For two whole days Machefer went back on his vow of silence. The first day, two pages, in spare, straightforward prose, but crammed full of facts and precise detail, with the headline: “Frenchmen, Don’t Be Fooled! The Truth About São Tomé. Eyewitness Account of the Duc d’Uras The old duke had been a subscriber to La Pensée Nationale since the year one. Back from the trip only twenty-four hours, he came bursting into Machefer’s office, with a fistful of all the morning papers, and the evening editions from the day before. “It’s a scandal!” he shouted, shaking with excitement. “What are they trying to do to us? I’ve never in all my life seen anything so distorted! Or so clever! They make it sound true, but they’ve twisted it all around. I had to read it twice before I saw through it. Why, I was on the Malta boat myself. I was even in command … It’s ‘Captain d’Uras,’ you know. Retired … And what do I read? That my pilot lost control and almost ran us into their lead ship, and that they barely swerved out of our way in time! Why, that’s preposterous! That wasn’t it at all, it was just the other way around! I wasn’t dreaming, I know what I saw! The India Star was heading straight for us, with that goddamn dwarf, wiggling and squirming on the bridge, and all those other characters on deck, staring down on us with murder in their eyes! … And what about the knives, and the fists? How come nobody mentions the knives? … Bring the poor souls to their senses, my foot! I saw those ‘poor souls,’ and I’ll tell you, I couldn’t believe my eyes! They hate us, plain and simple … And that poison nonsense! Really, what do the papers take us for? Why, not one of us even came close to getting a dialogue started. Anyone who tried to set foot on board wound up in the water, before they could open their mouth, tossed over like boxes. I told them all that on São Tomé, but no one would listen. ‘You’re tired, Monsieur d’Uras. Why don’t you go lie down?’ That’s the answer I got! … I knew one of the Dominicans in the Vatican group. He was my wife’s confessor back when I was naval attaché in Rome. A crafty little padre if ever there was one. Sly as a fox, with a name like a lamb: Fra Muttone. He’s come a long way since then! … Well, you know what he told me? ‘This is God’s way of testing our charity’! That’s what he said! ‘The divine scheme is clear. It’s all or nothing. We can’t stop halfway. We have to do our Christian duty. Of course,’ he went on, ‘there are some who might not understand. So we’d better keep certain things quiet, things that might seem unpleasant, but that God put before us to help us deserve salvation …’ How do you like that for twisting things around! I was flabbergasted. Next morning, before he left, he gave us all a little sermon on the subject, and if you ask me, everyone swallowed it whole. Divine scheme indeed! You wonder who on earth—or beyond—put an idea like that in his head! … Anyway, I began to see the light. But there was still one piece of the puzzle missing. And then, yesterday morning, at the airport at Roissy, I took Fra Muttone aside, and I said to him, ‘Just one thing, Father. How about that nice little present you almost got hit on the head with? That naked corpse, I mean. The white man with the long blond beard?’ That shook him up a little. I knew what I was talking about, too. I’ve still got my midshipman’s eyes, and a first-rate pair of binoculars to boot! … Well, he pulled himself together. ‘You must have been seeing things, Monsieur d’Uras! There was nothing of the sort, I assure you.’ Just like that! With a wide-eyed, innocent look that would put a choirboy to shame. So I said, ‘Do you swear to that?’ I was sure that would get him, but no such luck! ‘Monsieur d’Uras,’ he answered, ‘I’m willing to forgive your whims. At your age you have the right. Yes, of course I swear.’ And that’s how it ended. But I saw that corpse a second time, Monsieur Machefer. That night, way down at the end of the beach. They were burying it. Muttone mumbled something, blessed the grave, and they all ran off as fast as they could. I went over to take a look. It was pretty well hidden. I have no stomach for that sort of thing, so I said a little prayer and left. … And in case you’re wondering what I was doing there so late, it’s very simple. I was taking myself a quiet little pee. At my age I get up a lot at night. … Anyway, that gave me the missing piece: it was plain that the padre was lying through his teeth, Dominican or no! Since then I’ve been putting all kinds of strange things together. With so many priests going off the deep end, and taking us with them, how many are just plain liars, I wonder? Monsieur Machefer, I’m afraid!”

