This is the second chapter of my own translation of the 1905 French book Les Civilisés by Claude Farrère. If you want to see earlier or later chapters, consult the list of chapters at the bottom.
"Captain Torral," grunted Mévil at his rickshaw pushers as he came back down from the house.
The visit had been short - he had been confronted by a singularly unwelcoming woman, almost monosyllabic.
Sullen for a minute - worries came to his surface faster than waves upon the sea - he buried himself in the rich upholstering of the rickshaw, and let down his colonial hat to cover his eyes. But a victoria passed by, and he bolted upright to greet two women inside. Already distracted from his prior bad fortune, he murmured "Look's like they're beginning to go out for the evening: I hope that I don't miss Torral."
Torral was the only man in Saigon that he visited without either a hidden objective or looking for his own benefit: Torral wasn't married, and he found that agreeable - two reasons that normally wouldn't attract a womanizing doctor like Mévil.
Even so, and despite the complete oppositeness of their tastes and their lives, the two men had their own style of friendship.
People found it bizarre. Georges Torral didn't seem the sort of person who would cultivate a friendship. He was an engineer, a mathematician filled to the brim with exacting logic, a straightforward man, direct and without flourishes, egoistic to a fault. Women hated his head, far too big, his rough and warty chest, the cruel irony in his coal-dark eyes, while men were jealous of his sharp intelligence and the hurtful superiority of his knowledge and talent.
Right now, the heat of the day was beginning to fade, and Torral, his eyes heavy from a too-longue siesta, was finishing a helter-skelter calculation on a blackboard. He worked in his opium den - because he smoked a little, reasonably, like he did with everything, proud of being a well-balanced and even-keeled man.
The wall was plastered with slate and hordes of equations in chalk were scrawled across it, like masses of soldiers preparing for battle. Above, raising up his short frame to reach the top, the engineer wrote with manic speed, adding, dividing, simplifying, integrating, and running to the end of the table to write his results, hunching over as he scribbled them. At the end, he swept aside the calculations with long brush swipes, threw down the chalk, and sat down on a folding chair next to the wall, contemplating his solution as he rolled a cigarette.
Mévil entered, preceded by a twelve year old Annamite servant boy who walked with a sway in his hips like a woman.
"I'm done," said Torral.
They didn't say hello and didn't shake hands: these pleasantries weren't part of their rite of friendship.
"Anything new?" asked the engineer, as he spun around on the chair.
It was the only seat in the opium den. but there were plenty of Cambodian mats and rice straw pillows, and Mévil stretched himself out next to an opium lamp.
"Fierce is coming this evening." he said. "He telephoned me from Cap St. Jacques."
"Very good," responded the engineer. "We'll greet him. Have you prepared something?"
"Yes. We'll dine together at the cercle and I'm inviting you to come. Only the three of us, you understand.
"Perfect.... you'll smoke a pipe?"
"There no way" declared the doctor, parodying the native slang. "It hasn't suited me at all since a while."
"Ah? Your pretty companions complain about you afterwards?" said Torral mockingly.
It was a known feature of opium, stealing away the fire of passion.
"The girls complain," the handsome doctor said prosaically. "And the worst of it," he continues with a grimace, "they're not wrong. Woe, my friend, I'm 30 years old!"
"Me too," commiserated Torral.
The doctor weighed him with his eyes, then shrugged his shoulders.
"It doesn't weigh too heavily on the skin, but you feel it in your bones. Everyone has their own way of aging. And that's that. The life we live."
"In any case" observed the engineer, "our mothers didn't ask us before they gave birth to us.... Why's Fierce coming anyway? It isn't the normal season for him."
"His cruiser is arriving from Japan: nobody knows why. In any case, nobody can figure out the logic behind military movements: almost certainly, Fierce himself doesn't know any more than us, and his old fogy of an admiral knows even less than him."
"It's very civilized, to not know where one is going and to not care. If I could join the navy as an officer, provided I didn't have to fight of course - that would be far too barbaric - I'd be glad, even though it sounds stupid, officer," scoffed Torral.
"Fierce is a sailor like he would be anything else," retorted Mévil.
"No, said the engineer. "He's a sailor by family tradition, he had a crowd of military men in his family and going back in time even more among his great grandfathers, and that rubbed off on him. It has the advantages too of not being a barbarian, of being able to think from time to time, and not having to wear a scapular."
"That would warm the heart of his mother, what you say about him," said Mévil. "Apparently she never did figure out who was the father of her son."
"She had a few lovers at the same time?"
"She slept with anything that moved."
"A woman made for you."
"Wouldn't mind it too much, really."
They separated. Torral went back to his wall of slat and looked over his algebra formulas like a painter staring at a freshly painted canvas.
The sun was setting towards the horizon, its path vertical and quick - there was no twilight in Saigon. Mévil calculated that he didn't have the time to go off to the promenade, and he directed his rickshaw towards the river, where he could find the victorias on the quais coming back from the "inspection." The pullers trotted along the shoulder of the Chinese creek, awash with sampans and junks, and then reached the border of Donai and picked up the pace. Boats in the harbor were unloading their merchandise, and coolies were covering heaps of crates and barrels with huge tarps. It smelled like the odor of any maritime port, dusty, cereals and tar, but there was the perfume of Saigon too, flowers and wet dirt, drifting into every nook and cranny until the entire city, even in this busy commercial district, t here breathed the voluptuous luxury of Saigon. The setting sun lit the river with flame, in the languid and beautiful evening.
Mévil, who watched the open topped cars full of smiling and beautiful women, didn't see that downstream, behind him, a great warship was entering into the port - a long and thin vessel, like a sword, with four massive smokestacks that vomited thick dark smoke. It steamed along smoothly in the water, blocking the light of the setting sun, like a black screen drawn across the crimson horizon. All along the quai, the trees festooned with their flowers, crews sweating and milling about, the beautiful women in their elegant attire suddenly ceased to shine in the dying light of the sun.