they don’t wait for orders. We’ll drop in and see my folks. You can stay with us; we’ve got room at home for all the buddies. The tanks won’t come and nose us out in Africa, don’t you worry. We’ll show them. I know the passes: with a machine gun you can stop a whole column. In 1914 Belgium was occupied, too, but did that stop them? We have good food at home. . . .”
He unloaded his arguments pell-mell, with the voice of a suppliant and of a chief: he did not care whether he convinced or enticed me.
I asked, “You mean that our detachment should go and carry on the war in Africa?”
“The army, not the detachment. The French army.”
I reflected: swim across? then felt ashamed again and asked, “What about ships?”
“Even if it was only the detachment,” he said, “or just the two of us . . .” And after a silence, “It’s not for myself,”—as though I had accused him of thinking of himself. He fell silent again, his lips quivering, then the subterranean torrent of his thoughts welled up again at a different point. “For him, too,” he said pointing to Marion’s belly.
Shaken by violent emotion, he abruptly left me. From the depth of his desert, I heard the Prophet’s voice, “And if your Pascal does not agree, so much the worse for him!”
The grocery woman waddled up to me and said, “I’d like to be far away. Because of him,” she added, glancing at her belly. Here her horizon ended. Mine had just been extended by a continent. “There is North Africa,” I reflected, and for perhaps the tenth time I absent-mindedly asked Marion, “When is it going to be, now?” “In September,” she answered, and I in turn went off.
The moon etched the houses and the trees, blurred the distances, and it, too, I noticed, was full and round. At the outskirts of the sleeping village a man stood motionless, with his head thrown back. I recognized Arnault. He spoke in a warm, confiding voice which I had not known him to have in the daytime.
“A night after my own heart,” he said.
“Is that enough for you?” I asked him.
“Yes, more than ever,” he affirmed, still without looking at me.
“Because of the stars?”
“I’m not an astronomer, you know. I worked at the observatory, that’s all.” “How was it, finding yourself among men again?” “Ridiculous. That fleeing mob. They would have trampled on one another to move forward a few inches. And the noise . . . You’ve seen for yourself.”
I had. It was Arnault who interested me. I told him so.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Why?”
“When I saw you for the first time, you were part of the mob.”
I laughed as I walked off. Later, sitting on the road-bank, I repeated to myself, “There is North Africa.”
Midnight struck, time was suspended, and midnight struck again . . . The chief of the detachment, he who had sacrificed his chance to flee, was asleep. Marion was asleep, alone with her child. The comrades were asleep in their cars. We were the only ones awake, Arnault with his celestial vault, I with my war—each with his own obsession.
Farther down the road there was a crunching footstep followed by a tinny rattle. The Germans did not advance on foot. I waited. Joseph came up, saw me. In each hand he held an empty can.
“Nothing to be done about opening up those tanks,” he said.
He had gone back to the train. “You can see as in broad daylight,” he explained. “It was like being in the desert. There was nobody there, the station-master must have been resting after a day of sprinkling. But damned if the tanks didn’t refuse to open without orders, too.” Joseph did not know this war’s secret formula.
“Listen, you bad-luck Ali Baba,” I said, “what would you have done with ten liters?”
“Put them in your car.”
“You know. I think Orluc would have gone with us. And maybe Leblanc. He has no family.”
I resented Joseph’s disposing of me in this way and wished him a good night.
The folloAving day I, in turn, went to gaze at the train.
There it stood, immutable beneath an immutable sun. On my way back I ran into Orluc and Gentil; they also had wanted to have a look.
Time passed. The officers conferred. The drivers went on pilgrimages to the station. Once my commander came over to our car, examined the dried mud that camouflaged it, casually suggested,
“Perhaps you ought to take advantage of this quiet spell to wash it?”
“I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
“You mean . . .” He broke off to think back over the insults which civilians and soldiers had heaped upon him because of his stripes, a few days before, in passing through La Charite-sur-Loire, while he curled up on the seat and I shot the still-polished car into deserted streets. It was an unhappy memory, and he was grateful to me for not alluding to it. I took advantage of this to ask him,
“What about that order?”
“Never mind, never mind. I’m waiting for the answer from Castelsarrasin.” He suddenly understood that my silence on the subject of the incident in La Charite was more offending than any direct reference, and feeling the insult all the more keenly since he had been slow to detect it, he shouted, “No questions. You just carry out your orders.”
Since he was acting the officer, I could also shift to the military plane.