“All right, kiddies!” said Machefer to his youthful crew. “I want you to take down Monsieur d’Uras’s story. Ask him anything you like. That’s what he’s here for. And give me a good straight text, no frills. We’ll print up a hundred thousand copies. “A hundred thousand!” exclaimed the press foreman of La Grenouille, a short while later. “How are you going to pay for it? You know my orders.”

“In advance!” Machefer replied. And he took a roll of bills from his pocket.

The hundred thousand copies were sold, hawked through the streets by newsboys, the way they used to be, back when. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning. Machefer took heart. The next day the second installment appeared. This time with a bombshell headline:

“White Strangled on Calcutta Star, Thrown Overboard. Racism Seen as Motive!”

Fifteen minutes later, the presses of La Grenouille rolled to a halt. Machefer went down to see why.

“Well, what’s the matter? Why have you stopped?”

“I’m sorry, Monsieur Machefer,” the foreman told him. “The men are on strike.”

“On strike? Really?”

And he went from one to the other, looking each one in the eye. Not one of them moved, not one said a word.

“You’re only hurting yourselves, can’t you get that through your heads? Didn’t you read my article? Don’t you understand?”

“We’re on strike,” the foreman repeated. “I’m sorry, but you know our union rules.”

“Your union? That’s a good one! Your union is downstairs in the boss’s office, right?”

“We’re on strike,” he echoed. “Period. That’s it. Don’t complain, you’ve got your ten thousand copies, same as always. What more do you want?”

“And tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? Same thing. Our local took a vote. We’ll print you ten thousand copies. One more, and we go out on strike.” “But that’s a political strike,” Machefer protested. “You can’t do that!”

“Political? Not at all! Your rag always ran ten thousand, and that was just fine with us. But we won’t go overtime, that’s all.

Overtime is slavery. The slavery of the proletariat.”

“I can’t tell,” Machefer replied, “if you’re all a gang of bastards, or just stupid assholes!”

He shrugged his shoulders, and added as he left: “Just assholes I guess! Too bad!”

A few moments later, he was upstairs, talking to his crew. “Well, kiddies, that’s that! It was too good to last. We surfaced too soon, and they mowed us down like a bunch of schoolboys! We should have held back until the last minute. I’ve said so since the beginning. I never should have gone ahead with it. Now they’ve practically shut us up. We’ll have to look for another printer, if there is one around that’s not a union shop. In the meantime, until Gibraltar, we proceed as usual. Run this headline tomorrow: ‘Only 4,000 Kilometers to the Moment of Truth!’”

That could be one explanation This time, the beast let loose with a roar, and strode boldly out of its lair for all to see. The country echoed to its every growl:

“Senile Old Man Tells Story …” “Those Maltese Clowns …” “Aristocrats Fight to Preserve Race Supremacy …” “Exclusive Interview with Fra Muttone …” “ Archbishop of Paris Chides Duc d’Uras …” “Peaceful Demonstration at Order of Malta Headquarters The same day, the string of petitions began, calling on the public to “welcome the Ganges armada,” with thousands of signatures, collected by hundreds of committees, from the Council of Christian Mothers and the Gay Liberation Alliance, to the Union of Former Draft Resisters, through movements of every stripe and persuasion —intellectual, political, and religious. And heading the lists, all the most familiar names of that petition-happy mob who, for years, had been sapping the conscience of the Western World. “Useless!” they had thought. “What good does it do!” Oh really? Drop by drop, the painless poison does its job, until, in the end, it kills …

On Saturday morning, the day before Easter, as the Ganges fleet approached the coast of France, about to run aground that night, the press was still printing those lists. Funny, when you stop and think, that most of those last-minute signers—ears glued to the radio, sitting at home behind double-locked doors, or crowding the escape routes in their cars, if they lived down south—had the same revelation, one simple, terrifying phrase, ringing like a deathknell in their brain: “If I only knew…”

Posthumous signers, in a sense. At death’s door, done in by their own last will and testament.


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