Eight days later, Fierce was leaning out the porthole of his cabin one morning.
Nature's capriciousness had given them a gift, and it had rained the night before - a quick, overpowering downpour, something that happened once a month in the middle of the dry season. The air still had a touch of springtime freshness, even if already the burning heat of the day was starting to rise, the burning sun overhead baking the earth. Fierce gazed on the left bank of the Dong Nai River buried under a mess of green, spread out in a wedding cake of layers stacked on top of each other. At the very bottom, arching above the rippling water beneath, there were the reeds, banana trees, the fan palms, pressed together into crazy thick masses, so dense that there wasn't any opening into the shadowy underworld. Above them, reared up magnolias, banyan trees, acacias, tamarinds, interspersed with sheafs of bamboo, a dappled patchwork of colors that faded in and out across the panorama. The soft grey of bamboo, the shining green of the mandarin trees, the metallic brown of the spindle bushes with their round leaves, the parades of flowers that bedecked the leaves, brilliant white petals, yellow flowers, red blossoms above all with the flamboyant poppy red of the crimson hibiscuses. And finally there was the top layer, the palm trees of a dazzling number of types with their long leathy delicate fronds, fantastic and maddeningly intricate silouettes against the shockingly blue sky. The soaring betel nut trees' long palms brushed against fan palms, against the delicqte tendrils of coconut palms groaning under the weight of their fruits - and all of it was high above the forest, in feery-like bouquets strung on the end of stalks, the ethereal long thin white columns of the forest that any Greek temple would have been proud to have.
Beneath the cruiser's porthole, the yellow water lapped against the hull. It streamed past quickly, rushed and troubled, spiriting half-sunk logs, leaves, boards, debris come from far upstream, the mysterious hulks of mysterious Asia. The sun dressed the river with a dazzling light, so brilliant that the little black holes of whirlpools that sucked up anything floating past disappeared.
"Such a beutiful land."
He felt in in good spirits today. Last night he hadn't smoked opium.
It had been a great week. Sooner than he had dared hope, Saigon had welcomed him with open arms. A nice home away from home, some delightful evenings, and what came afterwards... His new home was a simple siesta chamber, big, bare, clean, and with just a single horsehair bed with a mosquito net and a punka ceiling fan that a serving boy blew for him. The windows gave onto a graceful leaning tree whose branches framed the view, studded with flowers. It was located in the old Tuduc quarter, with half-Chinese streets, a bit musty and pungent, filled with little stores and laundries. The cool chamber, freshened by the breeze was easy to sleep in during the torrid hours of the afternoon, infinitely better than the cruiser with the creaking metal that soaked up the heat of the sun, the white paint chipping off and beads of melting tar dripping down the sides. Fierce was spread out naked under the mosquito net, his skin dampened from another shower, daydreaming of his life in Saigon, careful not to move the slightest muscle since any motion sent drops of sweat rolling off him.
He had invited Mévil and Torral out on the town time and time again. For the three of them, every new night was just like that first one. The details changed from one evening to another, but there were always the three themes - women, opium, and alcohol in greater or lesser quantities, with breaks for nighttime strolls in the swarming Chinese city or in the solitude of the sleeping countryside.
And the other part of the act was provided by Hélène Liseron. Not that Fierce really kept her as his official mistress, that would be a laughable obligation. But the two had taken a liking to each other from the first adventure, and the story continued on the sly since. Fierce found that it was a great simplification over the normal complexities of life - it was pleasant to be the second lover of a woman who he could love without any real attachment. And then there were the other spices of life, other exotic sensualities, picking amongst the distractions he found in Cholon, be they Japanese, Annamite, or Chinese.
Hélène had accepted it all readily enough and let herself follow along passively, finding it wonderfully advantageous. Two generous lovers were even better than just one. And what's more, Fierce and Mévil helped take the heat off the other. Hélène loved the two of them, and her primal emotions she felt jealousy from their escapades. It hurt her self-pride and her esteem when she saw the two of them with other women. But Fierce barely tried to hide his Asian liaisons, and Mévil if anything showed off his conquests, so Hélène felt betrayed and spurned and went from one to the other telling each that the other one was her favorite. In fact, Mévil didn't even know that this other lover existed, since Fierce, for Hélène's sake, had kept her secret, and just laughed when she threatened from to time to "spill all the beans." For revenge or just out of a desire to hurt, but what did it matter? A good base, some wonderful dinners, and all of the rest of his fun.
