They got out of the carriage back in Saigon, without really knowing why, still singing as they walked along.
"It's good," broke in Torral as he interrupted a wonderfully obscene refrain," it's a good thing to not know where you are. Civilized men can play wise men during the day and then carouse like madmen during the night. You need a bit of both in life."
He belted out a new couplet. Not for Torral modern psychological literature: the meaning of this one was all too clear to everyone involved...
In their state of mind their promenade had a very clear destination, the neighborhood where Torral lived. But they wandered around and got lost, much to their surprise, and after their long trek they found themselves in the middle of Catinat street, completely deserted at this time of night. Mevil was the first to notice the error.
"Damn," he said. "This isn't where we were going. But what do I care! I live right next door and I'm going home, what I need right now is my bed!"
"You're drunk," Torral stated. "We're not leaving you. All of you, follow me."
He took the lead of their little band, but instead of going down the street to Mévil's house he went the other way. A cat was startled by their commotion and bounded out from the shadows in a doorway, brushing up against Hélène who let out a piercing shriek. Fierce, taking up the rear, hurled his cane at the fleeing creature, striking it in the back. The cat rolled, the spine broken, and Mévil finished it off with a kick. Then he took it by the tail, twirled it around, and speculated aloud about the size of its circumference as it spun. But they were arriving in front of the cathedral now, and stopped, absolutely stunned that they weren't at all where they had thought they were.
"The lord's house!? This one is too narrow!" exclaimed Torral, furious at what seemed like a joke played on them by the universe.
He wound up the cat's cadavre and threw it as hard as he could at the church. Feeling better afterwards, he got his bearings back and set off this time in the opposite direction - the others following like always, without objections. None of them looked back behind them to see the sombre, disdainful spires of the church be swallowed up once more by the night.
This time, they reached the right door. The rest of the city was still asleep but here red light spilled out from the open windows and doors of every house, loud drunk laughter seeping out from all around them. Torral, triumphant with his pathfinding, launched into a speech about being an itchiban guide - guide numero uno - and that now they had free reign to the world of delights, all they had to say was open sesame! Fierce, more taciturn as the night air intensified his drunkenness, obligingly responded and called for Japanese girls. They invaded the little white house, with the air of a rustic villa, and loudly seated themselves in the middle of a circle of little girls, doll-like, draped with robes decorated with blossoming flowers, who laughed with little smiles, politely, decently.
Fierce was well acquainted with Japanese girls and chose the prettiest one among them, following her into a room which was so clean that he felt he had to take off his shoes at the door, which the Japanese girl thanked him for his respectable courtesy like a gentleman back in Japan. They started to talk, and she listened very seriously, attentive as she tried to understand his thick voice, keeping her painted lips carefully arranged in her respectful and reserved smile.
He spoke Japanese well, and she gave appreciate looks. She told him her name: Otake-san, Mademoiselle Bamboo, which he heard as Otaki-san, Mademoiselle Spring, and that brought her to tears of laughter. She also told him her age: 13. She hoped that he didn't find her too young, since she knew that in Europe the women waited until they were old to no longer be "pure like the very pure Fousi- San*." But he told her that he had come to come to like Chinese girls as young as 10 at Hong Kong, and that she seemed by contrast like a big girl. She went to her knees and made a few motions - well, it's more that he made the motions, and she tried her best to imitate them, sweetly, an obedient young girl - until the moment when his gests became such that she started to imagine abominable things and protested indignantly. But he just laughed back loudly, and swore to her that he didn't take her "for a Frenchwoman." She allowed some natural if a bit naughty games after that, and even made an effort to put on, if not an exaggerated and unrealistic passion, at least a tasteful indifference, without irony.
When they both went back to the big room, there was chaos. Mévil had given himself over to the passion of his baroque fantasies, and was even more drunk thanks to a glass of peppermint spirits that he had just finished, was frenziedly trying to have sex with the poor Hélène Liseron, dazed and crying, and a gaggle of Japanese women who were equal parts scandalized and shocked: Fierce separated them, even though he was starting to stagger around himself and see two Otaké-san instead of one. They left finally. Torral, bored with the Japanese, was waiting for them at the door, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk. He stood up and the rest of them followed him. His drink had been dry champagne and thanks to that he was the only one of them who was still able to find his way.
At the end of a dark street, they found a hut made out of worm-eaten wood and rotten straw - seedier and more tragic than any melodramatic hostel - and whose door, propped up on two sticks had the look of being closed on a murder. It was easy to think that it was, because when you came inside, it really did seem like it, with the naked dirt floor was carpeted with lifeless body. Only drunken, not dead, thankfully.
Right and left, there were little tiny houses, sheds really, fronted with slatted windows. The rooms for love, because a pigsty like this had a fondness for that. Drunk women were the rage here, sprawled out across the ground, and at first you didn't distinguish them from the rest, in the hazy and smoky light cast by the solitary oil lamp, always threatening to flicker out, but soon enough you realized they were women, some pretty and others old, ugly, but not too much, and more experienced. They all drunk the rice alcohol, playing with the servants, older boys even if they were still prepubescent, adding to the repugnant attraction of the place.
For the moment, it held another merit, even if this wasn't part of the normal repertoire. On the ground, seated against the wall, there was a man - a Westerner, a Frenchman. He laughed with little hiccups, like how a hen clucks. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke opium, there was no woman or boy next to him. No - he just watched, straight ahead, with his lifeless eyes. It was the only place in the entire world where he felt ok. He just looked and laughed stupidly.
They, the Civilized, recognized him when they entered, recognize as one of their own. because his name was Claude Rochet, and he had been the most fearsome pamphleteer in the entire colony. Many a governor had tremble before his pen. Today he was old - 40 years old! - worn out, empty, ended, stupid. He was still nevertheless one of the three or four masters of Saigon and Hanoi, thanks to the power of the newspapers which he still controlled. He had boasted his entire life, and he still boasted, in his last clear moments, that he had neither god, nor master, nor law to rule him.
Ah! He had lived well! According to the formula of being without prejudices, without rules, without superstitions, just following his fantasy, any of his desires. And today even, old and with a foot in the grave, or the hospital at least, he still had his courage and the passion of old days: he still knew how to seek out his pleasure where he find it, even in a hovel - here! Torral, passing by, paid his dues to the man. Then, he went into one of the glorified kennels, calling over two boys with his finger who ran over, and he didn't come out afterwards.
Hélène Liseron, too drunk and too exhausted, was sleeping against the shoulder of her lover. Mévil had stayed at the door. A rickshaw pusher called from the street. Mechanically; he turned around, and left to go home with his singer love, forgetting Fierce.
Fierce remained alone, standing in the middle of the swirling cesspool. Four girls hung off his clothing, tugging him to their mats.
He didn't think about anything, couldn't think clearly. But nevertheless an idea floated up in his mind, in the shipwreck of his brain - a stupid idea, but tenacious like a migraine. This Rochet; give or take ten years ago, had certainly been a young, intelligent, proud man - funny how it had come to this now!
Rochet giggled and drooled. Fierce shook his shoulders and stammered "pooh!"
He looked over the girls - trolls the lot of them certainly. He said it again "poo!" and chose two of them, the youngest and the oldest. Then he collapsed on the mat, and gathered all of his saliva to command distinctly, commandingly: