Mévil went up to the entrance first, but Fierce hurried his step to scurry in front of him into the hall, and to show him the way. He didn't like that Mévil acted so informally under this roof.
The hall opened up onto a veranda, which was in the middle of the garden. The tennis court was surrounded by groves of trees. Betel palms clustered around it gave it the feeling of a natural tent, and under their branches, a circle of bright dresses and white outfits were chattering away. Here and there balls and rackets swung. A peaceful place.
Fierce and Mévil went in, and Mrs. Malais came to greet them. Her beauty was on display: the fresh air befitted her high curled blonde hair. Out here the lawn and between the tall trees, and despite the bothersome tropical had demanded by the climate, it was like seeing a living Watteau painting smiling at him. He kissed the offered hand, introduced Mévil and let him start off on his courtship - himself he hurried over to the betel palms, his eyes recognizing a blue robe which dragged him over like a lover.
Mrs. Malais tried to receive Mévil like she had greeted Fierce. But the handsome doctor kissed her lip instead of her fingers, and she seized up. She really was afraid of him, an anguished fear that perhaps really was a type of love. Her husband carefully guarded her honest soul from the moral decadence that reigned in Saigon, and she was afraid that someone would still try to come despoil her, and to leave a chink in her armor to Mévil made her tremble. Besides, she had a guilty feeling that dogged her deep inside, that she didn't really feel the angry indignation that she should about this scoundrel constantly after her...
Mévil took advantage of her state of turmoil and kept soothing her with sweet talk, while they followed Fierce over to the betel trees - the only effect being to rile her up more. But he fell silent suddenly, since Marthe Abel was coming over to them. He blemished, bowed in front of the young woman, stuttered out three words, and scurred away - all in a flash of an eye. Rescued from her specter, Mrs. Malais grabbed hold gratefully of Marthe's hand, while the puzzled young woman watched the man run off.
Mévil however, put himself together again, angry at himself. He made a valiant effort, returned to the social circle, and taking up the game again felt his old spirit come back. Once again the easy frivolity of his character helped him out and the woman lapped up everything he said. Fierce was back on the sidelines.
For some unexplainable modesty when he had gone off for the woman he really wanted to see - Sélysette Sylva - he had turned aside to talk to the nonentities on the way to her. But with a few words said, some perfunctory social obligations, a couple of hands kissed, and he was past them, with a chair right next to her for some reason. Sélysette was still holding her racket, her cheeks flushed and her forehead damp with sweat. She happily held out her hot hand and exclaimed. "Thank god you've shown up early! I just lost a match without you."
He admired her subtly, taken with her grace and her young vitality. Strangely, he felt that a great distance separated the two of them - himself, the bitter and skeptical civilized man, her, the young woman with her pristine soul. It made him sad. She laughed obligingly with him, but he saw her shift her attention to listen to Mévil's joking, and a dark anguished jealousy rose in his throat. Torral's ironic comments ran through his mind - was he in love? He agonized over the thought, not knowing what the answer was.
They went back to tennis. Sélysette impishly knocked the net with her racket. "I bet that you can't jump over it!"
He forget Torral. "What about you?"
"Don't tempt me!" She was already gathering up her skirts. "Little goat," he called her teasingly. "Show me the hoofs on your feet!" She laughed, if a bit awkwardly.
"Will we play?" someone else suggested.
Marthe Abel stood up, while Mrs. Malais still remained seated. Mévil hesitated, but when Mrs. Malais bent over to her neighbor to start whispering privately, he gave up and followed Marthe.
"We need to draw lots," announced Sélysette. "And hurry, the sun's going down!"
They split up the players, then the couples. Marthe and Mévil found themselves together against Fierce and Sélysette. Miss Sylva happily shook the hand of her partner while they were crossing the courts to reach their field. "Is your friend Mévil good?" she asked.
"Very. He plays with all the chic women in Saigon every morning and evening."
"I'll be sad if you showing up is the reason for me losing then!" she said teasingly.
"So cruel!" he riposted but his jealousy flared up again.