And best of all there was vague sense of satisfaction to have a set goal in life that you were headed for. For many years, Fierce had just lived according to whatever he found pleased him most, and didn't try to go beyond his pleasures of the flesh. But being with Mévil and Torral helped assure him that when you got down to it, there wasn't anything better in the world than that, and that all of the philosophers' ramblings about something more was just an illusion to lead people astray. For him, it was the greatest comfort to just obey that simple civilized saying - the greatest pleasure for the least effort. Simple, clean, clear, almost scientific.
That his friends were just as eager to follow out this cardinal directive was great too. Mévil was a Don Juan and he concentrated above all else on women, and officially he had five mistresses - not that that stopped him from taking any opportunity that life served up. He wasn't picky for sure, and any skirt was enough for him to chase, as long as its wearer was young and pretty enough. An opera singer, a famous lawyer's wife and a real star of local society life, an Annamite servant of his, more of a slave servant than a mistress servant, a Japanese girl from a brothel, summoned every Tuesday for her weekly duties in bed, a young girl of a supposedly good reputation who wasn't quite so pure in private, five different women who would probably have hated each other if they were ever gathered up, from such different walks of life and classes. But they were all doted on, flattered, caressed, even looked down on by the professional lover who found that the saying that at night, all cats are grey was a great piece of wisdom.
Torral was eclectic and he arranged his pleasures according to Epicurean mathematics, boasting that they were the best way to find joy in life. With this in mind, anyone else's opinions were completely worthless in his eyes, and he didn't make any effort to hide his masculine liaisons, parading his servant boy partners Ba and Sao off even during the Inspection (Translator's note: a fashionable evening promenade in the Saigonese countryside) . His own brand of wisdom, married with a daring type of cynicism.
So, Fierce reveled in his Saigonese life, and enjoyed the feeling that his pleasure was well justified.
He gave a last glance at the river hemmed in by the forest. "Saigon truly is a wonderful city."
It was Sunday - January 2nd, and the admiral had just finished with a small lunch of his close circle. Fierce, however much he might be untaken with society duties, had accepted readily enough to come to this one since little Abel was supposed to attend too - the daughter of the Lieutenant-Governor, a gorgeous alabaster statue with eyes befitting a sphinx, and who had taken his fancy from the first time that he had laid eyes on her. A strange girl, he thought, like a well of deep still water that made him want to throw a stone to see what might come to the surface. Besides Abel the governor general, an old friend of the duke d'Orvilliers, and a young ward whose blind and widowed mother had left this world behind, were there at the dinner. Fierce was in the dining room which had already been set out for the dinner, and busied himself arranging the flowers and was working his way through the decorative cloissoné Japanese vaces of the admiral as he filled them with roses and orchids. As he laid out little bouquets on the women's menu he read the calligraphed names, his eye catching on the name of the governor's ward with a hazy memory. Miss Sylva - Sylva? He asked the admiral, who was in his office looking over plans for the coastal batteries.
"What, you don't remember anymore?" cried D'orvilliers. "But it's quite a story!" The admiral jumped into recounting it.
"Miss Sylva is nothing less than the daughter of the famous Colonel Sylva, of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, who fell in battle at El-Arar in one of the most heroic charges of the century." As soon as he had mentioned this perfunctory detail, the question of miss Sylva dropped from Orvilliers mind and he charged into the minute details of the aformentioned battle, telling his aide de camp about the glorious feats of arms ofthat the Chasseurs d'Afrique had accomplilshed in the struggle under the command of Sylva. Fierce had the privilege to learn that the battle involved a brigade which had been betrayed and encircled on the Moroccan border, and that the brigade had been miraculously saved by two squadrons which had been sent off on a recossance missions, and which everyone had thought had already been destroyed. Colonel Sylva commanded these squadrons. Himself encircled in the middle of the rebellious province, he had managed to give his enemies the slip at great effort, and riding three three days and nights through waves of enemies, had on the evening of the third day day appeared triumphantly behind the Moroccans who were already convinced of their triumph and pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. But at the height of his triumph he was riddled with sword cuts from the Moroccans: even as he bled out and his once sky blue dolman had grown purple with his blood, he led his victorious cavalrymen to the French tents, had cried to them - Halt! - and then fallen dead from his saddle.
