The World at Night

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Authors: Alan Furst
cement. A squad of gunners lay on the dirt floor and tried to sleep, staring curiously at Casson and the others when they arrived. There were four embrasures, narrow firing slits cut horizontally into the wall. Meneval set up his camera at the far end of the blockhouse, wound the crank and inserted a new roll of film. The sergeant in charge handed Casson a pair of binoculars and said, “Have a look.”
    Casson stared out at the river.
    “They tried twice, yesterday. A little way east of here. But they weren’t serious. It was just to see what we did.”
    A field telephone rang and the sergeant went to answer it. “Fifteen seventy-two,” he said, a map reference. “It’s quiet. We’ve got the moviemakers with us.” He listened a moment, then laughed. “If she shows up here I’ll let you know.”
    A three-quarter moon. Casson made a slow sweep of the far bank of the Meuse, woods and a meadow in brilliant ashen light. He could hear crickets and frogs, the distant rumble of artillery. Thunder on a summer night, he thought. When it’s going to storm but it never does.
    Degrave was standing next to him, with his own binoculars. “Do you know François Chambery?” he asked.
    “I don’t think so.”
    “My cousin. He’s also in entertainment—a pianist.”
    “He performs in Paris?”
    “He tries.”
    Casson waited but that was all. “Where are you from, Captain?”
    “The Anjou.”
    Casson moved the binoculars across the trees. The leaves rustled, nothing else moved. In the foreground, the river seemed phosphorescent in the moonlight. To the west, the artillery duel intensified. It wasn’t thunder anymore, it sounded angry and violent, the detonations sharp amid the echoes rolling off the hillsides. “They’re working now,” somebody said in the darkness.
    As Casson swept his binoculars across the forest, something moved. He tightened the focus until he could see tree trunks and leafy branches. Suddenly, a deer leaped from the edge of the woods, followed by another, then several more. They were colorless in the moonlight, bounding down the meadow to the bank of the river, then veering away into a grove of birch trees.
    “What is it?” the sergeant said.
    “Deer. Something chased them out of the woods.”
    The moon fading, the light turning toward dawn shadow. Casson was tired, ran a hand across his face. In the woods, a heavy engine came to life. It sounded like a tractor on a construction site—plenty of gas fed into it on a chilly morning. Then, others. Behind Casson the soldiers grumbled and got to their feet. There were three Hotchkiss guns aimed out the embrasures. The crews got busy, working bolts, snapping clips into the magazines. Casson could smell the gun oil.
    One of the tanks broke cover, just the front end of the deck and the snout of the cannon. “Leave him alone,” the sergeant said.
    The French guns stayed silent. Meneval ran off a few seconds of film—they wouldn’t get much, Casson thought, not for another hour. The blockhouse was quiet, Casson could hear the men breathing. The tank reversed, disappeared into the forest. Was it over, Casson wondered. The soldier next to him, gripping the handles of a machine gun, said under his breath, “And . . . now.”
    It was a close guess—only a few seconds off. A whistle blew, the Germans came out of the forest. The German tanks fired—orange flashes in the trees—and French antitank cannon fired back from the other blockhouses. The German infantry yelled and cheered, hundreds of them, running down the meadow carrying rubber boats and paddles. Clearly it was something they’d drilled at endlessly—it was synchronized, rehearsed. It reminded Casson of the news footage of gymnastic youth; throwing balls in the air or waving ribbons in time to music. Casson could hear the officers shouting, encouraging the soldiers. Some of the men reached the bank of the river and held the boats so their comrades could climb in.
    The Hotchkiss guns

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