Round Trip To ETERNITY
Each man must find out for himself what awaits him on the last long journey. But here’s one man who looked into the limbo and is still baffled by what he saw
I COULD NEITHER move nor speak. My limbs, my tongue, my eyelids refused to obey me and although my eyes were open I perceived nothing but a luminous haze in which bright drops danced like motes in a sunbeam. I realized that I was about to die. But I still could hear.
Round Trip To
Each man must find out for himself what awaits him on the last long journey. But here’s one man who looked into the limbo and is still baffled by what he saw
By ANDRE MAUROIS
I COULD NEITHER move nor speak. My limbs, my tongue, my eyelids refused to obey me and although my eyes were open I perceived nothing but a luminous haze in which bright drops danced like motes in a sunbeam. I realized that I was about to die. But I still could hear. Words came through to me veiled, more whispers than conversation. I recognized voices. I knew that around my bed were grouped Dr. Galtier, our family physician (whose terrier-like bark had somehow been softened), another doctor whose peremptory tone made my overtaut nerves wince, and my wife Donatienne, from whom I heard half-sobs and hesitant questions.
“But you’re absolutely wrong, Doctor,” interposed Donatienne strenuously. “My husband was young. Very young.”
“He felt young, Mrs. Schmidt* but that is the most cruel delusion of all. You, incidentally, should get some sleep. I can assure you he can’t see you any more. If anything should happen the nurse will call you.”
Donatienne’s sob—almost a cry—for an instant opened the curtain and I had the sensation of her eyes, seen at a great distance like beacons on a foggy coast. It lasted a moment only, then even the voices faded out. Suddenly I was alone in a silence so great that it seemed to roar. How much time passed? I have no idea, but when I could stand the boredom no longer I suddenly conceived the mad idea of getting up. I wanted to call the nurse and made several tries. No one came. I shouted (or thought I shouted) “Donatienne!”
My wife did not answer. Continued on page 45
“Is he conscious?” she asked.
“No, Mrs. Schmidt,” the strange doctor replied. “Positively not. He’s not even delirious any more. It’s reached the coma. Just a question of hours—or minutes.”
“Don’t you think,” the scratchy voice of Dr. Galtier ventured, “that perhaps an injection . . .”
“Why put him through it?” said the specialist. “At his age you don’t get over a thing like this. Penicillin was our last hope. It let us down. Now there is nothing more we can do.”
“But don’t you think,” pursued Galtier respectfully, “that the patient’s constitution is a factor fully as important as his age? I went over him a month ago, just before he came down with this pneumonia. He had the heart and the reactions of a young man.”
“On the surface,” said the other. “Superficially it can look like that. But age does tell.”
Round Trip To Eternity
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 25
“I’ll get her,” 1 thought. What made me think that I would be able to stir my emaciated legs, set my feet on the carpet, walk? I only recall that I knew I could and I was right because, in spite of the thick fog which filled my room, I walked without the slightest effort all the way to the cupboard where
my clothes hung. Just before 1 reached it my hand touched my own body and I discovered with some surprise that I was already dressed. I recognized the shaggy overcoat I had bought in Ixmdon for travel in bad weather. Looking down, I discovered that 1 had my shoes on and that 1 was standing not on a floor but on rough paving. In what state of somnambulism had I gone through the motions which pulled me out of bed, dressed me, carried me out of doors? I was too excited to think back. The thing that was positive and wonderful was the fact that 1 wasn’t
dead—not even ill. What town was I in? Paris? The yellowish fog looked more like London. Protecting my face with outstretched hands against unseen objects 1 took a few steps and tried to contact a solid surface. From a distance 1 heard the majestic bellowings of boat whistles. The air seemed sharp and salty, like the ocean. What port was this?
EY THERE, watch your step.” “I’m sorry, 1 can’t see where I’m going.”
The man carried a powerful flash-
light. He turned it on me, then on himself, and I saw that he was in uniform but not the uniform of a French policeman or of an English bohby. It looked more like the tunic of an American pilot. He grasped me, not roughly, by the shoulders and steered me to the left.
“Go straight ahead and you’ll find the field,” he said.
I gathered that he was talking about an airfield. It was odd that he took it for granted that I wanted to go there and that T, for my part, should be making a plane trip so soon after getting up from a serious illness. I simply said “Thanks, officer” and followed his directions.
Was the fog lifting or were my eyes getting used to it? T don’t know, but I began to distinguish other figures. All were going my way. Little by little the crowd increased until finally we formed a kind of procession. We walked quickly because everybody sensed without knowing why (at least that was the way with me) that he ought to get there soon. But it became harder and harder to move forward and the road itself seemed to become narrower.
“Don’t push me,” a woman said. Her voice sounded old.
“I wasn’t pushing you,” I said. “I’m being pushed myself.”
“Then stay in line like the others and take your turn.”
I stopped short, which hurtled my bag (for at that point I was carrying a bag) against the legs of the man behind me. I turned around. The fog was lifting. Clearly I saw the resentful face of a Negro in a pink, open-necked shirt. He was young and handsome.
“Pardon me, sir,” he said acidly, sarcastically, with a stage bow. “Pardon my black legs which knocked against your white suitcase.”
“You know I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Excuse me, sir,” he said with overlarge, derisive gestures. “Excuse me. It won’t happen again.”
Ahead of me now was a great column of people—several thousand travelers. In the distance loomed buildings, an observation tower, hangars. Far away I heard motors turning over. Sirens called repeatedly. A freshening wind swept low, dramatic clouds in front of it, tearing them open from time to time.
From this point on we moved extremely slowly. The woman ahead of me turned round and I noticed that she had grey hair wrapped around her head and Irish eyes that were soft and beautiful. She was not angry with me any more and even smiled. She seemed to say, “This is unpleasant but you and I are the right kind and can take it.” After an hour in line she began to waver.
“I got up so early,” she said, “I’m absolutely exhausted.”
“Sit on my suitcase,” I said.
As I set it down it struck me as being extraordinarily light.
“Good Lord,” I said, “I’ve forgotten my fountain pen and slippers.”
I left her and rushed back to the town. Why did I hurry so? Who was waiting for me? I didn’t know the answers.
JUST HOW did I find my way through that strange town? How was it that I occupied a room in a small hotel near the harbor? Streetcars passed under my window with a grinding sound, electric signs winked alternately bright and dark. I discovered my fountain pen on a table, my slippers under the bed. I threw them into my bag along with books and papers, a razor, a dressing gown, and rushed out again. A monster bus drew up alongside a quay patrolled by military and
shore police, each man with a revolver tucked into his white leather belt. I jumped into the bus. Eventually it deposited me at the extreme end of a long pink and grey column of humanity drawn up in front of the airport grille.
Once again I underwent the torment of moving up step by step. When, after two hours, I got within range of the wicket I discovered why the approach had been so slow. The field could only be reached through a narrow opening manned by a gatekeeper so that, over the last hundred yards, what had been a column of people was spun out single file. Finally even these frittered down to six persons. At long last I could see the face of the gatekeeper, an incorruptible kind of bull-man such as every big company can use. Three, two. One. It was my turn. I stood alone in front of the bull-man.
“What line?” he asked.
“You mean there is more than one?”
“Of course,” he said patiently. “The
Catholic Line. The Anglican Line. The Presbyterian Line. The Baptist* Line The Mormon Line.”
“Do your lines correspond to confessionals?”
“Hurry up,” he said. “What line?” “Look,” I said, “supposing the passenger has no religion. Have you no Agnostic Line?”
“Yes,” he said, taken aback, “but I don’t recommend it to you. It’s a small line which is brand-new and badly organized. You’ll only have trouble on it. If you really want to play down the confessional angle, try the Unitarian Line. It’s clean, modern, well-kept.” The crowd behind me began to murmur. “Some people,” observed a little old man, “like to chatter at the ticket window and keep the whole world waiting on their pleasure.”