Fierce, as an artist, admired the image and the splendid dash of colors of the blue and red squadrons whirling and stabbing amidst the brown crowds of burnoos. Then he smiled in pity, and thought of the silliness of it all. What was left from it? Just widows and orphans, pompously titled as the family of heroes, and rewarded with the opportunity to die from hunger amid patriotic proclamations and cheers. He thought of the little Sylva girl, a slip of a woman looking like a profile on a medal, gaunt, praised, crying, and stupid - already a washed up has been at her age. The admiral, his eyes gazing off into a distance only he could see, dreamed about his epics, but the aid de campe, his shoulders shrugged a bit, murmured "poor buggers - and poor little girl!"
As 11 hours was sounding on the ship, the signalmen announced that the governor was boarding, and the officer on watch summoned the honor guard which assembled next to the boarding ladder Fierce climbed down to the bottom of the ladder to offer his hand to the women. In the ship's boat, the polished brash reflected the light of the sun brilliantly, and it was hard to see anything past the dazzle.
Miss Abel - sporting a pink parasol - climbed up second. She still had her mysterious, sphinx like regard. She took the main offered and pressed lightly, her cool artisan fingers hardly unclenched. Fierce admired her delicate wrist that looked for all the world like it was a piece of Saxon porcelain.
The blue parasol dipped and it was miss Sylva's turn to be revealed.
Fierce was struck, because she didn't resemble in the slightest to the image that he had sketched of her in his mind.
Miss Sylva was neither thin, nor brunette, nor timid, but all pink and blonde, with hazel eyes that stood out strikingly when you looked at her, wide and which looked frankly and directly at you.
She jumped onto the ladder without taking the offered hand, athletically, a supple and robust, if thin body. Fierce came up behind her, and on the bridge, offered her his arm. The bugles out in honor for the governor. She stopped as she raised her glance up at the coat of arms of the ship, and Fierce heard her sound out the motto: Sans peur et sans reproche.
He watched her as she walked: she had a pastel teint, a high and noble face, a proud and a bit wicked of a mouth - and with all of that, the pure charm of youth, grace, and sincerity. He was immediately smitten by her, and forgot about miss Abel. That being said, when he saw the two of them in the salon of the poop of the ship, he had to admit that the alabaster sphinx was without a doubt more classically beautiful and there was the enigma of those deep, magnetic eyes. But he was a bit annoyed secretly to admit it, like a sort of personal failing - and he smiled as he looked again with a bit of pride, because even if miss Sylva was less beautiful, she was also prettier, more lively, more womanly, less like the alabaster statue of her companion.
There were seated next to each other at the table. The admiral's dining room was aired by two corner windows which also served as portholes for the rear guns. The guns took up a little bit of space, but they were also a real originality for a woman's eyes, and miss Sylva admired them respectfully: Fierce took the opportunity to provide a few helpful tips about them, and the ice was broken. Miss Sylvia was full of curiosity and didn't try to hide her interest: one after another the wall coverings of spun asbestos, the family dinner service with ducal arms, the Japanese vases and their orchids inspired questions that Fierce would have found childish if they had come from a less pretty asker. But au contraire, he was quite glad to respond, and a back and forth was born between them, quite animated soon enough. Gaiety befitted Mss Sylvia very well, and she had a wonderfully pretty little laugh. Fierce tried his best to find any way he could to have this charming laugh peal out, and the young woman thought the gregarious attitude amusing herself.
They chatted. Fierce didn't know anything about young maidens, and in any case he didn't really believe that they still existed. The creatures called that that he had met here and there throughout his voyages, or during his stays back in France, and in the four Parisian salons where he put in an appearance from time to time, had left him some bad memories. They were just rough drafts of what a woman would be, but even more depraved and less genuine than real women were. He appreciated their prettiness, like delicate little toys, a bit insipid perhaps and not fully finished, watched them first with pleasure, but then quickly learned to detest them as soon as they opened their mouth. But miss Sylvya by contrast with all of these crowds of scorned maidens, seemed to be genuinely frank, genuine, and candid, a delightful young woman in the real sense of the word. He was surprised and pleased, however much he had been a bit suspicious at first of her candor and openness
"I'm lucky" said miss Sylva gaily, "that until this morn I had thought that something would mess up and that this wonderful lunch would have just stayed in my dreams only."
