Early Good Friday evening, Monsieur Jean Perret, Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs and personal adviser to the President of the Republic, arrived at the Élysée Palace and was immediately ushered into the executive office. The President was alone, doing nothing, apparently, but smoking a cigar and drinking a highball in gluttonous little gulps. Beside him, on a low table, the wires that an aide had been bringing in every fifteen minutes were piling up higher and higher. Certain passages were underlined in red. On the same table, a radio, volume turned down, was playing the Mozart Requiem.

“Please have a seat, Monsieur Perret,” the President told him. “One might imagine that time is of the essence, that we have to make thousands of decisions, and that our minutes are numbered. If my cabinet had its way, and the other frantic old women I have running the country, that’s how I’d be spending my time. And I’d never even notice that it’s slipping by for good. Well, that’s not how things are at all. One simple decision is all we’re going to need, and we still have lots of time to make it. History must be full of heads of state who have lived through just such moments, and who never felt calmer or more relaxed than before they pronounced that fateful word ‘war.’ It takes in so much, it puts so many lives on the line. Actually, when you think about it, it’s much more a philosophical question than a physical or moral one. There’s nothing as stark, as concise as that word, when you really understand it. … Anyway, you see we still have time. Now I suggest we sit here and listen to the news. Obviously, we’re not going to learn anything, you and I …” (He tossed an offhand gesture at the pile of wires beside him.) “But I’d like to put myself in the shoes of an average citizen, who realizes all of a sudden, after six weeks of altruistic frenzy, that his Easter weekend is ruined, and who even begins to suspect that the rest of his weekends are in for a change, and that life will just never be the same as it was. I want to feel the shock of it myself, like my humblest constituent. I’m going to have to address the nation, probably on Sunday. Maybe that way I’ll find the right tone for my speech. …

You’ll notice, since this morning we’ve been swimming in Mozart. That means Jean Orelle has finally seen the light. When you own a magnificent place in Provence, on the water, right in the thick of where the action’s going to be, it has to make you stop and think! Well, let’s not be mean. He was in here just now, in an absolute daze, poor man!”

“I know, monsieur. I ran into him in the Gray Room and we chatted for a moment. I hardly knew him. His ideas, that is. Wild, weird ideas! Like a nationwide draft, only no arms, no guns. And including the women and children! A huge peace offensive into the south. ‘Nonviolent aggression,’ he called it. He was babbling.”

“Poor thing!” said the President. “Such an elegant, refined guerrilla! Put yourself in his place. Artist and warrior, rolled into one.

Every ‘war of liberation,’ no matter where.. . Suddenly there he was. Fifty years, fighting the battle. And sometimes with a lot of courage, too. Though lately they seemed to be holding him back, to keep him out of danger. I guess a Nobel Prize is worth more to the cause alive than dead. … And each time he would come back more famous than before, ready to write his magnificent books, and go chasing around from salon to salon, collecting his art, inviting his select little circle to his lady friends’ fancy châteaux. Playing both ends for all he was worth, the best of two worlds! Then, all of a sudden, things have changed, and his game is no good. It won’t work anymore. But the warrior can’t bring himself to wring the artist’s neck. At the end of his life, he sees the light at last, sees what it was all about… Unlike most people, I think old age is the time when man finds himself, when he finally—and sadly—learns the truth. That’s what happened just now to Jean Orelle. The man who left here a few moments ago was terribly sincere, and terribly sad. He had been through it all. Which explains the Mozart Requiem, I suppose. After all that time poisoning the airwaves, he finds that he’s really all Western Man at heart. You can trust him now to be sure we go out in style. Berlin came tumbling down to Wagner. With Orelle it will be more elegant, more refined …”

A voice broke softly through the silence that followed:

“Seven fifty-nine and thirty seconds .

The President leaned over and turned up the volume .