“Yes, sir. I shall wash the car right away.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Yet we were in no mood for joking. Both of us—he at the town hall, I at Marion’s—had heard the radio: east and west, the German columns had gone beyond our latitude.
Once more I traipsed to the station. There was Fouquet. The station-master came up to us, still in shirt-sleeves, but wearing his white cap: the daily parade of uniforms must have given him a new idea of his importance.
“You’re looking?” he asked ingratiatingly.
“Yeah, we’re looking,” Fouquet answered.
“Well, go ahead and look,” said the station-master, and he added, “Excuse me, I’ll have to go and attend to business.”
We looked in silence. Fouquet munched at a blade of grass. I shut my eyes, said, “Open, Sesame 1” and looked again. “S—t!” said Fouquet. I murmured to myself, “There is North Africa.”
That evening I went to see Joseph and told him that Pascal was willing. He smiled like a kid and, reverting to the vocabulary of childhood, said,
His face darkened.
“But what’ll we drive on?”
“We’ll empty Marion’s stock. She doesn’t need it. With her twenty liters we’ll go hundred and fifty kilometers. After that we’ll manage.”
“And here I was racking my brains!” he exclaimed. “What a nincompoop I was! I’ll go and tell Orluc and Leblanc.”
“Wait till we’re ready. I think Fouquet will come too.”
After midnight I met him in front of the grocery store. Marion must have been sleeping behind the closed shutters of the shop. The drum was chained to the balustrade of the steps. Joseph was bringing the cans, I a rubber tube. I unscrewed the drum-stopper, slipped in one end of the tube, put the other to my mouth and sucked. A familiar smell filled my lungs. I sucked harder.
“Wait,” I heard Joseph whisper “wait a minute.”
I stopped sucking at the hose.
“I can’t do it,” said Joseph. “Marion, and that kid. It’s as if I were to put my hand into her cash-box. Look, I’d rather make it on foot.”
“Going by the stars? Say, you might invite Arnault—he knows all about stars.”
“I can’t do it,” he repeated.
I reasoned with him, cursed him, in a low voice so as not to attract attention.
“If I could take the train along,” he said, “I’d say yes. And the cars. All the army materiel. But this way . . .” He broke off, and I heard him mutter something about “clean hands.”
I folded the rubber tube and put it in my pocket. A sweetish odor was wafted on the air, and almost immediately vanished.
“Stop up the drum, nincompoop!” I said as I left.
I was sure of finding Arnault by the side of his tank-truck, awake: he would doze off only at daybreak. He listened to me in silence.
“Your Joseph is a sentimentalist,” he said at last. “All reformers are sentimentalists. But you, what are you doing, running from one to the other like a lost soul? What do you expect to find?”
“I live with men,” I said to him. “Men are interesting.”
“You think so?” He looked up, offering to the moonlight his sharp profile, his silvery hair, and added, “You’re not hard to please.”
Joseph came over to us; he avoided looking at me. Sitting down on the running board of the tank-truck, he raised his head and said,
“Before the war I knew a girl from Avignon. She had come to spend a year in Paris. A funny girl. She said, ‘I want to see all the museums, all the galleries’—get educated, in other words!”
He must have thought of something else, for he fell silent.
“One day she got me,” he went on. “I had treated her to a cup of coffee, then she asks me, ‘What are you doing this evening?’ ‘Nothing. And you?’ ‘I’m going to the Louvre. Come with me.’ I couldn’t have her just on my own, I wanted to be with her, so I said to myself, ‘Well, it can’t be helped!’ We went to see the statues. And I didn’t feel I wasted my evening, either.” He added, “I say, Arnault, you’re educated. I’ve never had time to learn anything. First driving trucks, and then the perfume business. I wanted to ask you . . .” He hesitated and, with his face held up to the stars, “Is it true you can read the future in them?”
“Sure,” said Arnault. “The Fritzes are three hours from here. We’ll see them coming through tomorrow morning.”
I asked him, “Is it the observatory that has made you this way?”
“It’s insomnia. I took a job in the observatory because I don’t sleep at night.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Joseph. “What game are you playing?”
“We’re not at the theatre,” said Arnault, smiling disagreeably. “Do you enjoy inventing complications?”
Joseph did not listen to him. “What do you want?” he cried. “You’re not a statue. You’re hot and cold—what do you want?”
Arnault pondered. “Just to be able to go to sleep some night like anybody else and wake up in the morning.” And as though he were ashamed of his confession, “It’s true, what I said about the Fritzes. I found out from an automobile driver. The stars aren’t like you—they don’t jabber.”
