“What say we sing!” said the colonel.

He had taken off his mask and was breathing great lungfuls of fresh air through the window, mimicking the pleasure of a satisfied gourmet. The truck was climbing its merry way up the winding road, between the rows of vines. With every turn, the brown-hued Village, high on its perch, drew closer and closer.

“My God, that smells good!” the colonel went on. “We’re back where we belong, and everything’s fine. So what’ll we sing?”

“How about the ‘Marseillaise’?” Jean Perret suggested, grinning. The army burst out in a spasm of assorted chuckles, coughs, and cackles. As if the hussars and marine commandos were trying to see which ones could laugh the loudest. Nothing forced or bitter, mind you. Only a good, hearty laugh. Freed of all their burdens, they were having themselves a time.

“Just thought I’d test the people’s morale,” the undersecretary quipped.

He looked at the colonel, and again they burst out laughing.

“All right! Back in the closet with the ‘Marseillaise’!” Dragasès decided. “Any better ideas?” he asked, looking at the captain.

“How about the tune they sing in the Legion?” the officer replied. “The one when they charge. It’s stupid as shit, but at least it’s direct. Besides, we all know the words.”

“That’s a thought,” mused the colonel. “After all, we’re kind of a foreign legion ourselves now. As foreign as they come. To everyone and everything. So I guess we have the right … No, on second thought, we don’t. It’s a tune with tradition. When the Legion sings it, it’s because they’ve earned it. But us? Today? I really don’t think a celebration’s in order! Maybe tomorrow, when we’re up in The Village … Anyway, I’ve got a better idea.”

He glanced around slyly to see if they were listening. Then he cleared his throat like a banquet artiste, took a deep breath, and bellowed:

“No, no regrets,
No, I have no regrets.
What’s done is done,
Good or bad, I guess,
And I couldn’t care less,
No, no regrets,
No, I have no regrets.
La-la-la, la-la-la …
And to hell with the past!”

“What do you think?” he asked, as he finished. “Not bad, eh? It goes back a way. I can’t remember some of the words, but you get the gist. Don’t you know it?”

“No,” said the captain. “What is it?”

“It was popular back in the early sixties. A singer named Piaf. Then the paratroopers took it over. Sang it at Zéralda. Algeria, remember? The coup that failed? General Challe and his friends? … Decided you can’t fight a war with creampuffs. Which is what the French army was those days. A bunch of creampuffs … I was nineteen back then. Enlisted in the Legion. First Paratroop Regiment … And we sang it in the trucks on our way out of camp, when the regiment broke up. What a damn racket! Dead and buried, but still, what a show! … The way we felt then, I never would have dreamt we’d be singing it again, and for keeps this time! I guess there are some things that just won’t die. Sooner or later, they’re bound to come out. After everything settles. Like a bottle of wine.”

“Well,” said Perret, “this is one wine that’s damn well settled! Twelve voices left. Not much of a chorus!”

“Never mind,” Dragasès answered. “How much do you want to bet the twelve of us can make one hell of a noise!”

“Oh, I’m ready, believe me. You can count on the voice of the government, Colonel. It’ll sing out of tune, as usual. But this time, at least, it’ll give it all it’s got!”

Veins bulging on their foreheads, necks swollen, faces scarlet, they blared it out at the top of their lungs. And, indeed, they were louder than a triumphant Catholic army chanting the Te Deum in the nave of a great cathedral. At every turn the truck went lurching, then staggered straight ahead, gaily biting its double tires into the embankment. The hussar who was driving slapped the steering wheel in rhythm, waving his arms like a third-rate hack, singing his heart out in some idiotic song. The captain sat pounding the dashboard with his fists. At each “No, no regrets” every rifle butt smashed against the floor of the truck. … If we probe the innermost feelings of this brawling band, the first thing we find is a kind of esprit de corps. The festive ecstasy of tribal togetherness, the feeling of belonging. Few as they are, so few you can count them, they still thumb their noses at the rest of the world. Yet there’s something else too, something more like desperation. The child, whooping it up, at night, on the lonely road, to forget that he’s alone. Or perhaps the poor devil, shipwrecked in his lifeboat, singing anything at all, just to keep himself alive. Yes, that was part of it, too … The young hussars had their eyes on the fields, scanning the trees. Not a bird to be seen. Even the scavengers—crows and magpies—had made their escape. Nailed up tight, the winegrowers’ shutters seemed to seep out of a kind of cataclysmic fear. All that was missing were the black crosses that, in ages past, marked out the houses where the plagte had struck. The sun was shining over the deserted landscape with the same hard light that Johnson and White must have seen on the moon a few years before, as they squatted on their heels, next to the wreckage of their space shuttle, waiting to die …

“Shit!” yelled the driver. “What’s that? Some fucking guy! I damn near hit him!”