“The time is exactly eight o’clock. And now, the news. According to rather confused reports reaching us from several Third World countries, it would seem that refugee fleets are currently forming all over the globe. The governments in question admit their powerlessness to stem the apparently spontaneous uprisings. In Indonesia, notably, in the capital of Jakarta, the port has been overrun, and a number of foreign vessels have been seized without bloodshed. The government of Australia, Indonesia’s closest Western neighbor, has officially declared that, quote, ‘the situation must be considered as extremely grave,’ end of quote. In Manila, the Philippines, the police have been unable to prevent a large mob from invading a trio of cruise ships, among them the giant French liner Normandie, all of whose passengers have been removed to several of the city’s hotels. In the cities of Conakry, in Africa, Karachi, in Pakistan, and, again in Calcutta, the docks have been virtually taken over by crowds estimated to number in the tens of thousands, milling aimlessly about … Meanwhile, the government of China has officially denied a report, originating in Moscow, stating that millions of Chinese civil- ians have been massing along the Siberian border. … In addition, it was learned two hours ago that, in London, where the labor force includes some eight hundred thousand Commonwealth nationals, a group calling itself the ‘NonEuropean Commonwealth Committee’ is planning a peaceful demonstration Monday evening, in order to, quote, ‘demand British citizenship, full voting rights and human rights, equal salaries, equal employment, and equality in housing, recreational facilities, and social welfare,’ end of quote. The British government has, as yet, had no official reaction …” “I hope there are lots of Zulus in London,” the President muttered. “There’s something I’d like to see! A Zulu, citizen of Great Britain!”

“As we announced in our three o’clock newsflash,” the voice went on, “the Last Chance Armada was seen passing through the Straits of Gibraltar at that time, heading in a northeasterly direction. Reconnaissance aircraft of England, France, and Spain immediately flew over the fleet. The skies were clear; the seas, calm. We have a special report from our correspondent on the scene, aboard one of those planes. It was phoned in shortly after his return to Gibraltar, and is rebroadcast for you now”:

“I’m speaking to you from the airbase on Gibraltar, where I landed ten minutes ago in a Royal Navy Vulture. What I saw as we circled the fleet defies the imagination. The ocean is covered. There must be a good hundred ships. Almost no wind, no waves to speak of. Still, the decks barely show above the water. I don’t think I saw one ship intact. Every hull is rusting away. Some have holes below the waterline… This is what miracles are made of, and it’s a miracle they’ve made it all the way. … We circled low several times. The smell was unbearable. The decks are, literally, a solid maze of black and white. Black skin, white tunics. Thousands of poor souls. You simply can’t imagine what it’s like. You’d think you were flying over one huge mass grave, except that the corpses are still alive. I could see them waving their arms in the air. As close as I could figure, there must be eight hundred thousand survivors on those ships. … The fleet is sailing northeast, which means that it’s heading straight for the Côte d’Azur. The ships are bound to run aground, I think it’s safe to say, since none of them even has an anchor. No mooring lines, nothing. And I’m sure that, judging by what I saw, there’s no way they could go back where they came from. Or even stay afloat another week, for that matter. According to my rapid calculations, if they hold their present speed, and if the weather doesn’t change, they’ll be running aground sometime Saturday night, or early Easter Sunday morning. In other words, in about a day… I should mention, too, that up and down the Spanish coast the prevalent feeling is one of great relief. Everywhere people are speaking again of the need for compassion and brotherly love. … This report has come to you direct from Gibraltar. We return you now to Paris.”

The Parisian announcer broke in:

“This has been an eyewitness account from our special correspondent, recorded at four o’clock this afternoon. Subsequent reports confirm that the refugee fleet is, indeed, sailing toward France and the Côte d’Azur. In addition, Arab radio stations throughout North Africa have stepped up their broadcasts in Hindi, urging their brothers to keep heading north, since, quote, ‘that’s where the West begins, and where milk flows like water,’ end of quote. It should be added, too, that a note of alarm can be detected in the announcers’ voices. … Meanwhile, throughout the south, recent appeals by press and local officials to remain calm and present a united front have gone largely unheeded. An exodus is already under way toward the cities of the north. Since morning, trains and planes have been filled to capacity, and traffic on Highway A7 was already bumper-to- bumper by four o’clock. Large numbers of homes and businesses have closed their doors. Transport companies throughout the area have announced that their vans are unable to handle any further calls. …

At five o’clock, Monsieur Jean Orelle, Minister of Information and spokesman for the government, read the following statement to the press, rebroadcast at this time”: “In the face of the report, officially confirmed, that the fleet from the Ganges is, indeed, sailing toward the southern coast of France..

