And all around, thousands of floating, white-clad corpses, that daylight’s last waves were beginning to wash aground, laying them gently down on the beach, then rolling back to sea to look for more. A hundred ships! The old professor felt a shudder well up within him, that quiver of exaltation and humility combined, the feeling we sometimes get when we turn our minds, hard as we can, to notions of the infinite and the eternal. On this Easter Sunday evening, eight hundred thousand living beings, and thousands of dead ones, were making their peaceful assault on the Western World. Tomorrow it would all be over. And now, rising up from the coast to the hills, to the village, to the house and its terrace, a gentle chanting, yet so very strong for all its gentleness, like a kind of singsong, droned by a chorus of eight hundred thousand voices. Long, long ago, the Crusaders had sung as they circled Jerusalem, on the eve of their last attack. And Jericho’s walls had crumbled without a fight when the trumpets sounded for the seventh time. Perhaps when all was silent, when the chanting was finally stilled, the chosen people too would feel the force of divine displeasure. … There were other sounds as well. The roar of hundreds of trucks. Since morning, the army had taken up positions on the Mediterranean beaches. But there in the darkness there was nothing beyond the terrace but sky and stars. It was cool in the house when the professor went inside, but he left the door open all the same. Can a door protect a world that has lived too long? Even a marvel of workmanship, three hundred years old, and one carved out of such utterly respectable Western oak? … There was no electricity. Obviously, the technicians from the power plants along the coast had fled north too, with all the others, the petrified mob, turning tail and running off without a word, so as not to have to look, not see a thing, which meant they wouldn’t have to understand, or even try. The professor lit the oil lamps that he always kept on hand in case the lights went out. He threw one of the matches into the fireplace. The kindling, carefully arranged, flashed up with a roar, crackled, and spread its light and warmth over the room. Then he turned on his transistor, tuned all day long to the national chain. Gone now the pop and the jazz, the crooning ladies and the vapid babblers, the black saxophonists, the gurus, the smug stars of stage and screen, the experts on health and love and sex. All gone from the airwaves, all suddenly judged indecent, as if the threatened West were concerned with the last acoustic image it presented of itself. Nothing but Mozart, the same on every station. Eine kleine Nachtmusik, no less. And the old professor had a kindly thought for the program director, there in his studio in Paris. He couldn’t possibly see or know, and yet he had understood. For those eight hundred thousand singsong voices that he couldn’t even hear, he had found, instinctively, the most fitting reply. What was there in the world more Western than Mozart, more civilized, more perfect? No eight hundred thousand voices could drone their chant to Mozart’s notes. Mozart had never written to stir the masses, but to touch the heart of each single human being, in his private self. What a lovely symbol, really! The Western World summed up in its ultimate truth … An announcer’s voice roused the old professor from his musings: “The President of the Republic has been meeting all day at the Élysée Palace with government leaders. Also present, in view of the gravity of the situation, are the chiefs of staff of the three branches of the armed forces, as well as the heads of the local and state police, the prefects of the departments of Var and Alpes-Maritimes, and, in a strictly advisory capacity, His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, the papal nuncio, and most of the Western ambassadors currently stationed in the capital. At present the meeting is still in progress. A government spokesman, however, has just announced that this evening, at about midnight, the President of the Republic will go on the air with an address of utmost importance to the nation. According to reports reaching us from the south, all still seems quiet on board the ships of the refugee fleet. A communiqué from army headquarters confirms that two divisions have been deployed along the coast in the face … in the face of …” (The announcer hesitated. And who could blame him? Just what should one call that numberless, miserable mass? The enemy? The horde? The invasion? The Third World on the march?) “… in the face of this unprecedented incursion (There! Not too bad at all!) “… and that three divisions of reinforcements are heading south at this moment, despite considerable difficulty of movement. In another communiqué, issued not more than five minutes ago, army chief of staff Colonel Dragasès has reported that troops under his command have begun setting fire to some twenty immense wooden piles along the shore, in order to … (Another hesitation. The announcer seemed to gasp. The old professor even thought he heard him mutter “My God!”) “… in order to burn the thousands of dead bodies thrown overboard from all the ships …” And that was all. A moment later, with hardly a break, Mozart was back, replacing those three divisions hurtling southward, and the score of funeral pyres that must have begun to crackle by now in the crisp air down by the coast. The West doesn’t like to burn its