"Thanks for the lunch then," said Fierce with a laugh. "So, you really did want to come, miss, to come be locked up with the rest of us in our cage?"
"To start, it's beautiful, this cage of yours... it's a gem of a dining room, so simple at yet so well fitted out for an important person..."
"And here you are now!"
"Mocking me now, how naughty! But yes, I really did want to come aboard the Bayard. It's famous, all of Saigon only talks about it, the newspapers are full of you. And a military breakfast, what a party for a young girl!"
"I still play with dolls.. hush! You can't say anything! But I do so love ships, sailors, all of it..."
Fierce held back a smile.
"You like sailors? Why do you like them?"
"Because...." Miss Sylva thought for a second. "Because they're not men like the others."
"No... they're not like other men these days... soldiers are a bit like them too Sailors travel the world, they travel to fight anywhere, they don't worry about the country or their enemies. And they don't worry about money because they'll make their fortunes if they want, but they're fine without it. They want to remain soldiers or sailors. They're like men from olden days."
Fierce pondered it for a bit.
"And so, that's why I'm glad to be here, after I was so afraid that I wouldn't be able to come after all" said miss Sylva.
Fierce came out of his thoughts."
"Afraid? You seriously mean, miss, that we ran the risk of not having you?"
"I wouldn't have come if mother had been in bad shape..."
"I believe I heard that your mother is rather aged?"
"Not too aged, but weakened, particularly now that the hot season has arrived. She misses me a lot when I'm not there with it: do you know that she's been blind for three years?"
"I heard. Life doesn't seem to be very upbeat around you, does it miss?"
"It does actually! When you meet mother - I'm sure you will, she's an old friend of Mr. Orvilliers - you'll see that it really is impossible to be sad in her company. She's so good and cheerful, so wonderful..."
"You really love her!"
"Oh, yes! I really think that it's impossible to love someone more than I love my mom... Of course, that's normal for a girl. But even if I wasn't her daughter I would still love her and I'd still be happy to live with her..."
"I didn't know that the admiral was a friend of Mrs. Sylva.
"They've known each other for a long time, and then they fell out of touch, but after being extremely close. All of that took place a long time before I was born, it was just now that I met Mr. Orvilliers for the first time! But I already liked him, mom had talked so much about him. I know that he's nice and that he's a good man.
Fierce glanced over at the admiral whose kind eyes were such a contrast with his rough and stern face.
"He is, as you just said, a man from olden days."
"Yes... the olden days were better than today."
"Maybe," said Fierce. "So, miss, you live here in Saigon, almost as a caregiver, and you're happy with your life. You never get bored?"
"Never! I'm actually quite busy, really!"
"That's true, after all you have your doll."
"Shush you! Is that how you protect state secrets that are told you! That could make me look bad if that got out after all - you know I'll be 20 years old next month? Let me be a girl in peace. I'm a mom for giggles, but I'm the real head of the house."
"And as a good housewife, I ask you to believe me when I say it. The house, reading, strolls, that's our whole life, really very full and not boring at all. It's really all so nice the place by the fireplace, even if the fire in a place like here is just a myth!"
"It's a joy," replied Fierce, "that sailors aren't always able to appreciate. But, and perhaps I'm just imagining this - I have the feeling that you don't quite like society?"
"What a notion! Being in charge of the household doesn't get in the way of socializing. I love balls, the evening parties, pretty outfits, uniforms above all else. And I dance like a madwoman. Mister, we'll dancer together in eight days at the governor's palace: my tutor is going to receive you in honor of the Bayard, and I'll reserve the first place in line for you in my notebook."
"Taken, and a thousand thanks. Do you know, miss, that you're a rather eclectic young woman? Your household, society life, uniform, sailors - what else? You seem to like everything, all of it."
"You have to be, alas! When you think about it, life isn't really that funny. You have to liven it up a bit Take for example, there was an ocean liner that brought us here from France four years ago, mom and me: thirty days of sailing, and at first that seemed like such an impossibly long and boring time. But the ocean line was full of such charming people, and we had set about putting together games, talks, dinners, we had danced on the spar deck during the evenings, we performed a comedy after dinner, and by the end of that long voyage had passed like a dream. Life is just like that when you get down to it, a trip on an ocean liner, and you have to liven up the voyage."
"You're quite the philosopher."