(The ageing minister’s voice sounded firm but muted, as if he were fighting off a feeling of great fatigue.)”… the government has decided to adopt a number of tentative measures vis-à-vis the refugees themselves. The four departments along the coast have been placed under the command of Monsieur Jean Perret, Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, and personal representative of the President of the Republic for the entire southern region. Should circumstances demand, the government will not hesitate to declare a state of emergency. Army and police units have been ordered to set up a quarantine line along the coast, to guard against possible epidemic, and have been ordered to prevent any unauthorized landing that might prove detrimental to one of our nation’s most prosperous areas. The government pledges to make every effort to find humane solutions to the present problem, in keeping with its unprecedented nature, and will not hesitate to impose them, if need be. The President of the Republic wishes to reaffirm his respect for those citizens, sizable in number, who have expressed their support and sympathy for the refugees, but he feels obliged to alert them against certain excesses antagonistic to the preservation of law and order, so essential at this time. Attempts at individual action will not be tolerated. In addition, all residents of the southern areas of the country are requested to remain calm, to cooperate with the government, and to go about their daily business …”

“When he left me a few moments ago,” the President observed, “that wasn’t at all how he felt. We’d worked out that statement at about four, the two of us. But things happen fast. Like that story that some Italian writer dreamed up once upon a time. Buzzati, I think it was. Someone accidentally rips a shutter off one of the windows, and the whole house comes tumbling down, bit by bit, and kills everyone inside … Well, it seems as if our starving friends have ripped off the shutter. Buzzati, if I remember, didn’t try to explain it. He just described what happened. I’m afraid we can’t do much better …”

“You have just heard the statement,” the announcer’s voice went on, “read by the Minister of Information at five o’clock this afternoon. Since that time, however, the number of people leaving the south has considerably increased. A mass migration would seem to be in the making. At the same time, a modest current has been noted in the opposite direction, composed of the most diverse elements. Whole hippie and Christian communes have been seen heading south. Along with them, groups recruited from the outskirts of Paris, young industrial workers, bands of students from the several disciplines, as well as large numbers of clergymen and nonviolent militants of varying persuasions. One serious confrontation has already been reported. It took place on Highway A6, at tollbooth number 3, when police tried to turn back one of the groups in question. Monsieur Clément Dio, editor in chief of La Pensée Nouvelle, has voiced a formal protest against what he terms ‘this vicious attempt to prohibit freedom of movement,’ and has let it be known that he too is heading south, as a symbolic gesture. Our reporter interviewed him outside the offices of La Pensée Nouvelle only moments before he drove off …”

(Then Dio’s voice. In the background, street sounds, and frequent cheers and applause.)

“People are leaving the south in droves, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. The West is having conscience pangs. It can’t stand the sight of misery on the march. And so, instead of waiting to face it, to welcome it with open arms, it sneaks off without a word. Too bad! Let it go! If the south turns into one great big desert, all the better for the armada! All the more room to put our poor devils and give them that last chance they’re after. I’ll tell you the truth: that’s why I’m leaving Paris myself and heading south. And right here and now I’m inviting everyone who feels the way I do—everyone who puts human ideals above governments, and economic systems, and religions, and races—to come and join me. I’d like to see us turn out in force. Who cares how many soldiers they send? And as for Perret, that fascist puppet … Listen, I heard Jean Orelle too. I heard him talk about his ‘tentative measures,’ and his ‘imposed solutions,’ and his ‘quarantine line’! Quarantine my foot! It’s a battle line, that’s what they’re drawing! Are they going to order our troops to fire on poor, starving bastards? Are they going to set up concentration camps? Are they going to …”

“He’s getting on my nerves,” said the President, turning down the volume. “But at least,” he added wistfully, “there’s someone who knows what he’s after!”

“Whose idea was that ‘quarantine line,’ monsieur?” asked Jean Perret.

“Mine,” the President sighed. “I hesitated quite a while. But as soon as I saw the exodus begin in earnest, I realized nothing could stop it. It’s a long-standing national habit of ours, especially the richer and better off we are. May as well speed it along, I thought, and make the most of it. I figured if we cleaned out the home front, so to speak, and got rid of all that fear and trembling, the army might have a chance to do its job. All the rest—the part about remaining calm and going about their business—well, that was so much window dressing.”

“But everyone knows there are no more epidemics, monsieur, no more medieval plagues!”

“Well then,” said the President, “the ones who want an excuse to turn and run, instead of defending their property, can pretend there still are, if they want to. I owe my constituents that much, don’t I?” And he bent over the radio dial.

“Immediately after making his statement,” the announcer’s voice continued, “Monsieur Clément Dio left Paris, accompanied by his wife—the well-known writer Iris Nan-Chan—and a number of friends, inviting the cheering crowd to come join him on the coast …”


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