Sélysette, kept for lunch by her guardian, and Miss Abel, there to visit here, were promenading in the government park.
There wasn't any real closeness between the two of them, because Marthe thought Sélysette was too young, while Sélysette thought Marthe was too old. In any case both of them were 20 years old but they had matured at very different rates.
They walked together with little steps, not talking too much, in the English garden paths between the handsome thick groves that made it into a wooded park - forests barely bigger than a garden but so dense that you didn't realize how small they were.
"Sélysette," broke in Marthe suddenly, "what are you doing with your boyfriend?"
"What boyfriend?" asked Sélysette sincerely.
"Fierce of course."
"But he's not like that at all Marthe, just a friend, I tell you he isn't after me at all.."
Marthe gave a razor edged smile. "Someone stole a photograph of you from my album. What do you have to say to that?"
"Stole my photo? Who?"
"Naturally, I don't know. An admirer I suppose.
"That would be awful," declared Sélysette indignantly. "But I really think it just got lost. I'll give you another one."
She saw a stone bench perched next to the pathway, and tired of walking around so demurely, leaped up on top of it.
"How young you are!" said Marthe. She always spoke with the same sharp and precise voice, whatever she said. Sélysette got down to return to her side.
"Marthe, it's my turn to ask for news about your admirer. Is doctor Mévil not paying any attention to you?"
Marthe looked down at the red sand of the path. "Yes... maybe... lots of others too anyway. Mévil's not that interesting anyway."
"I thought..." Sélysette hesitated as she tried to remember something Fierce had said, "I thought that he was more interested in you than the others..."
"He was wrong." Marthe said it with her coldest detachment. "Who told you that?"
"Nobody," lied Sélysette, her cheeks blazing scarlet. "You don't like him?"
Marthe Abel made a face and seemed to think about distant things. "I like Mr. Rochet more," she said suddenly, with a bizarre laugh.
Marthe Abel fit une moue et sembla réfléchir à des choses lointains.
"The old journalist? You're crazy!" cried Sélysette scandalized.
The two sat down on the stone bench.
"Sélysette, what do you think about Fierce?"
"I don't think too much about him. He's charming, very sensitive, a good friend. You know that just as much as me."
"Do you like him?"
"Marthe, why do you tease me so much? I tell you that there isn't anything between us, absolutely nothing."
"You're such a dear girl", responded Marthe, and she took Sélysette's hands to hold them between her own, which was for her normal coldness an incredible sign of warmth.
"I'm sure, sure" - she emphasized the word - "That there's nothing between you two. But still, tell me, do you like him?"
"Do you love him?"
"You're being ridiculous!"
Sélysette rose, almost angrily.
"Don't get upset," pleaded Marthe. "I promise you Sélysette that I don't want to, truly don't, want to hurt you. The opposite."
"Of course," murmured Sélysette, understandingly.
"Listen," said Marthe. "You're young, young, and you're so nice that I truly like you. We talked about doctor Mévil earlier. He's a very close friend of Fierce.."
"Yes," said Sélysette, who blushed again remembering her earlier lie.
"So try to.. how can I say it, try to maybe make them a bit less than that.."
"What do you mean?"
"Try, Sélysette. I like you more than you think, I really do..."
The hibiscuses had blossomed in the garden of the house on Moïs Street, and all of the bushes were a dazzling red.
That same day, Admiral Orvilliers went to visit Madame Sylva who was alone at her home: Sélysette, delayed by the governor, hadn't gone home yet.
The two armchairs were seated next to each other under the banian trees of the deck, and the young serving boy with his hair bound up in a silk chignon had put a tall glass of whisky and soda full of ice next to the admiral.
"I miss hearing such a lovely voice that I so liked to hear sing me old songs," said Orvilliers tenderly.
"Sélysette won't be long," said the blind woman. She smiled, the name alone of her daughter making her happy.
They waited. The admiral had taken one of the hands of his old friend, had kissed it, and kept it clasped friendlily.
"Did you know," he broke in suddenly, "that I think that you're happier than me, after all of your grieving and misery? You have Sélysette, and that's the hole missing in my long solitary life - I don't have a daughter to love me, to love."
Mrs. Sylva squeezed softly the hand which held her own. "A twenty year old daughter," murmured the admiral. "What will she get married?" he asked suddenly.
Mrs Sylva shrugged her thing shoulders.
"When god wills it. All mothers have the same trategy and when my child leaves me it'll break my heart forever, but I'm not selfish and it would be good for her to get married, so I can have grandchidldren."
