Torral's smoke spiraled darkly into the air, the wide shutters on the window keeping out the early afternoon 2 o'clock sun. Only the opium lamp lit up the ceiling, and the spirals of brown smoke rolled heavily in the air heady with the smell of the drug. The silence of the slight rasping of the pipes alternated with silence. Torral smoked, his serving boys drowsing at his feel.
It was the torrid hour of mindless, dreamless, siestas. Saigon slept, and the murderous sun had free reign over the empty streets. Only smokers still stirred within their shuttered dens, and the thread of their thoughts, miraculously liberated by the opium, travelled beyond the physical world, stretching out to untouched reaches, the welcoming and clear regions that Zhuang Zhou once wanted to open up for his disciples.
Torral lay on his left side, with his right hand holding the needle to the lamp, as he prepared his sixth pipe of opium. He was propped up on Cambodian pillows, filled with fresh rice straw, his disheveled pajamas baring his browned torso, too narrow for his large head - a torso both robust and yet also scrawny, the torso of a civilized man who tirelessly worked to refine his god given intelligence, and contemptuously threw his body into debauchery. He started to smoke his sixth pipe.
He inhaled all of the black smoke without needing to take a breath, choosing to suffocate rather than to yield it up. His head was cradled by a pillow and his body flexed luxuriously against the softness, all of his senses drinking in the world around him. The hot smell of the drug filled his nostrils, and the smoky lamp intoxicated his leaden eyes, the light breathing of the sleeping boys as delightful as any violin's exquisite thrumming in his ears.
Outside, far away in a street as silent and deserted as the Sahara, footsteps sounded - a sound that no one other than an opium smoker could have heard at first. Torral listened curiously to the man who approached - a man, since the footsteps were heavy and unrushed - the sharpened perceptions of the smoker coming into play. The man stopped, then started to walk again: when the heel struck the pavement's stone, Torral felt the hesitation which had seized the walker, forced to cross the street and to abandon the cool shade of the trees. The footsteps stopped in front of the door, and when a single door rapped on the door, Torral recognized Fierce, even if Fierce had never come knocking during these hours of heatstroke.
Torral's kicked the pile of sleeping brown bodies at his feet. The boys stretched apart and disentangled themselves. They were like little sleeping bronze statues. Sao got up, the opium swelling his red eyes. He looked for his white cotton caï-hao, thrown into a corner for the siesta, when Fierce impatiently knocked again. So the boy ran, completely naked, to go to open the door, only arranging his long hair under the black turban.
Fierce entered, discarded his hat, and sat down, silently.
"What?" asked the smoker.
He stretched out to the right of the lamp. Torral arranged another pipe and offered him it. Fierce refused with a shake of head, and so Torral started to smoke alone. The two nodded off shortly, the boys dozing off again too.
The walls above and their rice mats started to be hidden by the blanket of smokes, the equations written on the blackboard shining through tendrils of opaque ash, Torral's beloved, inevitable, assured equations of silvery verses.
Four o'clock sounded, and Torral rose. His face and his hands were blackened by the sweat of the drug, and he sprinkled some Eau de Cologne and rubbed them to clean himself before handing the flask to Fierce.
"Ten pipes, and two hours of rest after the tenth. You can't go overboard with it."
He took off his pajamas and dressed himself. Fierce had lit a cigarette. Torral sat down with his legs crossed on the only seat around.
"Why did you come to join me for the siesta?"
"They kicked out of home."
Torral waited for an explanation. Fierce put out his cigarette in the opium dish.
"It's a simple story. I flirt from time to time with the girl, who Mévil keeps for the principle. Mévil doesn't know, naturally..."
"Not that it matters."
"But since the end of any thing is good, I wanted to end things with Liseron recently. But there were some problems that popped up.
"It takes two to tango and two to divorce."
"And I'm just one. She's very clingy. It was fun for her to cheat on Mévil with me. I started to come by more rarely, so she visited my home. I started to be absent more, so she waited for me at my door. Yesterday evening, I got so sick of it that I wrote her.
"Clear things up?"
"Not enough. I asked her to never come back, yet, just now, in the middle of the siesta, she burst in out of the blue."
"Like socialism and the bourgeoise."