Suddenly, silence. Robinson Crusoe discovering Friday’s footprints! People on the moon after all! Then six grinding brakes, a wellcontrolled skid, the screeching of gears, an expert reverse . Some fucking guy! They all stuck their heads out the same side to look. Enemy? Friend? Dragasès loaded his submachine gun.

Yes, indeed, there was someone there, peacefully sitting by the side of the road, sticking up his thumb in a gesture that, under the circumstances, couldn’t have been more bizarre. No doubt he was enjoying the humor of the situation, smiling broadly from ear to ear. White skin, pleasant face, but dressed like a tramp. Everyone seemed to think he looked familiar.

“How about a lift, Colonel?” he asked, simply, as if there were only one possible reply.
“Where to, my good man, so early in the morning?” the colonel countered, playing right along.
“Oh really, I don’t care. After all the time I spent trying to find you, I’m not too fussy. Wherever you’re going is fine with me. You are Colonel Constantine Dragesès, aren’t you? Army chief of staff and commander in chief of the forces of law and order for the whole southern region?”

He spoke with a kind of mock-solemn smirk that immediately won them over. Clearly he was already on their side, banter and all. Besides, by now they had placed his face in spite of the whiskers that almost devoured it. It’s not easy to forget a full-face picture splashed across page one, especially when you remember the string of vengeful epithets that went along with it. Dragasès went on in the same high-flown tone, businesslike as could be:

“Monsieur Perret, let me introduce Captain Luke Notaras. Greek national. Commanding officer of the freighter Isle of Naxos. Remember?”

“The man with the red hands?” Notaras added, with a modest little smile. “The bloody freighter? The Laccadive Island genocide? Et cetera, et cetera.”

“Of course,” said Perret, nodding. “That’s quite a list of honors. Congratulations. I know my classic quotes: ‘There’s no Luke Notaras among us, my friends!’ And so on and so forth. It seems like a hundred years ago. But weren’t you in prison?”

“That’s right, monsieur. In Aix. But suddenly, last Saturday, no more guards! Flew the coop! And left the gates wide open! So I took the hint and left. Ready to march to the sounds of battle, except that there were none. Pretty much what I expected. When I looked down from up there, I saw you and your truck. And I said to myself: ‘Now that’s a break. I’ll hitch myself a ride.’”

“Well, hop right up!” said Jean Perret, amused by it all. “I’m not sure whether, as fascist puppet in charge of the south,! have the right to pardon prisoners. But given the situation, I don’t see why not. There! You’re pardoned. Now how would you like to be minister of the navy?”

“What navy, monsieur? You mean you have a navy?”

He pretended to look all around as if he had lost something.

“Of course not. But what’s the difference? The colonel has no army. Or practically none. And I have no territory. So we can finally get down to business. Now’s the time when it’s all beginning to have some real meaning.”

“I think I see your point,” Notaras replied. “Mind if I play on your team, gentlemen?”

Adopted in a flurry of slaps on the back, making the rounds of each large outstretched hand, named honorary Chamborant Hussar on the spot, and marine commando, honoris causa, Notaras climbed up into the truck and joined the singing dozen. All of them, off on a hell of a lark. As simple as that …

When they reached The Village they all jumped down. Dragasès split his troop in two. One half was deployed around the truck, christened the “command post” just for the occasion—much to everyone’s delight—with the captain in charge. He had set up his submachine gun on a little clump of earth. (Fate,’it seems, in one of those fits of illogic, had ordained that the best firing angles should all come together at the foot of a sixteenth-century roadside shrine, complete with its niche, and its Virgin, and its cross.) The other half was dubbed the “mobile column.” Along with Notaras, Jean Perret, and the colonel, it consisted of a double line—two “pincers,” as they called them—each with three marksmen fanning out to explore the terrain, in keeping with the best rules of urban guerrilla warfare. Pressing forward in a series of short, quick spurts—I’ll cover you, you make a break, you cover me, I’ll make a break—they had pushed tp a terrace, with five little steps leading up from the road, all of them quite convinced, by now, that there wasn’t a living soul left in The Village. But just as they reached that definite conclusion, a voice called down, laughing:

“What on earth are you doing? Some kind of maneuvers? It’s all very instructive to watch from up here. But really, there’s no need. I’m the only one left.”

