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Flight to Arras, Page 7

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


  Dutertre's voice came down the inter-com.

  "Due south, Captain."

  Quite right. Safer to lose altitude over our own zone than the enemy's.

  Looking down on those swarming highways I understood more clearly than ever what peace meant. In time of peace the world is self-contained. The villagers come home at dusk from their fields. The grain is stored up in the barns. The folded linen is piled up in the cupboards. In time of peace each thing is in its place, easily found. Each friend is where he belongs, easily reached. All men know where they will sleep when night comes. Ah, but peace dies when the framework is ripped apart. When there is no longer a place that is yours in the world. When you know no longer where your friend is to be found. Peace is present when man can see the face that is composed of things that have meaning and are in their place. Peace is present when things form part of a whole greater than their sum, as the divers minerals in the ground collect to become the tree.

  But this is war.

  I can see from my plane the long swarming highways, that interminable syrup flowing endless to the horizon. The inhabitants of the war zone are being evacuated. This, at any rate, is the official version. But it is no longer true. They are evacuating themselves. There is a crazy contagion in this exodus. Where are these vagabonds going? They are going south--as if in the south there was room for them, food for them, tender hands waiting to welcome them. But southward there are only villages filled to bursting, men and women sleeping in sheds, stocks of food running out. Southward the most generous hearts are beginning little by little to harden at the sight of this mad invasion which little by little, like a sluggish river of mud, is beginning to suffocate them. Can a single province lodge and nourish all France?

  Where are they going? They have no notion. They are tramping towards phantom havens--for scarcely does this caravan come up to an oasis when it ceases to be an oasis. One by one each oasis bursts its bonds and pours into the caravan. And when, by chance, the caravan comes upon a real village, a village that seems still to be alive, it swallows up its substance in a single night, gnaws it clean as the worm polishes the bone.

  Faster than the exodus, the enemy moves. Here and there armored cars roll past the stream. It thickens, swirls, flows for a moment backwards. Whole German divisions flounder in this stew; and Germans who at another point were killing their kind are here quenching the thirst of the refugees.

  In the course of the retreat our Group had been quartered in a dozen villages. A dozen times our Group had been entangled in the dragging herd that shuffled slowly through those villages.

  "Where are you bound?"

  "Nobody knows."

  They never knew. Nobody knew anything. They were evacuating. There was no way to house them. Every road was blocked. And still they were evacuating. Somewhere in the north of France a boot had scattered an ant-hill, and the ants were on the march. Laboriously. Without panic. Without hope. Without despair. On the march as if in duty bound.

  "Who ordered you to evacuate?"

  It was always the mayor, or the schoolteacher, or the mayor's clerk. One morning at three the order had run through the village: "Everybody out!"

  They had been expecting this. For two weeks they had seen the passage through their village of refugees who no longer believed in the eternity of their homes. Man had been a settler on the planet. He had ceased to be a nomad. He had built himself villages that had lasted through the ages. He had waxed and polished floors and chairs that had gone on serving his great-grandchildren. The family house had received him at his birth, transported him to his death; and then, like a good bark crossing the water from bank to bank, it had carried his sons over the same stream. All that was ended now. The villagers were on the move. And no one so much as knew why.

  The highways too were part of our experience. We were pilots, and there were days when in a single morning our sortie took us over Alsace, Belgium, Holland, and the sea itself. But our problems were most often of the north of France, and our horizon was very often limited to the dimensions of a traffic tangle at a crossroads. Thus, only three days earlier, I had seen the village in which we were billeted go to pieces. I do not expect ever to be free of that clinging, viscous memory.

  It was six in the morning, and Dutertre and I, coming out of our billet, found ourselves in the midst of chaos. All the stables, all the sheds, all the barns and garages had vomited into the narrow streets a most extraordinary collection of contrivances. There were new motorcars, and there were ancient farm carts that for half a century had stood untouched under layers of dust. There were hay wains and lorries, carryalls and tumbrils. Had we seen a mail-coach in this maze it would not have astonished us. Every box on wheels had been dug up and was now laden with the treasures of the home. From door to vehicle, wrapped in bedsheets sagging with hernias, the treasures were being piled in.

  Together, these treasures had made up that greater treasure--a home. By itself, each was valueless; yet they were the objects of a private religion, a family's worship. Each filling its place, they had been made indispensable by habit and beautiful by memory, had been lent price by the sort of fatherland which, together, they constituted. But those who owned them thought each precious in itself and for itself. These treasures had been wrenched from their fireside, their table, their wall; and now that they were heaped up in disorder, they showed themselves to be the worn and torn stock of a junk-shop that they were. Fling sacred relics into a heap, and they can turn your stomach.

  "What's going on here? Are you mad?"

  The cafe owner's wife shrugged her shoulders.

  "We're evacuating."

  "But why, in God's name!"

  "Nobody knows. Mayor's orders."

  She was too busy to talk, and vanished up her staircase. Dutertre and I stood in the doorway and looked on. Every motorcar, every lorry, every cart and charabanc was piled high with children, mattresses, kitchen utensils.