Joseph had just discovered his vulnerable spot.
“Good night,” he said slowly.
I awoke in the morning, the morning of June 24th, thinking: it’s today that the Germans are coming to make us prisoners. Still free, I went down to the village’s main street., which was still French. A group of drivers stood before the grocery store. The news must have spread through the small town. The men were undecided. “We’re waiting for news,” Leblanc called to me. But the radio was silent.
I went to the town hall. The officers stood in silence in the mayor’s office, their eyes fastened to the hands of the commander who was trying the different radio stations. When he saw me, he asked, “Don’t we have any left at all?”
I shrugged my shoulders, and forgetting my presence, he said to the others, “Nothing to be done. There’s none left. And the telephone isn’t working.”
He must have tried to give the alert to headquarters in Cahors, which had either been abandoned or already invested.
The day dragged on. The Germans did not arrive. In the afternoon three drivers went off, on foot. Arnault dozed on the seat of the tank-truck. “I don’t talk to him any more,” said Joseph.
It was dark when the radio began to broadcast. “At about four o’clock in the morning the order to cease firing will be given . . . The day of June 25th will be a national day of mourning . . . At the Cathedral of Bordeaux His Eminence . . .” In the dark someone cut off the station. “At about four o’clock in the morning,” a voice repeated. The man calculated. “They still have six hours to get here.”
“We can take the cars to pieces,” Fouquet suggested. “Arnault can be the lookout. He’s a civilian.”
“I’ll keep him company,” said Joseph, and the two men went off. I watched them leave: Joseph adjusted his pace to the shuffling steps of the tank-truck driver. Neither of the two said anything—they were still not talking to each other.
With Gentil I went back to the town hall to find out what the officers had decided. But the building was steeped in darkness. I opened doors that no one had locked—no more officers. I went on as far as to the mayor’s house where my commander lived. He was not there. I came back to our parking lot.
In the diffused moonlight I saw figures busily at work under hoods spread out like wings. The drivers were taking apart the magnetos, the timers, the spark plugs, the sticky viscera of the motors. The Germans could come, if they wanted, with overflowing tanks; they would find only gutted cars.
I headed toward mine, lifted the hood, fumbled under my seat for the tool-bag.
In the main street a woman shrieked. A sound of running feet was heard on the road: a few men, two or three, heavily booted. Then the successive explosions of a car starting, almost immediately followed by whistle-calls.
“Too late,” said Leblanc. “They got themselves caught.”
Arnault and the Prophet would learn to talk to each other again in captivity.
“Now we dump them,” said Gentil.
They headed down toward the river, their hands and their pockets loaded with odd parts. I remained behind: I had a few minutes in which to put the car out of use. In my rage I decided to remove the brake-rods. Suddenly Joseph’s voice rang out,
“Come on, boys ! Come, quick !”
I found him in front of the grocery store. He and Arnault were leaning over a black form slumped on the steps. To one side I noticed the gasoline drum, which was overturned.
I in turn stooped down. It was Marion, motionless, her heavy hair spread over the steps.
“She’s been knocked out,” said Arnault. “We ought to move her.”
“Has he gone?” asked Marion, without opening her eyes.
“It’s us,” said Arnault. “We’re here. Nothing’s going to happen to you.” He spoke with unaccustomed solicitude.
“And I saw him, too!” Joseph yelled. “In another second I would have had him!”
“He would have fired,” said Marion. “If I had said no, he would have fired.”
“Of course, of course,” said Arnault. “Don’t think about it any more. Now it’s all over.”
He bent down, took the woman in his arms, and lifting her without effort, carried her inside and put her on her solitary conjugal bed.
“What happened?” Fouquet asked in a low voice.
Fifteen minutes before, Marion had been awakened by knocks on her shutters. She had got up to see. It was an officer, “a Parisian,” she said, “young and quite cute-looking.” He wanted to fill his tank. She had told him that it was impossible, that a whole convoy was immobilized in the village. “He would not listen to me. He was like mad. ‘You’ve got the drum, anyway,’ he said to me.” He had gone over and shaken it, shouting, “You’re lying 1” “I told him Monsieur le maire had requisitioned it. So he said, ‘To hell with the mayor, you’re going to give me some,’ and he said some improper things to me.” She had repeated, “I can’t. I have orders from Monsieur le maire.” From living among us she too had come to believe in the power of orders. “Aren’t you ashamed,” she had added, “coming this way in the middle of the night?” This was not her idea of respectability: decent people don’t go out at night. “But he was like mad,” Marion repeated. “He pulled out his revolver.”