"That's not funny. I was in pajamas, I was sleeping, I had to get up to let her in."
"She came. The first thing I got was three hundred piastres thrown at me - I had put them into the letter I sent her before - and then, just as quickly, a naked woman in my arms. She came in just a bathrobe."
"And yet you're complaining!"
"I can't stand rapes. I managed to worm my way out the best I could, I put on a vest, and here I am. She was screaming with rage, but that'll pass, I told her that."
He smiled crookedly.
"How fragile is your furniture?" asked Torral.
"I just have an iron bed."
He lit a second cigarette. The clouds of blue smoke rose up to the ceiling, lazily.
"You've been a boor," judged Torral indulgently - the opium was still heavy in his veins, and tempered his regular acidity.
"I've been a bore indeed," conceded Fierce.
He wandered over to look at the black bord with the analyse formulas. Torral pivoted on his seat to follow him with his eyes.
"We haven't seen you for ten days," he broke in suddenly.
"You don't look like it!"
Really, he couldn't look better - his skin was glowing, his eyes fresh, no need for makeup or powder. Torral started to smile.
"Who are you replacing Liseron with?"
"With no one. I'm going to abstain for a while."
"That's great. This evening, I'm going to go to Cholon's cabaret - and in all honesty and on my honor - it's not against your principles. You'll come?"
Fierge reddened even more.
"Unfortunately I've accepted to dine in the city."
"With the Malais."
Torral feigned shock.
"The Malais? You're going by those chic people?"
He burst out laughing and crossed his arms.
"My poor old fellow! Then it's true! They told me but I didn't believe them. You, a civilized man, a soldier of our avant garde, turned into a grotesque mockery - a man of the world! Now you're entangled in women's skirts, tied up in politeness, elegance, snobbery! And skirts which don't even have the excuse of being chasable, bowing and scraping that just gets you the same back, what an empty and meaningless game! And for this barbaric and repulsive stew you spit on the wisdom of our logical and proper - mathematical! - life. It's been ten days since you turned your back on us, ten days that you've abandoned our lovely ideal man - and how what mirage, what idiocy are you running after now? What dishonest swamp are you sinking into, you who were once so sincere! You're crazy or a renegade.
"You're exaggerating," said Fierce.
He'd listened to the tirade without reaction. In front of this philosopher he didn't try to argue, and it made him feel embarrassed and sheepish to hear it. But the new life that he had immersed himself in for the last ten days was too sweet for him to so willingly accept renouncing it. He pleaded:
"I'm living according to your formula. Without effort I've found pleasures that I enjoy. I live how I want, not worrying about anything or anyone. You're the one who told me to!"
"Idiot!" Torral said it without anger, a grimace of pity on his face. "Idiot! Let's not talk about it. Are you in love? That wouldn't be an excuse but at least an explanation..."
Fierce felt defiance surge up inside him. All of these reproaches, all of these insults, he'd take them lying down. But the name of Sélysette Sylva, profaned here, never! In fact... he thought quickly. Why was he angry? When had Sélysette been brought up? He wasn't in love, no more with her than any other woman. He laughed.
"In love! And you?"
Torral peered closely at him. But Fierce wasn't lying - his honesty was glowing in his face. Torral didn't press him further.
"I am going to the Mevils," Torral said as he gathered up his clothes that he had abandonned for the siesta. Will you come?"
Fierce glanced at his watch. "Yes, I have the time."
"Time? What do you have to do?"
"A tennis match."
"With the Malais."
Fierce had stopped blushing now. He wasn't in love - this simple line reassured him and calmed his conscious. He just shrugged when Torral stubbornly said "love, as soon as you stop being in heat, is an intellectual bankruptcy."
They went on feet to see Mévil. Némésis street was awash with Indochinese smells. They took Spain Street at the end, and arrived in a quarter of an hour. The doctor's gate was open, and inside the courtyard with its royal poincianas, the lacquered and silvery rickshaw was waiting for its master.
"Pretty little shack," said Fierce before he went in.
"Charming and siscrete - a trap for women."