I flushed and said to the gatekeeper. “I’ll travel Unitarian.”
“Main Building, Wing S. Next.”
AS THE gatekeeper had told me, the jf\_Unitarian Line seemed comfortable and well-run. An atmosphere of efficiency emanated from its polished wood counters, filing cabinets full of posters borne by multi-colored riders, maps on which tiny plane models were pinned, Cubist signs which reiterated “Travel Unitarian,” and beautiful girls in black uniforms who welcomed the travelers. One of them came over to me and asked, “Have you your exit - visa?”
“No. What visa? I didn’t know.” She sighed, then said painstakingly, “You must see Mr. Frazer.”
Mr. Frazer, a vigorous fellow dressed in black, put me in mind of one of those athletic chaplains you meet in American universities. Though his cordiality was professional, it also seemed authentic.
“We are happy—very happy—to have you with us,” he said. “Our clients are our friends, our friends are our clients. More and more intellectual people are traveling Unitarian.”
“That, of course, is what l want to do,” I said, “but this young lady has asked for my exit visa.”
“You can’tleave without it. You certainly can’t. Get your exit visa straightened out and we’ll do the rest.” “But where do I apply for it? What’s my next move?”
Just then the buzzer sounded on his desk. “Excuse me for a moment please,”
new world. I’m tired. Let me rest If I still harbor feelings that are too intense, let me rid myself of them through absence or through the passage of time. Don’t throw me out into the dark.”
Mr. Franck’s heavy eyes, underscored by puffy circles, gazed into mine pityingly. With an odd. rocking gesture he depressed his lower lip with his pencil.
“What you need,” he said in learned tones, “is a transit visa for Limbo. But unfortunately that’s not up to me.” “Then who does it depend on?”
“On the CCC. The Commission of Coma and Catalepsy.”
“Good, good. Where do they hang out?”
“It’s a small, isolated building situated near the southeast corner of the field.” He looked at his watch. “But you’ll never get there before it: closes.”
“So what should I do?”
“Co back to town and come back tomorrow.”
“I haven’t the strength.”
“Yes, you have; yes, you have. You just think that. It can last ten days, twenty days. Next.”
THUS l found myself in a sad, marshy country doubly invaded by fog and night. Once again I groped along, almost feeling my way toward the exit, wandering among ghosts. Again a clanging streetcar bore me to my overheated room where winking electric signs and the roar of trains kept me sleepless. Dawn was a nightmare, humid and suffocating. At its first signs I took up my bag and dragged myself toward the held. By arriving at this inhuman hour, I had hoped to be one of the first to go through. But others had evidently had the same thought and the line was longer than ever. When finally, after three hours, I arrived at the entrance I said to the gatekeeper in the voice of an old hand at the game, “You’ve seen me before.” “What line?” he said.
He let me through. I now had to find the CCC office. “Southeast corner of the field,” Franck had said. 1 took my bearings as best 1 could. The sun was veiled but a faint, diffused glow indicated its probable direction. I crossed spongy flats where un prosperous reeds grew past stunted trees where slimy things crawled. Finally I saw a lonestanding building of red brick upon which three letters stood out in white: CCC. The pavilion was small, mediocre, administration-minded, rather like a department of public works office in a coastal town. With new despair 1 saw that even in this out-of-the-way corner a great number of applicants were already lined up at the entrance. Many of them were children. Some were crying.
I shall not describe this new period of waiting, for 1 had lost all ability to complain or suffer. When my turn came 1 found myself sitting at a small table facing a young girl in a blue-grey uniform. She was not beautiful or even pretty. Her hair was arranged without attempt to please. But as she dealt wil h the man ahead of me I was struck by her speed and competence. T his, at least, was not one of those bureaucrats who take pleasure in building up the negative aspects of a situation.
“You say you have seen Mr. Franck? Did he give you something for me?” “Yes, here it is.”