  Of all these objects the most pitiful were the old motorcars. A horse standing upright in the shafts of a farm-cart gives off a sensation of solidity. A horse does not call for spare parts. A farm-cart can be put into shape with three nails. But all these vestiges of the mechanical age! This assemblage of pistons, valves, magnetos, and gear-wheels! How long would it run before it broke down?

  "Please, Captain. Could you give me a hand?"

  "Of course. What is it?"

  "I want to get my car out of the garage."

  I looked at the woman in amazement.

  "Are you sure you know how to drive?"

  "Oh, it will be all right. The road is so jammed, it won't be hard."

  There was herself, and her sister-in-law, and their children--seven children in all.

  That road easy to drive? A road over which you made two or ten miles a day, stopping dead every two hundred yards? Braking, stopping, shifting gears, changing from low to second and back again every fifty yards in the confusion of an inextricable jam. Easy driving? The woman would break down before she had gone half a mile! And gas! And oil! And water, which she was sure to forget!

  "Better watch your water. Your radiator is leaking like a sieve."

  "Well, it's not a new car."

  "You'll be on the road a week, you know. How are you going to make it?"

  "I don't know."

  She won't have gone three miles before running into half a dozen cars, stripping her gears, and blowing out her tires. Then she and her sister-in-law and the seven children will start to cry. And she and her sister-in-law and the seven children, faced by problems out of their ken, will give up. They will abandon the car, sit down by the side of the road, and wait for the coming of a shepherd.

  But it is astonishing how few shepherds there are. Dutertre and I are staring at sheep who have taken things into their own hands. And these sheep are off in an immense clatter of mechanical equipment. Three thousand pistons. Six thousand valves. The grate, the grind, the clank of this machinery. Water boiling up i
n a radiator already. And slowly, laboriously, this caravan of doom stirs into movement. This caravan without spare parts, without tires, without gasoline, without a mechanic. They are mad!

  "Why don't you stay home?"

  "God knows, we'd rather stay."

  "Then why do you leave?"

  "They said we had to."

  "Who said so?"

  "The mayor."

  Always the mayor.

  "Of course we'd all rather stay home."

  It is a fact that these people are not panicky; they are people doing a blind chore. Dutertre and I tried to shake some of them out of it.

  "Look here, why don't you unload and put that stuff back into your house. At least you'll have your pump-water to drink."

  "Of course that would be the best thing."

  "But you are free to do it. Why don't you?"

  Dutertre and I are winning. A cluster of villagers has collected round us. They listen to us. They nod their heads approvingly.

  "He's right, he is, the captain."

  Others come to our support. A roadmender, converted, is hotter about it than I am.

  "Always said so. Get out on that road and there's nothing but asphalt to eat."

  They argue. They agree. They will stay. Some go off to preach to others. And they come back discouraged.

  "Won't do. Have to go."


  "Baker's already left. Who will bake our bread?"

  The village has already broken down. At one point or another it has burst; and through that hole its contents are running out. Hopeless.

  Dutertre said what he thought about it: "The tragedy is that men have been taught that war is an abnormal condition. In the past they would have stayed home. War and life were the same thing."

  The cafe owner came down, dragging a sack.

  "You can let us have a cup of coffee, I suppose. We are flying in half an hour."

  "Ah, my poor lads!"

  She wiped her eyes. It was not us she was weeping for. Nor herself. Already she was crying with exhaustion. Already she felt herself suffocating in that caravan which was to go further to pieces with every mile of its journey.

  Farther on, in the open country, the enemy fighters would be flying low and spitting forth their bursts of machine-gun fire upon this lamentable flock. But it was astonishing how on the whole the enemy refrained from total annihilation. Here and there stood a car in flames, but very few. And there were few dead. Death was a sort of luxury, something like a bit of advice. It was the nip in the hock by which the shepherd dog hurried the flock along. Though one wondered why the enemy action was so little insistent, so altogether sporadic and local. The enemy was at no pains whatever to blow the caravan to bits. True, the caravan had no need of the enemy to go to pieces. The machines took care of that. They went spontaneously out of order. The machine is conceived for a deliberate and peaceful society, a society master of its time. When man is not present to repair the machine, regulate it, polish it, it ages at a dizzying pace. Tonight all these machines will look a thousand years old. I seemed to be looking on at the death-throes of the machine.

  Here is a peasant whipping up his horse. Perched on his seat with the majesty of a king, he lords it over the whole caravan.

  "You look very satisfied up there."

  "Ah, it's the end of the world."

  Suddenly I felt queasy. All these workers, these simple people, each with his place in the world, were to be transformed into parasites, vermin. They were going to spread over the countryside and devour it. The thought made me sick.

  "Who is going to feed you?"

  "Nobody knows."

  How is one to feed millions of migrants shuffling over miles of road at the rate of two to ten miles a day? If food existed, it could not be brought up to them.

  All this muddle of men and old iron lost on the asphalt of the highways made me think suddenly of my march through the Libyan desert. Prevot and I had crashed in a landscape glassy with black rocks and covered with a carpet of sun-grilled iron. This was not far different.