Before she fainted, she must have uttered her one scream, and on hearing it Joseph and Arnault had rushed to the grocery store. They also believed the Germans had come, and they had wanted to warn us. Joseph had arrived first, just in time to see a car start out—”a sedan, with a spare tire in back.” It had taken him several minutes to reach the grocery store: the officer had emptied the drum.
The bell-tower of the church struck four hurried beats. For a few seconds the village existed outside of time, then there was a second series of bell-strokes and the minutes again strung themselves out. Joseph came up to me, took me aside.
“I know, I know,” he whispered, “you must despise me. If I hadn’t weakened last night we would have got it, and Marion wouldn’t have risked a miscarriage.”
A yellow rectangle shone forth down the street. I blinked, as if in a daze; I could not grasp what it was.
“We have no right to think of individuals,” said Joseph bitterly. “It’s the essence of things that counts.” My eyes made out a black cross against the background of the yellow rectangle. I said, “Look at; that, Joseph . . .” and as I spoke I understood. A window, a lighted window, the first I had seen in eleven months of war. “Say, Joseph I” but he, without listening to me, came out with, “Arnault is a swell chap.” At another moment this observation on Joseph’s part would have surprised me; I was too absorbed to pay attention to him. The window of the mayor’s house had lighted up. The mayor had gone mad. Joseph’s voice reached me from afar, he said something about “essence.” “The essence of things,” I vaguely repeated to myself. Another window became illuminated up against the hill. Farther away than the first, it did not stand out in geometric form, I saw only a star of light dancing in the mountain.
Someone shook me by the shoulder. I came to again, returned to consciousness of the present, heard Joseph say, “Arnault gave me a can-full.” “Look,” I said; a third window—a small attic window—had just lighted up in the main street. The people were not mad. They were sick and tired of fumbling in the dark, they were sick and tired of the war. They had obeyed and waited, and now they had come to the end of their patience; they were turning on the lights. “We’ve got some,” said Joseph, “we can leave.” I said, “It’s the armistice. Look at the lights. It’s the armistice.”
He heard me, finally, and was silent. In the darkness new windows lighted up. They burst by twos and threes, violent like skyrockets to our night-birds’ eyes, traced out the length of the village, measured its depth. We watched in silence. One began to distinguish lace curtains, flowerpots, a half-opened cupboard, a gaping bed, the figure of a woman, with her head to one side, in the midst of braiding her hair, as though the resuscitated light were settling first on those objects that were now forbidden us. Then the windows turned pale; behind the hills dawn was breaking.
I observed the Prophet. Emotion was ploughing his face.
Two or three times he shut his eyes, gently shook his head: one would have said he was indulging himself. He looked down and said,
“We haven’t signed any armistice.”
He, too, would have preferred the other side of the lace curtains fluttering in the sprightly breeze of early dawn, and a woman’s head, heavy with sleep, and its imprint still warm upon the pillow.
He went to the lot where the cars were parked and emptied the can into the tank of my car. Day had risen, and we could see the village at our feet, the road that led through it and, farther off, a sedan that was approaching so rapidly that I observed,
“There’s one fellow who’s not afraid of wasting it!”
I looked at the driver who took the turns without slowing speed, jammed on the brakes, went into second—donble-shifting, racing the motor, wasting, wasting—zigzagged before straightening the wheel. Joseph had stood up again. His eyes followed the car. It hesitated at the entrance to the village, then started up the main street at break-neck speed: a black sedan with a spare tire in back.
“Get in,” said Joseph. “Catch him. That’s him.”
By the time we had started the car, got out of the parking lot and headed down the rocky road that led to the national highway, the other car had disappeared round a curve. Now I in turn crossed the village and put on the throttle.
The river embankment had so many turns that we could not see the fugitive nor hear him. We knew, however, that we were gaining on him: his car was no faster than ours, and he did not know he was being pursued. With his hand on the door-handle, Joseph sat in silence. I drove. We had formed the habit, in the last six weeks, of settling ourselves in the heart of each ride, as though it were to be our last, to the point of no longer even thinking about it.
Soon I could make out the roar of the other car, ricocheted by the walls of the embankment. We were approaching the spot where the county road turned to the left, toward the station. I arrived at the branching just in time to see the black car heading into it. I wanted to slow down, but the car did not respond, I noticed on the floor-boards Joseph’s feet that were braking, shifted to second and turned, with the right wheels against the road bank. Then I put on the throttle again, and said aloud, “No more brakes. I took off the brake-rods, awhile ago.” I had not spoken for Joseph’s benefit, but rather for my own, as though I were trying to excuse myself. I realized that I had not used the brakes since the beginning of the chase, and I became afraid.