Torral admired it as a good painter or mathematician would, his head tilted back, eyes washing over every feature. Mévils house was hidden behind its rampart of trees, and every stage had a veranda overflowing with green vines that resembled a shield, protected from prying eyes. As soon as you got past the gate, the alley turned sharply towards the sloping entryway, and the visitor was hidden by his first steps.
"The temple of love in heat," said Torral. "Inside there are chaise longues for every size of women. The women that you dote on so much at home, be they the Malais or others, have all laid down on those chairs, or will in the future."
"Perhaps," said Fierce, dryly. They went in.
Mévil was alone, his last client gone. His cabinet, which was vast, still somehow managed to appear cozy, from the half-light and the muffled silence inside. The windowed double doors seemed small, through their tulle blinds that the breeze trickled through without raising, the walls hidden under an oversized, too long and too big, muslin which spilled out everywhere in trailing folds. The same muslin draped the rattan love seats and the sofas, and hung in loose tie backs over the two permanently closed doors. The effect of all of the soft purple fabric gave a sense of security and secrecy to the room. It was like it wanted to say that everything that happened between the walls would say here, that actions and words would vanish into the rustling complicity of the hanging fabric. Many a woman came here into this confessional to declare and heal the annoying deterioratingthat almost everyone in Saigon suffered from. Many more, untouched or cured, came to ask for other cures, on the always ready sofas.
Mévil, ensconed in one of the chaise longues, watched his cigarette's embers die out in the ashtry. On the felt mats a congaï, the half-servant, half-wife, Annamite serving girl essential to the household of any European in Indochine, scampered about. Fourteen, with mellow eyes, a long sensual mouth and little hands adept at anything. This girl was pretty, as much as her mixed race could be - the unfortunate clashing of Hindu bronze and Chinese amber, incompatible.
"It's you?" said Mévil without rising, as Torral and Fierce entered.
The girl, affectionally cuddled close to her master, smiled at the friendly visitors, with a frown on her face and a flirtatious dash of her eyes.
When they met, there weren't any cordial social greetings between them. Their friendship was just a union of opinions and intelligence, an association of identical selfishness, happened upon unceremoniously for the easier pursuit of the greatest pleasure. Why bother with silly and false hand shakes?
"A family portrait," snickered Torral watching the girl.
They talked about petty things. Fierce recounted the day's political news - not good tidings, according to old Orvilliers, who kept on prophesizing fire and fury. Military exercises of every sort kept up onboard the Bayard, and the entire squadron was in a constant buzz of warlike tumult.
"Senile trepidation?" asked Torral.
Fierce gave an uncertain shrug. "I thought so at first. Now, I'm not so sure.."
The persistence of worrying signs alarmed him, and even more so the constant movement to concentrate English squadrons across the world's oceans.
"After all, if England was planning to strike us that wouldn't be completely unexpected..." Torral gave an affirmation.
They discussed possible mobilizations, and the batteries which awaited the enemy, on the cliffs of Saint-Jacques cape, and how they would stand up to enemy bombardments.... he started to talk about hiw other worry, the inevitable native revolt that would happen if Malais squeezed too mercilessly on the peasantry for his taxes. When Mévil heard the name Malais, he started.
"About him," interrupted the engineer, "what's going on with you in that house?"
"Nothing," murmured Mévil.
Torral looked at him with squinted eyes, his white lips and his hollow lips. "Are you sick?"
Fierce broke in. "Fatigued at least. Kill a bit of time, come by me."
Mévil smiled, ironically.
"It's been eight days now that Saint Joseph has had a one up on me. Eight days!"
Torral grimaced. "Damn! That's still going on?"
"What is it?" asked Fierce.
Torral snickered. "That's not in your competences, man of the world! Mévil here is in love. But his love, however firm it is, isn't some platonic desire, and he keeps on dreaming about managing to finagle the object of his desires into his bed. Too simple for newfangled mentalities."
Fierce was on the verge of firing back and was raising his shoulders when the door boy entered to speak to the master. Mévil sent him back with a nod of yes.
"It's just Liseron," he said, "her day to come. Poor girl, she'll get it all wrong..."
Torral was hoping for a comedy. Dandily, Mévil smoothed out his jacket. Fierce, thinking about his tennis match, looked worriedly at his watch.