Across from them, Mévil and Marthe assumed their positions. Mévil was limbering up while he discretely glanced at his partner. He dared to talk to her. "What a delight to remember madamemoiselle. I would never have though, two hours ago, that I would have had the good fortune to play with you." He had tried his most seductive voice, warm with heavy inflexions. But miss Abel, despite her black eyes and her pale skin, was an adept at philosophical detachment and didn't say a word back.
"Ready!" cried Sélysette.
Mévil raised his racket to serve. Stung by the indifference of his partner, he wanted to impress her and show off his skill at the game. Upright on the stadium-like yard, his arm upstretched towards the sky, he looked like a young god, every eye watching his movement. Fierce saw Sélysette looking attentivel- admiringly perhaps? It stung him deeply, this glance that she gave to the enemy that could have been his instead! Anger shot thorugh him, and he squeezed the racket in a death grip - this would be a fight to the death."
"Play!" responded Mévil. His ball shot out like an arrow, and Sélysette couldn't catch it in time. But Fierce was in ready position for the next strike, and even though it slammed out even faster than the first, he smashed it back with such a precise strike that Mévil gave up on taking him out.
It was a bitter duel from that point on. The young women hardly could hardly get a hit in edgewise, and were disconcerted by the fierceness and power of the players' volleys. Underneath the betel palms, the watchers had fallen silent, looking on with surprised, even worried faces. What the mystery was they didn't know but there was some secret struggle that the tennis match was just a mask for. But the game kept going on in silence, and the starring became embarrassing, almost anxious.
The balls bounded over the net with brusque or treacherous motions. Mévil hit his at an angle, and chose Sélysette as his favorite target, since she was worse than her partner. It was an irregular, horizonal game, a dangerous game that matched the player. At first Fierce wasn't able to respond. More courteously, he disdained striking out at Marthe Abel instead, and he lost game after game.
But he didn't lose hope. Next to him, Sélysette fought with all her heart, helping him, defending him, supporting him with the loyalty of a brother in arms. They were a single will in two bodies. He felt that in those heady moments she was his entirely, and a passionate tenderness gripped his heart. In those marvelous moments, in that spurt of physical violence and truthfulness, he realized that he loved her with all his heart, and how much he needed to have her. He hoped that she would love him, that she loved him already. A rush of energy sped through his veins.
He pushed himself even harder. The brutal, hard game started to tire out Mévil, while Fierce kept going unflaggingly. The tide started to turn. Sélysette rejoiced every time he hit. It made him proud, drove him on more.
Across, Marthe Abel remained indifferent and cold, uncaring to the fate of the game. She had gotten bored as the game stretched out, and barely supported her partner, just watching the balls fly past without trying to reach out to intercept them. Mévil felt the nonchalance drag him down, heavy as contempt.
He became less quick, less flexible, his earlier perfection abandoning him. Defeat dragged down his steps like lead. His racket struggle to hit back the balls, and sweat beaded on his forehead. It was the end. The games came quicker and quicker, every one last, and the last ball hit him, without him parrying. he let his racket fall, stumbling over to pick it up.
A chorus of bravos greeted Fierce. He didn't hear them: Sélysette, with a cry of victory, ran over to him, her dear eyes sparkling with childlike joy, her hot hand plunged into his own, thanking him breathlessly. "You won for me! You're so great!"
Mévil crossed the lawn. Miss Abel, very politely, apologized for her weaknesses - without her, he would surely have won. He didn't pay attention to her, and watched Fierce and Sélysette hand in hand. His heart felt cold and bitter.
Fierce was drunk, drink on the love which bloomed in his chest, overflowing from his heart to electrify everything. Sélysette adoring eyes seemed just like the love that he had dreamed of, and the joy of the moment seized him with every fiber lit with joy. He had to struggle to just chastely adore her like Madonna instead of bowing deep to kiss her dress.
The sun burned in its flaming sunset. The red light set the earth aflame, and the little creeks and streams, the windows of the houses, reflected the sun's light like lighting. A vast triumphal road, bordered with gold, paved with purple, beckoned in his mind. Fierce, dazzled by love, it seemed like all of the glories of life had opened up and in that moment, he felt like the ruler of the world.