"Not at all! I can't stand the minutiae of the debates where they split hairs in four. And I find it stupid and absurd to constantly carp on about the soul, on eternity, on infinity, when you never really arrive at anything worthwhile. It's always my argument with Marthe..."
"Marthe Abel. You didn't know that her name is Marthe. In fact, we've always given each other some little nicknames..."
"I can't say it, it's better if you don't find out," she said with a smile.
"You're a very secretive girl friend.
"Friend.. more or less, but always trustworthy."
"More or less a friend?"
"A comrade. I don't really have any girl friends my age. I really can't stand other girls, it seems that I don't really have good manners, maybe I was brought up badly."
"And why's that, madame?"
"I tell you it's true. Can't you tell already? I'm always the one who is on the outside looking in, the pariah, the leper. Maratha can tolerate me, well enough at least, but then we don't always have the same ideas..."
"Oh well, for example, she is into philosophy. She reasons, she speculates, she reads these giant German books, full of their astounding theories, she doesn't go to mass, she's an atheist, it really shocks me horribly."
Fierce looked curiously at the strange girl who so looked like a sphinx. Miss Abel hardly talked, just watched and listened. Her black eyes were deep like lakes, and their orbits shone placidly set into her alabaster face framed by a blue-tinted head scarf. It was impossible to gaze into those eyes, to try to discover the thoughts which lay at the bottom of the still black water. "Myself," said miss Sylvia, "I don't read Schopenhauer and I go to confession."
Fierce returned his gaze to the pretty young blonde with eyes the color of hazle, who still played with her dolls.
"The catechism is enough for you?"
"You're very faithful?"
"Not entirely: I don't spend my whole life in church. But I'm a good catholic, I observe it;"
Fierce didn't raise his shoulders, and she went on.
"You have to be religious, mister, all sailors are. And what's more, you have to be crazy to deny the eixstence of god. But above all, I believe than an atheist woman is a type of monster. Atheism isn't elegant, and I think it should be reserved for old men, for grumpy bachelors, for maniacs, idiots, bald and shaky men..."
"Absolutely," said Fierce who didn't try to whole back his laughter. "But that's an old theory that you're repeating there, miss. Have you read Musset?
"Somewhat. Madam had marked out lots of pages for me, and since, I've never wanted to read thoem. I was waiting for marriage."
"That'll come quickly."
"I don't think so, believe me. I am very happy these days, and I don't think I could be any more than I am."
They talked closely, looking at each other and smiling, without any hidden motives. A friendship started to grow. Miss Sylvia prattled and confided in him. Fierce listened and didn't dare to interrupt. She treated her partner like an old comrade, a close companion in flesh and soul, almost like a companion of thought, faith, ideals, who had to share her thoughts, her ideals, her faith, and Fierce realized she was suffered under an illusion to the actual truth, but he didn't dare to sweep aside the curtains of the deception. Sometimes, between her sentences, he reproached his silence and the lie it gave. He wanted to be honest, actually, just to go ahead and say "I'm not what you believe. I don't have anything in the heart or in the head that you could possibly love or understand. And if you managed to gaze into my soul, it would shock you. I'm cynical, I'm skeptical, I don't worship anything, I don't believe in good nor evil, in god nor the devil. I've travelled everywhere and all it has done is led me back where I started. You're spilling this all out to me thanks to my uniform, because you think I have this whole lot of archaic virtues that don't describe me in the slightest and that I scorn. And the only belief that I do have is the cult of shameless truth and that would horrify you more than any blasphemy. There's nothing in common between me and you."
But he didn't say a word of that, because he didn't have the courage, and it was the third time now that the Japanese maître d'hotel was bringing out a full plate for him. From the end of the table, the admiral smiled at his aide de camp.
"My dear governor, let me bring to your Excellence's attention an official complaint, our dear Fierce is forgetting to eat so he can better court your charming ward."
"He's wrong," declared the governor. "You can't court miss Sélysette: miss Sélysette isn't a young girl, she's a tomboy, and I would dare Don Juan himself to be able to see that she wears a skirt.
Miss Sylva protested and laughed. Fierce saw her turn all pink, her blood rushing quick and red under her fair pale skin. He imagined that yesteryear, it was something that would spring out of a fairy tale, stepping forth from the an enchanted castle...
"Your name is Sélysette? It's a pretty and original name.
