That morning, I was crossing the Bosphorus in a kaiki. I had spent the night in my harem in Skutari, and I was heading back to my home in Istanbul, where I wrote this book. My rowers hauled their oars silently, the muscles of their arms bulging under their white sleeves, and the kaiki swam across the water without the slightest wake.
Above, the sun was already high in the sky. But a curtain of clouds hid it, and the morning sun was weak and pale. Istanbul, wedged between the iron sky and the grey sea, was like a northern city.
But I still saw the Hagia Sophia through the clouds, the gigantic blazing sun of yellow and red ramparts that bastioned its bulk, the poem written in stone of the Byzantine murals that man had threw up against the heavens above and the sea below, while at her base an infinite expanse of Turkish houses stretched out, their old wood purple like autumn's undergrowth - the succession of mosques without rival in the entire world, each one of which had emptied the treasury of an emperor to build. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, with its hundred domes looking like bubbles of marble, Mehmed, that the conquering sultan made so strong, Suleyman, that the magnificent sultan made so haughty, Bayezid chosen by Allah's pigeons, Sehzade, which expunged one of Roxelane's sins - just a few among the glittering crowds. The grey cupolas washed over the city like the desert sands thrown up by a dust storm, the minarets pointing skyward like the lancers which conquered Istanbul for the Prophet. And lastly, there were the black cypress trees of the seraglio, a melancholy shroud for the empty kiosks of the Sultan.
But without the kiss of the sun, the soul of Istanbul was as absent as its light. Istanbul was grey and somber, just like the northern city it looked like.
But then, miraculously, the sun pierced through the clouds above. I felt its warm caress on my shoulders and on my neck, and the sea burst into light all around me - it was like the rays had spilled out across the water, flowing like liquid gold to outpace the kaiki and to speed towards Istanbul. The shadows fled before it and the city was conquered in a great charge by the sun's assault. What a revelation! The palaces, the mosques, the houses, every stone of the ramparts, every leaf of the greenery, were once again living things, resurrected by the golden light. In the blue sky, at the sharp tips of minarets, bronze crescents shimmered like suns themselves, and the ocean below outdid even the sky for the depth of its blue, the white, green, purple city reflecting in it like a saphire mirror. And above the Golden Horn filled with ships there were the sacred hills of Eyup, invisible just before, now rearing up to silhouette themselves against the horizon. It truly was a miracle: a resurrection, one so sudden that it still stuns me to think of it - that all it took was a single ray of light.
It was the same with the love of Sélysette Sylva, shining on Fierce's heart, that completely changed around his life.
To tell the truth, Fierce hadn't truly lived, because he had never really suffered nor loved. The entire edifice of civilization that he had constructed could be summed up with that, and Fierce, as a civilized man, had hacked away at his primitive instincts to remove anything that could be construed as emotion from his life. No sorrow but also no joy - some pleasures and worries, but they didn't mean much in the end. The procession of human attachments didn't affect him in the slightest, and only one, the most powerful, the thrill of love, could still rich in to shake him out of his lethargic stupor.
There was still that numbness that shrouded him like a drug. Fierce was a cerebral man, and it doubtless affected him less than one of the sailors of his should would have been. But any drug is more potent the first time, and however slight the dosage was - it was something he had never felt before! For him, it was a heady dosage. She was a whirlwind across the heartbreaking monotony of his destiny, that surprised and intoxicated him. This was that sensation of young love, innocent; that he hazily realized he must be living. He forgot to always second-guess himself so much, to be his own psychologist, to exist without truly living. He would learn to savor life, to enjoy it, and even if his palette had been numbed, he would taste again this new taste of being alive once more.
What a delight it was to bathe himself in hopes and fantasies, the exquisite agony that seizes your throat when you see your beloved! His fantasies were simple enough anyway, and his hopes modest: all that he wanted was the smile and the affection of Sélysette. Too many women, all of them disdained, had followed one after another in his bed for him to want to bed his love.