  I stared at the refugees in despair. How long would a swarm of locusts last in a field of asphalt?

  "Do you expect to drink rain-water?"

  "Nobody knows."

  They knew nothing. For ten days they had seen an unbroken stream of refugees from the north flow through their village. For ten days they had watched this unending exodus. And their turn had come. They would take their place in the procession. But without confidence: "If it was up to me, I'd rather die at home."

  "We'd all rather die at home."

  That was true. Their village might have collapsed over their heads, and still none would have chosen to leave.

  Had France possessed reserves of food, that food could never have been brought up the highways down which this stream was flowing. If you have to, you can force your way downstream through brokendown cars, jammed cars, inextricable snarls of traffic at successive crossroads. But how can you move against such a stream?

  "There being no reserves of food," said Dutertre grimly, "all is well."

  A rumor is spreading that the Government has forbidden all evacuations. Even if it were true, how were the orders to be transmitted? There are no open roads, and the telephone cables are jammed, or cut; or the messages are received with a distrust born of experience. And it is no longer a matter of giving orders. What is wanted is the invention of a new code. For a thousand years man has been taught that women and children are to be shielded from war. War is a matter for men only. The village mayors are full of this law of society; their clerks know it; the schoolteachers know it. Assume that suddenly they receive orders to stop the evacuations, which is to say, force women and children to remain in the zone of bombardment. It will take them a month to adjust their conscience to this sign of a new age. You cannot overthrow a system of morality at one blow. And while you examine your conscience, the enemy continues his advance. Wherefore the mayors, their clerks, the schoolteachers send forth this stream of people on the highways. What is to be done? Where does truth reside? Forward troop the sheep without shepherd.

  "Is there a doctor in this village?"

  "You don't live here, I take it?"

  "No. We live up north."

  "What do you want of a doctor?"

  "My wife is going to have a baby."

  Lying among her kitchen utensils, in this desert of old iron.

  "Couldn't you have thought of a doctor earlier?"

  "We've been four days on the road."

  The road is an irresistible stream. Where can you stop? Every village you move through is deserted the moment you arrive, pours into the caravan like the flow of a burst pipe into a giant sewer.

  "No. No doctor here. The Group doctor is ten miles up the line."

  "Well. Thank you."

  The man mopped his forehead. Everything was going to pieces. His wife would bring her child into the world in a bed of kitchen utensils. There was nothing cruel about this. It was above all, most of all, monstrously beyond the bounds of things human. Nobody complained. Complaint was meaningless. His wife would die, and he would not complain. His wife was to die in childbed. Complain of what? There was no help for it. It was a nightmare.

  "If we could only stop somewhere!"

  Find a real village, a real inn, a real hospital. But, for God knows what reason, the hospitals too are being evacuated. It is part of the game. There isn't time to recast the rules of the game. Find a real death. But there is no real death any longer. There are bodies that break down the way the cars do.

  Everywhere in this mob I sense a wearied haste, a haste that has renounced haste. At the rate of two to ten miles a day these people are fleeing before tanks moving at fifty miles a day and aeroplanes flying at four hundred miles an hour. Thus treacle flows when the bottle has been overturned. This man's wife would lie in; but he had all the time in the world before him. It was urgent. Was it really urgent? It was suspended in unstable equilibrium between urgency and

  The world of these people had slowed down, like the reflexes of a dying man. This was an enormous flock that stood, exhausted and shuffling, at the gates of a slaughter-house. Were there ten or only five million of them on the asphalt? Here was a people accepting the notion of its reabsorption into eternity.

  "How," I said to myself, "are these people to survive? Man does not eat branches." But they themselves were not in the least horrified by their fate. Wrenched from their homes, their work, their responsibilities, they had lost all significance. Their very identity seemed to have been rubbed off. They were very little themselves. They were very little alive. Later, they would re-invent their sufferings. Meanwhile they were suffering most of all from the aching strain of heavy loads, from the loosened knots in bedsheets that dripped with their dreary entrails, from the strain of pushing motorcars forward in the attempt to make the engines turn over.

  Not a word about defeat. Naturally. No man feels the need of discussing a thing which constitutes his very substance. They were the defeat. I had suddenly the vision of a France losing its entrails. Quick! Sew up our France! There is not a moment to lose! France is doomed.

  It began again. Like fish on dry land, these people were suffocating: "Anybody got any milk here?"

  A question to make you die laughing.

  "My kid hasn't drunk anything since yesterday."

  The kid was a six-months-old baby. He made a lot of noise. But his noise wouldn't last. Fish out of water are soon quiet. There is no milk here. There is only scrap-iron here. There is only an enormous quantity of useless scrap-iron, falling apart mile after mile, dropping bolts, nuts, screws, sheets, while it bears this prodigiously needless exodus, this people, away towards oblivion.

  A rumor spreads that some miles to the south the road is being machine-gunned by the enemy. There is talk of bombs. There is even the muffled sound of distant explosions. The rumor is no mere rumor.

  But these people are not frightened. They seem even to perk up a little at the news. That concrete risk seems to them healthier than this drowning in old iron.