"Too original! But my father loved this name love, and even though I have three or four others to choose from, I'll only ever call myself the one that he gave me."
Fierce started to dream again, and he didn't even find it crazy that there was the paradox that he, the civilized man, the friend of Mévil and Torral, the friend of Hochet, was here falling for this pretty young woman with her simple, primitive ideas.
They got up from the table. In the salon, Fierce abandoned his neighbor to offer tasses of tea - a green from from Sichuqn, in little Satzuma Japanese cups without handles. The governor, a talented speaker who looked back fondly on his days in the Chambre in the French parliament - he was there before and doubtless he'd be there again - started to expound on the colony's mores, both the natives' and the imported ones.
"The Chinese is a thief and the Japanese a killer, and the Annamite is both at once. That said, I have to admit that the three races have virtues that Europe doesn't have, and civilizations that are more advanced than our Western civilizations. So it would behoove us all, masters of these people who should be our masters, to at least outdo them in our social respectability. It would be better if we were the colonizers, and not murderers or thieves. But that's a utopia."
Curiously, the admiral launched a protest. The governor doubled down.
"A utopia. I won't repeat it for you, my dear admiral, all of these stupid humanitarian ideals that we trot out every time about our colonial conquests. I'm not putting aspersions on the colonies, it's the colonizers I'm talking about, our French colonizers, who really are a worse grade of people."
"Why's that?" someone asked.
"Because, and everyone in France thinks this, the colonies have the reputation of being the playground and the last refuge of scoundrels of every class and have had their run in with the law. Because of course, the metropole keeps for herself, very carefully, any recruits that are worth anything and only sends out the dregs to us. So we have the misfits and the useless people, scroungers and thieves. Those who come here to work in Indochina were the lazy do nothings in France, the businessmen come from bankruptcies, those in charge of the educated Mandarins just have a middle school education, and those who sit and deliver justice were once in the guilty bench. With that being said, it's hardly surprising that here the Westerner tends to be morally inferior to the Asian, just like he is intellectually in every country.
Lieutenant-Governor Abel spoke up next, his gentle and ironic voice contrasting with his rigid juridic face that seemed like it could never curl itself up in a smile.
"Mr. Governor, I might risk speaking up against my specialty - to speak against our colonial project - I want to add an annecedote to what you just said. Do you know Portalière?"
"Portalière, the chancellor residing in Tonkin?"
"The very one. Do you know his story?"
"I know that he's an incompetent. Dubois, the old minister, and sent us him as a gift last year."
"Yes. And look how that's turned out, I can't think of anything that says more about how our colonial personnel are recruited. Portalière used to be a journalist, and he dealt with all the petty small town news in a miserable little journal that survived off blackmail."
"Dying from poverty..."
"What a shame that he didn't!"
"God doesn't want for sinners to die. Portalière, on his last legs, had the wondrous fortune to encounter that renowned woman Madame Dupont, the wife of the former Keeper of the Seals. Do you know about Madame Dupont?"
"So you do know her. Portalière isn't lacking for stupidity nor for enough..."
"He's a very colonial type."
"And for that reason, women love him. The rest goes without saying. One day, out of the blue, Portalière was given a nice little sinecure, in Paris of course. Things went on well enough for a few months. Then Madame Dupont traded him out for another journalist, and found another body to fill the "job" she had arranged. Portalière was left out to dry, and kept harping on ungratefully and started coming close to making threats."
"And of course, there was always his old newspaper if he needed it."
"Probably. Mr. Dupont couldn't stand the brouhaha, and so he decided to come up with a polite way to send the old fellow out to a nice exile out of the way. The Pavillion de Flore where the Ministry of Colonies is isn't too far from the Place Vendôme, and Dupont went off to find Dubois and their conversation was like this. "I have an idiot I need to get rid of. Do you have somewhere to squirrel him away in? As far away as possible please." "Good lord!" Dubois had responded, "bring me the idiot right away!" They had towed along Portalière who started boasting about himself and what he could do. "What do you know?" asked Dubois . "A little bit of everything." "So that means you don't know anything. Are you a bachelor?" "No." "Perfect. I'm offering you a place as a senior civil servant in the Indochinese civil service. That'll work for you, I hope?" "Not really, is that the best you can do? A senior civil servant!"
