Monsieur Rose
by Irène Némirovsky
(Narrated by Bridget Paterson)

 

“Well,” thought Monsieur Rose, “I’ll get even with him tomorrow.”

Tomorrow … where would he be tomorrow? He knew there was an airfield not far away, and an army camp a bit farther on. Even farther away there were railway lines, bridges, and large factories. It would soon be dark. Every section of the road hid dangers. He had heard that Rouen was burning. What would have happened to his house? He had left it only that morning and was still quite close to it, yet perhaps it was now nothing more than ashes? Strangely, however, as the hours went by he thought less and less about what he had left behind. If he had lost everything, so be it! He still had his life. His life would be saved. At times like this the future shrinks with dizzying speed. He no longer thought about next year or next month but only about today, tonight, the next hour. He looked for nothing beyond that. He was hungry and thirsty; all he wanted was a bit of bread and a glass of water. To think that it had not occurred to him to bring any provisions! He had thought of everything else. He had locked up the house; filed away letters and business documents; remembered his dress clothes, razors, and stiff collars; but he had nothing to eat. Robert wasn’t coming back. And the house looked uninhabited. Had they all fled?

Robert appeared and said simply, “There’s nobody there. No one’s answering the door.”

“We’ll try a bit further on, as soon as we see a house.”

For a long time they were forced to wait where they were. At last the line of cars began to move. Monsieur Rose tapped on the window. “Here, I can see a light.”

Robert got out of the car. Monsieur Rose drummed the “March of the Little Wooden Soldiers” on his knee. The minutes passed. Robert came back empty-handed.

“There’s nothing.”

“What do you mean, nothing? There are people living there.”

“They’re packing.”

“But they must have a bit of bread left, or cheese, or pâté, at least something to eat?”

“Nothing,” said Robert again. “Monsieur must realize, with all the traffic there is on this road … we’ll get nothing to eat until tomorrow … or next week. If Monsieur doesn’t believe me, he can go and look for himself.”

Monsieur Rose was already getting out of the car.

“I certainly will. You’re too tactless, my boy. I’m sure you talked to them rudely and disagreeably—as you so often do. People aren’t savages, for God’s sake! You don’t refuse to give a bit of bread to your neighbor and anyway,” he finished angrily, “I’m not asking for charity!”

He made his way with difficulty through the cars trapped bumper to bumper. Their headlights were off; people’s heads were tilted back, as their eyes anxiously followed a shadow flitting from one star to another. Was it a cloud or an enemy plane?

He thought he could hear the noise of an engine, but it was just the constant, muffled sound of the crowd, which was rising into the sky: footsteps, voices, bicycles being wheeled over stones on the road, the stifled, gasping breaths of thousands of people, and the occasional cries of children. Monsieur Rose walked away from this with a feeling of relief, as if waking from a nightmare. It seemed to him that he had been miraculously transported back several centuries and that he had become part of one of the great human migrations of the past; he felt horror-struck and ashamed. Rather more quickly than he would normally have done, he walked up the path to the farm. Robert had not been lying. In the main room he saw two women weeping as they threw household linen into an unfolded blanket. An old woman stood at the door, ready to flee, two children in her arms and two more clinging to her skirt. The kitchen cupboard was open and empty.

“There’s nothing, monsieur, I’m sorry. We have nothing left. Look, we only have a little dry sausage left for ourselves, and some milk for the children. That’s all. We’re leaving now.”

Monsieur Rose apologized and retraced his steps.

“I’m going to have trouble finding Robert,” he thought, as from the top of the slope, he watched the black stream winding slowly on.

All the cars looked the same with their mattresses fixed to the roof. His car had probably moved on a bit. He could no longer tell which was his. He walked on and called out, “Robert! Robert!”

At first his voice was strong and forceful, then it became anxious, then frightened, then shaky and pleading. No one replied. Robert had abandoned him; he had gone with the car, the trunks, the silver, and the clothes.

“Bastard! Thief!” howled Monsieur Rose, losing his head.

He ran, stumbling along the top of the bank, looking for he knew not what—an inspector, a local policeman, someone he could complain to, who would protect him. But there was no one. Everyone was fleeing and no one was interested in him.

Finally, out of breath, Monsieur Rose collapsed onto the grass. As he clutched his chest, his hand touched his wallet and he felt calmer. It was as if he had rediscovered solid ground: he felt anchored and strong, ready to take his place in the world again.

“This has simply been a difficult night to get through. I’ll report Robert first thing in the morning and he’ll be locked up. There’s no question of him getting across the border. And if he stays in France, I’ll be able to find him.”

All he had to do now was to get to a town or a village. But how? Everywhere he looked the road was packed with cars, trucks, three-wheelers, motor bicycles with sidecars, and carts, all inching slowly forward; the parcels, boxes, prams, and bicycles piled on top of them looked like rickety scaffolding towers. There was nowhere to sit, nothing to hold on to. No. There was no room for Monsieur Rose! And the crowd of pedestrians was already sweeping him along.