Liseron came in, smiling. Fierce probably was already vanished from her memory, or perhaps she came looking for the instinctive vengeance that spurned women looked for. But it was him that she saw first, and all of her barely forgotten anger came rushing back like lava. She stopped in her tracks. Fierce watched her indifferently. Hurt in her feminine self-image just an hour before, received this indifference like a whip's blow to the face. She leaped forward, pale faced with rage, seized Fierce by the arm, pulled him out of his chair and pointed him face to face with Mévil, gawking with surprise.
"You know! I've slept with him!"
Then, triumphantly avenged, ferociously, she waited for the outburst. Her simple mind foresaw the freight train of raw anger that would come from the cuckolded male. But the hoary passage of civilization had extirpated to the last drop any roots of the bestial thing that is jealousy, and he didn't even respond, just smiled. Liseron let Fierce's arm go, seized by a stupor that masked her rage, while Fierce, quietly, righted himself.
"Exactly the case," he said.
He tried to think of something witty to add on afterwards, but didn't find anything. Mévil arched his eyebrows curiously, finding the scene an amusing charade. Fierce explained. "Once again the tragedy of the Egyptian Putiphar and the stolen cloak..."
"My poor man! harumphed Mévil. "At least take something from last century!"
They laughed in her face, both of the - all three of them. She thought she had gone crazy. "I slept with... I slept..." Suddenly, her anger flamed up again, mixed with an intense feeling of outrage. "Cowards!" she spit at them. "You don't care that your woman sleeps with the first pig who shows up? Damn it! Me, the whore, I'll tell you what you are! You're cowards, you're pussies, you're cuckolds! Someone will slap you and you won't feel a thing! You don't have blood in your veins, you.."
The insults slid off their irony. Torral above all soaked up the insults like a barbarian tribute to his superiority - it's a pleasure for a philosopher to listen to the ramblings of the less gifted. He laughed without anger, without mockery. Mévil, a bit less armored, listened impassively, until the end, then rose and threw her out the door. Not that he was offended by her, but he thought that it was improper that a mistress would dare to talk to him without servility. Liseron, the rebellious child, tried to scream, shout, and struggle, but she saw the eyes of her lover - hard eyes that advised her to obey, and she scurried out, hitting her shoulders on the swinging doors. Mévil returned to his chaise longue and yawned.
Only Fierce had blushed. he didn't say a word and didn't raise a finger. But a strange shame rose to his face. He couldn't find it in himself to hold it against the woman and the insults she had screamed at him - it was like someone had thrown boiling water on him, truth, and he wasn't sure that she was wrong.
The native girl, hiding behind the chaise longue, had fallen silent, afraid, as long as Liseron had talked. Then she risked a high pitched laugh that Mévil stopped with a tap. That was all they said about the adventure. Torral started off again his interrupted speech about his advice.
"You're wrong," he said to Mévil, "to not try to overcome your obsession. This evening, I'm dining in Cholon, I invited Fierce who refused because of some intellectual weakness, so there's nothing to stop us from debauching as we should, moderately. Eight days of chastity are too much.
"Who is he in love with?" asked Fierce.
"With Mrs Malais," said Torral, glancing at him.
Fierce didn't respond.
"And Miss Abel too."
"You could name the entire planet," said Fierce mockingly. But he was afraid that Torral would add another name. He wouldn't say it to even himself.
"It's five oclock, goodbye," he said.
"Where are you off to?," asked Mévil.
Mévil stood up. "Bring me along."
He wouldn't have been able to say why, but Mévil seemed to him to be the last person he wanted to present to the people he was going to see.
"Why not?" asked Torral. "Let's go together. Mévil knows everyone in Saigon - it's hardly an introduction. It'll be good for him to go there, and for you to see him there too."
Fierce shook his head again. Torral persuaded him with a mocking line. "Jealousy rearing its head for you? The first glimmerings..."
"Idiot!" said the other, and he gave in. Mévil got dressed quickly given that he didn't have a suit. Torral accompanied them until the corner of Spain Street.
"Here our paths part," he said. He looked at first. "Part even more than you would think! On that side, the road of idiocies - and here, reason!" He took the latter one.
"I don't know anymore where to go," joked Mévil hesitantly. But even still he followed Fierce on the road of his idiocies.