We could already see the station, and the sedan in front of us. It had slowed down: the man must be looking for a road-sign. I pressed my hand down on the horn and kept it there. The car drew to the side to let us pass. I pulled my foot from the throttle: I was ashamed of my fright, I felt like biting. Coming alongside the black car, I nosed to the right with little jerks of the wheel to push it into the ditch. The driver slowed down even more, and I think he made me a sign to pass him: I was not looking at him. I shifted into second to avoid getting too far ahead and continued to edge him off the road. I heard him shift gears and thought, He’s going to try to get away. Already he was pushing the throttle and, with my thumb on the horn, I pushed the throttle at the same time, trying to keep alongside of him—this was difficult without brakes—and giving the wheel little jerks to the right without touching him, because I did not want to hurt my fenders, but scare him and force him into the ditch.
I did not see the man, only his car, to my right, and closer to me Joseph’s boots that were braking against the rubber mat. The railroad tracks appeared a hundred meters in front of us. I stepped on the throttle and swung my wheel to the right. Behind me, the grinding of brakes, a metallic crash; the back of my car was knocked sideways by the impact, I jammed against a rail, the front tire blew out, and I stopped.
The officer had already got out and was walking toward us. He was young and dainty, as Marion had described him; his tiny nose vanished between his spectacles. Prom his worn belt hung the revolver. “An accident?” he asked.
“An accident!” Joseph bellowed. Indignation choked him. “An accident!” he repeated. For the first time I felt him to be at a loss for invectives.
He jumped out and walked toward the officer. He had not expected silence, passivity: that girlish nose was no stimulant to rage. “Dirty bitch! Dirty bitch !” Joseph murmured several times: he was trying to revive his fury.
The officer could not know that we had been pursuing him; the idea of the accident seemed to be on his mind, and the retreat had taught him that stripes were no recommendation before soldiers. Probably he had not even recognized the village where he had robbed a woman the night before; in the excitement of his flight, he no longer noticed that he was fleeing in circles.
His hand reached for his revolver with an ill-assured gesture, broken off midway. He must have used it for the first time on Marion; his provision of courage which at other times he would have spent parsimoniously, from Christmas to Christmas, to ask his boss for a raise, he had wholly squandered in a few seconds in front of the grocery store. Yet this uncompleted gesture was all Joseph needed.
“Go ahead, pull out your gun!” he shouted. “Don’t be afraid! I’m not armed. All you risk is my fist on your button of a nose. You’re pretty brave with women and kids. You’re no man!”
The lieutenant did not even try to protest. “I’m under orders,” he said. “I’m expected at headquarters. There’s a German column heading in this direction.”
“Orders. Headquarters. National day of mourning,” said Joseph, as though he were cursing. He advanced on the officer. He advanced slowly. When he stopped, the two men touched. They looked at each other in silence. I saw Joseph from the back, the lieutenant face to face. He did not budge, but his nose began to turn pale. I saw him grow white, waxen, transparent. I thought to myself: now the Prophet is going to kill him.
“The armistice has been signed,” said Joseph, and he added obscenities. “Do you hear me, the armistice?”
The officer remained silent.
“Dalai-lama !” Joseph snarled. He turned away and, without looking at the officer, said, “And now, get out before I smash your nose, you snotty bastard. Get out !”
“But my car won’t go any more,” said the other gratefully.
“Get out!” Joseph repeated in a more threatening voice, and the officer started off down the railroad tracks. He tried to place his feet on the ties, to avoid the ballast-rocks, and his movements were limping and weary.
I pulled out my rubber tube and emptied the tank of the sedan into mine. There was not much left of Marion’s twenty liters. Then I jacked up the front of my car and Joseph helped me to change the shredded tire.
Four months later I looked out, through the window of my train compartment, on the North-African night. At noon I had landed in Oran, and now I was traveling toward Casablanca, toward the ship that would take me to America. Once more there was a full moon, and the landscape was bathed in blue. I had lost sight of Arnault on the day of the demobilization, and of Joseph on the following day. Marion’s child must be one month old. It was busy discovering light, heat, space; it could not know that if it was going to lack milk, if it was going to freeze in the winter, it was because we, too, were responsible, and Marion would not be one to tell him.