Quite dripping with disdain from Mr. Portalière I heard, so Dupont had pushed ahead to try to convince him.
"It puts you off that much? It's actually quite the steal! Do you want to earn 6,000 francs in a beautiful and healthy country?" "Huh, where's that?" "Annam." "Is Annam in Africa?" "Yes." A tiny giggle from the assembled crowd. "Hmm... Six thousand. I can hardly say no. Six thousand starting out? What position will I have exactly?" "You'll be a chancellor in residence." Portalière perked up then and there. "Chancelier?" he cried. "I'll accept it then! That means something like Bismarck right?"
But the governor looked more pained than humorous about it.
"It's always like that. Those are our people for colonial service - rotten and completely ignorant. They're constantly filled with delusions of going off and playing at being Napoleon. They show up in Saigon with a bad track record already, when they aren't crazy, and then the culture and the hard climate just makes things even worse. They trample all of our principles, they compete to make us look as bad as possible in front of the natives. They're one up on the royalists of 1815: they've forgotten everything, and they still haven't learned anything. As far as I'm concerned they're just human waste. For the rest of us we'd be better off if they really were just that.
"Isn't that a bit harsh to say?"
"Not at all! These lands in the colonies have been cleared and plowed by the footsteps of all of the races which mingle in them, and it really would be better for some good waste to be deposited like fertilizer, all of these old prejudices and bad mores rotting away and producing a bountiful harvest for future civilizations instead."
In a corner of the room, Fierce had a palm frond trimmed with scales and was fanning miss Sylva as she drank her tea. When he heard the word civilization, he raised his head. The governor was finishing his tirade.
"That being said, I admit that among this detestable mass of colonials, there are a few better sorts. They've flourished in the climate, they've become the shining lights of the civilization that's to come. They live on the edge of our stodgy life, they've forsaken our fantasies and beliefs, and if they obey the penal code, I think it's really just out of good sport. It wasn't possible for such men to be born anywhere else than Indochina, since you don't get this mixture of old any new in any other country. There's the mix of Aryan, Chinese, and Malaysian ways of thought that all jar a bit with each other, the corruption of society that's undermined our European morality, the torrid humidity of Saigon, where the burning sun melts everything beneath, dissipates energy, beliefs, even the line dividing good and bad! They're men who are centuries ahead of us in the trend of civilization. It's us who are the barbarians. "
The soft voice of the Lieutenant-Governor capped it. "Better to count ourselves among the latter then."
Miss Abel, who knew all about Saigon's life, and hardly an idiot even if she was quiet, chimed in next. "Yes, it's not necessarily good to either be ahead of or behind the times..."
At the other hand of the room, a bronze plaze was rivited on the wall. Admiral d'Orvilliers was leaning up against it.
"I I don't understand any of it," he said. "However, ;ook here at a barbarian who's much better to my eyes than your civilized men."
He read the inscription engraved upon the plaque.
"IN THE MEMORY
OF VICE ADMIRAL COURBET
COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF THE EAST ASIA SQUADRON
DIED HERE ILLUSTRIOUSLY
HIS BODY TO BE RETURNED TO A MOURNING FRANCE
Thuan-An, Son-Tay, Fuchow, Kelung, Shuozhou, Pescadores,
Miss Sylva got up and paced over to the epitaph. She reread it quietly, then reverently looked up at d'Orviliers to ask him about it, the sort of reverence you might have found in the first of the faithful who kneeled in front of the Holy Table.
"Did he die here?"
"No," said Orvilliers. He died on another Bayard, one that's been decommissioned these days. But what does it matter! Old men like me still believe in ghosts, and I believe that in the hull of this new Bayard there's still the soul of the old. And maybe, who knows? Perhaps the soul of the old admiral too..."
"A magnificent admiral," declared the governor politely.
"Yes, an admiral who we don't have the likes of these days - one out of the pages of a book, like the sea wolves once who reigned over the seven seas. A barbarian, to put it bluntly. And not at all a soldier like you find today, not a civilized man, the very opposite."
He went on. "It's a matter of taste. If you want, my dear governor, you can prefer your men of tomorrow, but I for myself prefer their ancestors. It's due to mage. Doubtless, those ancestors weren't as refined, they were even a little bit savage. They were simple men, they still had their primal instincts, the brutalities, but also sincerity. They weren't subtle and they weren't duplicitous, they couldn't stand disloyalty and opposition and they were uncomplicated in their pride, scorning the rest of the world. Their dream was to fight, and for them the highest honor was to be a soldier.
