Fifteen days later, the Governor General, about to leave for Hanoi for his springtime tour, put on the great winter ball. All of Saigon was invited and although the palace of the viceroy of Indochina was vast, the park had to be set up with lights and an orchestra hidden in the woods.
The invitees started to arrive at ten o'clock. They were greeted by the orderlies and the members of the governor's household. Mrs. Abel, who held the position of first lady in Saigon - the governor being a bachelor - took care of the women, and tried her best to make sure everything went well.
The governor - a former parliamentarian and a devoted Radical - had a real gift for pompous ceremonies. He came in at 11, his Tonkinese lancers marching in front of him with torches. He was a lonely figure, putting on a royal promenade in front of his hosts. Bare shoulders sank in reverential courtly bows, and the white dresshirts of suits, already humid with sweat in the warm Saigonese night, bent over in deep bows. He went past them, indifferently, majestically gesturing to the crowd with a serene smile on his face. Behind him, the diamond of the Annamite cordon completed the autocratic retinue - a calculated image, purposeful, and very effective in Asian countries. He took his leave in a guarded salon, and Admiral Orvilliers went to join him alone, alongside only the general commander. From the open windows, it was possible to see the three of them next to each other, speaking placidly. The Tonkinese, their naked sabers glinting in the light of the lamps, were on guard around them.
It was suitably late now for dances to start, and the flirting too. On the marble slabs of the great hall, tall enough to fill in for a cathedral, with high windows inviting in whatever coolness could be begged from a Saigonese night, the dancing would go on until the light of dawn, except for those couples that went off to lose themselves in the garden's bushes. Brilliant dresses swirled alongside white uniforms, the sparkling ball saved from the mournful air that Europe's black clothes gave. In the park, under the indistinct lights of the bamboo lamps, the slow orbits of the glittering crowds outside turned the color of the moon, like a night painting of Watteau.
All of Saigon was there - even, although this was a European ball, a ball for the conquerors reveling in their victory in the vanquished capital, natives too, who had been invited. Mandarins who had cannily switched to back the Republic, and who their former subjects cursed from the safety of their huts. The Tong-Doc of Cholon chattered about taxes with Malais, the ambassador of the king of Siam danced around the questions of the lieutenant governor. Among a group of captains and ensigns, miss Jeanne Nguyen-Hoc, the only daughter of the new Phou, accepted impassively the advances of her admiring crowd. Pretty and finely scupted, despite her simian origin, more closed and mysterious than a state of ancient Egypt, her smooth face harbored cold, inscrutable eyes that hid whatever thoughts lay behind them, and who could say if there really was a heart that beat under the magnificently embroidered green satin that covered her slight breast? Nothing at least, which would have been understandable to the European mind. Born French and baptised Catholic, well raised in a worldly convent, she knew how to waltz, how to flirt, and to properly appreciate Beethoven, and with her supple hands and thin lips, she was just as worldly as any demi-vièrge European girl, and she said it with the ambigious irony of her smile. But all of that was just a covering - a mask that she wore, and which didn't hide her real ambition, to catch a French husband, which would let her into the elite of the conquering nation: a Parisian mask that fit over an Asian soul, battered but proudly defying every insult. The Asian soul, ancient and crystalized by thousands of years of refinement, could never be understood or shaped. No Western philosopher, no diplomed psychologist with his science, would be able to truly understand the Annamite dreams that filled the daughter of Phou-Nguyen-Hoc.
Yes, all of Saigon was there. What a smorgasbord of honest folk, of people who weren't quite so - the latter group being quite a bit larger, because the French colonies were really a sewer where France itself threw away and deposited all of the filth and rottenness that it didn't keep at home. And between these two extremes there was a galaxy of people in the middle, that the penal code, the spider web that would catch the repugnant flies struggled to catch with its poorly spun strands - bankrupt people, rogues, blackmailers, husbands who honored their vows in the breach, a few spies, who slipped through the net. And then there was the crowd of women of dubious virtues, that everyone knew would do a hundred different sins of which adultery was the most virtuous. Swimming in this fetid swamp, the few saints, the occasional paragons of virtue made for a lonely lot. And even if this shame was known, mucked over, revealed, what to do about it except accept it? Clean hands willingly shook dirty. Far from Europe, the European, king of the world, loved to show that he was above laws and morality and reveled in violating them. The underlife of Paris or London was perhaps even more repugnant than life in Saigon, but the difference was that they were under, invisible, behind closed doors. In the colonies nobody was afraid of airing the dirty laundry. And could you really blame them for it? When every house is made from glass, who would dare to throw the first stone?
Doctor Raymond Mévil arrived late, and didn't danse. He hardly showed himself in the salons, and chose the park for the center of his skirt chasing activities. It wasn't a random hunt that evening, and he stalked Marthe Abel and Mrs. Malais alone, determined to close in on one of his quarry. But lady luck din't smile on him: at the end of a path without any escape, he ran into Mrs. Ariette. He had missed their weekly meetings for four weeks now, and his mind blanked when he tried to figure out an excuse.
Mrs. Ariette was a very straight laced women, reputed to be the prudest in all of Saigon. A lover's betrayal didn't move her very much, but the hole in her budget caused by the treason meant a lot more to her.
"It seems to me," she said softly, "that you don't want to see me anymore? Why's that? We're nothing to each other now - you've made that very clear to me, and even if I would have preferred a different way of ending things, I can assure you that I won't try to bring you to my bed any more."