dead. It tucks away its cremation urns, hides them out in the hinterlands of its cemeteries. The Seine, the Rhine, the Loire, the Rhône, the Thames are no Ganges or Indus. Not even the Guadalquivir and the Tiber. Their shores never stank with the stench of roasting corpses. Yes, they have flowed with blood, their waters have run red, and many a peasant has crossed himself as he used his pitchfork to push aside the human carcasses floating downstream. But in Western times, on their bridges and banks, people danced and drank their wine and beer, men tickled the fresh, young laughing lasses, and everyone laughed at the wretch on the rack, laughed in his face, and the wretch on the gallows, tongue dangling, and the wretch on the block, neck severed—because, indeed, the Western World, staid as it was, knew how to laugh as well as cry—and then, as their belfreys called them to prayer, they would all go partake of their fleshly god, secure in the knowledge that their dead were there, protecting them, safe as could be, laid out in rows beneath their timeless slabs and crosses, in graveyards nestled against the hills, since burning, after all, was only for devilish fiends, or wizards, or poor souls with the plague. … The professor stepped out on the terrace. Down below, the shoreline was lit with a score of reddish glows, ringed round with billows of smoke. He opened his binoculars and trained them on the highest of the piles, flaming neatly along like a wooden tower, loaded with corpses from bottom to top. The soldiers had stacked it with care, first a layer of wood, then a layer of flesh, and so on all the way up. At least some trace of respect for death seemed to show in its tidy construction. Then all at once, down it crashed, still burning, nothing now but a loathsome mass, like a heap of smoking rubble along the public way. And no one troubled to build the nice neat tower again. Bulldozers rolled up, driven by men in diving suits, then other machines fitted with great jointed claws and shovels, pushing the bodies together into soft, slimy mounds, scooping a load in the air and pouring it onto the fire, as arms and legs and heads, and even whole cadavers overflowed around them and fell to the ground. It was then that the professor saw the first soldier turn and run, calling to mind yet another cliché, arms and legs flapping like a puppet on a string, in perfect pantomime of unbridled panic. The young man had dropped the corpse he was dragging. He had wildly thrown down his helmet and mask, ripped off his safety gloves. Then, hands clutched to temples, he dashed off, zigzag, like a terrified jackrabbit, into the ring of darkness beyond the burning pile. Five
Camp of the Saints 4
minutes more, and ten other soldiers had done the same. The professor closed his binoculars. He understood. That scorn of a people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest—none of that had ever filled these youngsters’ addled brains, or at least so little that the monstrous cancer implanted in the Western conscience had quashed it in no time at all. In their case it wasn’t a matter of tender heart, but a morbid, contagious excess of sentiment, most interesting to find in the flesh and observe, at last, in action. The real men of heart would be toiling that night, and nobody else. Just a moment before, as the nice young man was running away, old Calguès had turned his glasses briefly on a figure that looked like some uniformed giant, standing at the foot of the burning pile, legs spread, and hurling up each corpse passed over to him, one by one, with a powerful, rhythmic fling, like a stoker of yesteryear deep belowdecks, feeding his boiler with shovelfuls of coal. Perhaps he too was pained at the sight, but if so, his pain didn’t leave much room for pity. In fact, he probably didn’t think of it at all, convinced that now, finally, the human race no longer formed one great fraternal whole—as the popes, philosophers, intellects, politicos, and priests of the West had been claiming for much too long. Unless, that is, the old professor, watching “the stoker” and his calm resolve—the one he called “the stoker” was really Colonel Dragases, the chief of staff, up front to set his men an example—was simply ascribing to him his own ideas. … That night, love too was not of one mind. Man never has really loved humanity all of a piece—all its races, its peoples, its religions— but only those creatures he feels are his kin, a part of his clan, no matter how vast. As far as the rest are concerned, he forces himself, and lets the world force him. And then, when he does, when the damage is done, he himself falls apart. In this curious war taking shape, those who loved themselves best were the ones who would triumph. How many would they be, next morning, still joyously standing their ground on the beach, as the hideous army slipped down by the thousands, down into the water, for the onslaught by the living, in the wake of their dead? Joyously! That was what mattered the most. A moment before, as he watched “the stoker,” the professor had thought he could see him move his lips, wide open, as if he were singing. Yes, by God, singing! If even just the two of them could stand there and sing, perhaps they could wake up the rest from their deathly sleep. … But no other sound came rising from the shore, no sound but the soft, foreboding chant welling up out of eight hundred thousand throats. “Pretty cool, man, huh!” exclaimed a voice in the shadows.