"Well?" Jean Valette asked in a drawl. "Well, so when's it going to happen, then, the end of the war? When will it come?"
"Soon," Luc Giraud said slowly. "A war like this can't last long."
"Why not?" Jean Valette asked.
"Because five hundred thousand young men," Luc Giraud said, syllable by syllable, "five hundred thousand . . . well, that gets about in the country. Because half a million young men over there means a whole mass of French families are affected by the war. Ask your sister."
"Yes," Colette chipped in. "Five hundred thousand young men over there means hundreds of thousands of mothers and wives and sisters and girlfriends fearing for their sons, husbands, brothers, and lovers. And that gets around in the country."
"Well then," Jean Valette said, "you mean that the more we are over there, the more it gets around over here?"
"In one sense you are right," Luc Giraud said. "It's dialectical. The more the war affects the masses, the nearer we are to peace."
"So tell me, then," Jean Valette said in a louder voice, "how many million soldiers do we need over there to make the masses move?"
"Jean!" Madame Valette said.
"No," Luc Giraud responded calmly, "that is not what I said."
"He's doing it on purpose," Colette said.
"What am I supposed to be doing on purpose?"
"Contradicting. Contradicting just for the sake of it."
"I'm just asking a question."
"An anti-Party question!"
"Colette, cool down," Luc Giraud ordered. "Let him speak for himself."
There was a pause, and then Jean Valette asked in an uncharacteristically tentative voice, "Luc, explain what you meant . . . You have to explain . . . you have to . . . "
You could feel he was trying hard to hold something back, but you couldn't tell, as his face was hidden by shadow, if he was on the brink of tears or of an angry outburst.
Another pause. For the first time Luc Giraud seemed uncertain.
"It's for you to explain yourself," he said at last, gravely, almost solemnly.
"I think what Jean meant to say . . . " M. Valette broke in softly.
"No," Luc Giraud cut him off. "It's for him to speak, if he wants to."
Jean Valette said nothing. He had his head in his hands and was looking down.
"But what is this all about?" Lachaume asked eventually. He did not understand what was going on.
Luc Giraud, to whom the question was addressed, raised his hand as if calling a meeting to order. Then, after allowing Jean Valette another moment for his last chance, he shrugged his arms as if to say, "I give up," and smiled at Lachaume. In fact, he looked relieved, and Lachaume guessed he had as much to do with Giraud's relief as did tongue-tied Jean Valette. In his mind all these little puzzles were somehow connected to the "proposal" that Luc Giraud was going to make to him. Lachaume was still thinking, seeing and listening to everything exclusively in the light of that "proposal." All through the long and frequent pauses in that tense and awkward conversation, and when nothing had caught his eye through the window, the thought of the coming "proposal" had made his heart beat faster.