Mévil, shamefaced, tried to draw up an excuse. "Please, forgive me! Let's move on. I don't blame you in the slightest. You don't love me anymore, nor me you, but let's stay friends. Just to add... yesterday, I was hoping for your visit..." A thought burst into his mind. "It's true. I do owe you something so that it finishes righht," he added with an insolent grin.
He counted out bills under the Chinese lantern: she smiled, too greedy to be insulted.
"Can you tell me," she murmured sweetly, "if you've chosen your new... apartment yet? I don't doubt your taste, but maybe you are having some problems... moving ins? Perhaps I, as your friend, could be of help? I know how to give some services."
"I would never doubt it," said the doctor ironically.
A nile green dress passed at the other end of the path. Mévil thought that he recognized Mrs. malais.
"There we go," he said brusquely as he handed her the bills. "We're finished, and as for the other thing, don't worry: I always handle it myself." They parted. Mrs. Ariette found her husband in the gaming room. "My pocket is ripped, would you mind watching my purse?"
The yellow tinted lawyer took the purse carelessly and kissed her hand.
But Raymond Mévil was hot in pursuit of the green dress. She passed in front of the light spilling out of an open window: it wasn't Mrs. Malais he realized. Disappointed, the doctor plunged deeper into the park in search of her.
On a lonely bench - but not at all dark - he saw a couple sitting, silently. Sélysette and Fierce. A sad jealousy stabbed him like a knife.
He walked more quickly along the deserted path. A man was leaning against a tree that blocked his way: Mévil, shocked, recognized Claude Rochet the journalist, who, for the evening, had left behind his sleazy hovel from Boresse quarter. He snickered with his cruel little mouth as he bent down to pick up a glove which had slipped from his hands. A woman's glove, Mévil saw as he glanced at the buttons on it. One of Rochet's girls, the childish brute who compensated with his millions. Mévil, bitten by curiosity, ran to the other hand of the path, but there a group of women and admirers were chattering together, and Marthe Abel was at the center. Lots of gloveless hands. Mévil forgot Rochet.
Later, he joined Mrs. Malais in an empty salon. He had had to abandon his project of getting one on one with Marthe: she was dancing constantly, her dance card kept on growing longer and she accepted every suitor. The blonde marquise, very fetching in her Louis XVI robe, was fixing her hair in front of a mirror when she suddenly saw Mévil right behind her, and she turned around like she had been bitten.
"Did I frighten you?" he asked respectfully. She tried to smile.
"No, but I was surprised... it's getting late, I'm looking for my husband to go home."
"Surely not before you grant me a tour of the park?" he asked. "Just a tour - I haven't kissed your hand this whole evening, and I'm here for you alone."
She recoiled and stuttered. A large silhouette profiled itself in the doorframe: Malais entered, dry and cordial.
"Ah! Huh? You, doctor? I haven't seen you the whole evening: have you found Gygès? Are we going, my dear?"
"Oh, yes!" she cried.
Alone, Mévil wandered through the park before he left too "What an awful day," he muttered dejectedly.
The bench of Sélysette and Fierce was empty. Against the tree trunk, Claude Rochet drooled away in his sleep. "Truly an awful day," repeated Mévil. He left droopingly, defeated.
On their bench - the bench that a few days before she had leaped on like a childish little girl - Sélysette and Fierce, two hours before, had forgotten the rest of the world.
They had sought refuge there from the beginning. She was stunningly beautiful in her white dress embroidered with the blossoms of flowers, and everyone had wanted to dance with her. She had had to beg them off with an excuse of a turned foot to escape from her unwelcome suitors. Her excuse meant that from that point on she was anchored to her bench: she didn't have the slightest wish to leave it in any case.
He had come and sat down next to her. They exchanged their banal pleasantries, and fell silent often - their distracted thoughts cut up their sentences into abstract fragments. But their eyes met often enough, and that language was all that they needed. The sweet night cradled them, the warm air pillowing the trees heavy with dew, the rice paper lanterns throwing a warm yellow light onto the benches. The ball was a world away, and the foliage shielded them from its hubub.
Fierce thought about his life. His thoughts wandered back to dark years, the forgotten voyages, the cold adolescence, the abandoned child deep within an uncaring home. Never, anywhere, could he think of an evening as warm as this one. A heady gratitude filled his heart and fired his veins. Oh! To tell Sélysette how much he adored her, how he was in thrall to her, this clash of shyness that held him back and love that pushed him forward that battle out within him!
She, pensively, had let her fan slip from her open hand. Maybe, in her childhood dreams, she had imagined a park like this with a solitary bench, where someone would get down on his knees and swear to her his undying love... She didn't snatch back her hand when he took it. She didn't interrupted his trembling words. A shiver shook her shoulders, and her cheeks blushed with fire.
He spoke very softly - the hibiscuses that leaned in towards his mouth with their curious corollas opening up to try to hear snatches of his words, in vain. There was none of the air of a civilized artfully wooing some new plaything. Sincere lips stuttered a vow full of vulnerability, and it was a more chaste thing than a mother's kiss upon her child.
"This hand here" - he hardly dared stroke it with his fingers, "this hand, will have golden ring on it soon. You can choose from suitor any that you love, whoever you want... perhaps you would let it be mine?"
A terrible dread shot through her veins. Her legs felt rubbery: he was on his knees in front of her. She breathed heavily like a cornered doe. Her downcast eyes were glued to the sand in front of her.
At the end of the path, a footstep sounded. The two of them jumped, starting guiltily. They dared to look each other in the face. Fierce held out his hand "Sélysette?"
She blushed even more. She pushed out her little hand, then pulled it back trembling, with a sweet confused smile. The hibiscuses with their snow white petals looked on, as she murmured "If mom agrees..."
- 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