And what great soldiers they were! Again, not at all like the soldiers that you find today. There were worthless as writers, as musicians, as artists. But if you found them on the battlefield, the enemy was afraid of them. They were almost all incorrigible rabble, and they made short thrift of law and decency. But when the time came, they were willing to die for these laws and ideals that they scorned so much.
That type of person is gone now, their race has vanished from the earth. For better or worse, perhaps you prefer the second. It was a barbarian race, which clashed badly with our modern world. But it was a beautiful and glorious once, a breed of soldiers! Now, we don't have any more soldiers. I had the pleasure to know the last of them, Courbet, Sylva..."
He grew quiet suddenly, since miss Sylva was at his side, and he had forgotten about her in the passion of his speech. But Slyva was impassive, even if she was a bit pale. Fierce didn't take his eyes off her and all he saw a tremor in the corner of her proud, determined mouth and her fingers clenched around her handkerchief.
The governor, doubtful but politely, objected.
"No more soldiers like them? But consider, my dear admiral, that today the question of right and law is more than ever a question of force, parliaments and popular majorities make it so. Thus today soldiers are more necessary than they'fe ever been. I'll agree that soldiers today aren't like those from yesteryear anymore, as you say there are writers, artists, and philosophers among them. But does that really mean that they're worse soldiers?"
"Mr. Orvilliers made a face under his thick mustache.
"In a way, yes," he replied.
And then he gave a gallic shrug and went on. "In fact, you're right. You have to be optimist. And the new generations aren't entirely lost.
He took three paces forward and laid his hand on Fierce's shoulder.
"Look here for example! Look at this boy, he had a nurse, he writes verses and he composes stanzas, he has all of those vices I talked about. But still, don't be fooled by this baby face that puts on a show of innocence - I know that when the time comes, my Fierce, without doubt, will prove my trust in him right."
Fierce, impassively and a bit put on the spot, didn't stir. He respectfully flashed an ironic smile of acceptance. It wasn't the first time that he had had to accept praise from his little-bit-too proud leader. Sometimes it was hard to take them without shrinking inside, but he always was able to take it quietly, out of a sort of tolerant pity for Mr. Orvilier. Not that he would ever think of publicly scorning this Middle Ages fanaticism from the man! But why did he have to insist on doing this?
Still he raised up his eyes and found that, looking right at him, there was Sélysette staring at him with admiration. She had taken the intense flattery for real! Fierce cut out from heroic cloth for her...
And Fierce, quietly, without really knowing why, felt hot with shame.
It was 1:30 now. The guests were taking their break, the intolerable heat of the day having called for a siesta. They had brought their umbrellas along with them, and miss Sylva, in a charming motion, was patting her hair frizzled by the breeze of the pankas back into place.
"You need a mirror?" asked Fierce.
He led er to his cabin, close by to them, and sat her down in front of the big full length mirror on the wardrobe draped with its grey velvet. Sylva thought it was lovely.
"You have such a lovely cabin! I love the silks and the muslins that you have! And all of your books are so nicely bound and presented! They're for young girls? Can I take a peek?"
"Please don't," said Fierce with a laugh.
"Ah, so that's for when I'm married. Your room is such a little oasis, it's wonderful! But..."
"Don't you find that it's a bit morose, over time, to be surrounded by all of these grey colors?"
Fierce smiled. "You don't like sad things, miss?"
"Not really... and above all I've found that there's enough sadness in life anyway, without having to go and make more of it. Sir, if you were wise, you send all of this away to a dyer, and they'd send you it back colored like the sky."
"The color of your eyes."
"Silly man! My eyes are green!"
She shrugged, in her usual direct way, and held out her still ungloved hand to him.
"Goodbye, and thank you very much."
He took her hand, a dainty little thing but surprisingly firm, with a blunt grip that didn't hide its strength or dangle. And seized by a sudden impulse, he bent down to it and started to raise it to his lips.
It's not big of a deal to plant a kiss on the fingers of a young woman. Even still, with a discrete budge, she refused it - a quiet refusal, but firmly. You don't touch miss Sylva.
Who knows? The missed kiss for Fierce, the untasted temptation, would come to be something which would stalk many of his nights and dreams...