“Well then, dammit, I’ll walk!” he said out loud.

“Has your car been pinched, monsieur?” asked a young man walking beside him. “It’s my bike that’s gone.”

At first Monsieur Rose did not answer. Normally he did not talk to strangers. He looked at the young man, who must have been sixteen or seventeen but was so well-built, sturdy, and tall that Monsieur Rose thought to himself, “He could be useful.”

Was this a throwback to former times, when the only things that mattered were strong muscles and hard fists? The young man could, after all, help Monsieur Rose as they walked; he could find him something to eat, or somewhere to stay.

Monsieur Rose said, eventually, “Yes, my driver thought it a good joke to abandon me. But what about you?”

“Oh, someone asked me to lend a hand repairing a flat tire. I left my bike in a ditch and when I went back it was gone. Luckily I’ve got a good pair of legs.”

“Yes, that is lucky. Have you come a long way?”

“From my school, fifty kilometers away. We were all sent home. I was supposed to go with one of the teachers. But in the end it was such chaos that I never found him. We were bombed, so I left.”

“What about your family?”

“They’re in the country, near Tours.”

“Are you planning to join them?”

“In theory, yes … I set off hoping to do so, but I have to tell you, monsieur, that I’ve changed my mind now. I’m seventeen. I could serve my country. As I said to my father at the beginning of the war, now people must make a choice between leading a heroic life or an easy one.”

“That choice has already been made for me,” muttered Monsieur Rose bitterly, as he stumbled over the stones in the road.

The young man smiled.

“Of course, at your age, monsieur, it’s hard. But I thought I’d join up. I know there’s a camp near Orléans. I’ll enlist; every man ought to fight.”

“What’s your name, young man?” asked Monsieur Rose.

“Marc. Marc Beaumont.”

“Do you live in Paris?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

They went on in silence for a while. They walked for hour after hour. It seemed impossible for the crowd to get any bigger, but from every track and every crossroads shadows appeared, joining the first wave of refugees and walking beside them in silence. People did not talk much; no one complained, no one cried or shouted; everyone instinctively saved their breath for walking. Monsieur Rose’s painful feet could hardly carry him.

“Lean on me, monsieur, don’t worry, I’m strong,” the boy said. “You’ve had enough.”

“I need to rest …”

“If you’d like to …”

They tumbled into a ditch and instantly the young man fell asleep. But Monsieur Rose was at an age when exhaustion overstimulates the mind and drives sleep away. He lay quite still, occasionally covering his eyes with his hands.

“What a nightmare,” he said mechanically. “What a nightmare …”

THE JUNE NIGHT was soon over. In the morning they set off again. There was no food to be had, and nowhere to stay. People slept in the fields, by the side of the road, or in the woods. After forty-eight hours, with his grimy shirt, crumpled suit, and dusty shoes, Monsieur Rose—who had not washed or shaved for two days—looked like a tramp.

“I suppose we’ll carry on like this, on foot, until we reach Tours,” Marc Beaumont said.

Monsieur Rose protested sharply, “On foot! We’re not traveling on foot! That’s ridiculous! You mustn’t give in to the deplorable habit of overdramatizing the situation, my boy. Later you’ll be able to tell your children, ‘During the great exodus of 1940 I walked from Normandy to Tours.’ In fact, you will have walked for part of the way, but for some of it you will have traveled in a truck or a car, or even on a bicycle, and so on and so forth. You should realize that there’s no such thing as pure tragedy; there are always varying degrees of it.” As he spoke, Monsieur Rose fell and then got up again, for his swollen knees were making it increasingly difficult for him to walk.

In fact, toward evening they were picked up by a passing truck. Some women who had been evacuated from a Parisian factory were sheltering under its wet tarpaulin. It was raining; the hastily erected cover let in water, which trickled down the women’s necks. They had brought folding stools with them, on which they sat motionless, hunching their backs against the rain, guarding parcels at their feet and children on their laps. Monsieur Rose and Marc Beaumont were allocated a stool between them, and an umbrella that fell open and swung about at every jolt in the road. After a few hours they had to give up their places to some children who were picked up from the edge of a field. Fortunately it had stopped raining. They carried on walking, slept again, found some eggs in an abandoned farm, which they swallowed raw, and dragged themselves on. In a village some soldiers gave them food and told them to leave at once, as there was going to be fighting. They would not allow Marc to join them. “It’s not men we need, sonny, it’s equipment.” Monsieur Rose and Marc set off again.