Dragases looked up and saw an old white-haired gentleman, with a linen jacket and red polka-dot tie, calmly leaning on his railing, as if taking the air on a peaceful spring morning.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Calguès. Professor of French literature, retired.”

“But what the hell are you doing here?”

The old professor was rather taken aback. Even offended. Indeed, what a question!

“This is my home, Colonel! Where else should I be?”

“Where else? Where … You mean to tell me you don’t know what’s going on?”

“Oh yes, I know. I’ve been watching it all.”

He pointed to a spyglass, on a tripod, beside him.

“And it doesn’t bother you? You aren’t going to leave?”

“I like it here. Why should I leave? At my age it’s hard to make a change, don’t you know?”

All terribly tongue in cheek, like Notaras a few moments before, but with much more finesse. The colonel stood agape. This old man was like a breath of fresh air!

“It’s really a very fine glass,” Monsieur Calgues continued. “It magnifies better than seven times. At six o’clock this morning you were out in front of your villa. I saw you pointing up this way, and I knew right off what you had in mind. Later on, when you got into your truck, I counted. There are twelve of you, right?”

“Thirteen since the last turn,” the colonel corrected. “And now fourteen,” he added, with a smile.

“Twelve, fourteen, no difference. There’s plenty for everybody. You must be ready for a meal, I imagine.”

“A meal?” cried the colonel. “You’ve got to be joking!”

The old gentleman gave a deep comic bow, as if sweeping the ground with a great plumed hat. He nodded to Perret and Dragasès: “Monsieur … Colonel … Breakfast is served!”

Up the steps, a rush of feet. Kids out of school. Recess, forever! What they saw spread inside through the open terrace door stopped them dead in their tracks. Breakfast? Obviously the old gentleman was a master of understatement. There, on a long, massive table, draped with a checkered cloth, pyramids of fancy sandwiches, neatly piled; thin slices of red ham, coiled flowerlike and set out on trays; bowls of black olives, and pickles, and onions; plates of all kinds; slices of egg next to slices of tomato, artfully arranged, first one then the other; anchovies wound round in little rosettes; goat cheeses slivered with the utmost care, just enough, not too much; bouquets of sausages; pâtés in stoneware terrines; uncorked bottles everywhere in sight; a tray full of glasses; cigarettes, cigars, matches; and over in a corner, the fine old brandy, surrounded by its squat and bulbous snifters.

“Are you … Are you sure you’re all alone?” stammered the colonel, the first one to find his tongue.

“I’ve always enjoyed setting a pretty table,” Monsieur Calguès replied. “It’s so pleasant to look at. At five past six, I saw you all down there getting ready to leave. So I got right to work. There are a few things missing, but I hope you’ll excuse me. I wanted to whip up a crème Chantilly, but you got here sooner than I expected. We’ll just have to do without the sweets, that’s all …”

“Good God!” shouted Dragasès, all of a sudden. “What’s that?”

He was pointing to a young man, all in a heap in the corner, legs spread, head hanging, half hidden by the tablecloth falling almost to the floor. Hair long and dirty, flowered tunic, Hindu collar, Afghan vest. And lying quite still. A red spot on his chest, with a neat little hole, left no doubt whatever as to his state of health.

“You?” asked the colonel.

“Me,” Monsieur Calguès answered, nodding. “I couldn’t stand the awful things he was saying. In a war, even a hopeless one, some people have to die, or it wouldn’t be right. I did just what you did. Down there, I mean. My personal war, just for the fun of it. No illusions, I assure you. Strange,” he added, looking at the corpse, “I’d forgotten all about him.”

“When did it happen?”

“Last night sometime.”

“Better get him out of here before he begins to stink the place up,” said the colonel, very matter-of-fact. “We’ll take care of it for you.”

And that was that. The whole of the young man’s funeral oration …

“All right, let’s eat!” exclaimed Jean Perret. “A toast, Monsieur Calgues, to the health of The Village!”

And he added in the most sham-serious of tones:

“By the way, how would Minister of Culture suit you?”

“Let’s not forget the command post,” Dragases reminded them. And he turned to one of the marine commandos. “You… Since you managed to save your bugle, blow us a mess call. That’ll knock ‘em on their ass!”

Given the words the French soldier thinks of when he hears those notes—“It ain’t shit yet, but it will be soon!”—one imagines them bursting against the Western sky, and sounding an accent of prophetic doom …


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