“Hm. I see. In other words you’re asking for a temporary entry permit. How long do you think it will take you to . . . we won’t say forget, but to unbind this tie? Twenty years? Thirty years?”
“1 don’t know,” I said. “At my age ...”
“You have no age any more. Ten years perhaps?”
.Swiftly she filled in a form, made me sign it, steered me toward an old man who was seated in the centre of the hall.
“Mr. Commissioner,” she said, “this is a Temporary from Mr. Franck. His papers are in order.” The man signed without reading, affixed a stamp and a date.
“Now hurry to Mr. Franck,” the girl said in a friendly way. “It’s three I o’clock already and the office closes at four.
“Run,” she said, but I could hardly move my aching legs. Outside I saw that the mist was thicker than ever. Soon I lost my way, stumbled into a I clump of reeds and fell full length. I got up covered with mud, shaking all over,
I and so unnerved that it took me several I hours to find Building B. It was closed.
“You must go hack to town and return tomorrow,” the porter said.
But I was so exhausted that, under I cover of fog and darkness, I slipped behind a building where I spent the night in a tuft of weeds under a cart. I woke up shivering, crippled with pain. For the first time since the beginning of this lamentable pilgrimage the sun was shining. It seemed very high and I looked at my watch. It was past twelve o’clock. Presumably I had not dozed off until dawn and had overslept. I hastily regained the front of the building and saw a line of men and women so long that the guards had had to divide it up into sections.
Followed the interminable wait, the snail-like advance, the torture of hearing the hours strike. One. Two. The halt at the elevator. Three. Four. No hope. The return to town, the infernal night, the morning expedition, the delay at the gate, the wait in front of Building B. At last, the slow advance down the hall of the thirty-fourth floor. 3451. 3452. 3453. 3454. Slow progress from armchair to armchair. “Next.” At long last I re-entered the office of Mr. Franck.
“So it’s you,” he said. “Have you that visa?”
“Yes,” I said collapsing into a chair. “Yes. Here it is.”
He looked at it, first benevolent and gratified, then more attentively and with displeasure.
“But why didn’t you come yesterday?” he asked. “This visa’s not valid any more.”
“What do you mean, not valid?” “The CCC visas are only good for twenty-four hours. Why? Search me; it’s the rule. Run quick to their office and ask to have it extended. They’ll grant that right away.”
At this, rage seized me. I saw in my mind’s eye the marshes, the mud, the distances, the senseless delays. Regardless of the imposing setting, fearless of the twenty-odd people who could hear me from the anteroom I shouted frantically “That’s enough! Yes, I’ve had enough of being shunted from office to office, from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, from visa to visa. You’ve made a fool of me once too often. I’ve been through enough. Enough! Enough! Enough! If it’s that hard I don’t want to go any more!”
I pounded my fist on Mr. Franck’s table. He looked alarmed and rightly so, as I had literally gone crazy with rage.
“I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”
Franck called his secretary. They seized me by the shoulders and expelled me from his office. Two guards, attracted by the commotion, hurried up, took charge of me and threw me out of the building. Free, I began to run across country shouting “I don’t want to go!”
Travelers gathered around me. Some tried to reason with me, but I refused to listen. “I don’t want to go!”
I hurled myself toward an unexpected clear spot. The wind suddenly became lighter and salty. Two beacons pierced the gloom. From what coast did they shine? Far away I heard the sound of the sea.
“I don’t want to go any more.”
The beacons drew closer. Were they fires? Or eyes? They were eyes—the tender, agonized eyes of my wife Donatienne.
“I don’t want to go any more,”% I told her more faintly.
DOCTOR,” she said, “he said something.”
“Then he’s saved,” came the scratchy voice of Dr. Galtier.
The last filaments of mist clung to the curtains. Familiar outlines of furniture stood out clearly against the new-found light. On the walls, the colors of paintings glowed again and near me, almost in my eyes, shone the eyes of Donatienne, moist, proud, infinitely tender. ★