"Are there any suitors in Saigon?"
"Far too many because my Sélysette is rich. But we'll find one that suits us. I would prefer a husband who isn't a settler."
"That makes sense," replied Orviliers. "What does Sélysette think?"
"Nothing at all yet?"
"You really think so? Girls are so private.."
"Not mine," said Mrs. Sylva affectionally. "She's not a modern girl. I tried to raise her to be like myself, the same way I'm like my mother. I don't think that women these days are better than they were before. We make fun of the pure damsels of yesterday, but look at the new generation - less pure and not damsels."
"I don't know much about that, but what you say seems true."
"Without doubt. Now we expose young girls to everything that's ugly in life, and by what ways! Novels, newspapers, in the streets, their suitors. Is that really a good experience for them? Do you think that because they're dirtied a bit early that makes that they'll be better slogging through the mud latter? When you're raised like that you become it. We teach our children that the world only cares about material calculations, but they're not any more able at dealing with it just because they're less naive, and when the time comes they choose badly and make awful marriages."
"What about before?"
"It used to be that women would make the decisions for their girls - that was more fitting and less complicated. I'll do the same for Sélysette. She'll have some candidates that she likes, I'll try to find the most sincere and honest one, she'll marry him with my blessing, and love him with all her heart. And then they'll live happily."
"Except life has a way of getting in the way. But so what? She'll go into this lottery with the best numbers. If things go wrong, she'll still have her faith in God and she'll bear any cross, just like I did."
"We'll talk about this again, and I'll tell you someday a little idea I have in my old mind," said the admiral.
Her cheeks brightly flushed, Sélysette arrived in panting rush.
"Mom, mom! It must have been a year since I've seen you!" She rushed over to hug her warmly."
"It just went on forever, at the governor's. There were so many people - Marthe Abel.."
Orvilliers stood up. "I've seen our child prodigy and I'm happy. I'll go now."
"Not yet!" begged Sélysette.
She went to pluck some flowers from a hibiscus bush and offered to her old friend two handfuls of red flowers with long golden pistils.
"For your beautiful salon shining with all of the sabers and bayonets - and for you think of us more often over here!"
Orvilliers took the flowers and caressed the little hands.
"Thank you. You'll permit to give a few to Fierce, to console him for not having been able to come with me today?"
"Hmm... I'll consider it," teased Sélysette. "Where is Fierce anyway?"
"Off partying," the admiral said gravely.
The blond eyebrows furrowed, imperceptibly.
"A naval party, that is," completed Orvilliers with a chuckle. "He's off on one of the torpedo boats of the mobile defense forces, and there are exercises off the coast of Cap Saint-Jacques - all of it out of pure and simple conscientiousness, which is commendable - it's not pretty out at sea today.
Before she went to sleep, Sélysette that evening went out for some fresh air on the veranda.
The night air was heady with the perfume of the garden. All of the flowers, and every clump of moist and pungent earth breathed an odor of sensual abandon.
Sélysette shivered a bit in the shadow of this living panorama. The veranda was low, and the horizon was limited, but the dark night gave the illusion of a vast immensity of blackness. Sélysette dreamed that she could see all of Saigon, from the river where the ships and the junks floated to the verdant rice paddies surrounding the city. In her dream, a torpedo boat passed, white with foam as it sped along.
At the same time, Fierce was returning onboard the Bayard.
Every muscle burned with exhaustion, and he was soaked to the bones by spray from the ocean. Salt from the waves encrusted his face and burned at his eyes. But there was still a satisfied joy that ran in his veins. Sometimes, when he had nothing to do, he was overcome with memories, with memories from before Sélysette, his parties, debauchery, his detachment from life - something that approached dangerously close to nostalgia. But now, the hard full day of squalls and wind had chased away that dangerous nostalgia. And then he was back in his blue chamber, ready to sleep, simple in heart and uncomplicated in spirit, the opposite of a civilized man - and in love.
It was such a heady feeling that stole over him. Confusedly, he realized that a strange sickness was escaping him. Civilization. Recovering from it! he delighted, and he looked to the future, a future of healing, of restored health.
On the wall, in a strange and sumptuous frame, made from the fur of black panther, a pastel smiled at him. Sélysette Sylva, drawn from the photograph that he had stolen the other work. Fierce, religiously, knelt in front of his cure, and searched the depths of his heart for what adoring words to summon up. He prayed, for the first time since he was a young child.