Marc, at least, was able to sleep. As soon as he lay down on the ground, he was dead to the world. But Monsieur Rose found only brief moments of rest and oblivion between nightmares. He looked at his companion closely. The child had something of poor Lucie Maillard about him. He had even asked Marc about his mother’s name, somehow imagining that there might be a family link between them. But there was nothing. Nothing linked the living teenager and the dead girl, other than the feeling their youth aroused in Monsieur Rose. Marc provoked an irritable and affectionate pity in him, just as Lucie once had. He was forever ready to carry a child, pick up a parcel, or give away his meager share of food whenever he found any. On the fifth day he lost his watch. Monsieur Rose jeered at him, “Well, of course, if you will run into the woods looking for some woman’s bag … If at least she had been pretty … but that old hag … That’s how you let your bicycle be stolen. You’re always going to be robbed in life.”

“Oh, monsieur!” said Marc. “I won’t be the only one.”

He laughed. He could laugh still: he was even thinner, he was pale and hungry, yet he laughed.

“What does it matter, monsieur?”

“A bicycle might have saved your life.”

“Oh, I’ll get out of this somehow!”

“Of course you will, of course … I hope I will, too. Although I can’t imagine what state I’ll be in!”

THINGS BECAME MORE and more nightmarish. None of the restaurants, hotels, or private houses had a single spare room left, not even a bed or a square meter of space on the floor, and none could offer even a crust of bread. When they reached Chartres, the refugees were given soup at the gate of a barracks, and Monsieur Rose wept for joy when he was given his helping.

They continued south, toward the Loire. It seemed as if they would never get there. One night there was a shout of “run for your life!” and several bombs fell. Marc and Monsieur Rose were lying on the ground, in the shelter of a little wall; Monsieur Rose was scrabbling at the earth with his nails, as if he wanted to hide underneath it. Then he felt Marc’s hand on his shoulder, a firm, gentle, but still childlike hand, which patted him shyly and affectionately: it was as if he were a new boy in the playground being reassured.

The plane went away. No one had been hurt, but a house could be seen burning in the distance. In a low voice, Monsieur Rose said, “This is too much. It’s too much for me. I can’t face it.”

“We’ll be fine, though, you’ll see,” said Marc, trying to laugh.

“But you’re seventeen! You’re not afraid of death. You don’t love life at seventeen! I want to save my life, don’t you see? I may be poor, old, and weak, the world may be in ruins, but I still want to live.”

They set off again. Monsieur Rose didn’t talk anymore. They were getting nearer the Loire. They didn’t know how long they had been walking. There was a second air raid. They were in a little group of refugees, huddled together: the instinct that makes a herd of animals gather together in a storm drew them close to one another. Marc sheltered Monsieur Rose with his body. He was injured but Monsieur Rose was unharmed. He bandaged his young companion as best he could and they went on walking. At last the bridges of the Loire were in sight.

Suddenly, Monsieur Rose collapsed.

“I can’t walk any further. It’s impossible. I’d rather die here.”

“I can’t carry on either,” said Marc.

His wound was bleeding and he stumbled at every step. Both of them, the old man and the boy, stayed where they were, in a heap by the side of the road, watching the Loire glinting in the sunshine and the flood of refugees going past. Monsieur Rose felt calm, indifferent, detached from everything, from his possessions, from his life. Then, suddenly galvanized, he stood up. Someone was shouting. Someone was calling his name: “Monsieur Rose! Is that you, Monsieur Rose?”

He saw a face he knew at a car window. He could not put a name to it; it seemed to belong to another world. Whether it was a friend or a distant relation, a colleague or an enemy, what did it matter? It was a man with a car. Overloaded, of course, full of parcels, women, and children like all the others, but at least it was a car.

“Do you have room for me?” he called out. “My car was stolen. I’ve been walking since Rouen. I can’t go another step. For pity’s sake, take me!”

Inside the car they consulted one another. A woman cried out, “Impossible!”

Another woman said, “They’re going to blow up the bridges over the Loire. They won’t be able to get across.”

She leaned toward Monsieur Rose, saying, “Get in. I’ve no idea how, but just get in.”

Monsieur Rose moved toward the car and was about to climb in when he remembered Marc. “Make room for this young man, too …”

“Out of the question, my poor friend.”

“I won’t leave him,” said Monsieur Rose.

He was so tired that his voice sounded faint and distant to his own ears, as if it were someone else’s.

“Is he a relation of yours?”

“No. Never mind. He’s injured. I can’t abandon him.”

“We don’t have room.”

At that moment someone shouted, “The bridges! The bridges are going to go up!”

The car accelerated away. Monsieur Rose closed his eyes. It was over; he had lost his life. Why? For this child who meant nothing to him? He heard the voice of a woman beside him shouting, “There are people on it! People! There are cars!”

In the frightful chaos and confusion the bridge had been blown up too soon; so, too, had the refugees’ cars, including the one that Monsieur Rose had refused to get into.

Pale and trembling, he fell down next to Marc, barely realizing that his life had just been restored to him.