When Fierce went to visit the villa on Moïs Street - he was a frequent guest there, and quietly tried to find a way to be there when only Madame Sylva and Sélysette were there - he went in through the always-open gate, entering intot the garden without going through the house. At 4, before the promenade, Mrs. Sylva would almost always to sit underneath the banian trees on the deck, to breath in the fresh air that the dense trees kept cool. Fierce always saw the blind woman on the same wicker armchair, her old hands occupied with the same grey wool knitting, with her faithful companion Sélysette chattering away or listening attentively to her mother.
He had become their closest companion, their faces lighting up with delight when they say him, who never disturbed the tender discussions between mother and daughter. They invited him to sit with them, brought him on promenades, or stayed out talking intimately together in the garden. He told them the news of the world, and they introduced him to the very serious irrelevancies of family life: he played around with Sélysette teasingly that sparked her gaiety and verve, the blind woman intervening with her tender gravity, the exquisite tolerance of old women who have so much suffered, but whose broken hearts remain pure and sweet, whose mourning and resignation make them noble and better for the pain.
Sometimes the arrival of night took them off guard in the garden, and Sélysette would take Fierce's arm to return back to the house. They would turn on the laps, the cozy warm light brushing Sélysette's cheeks with shades of pink pearl. And Fierce, before he left, would ask her to try her hand at the piano. Sélysette wasn't a great musician, but her voice, sweet and simple, sounded so pure that it was like trickling gold. She sang old songs, rhythmic legends that breathed bards and the land. Fierce, detached and decadent as he was, listened to the simple songs with an emotion that brought tears to his eyes.
When he returned into the dark night, a melancholy seized him, heavier and heavier as he left the dear home he had come to love. The road seemed so long and his legs so tired - sometimes he called hailed a tardy rickshaw, and dreaming in the quiet little wagon, he admitted freely to himself that all of his love was trapped behind him - in this wonderful girl that had stolen his heart. When he was separated from her, far away, what would come of his life? A voyage without purpose, one not worth setting out on.
The two Chinese upholsterers - fat Cantonese with handsome queues, their white stockings ending in black slippers with felt soles - listened to Fierce as his orders spilled out in his little cabin on the Bayard.
"... take down all of this grey silk off the walls, the same thing for the velvet - put this up instead.." He motioned to a light blue Chinese crèpe paper, tinted with shades of green, from Shanghai. Fierce had worked hard to find the color that he so wanted.
"Frame the boards with this..." Unstiched pagoda sleeves of old Chinese robes, a narrow band of black satin, ten thousand embroided butterflies flapping their blue wings, wings of every shape, blues of every shade. At the merchant in Cholon, Sélysette had been amazed by them.
"And hide the nails well: do you think you can finish it all this evening?"
A head nod, a smile from the smooth faces - there's always a way, the word impossible didn't exist among Chinese merchants.
"Try to not get anything dirty. How much will it cost?"
A brief calculation and a quick exchange in Cantonese patois - the notebooks in silk paper coming out of their pockets. An exact sum came up. There wasn't any room for bargaining, because it was a job to do. Fierce was used to it, he agreed to their sum and left. It was useless to try to oversee a Chinese person working. He would do everything agreed, scrupulously, and would refuse any pay rather than notch a reprimand.
The chamber had been transformed from its grey shadow to a blue dream - the color of Sélysette's eyes. Fierce happily bathed in the beloved color, then sat down at the table. The books were still open at the pages he had left them - the meticulous Chinese had put everything back exactly where they had found them.
They were books on tactics, lists of lighthouses, naval instructions. Fierce took out from locked drawers the secret plans for the batteries and forts. He spread out the naval map of the Dong Nai and the naval approaches to Saint-Jacques cape. They were a mixture of defensive mechanisms. It wasn't a cohesive work yet. Fierce studied them for himself, for his own anxious patriotism, what methods they had to try to defend Saigon against an enemy attack.
"They can't try against Saint-Jacques," he muttered - "it would be manifest folly, and punished severely... but a landing from the west is possible - yes. So the first night, we'd need to break the blockade. Breaking the blockade, that's what counts. But will we have enough torpedo boats?"
He fell silent and lifted up his gaze. On the shelf of forged iron that he used as a library, his books, a very libertine collection, stood out now with their binding of plushy grey. He smiled - when he had read them, how stunned he would have been if a sorcerer had told him that one day he would put aside the Marquis de Sade for Commodore Mahan! He hummed.
"Pour l'amour d'une blonde
D'une blonde aux yeux bleus..."
It was one of Sélysette's songs. He stopped humming, serious. "I'm never going to be able to be without her, right?"
Madame Abel, the lieutenant governor's wife, had her receptions every Tuesday, from 6 to 7. Fierce attended regularly, for professional requirements first off - the aide de camp of the admiral should go visit the second in command of Saigon - and also because he quite liked the pleasant woman who was one of Sélysette's close relations. Mrs. Abel was better than her step daughter. Fierce didn't like Marthe, with her cold politeness that hid what she was really thinking, while her step mother, who wasn't stupid or naive, but still was free and confided in her friends.
One Tuesday, Fierce got the hour wrong and arrived too early. The street was deserted, the normal carriages missing and the Tonkinese faretaker was sleeping in his guardpost. Fierce was distracted and didn't even see him as he went past. The palace of Sai'ons lieutenant governor was styled like a German temple of a new Athens - ugly and rich, with Corinthian columns. Fierce ascended the entrance, the Annamite serving boys watching him with surprise and letting him enter - a native didn't dare try to stop a European, even under the roof of his master. Fierce went without any resistance to the salon, and it was only there, in front of the empty armchairs, that he realized his error - the pendulum in the grandfather clock marked 5 minutes to 5 o'clock.
"What an idiot!" he thought. "What do do now?" He thought that maybe one of the servants would run to tell his mistress - they all knew him in the house. He was ready to apologize at any moment as he wandered throughout the salon without sitting down. The paintings on the walls were boring. He mozied up to a pedestal table draped with Tonkinese embroidery, and looked at the album that rose up from the sheath - a beautiful lacquer album, bound Japanese style. He touched the lacquer with a finger - it was thick and smooth, scented with peach flowers. he thought about Nagasakia, where the lacquer came from, and Shirayama-San, who made it in her brown little shop where the mousmés chattered and giggled..
Clean and pretty Japan. Sélysette would love the country. He leafed through the album. It was photographs, portraits, the pages turning under his finger that he brought up to faces that he recognized from time to time. He thought about leaving and cutting short this waiting, looking at the open door.
Suddenly he started - when he was about to close the album he saw a photograph of Sélysette. He had never seen one of her before. She was just like her real self in it, beautiful, and he thought he saw Sélysette herself when he looked at it. He felt the tightening of his throat, the faint agony that he felt every time that she showed up.
Sélysette herself, in her favorite dress, high cut from muslin lapels, her capricious hair of shining gold, her smile, the dreaminess in her eyes...
The blinds made the salon so somber, wrapping it with shadows. Fierce, without hesitation, stole the photograph from the album. His fingers trembled a bit, and he had to take his gloves off, since the photo wouldn't slide well out of the page's crack.
Afterwards, he raised his head, and looked at the door: there were footsteps that he heard outside. He slipped the portrait into his chest - underneath the shirt, against the skin, the portrait able to hear the heart which beat so strongly from fear and daring - and he slipped away quickly, like the thief that he was.
But when he was back onboard, in his chamber wrapped in blue, he had such a feeling of joy in front of the portrait he had conquered for himself - this trophy, this treasure, this idol. He wept so madly on this imprisoned Sélysette that would always be with him, for the rest of his life, that a superstitious fear seized him and he hid the image underneath an envelope - like how Polycrate, tyrant of Samos, had sacrificed his most precious ring to Adrasteta. Her face slipped away, hidden from him, but engraven in his memory.
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Chapter 31
- Chapter 32
- Chapter 33
- Chapter 34
- Chapter 35
- Chapter 36