The party which was offered to the French onboard Admiral Hawke's battleship, the King Edward, a massive ship compared to which Bayard was barely a yacht, was magnificent.
It was an enormous celebration, like only tropical lands know how to put on. It started off with a matinée, then a concert and play - quite the treat in a city where there weren't any theaters - and afterwards, they dined, or banqueted rather, in Pantagruel style. Then the ball was launched with couples who were already excited and spirited, and they danced until the morning, flirting outrageously in all of the passageways, internationally left shrouded in darkness. It was only when the day dawned, after the colors were raised and God Save the King sung at 8 o'clock, that the last launch carried away the last guest. The supper at the little tabes had turned well and truly into debauchery, and the battleship was littlered with the debris of the party like a sailor's hovel ashore.
Admiral Orvilliers showed up in person, arriving early and leaving after the dawn. He had commanded his aides de camp to dance the night away, and to sweep the English off their feet with charm. The other side was just as determined to impress, and it was a ferocious battle of mutual politeness and courtesy. In the end, all of them knew that they were close to war, and the horrible specter of the coming conflict haunted the party, a mad millenarian drunkenness seizing them and egging them on. The women above all, the pretty Englishwomen who gallantly pursued the French officers, didn't forget that their dashing companions so taken with them had imagined and perhaps even prepared the pitiless massacre of their fiancés or lovers: the odor of this blood which would redden the seas was enough to set something aflame inside them.
A tropical climate softens and depresses men, but women by contrast were stimulated, excited, driven to lust of all sorts. There was no society lady, in Saigon, who would agree to going home before the fifth act of theater, to not dine out, to sleep before dawn rose, no woman who wouldn't demand, other than her nightly entertainment, a more athletic siesta for two. At the balls, the curtains were closed to keep the impudent sun at bay, and baccarat tables sometimes still played at midday. Onboard the King Edward where pleasure assumed a mask of patriotic obligation, what a delight it was! By the second quadrille, all of the flowers had been stolen, all of the hands degloved, every waist seized. When support came, the flirting had reached the point of meetings in cabins. A ship is a perfect place for that sort of thing - there are so many discrete corners, unspoiled by lamps and lights. The demi-vierges could show off their questionable virtues there, and others go even a bit further... And what a bonus it was to have a sailor for a partner, a man always on the verge of vanishing, with a fleeting kiss without any strings attached and which would be secret forever, as if it had never existed!
The English had assembled their whole cosmopolitan floating city. There were women from every country - Westerners, freshly debarked from prude old Europe, but already loosened up well by four weeks on their ocean liner - colonials, all honest ladies according to Brantôme, Hong Kong girls, where the air is feverish, Shanghai girls, were every house has two doors, Nagasaki girls, where the Japanese standard is cheating, Singapore girls, where the flowers smell all too heady, and girls Hanoi and Shanghai at last, that those in the know would sometimes call Sodom and Gomorra.
There were others still, that came from even further afield: immigrants to the Far East, candidly perverse and reveling in picturesque perversities. Americans, flirtatious and feely, Créoles from Cuba, nymphomaniacs, Australians, with plunging neck lines that went further than even New Yorkers would dare, and the legions of travelers of all races, who had become libertine and loose from the procession of countries that took away their inhibitions, ceaselessly wandering the world so that they weren't imprisoned by the moral prejudices of any one country.
Among these women, there was one who was chasing after Fierce. They were arranged at tables by pure happenstance, and first off they traded their names, their races, their countries as they got to know each other, with the quick curiosity of nomads who are in too much of a hurry to worry about some social propriety. Her name was Maud Ivory, an American from New Orleans, an orphan and a single woman - not married, she had been travelling for three years, along with a woman friend of her own age, Alix Routh, fiancéd in Bombay, and who would probably tie the knot when they arrived in India - and which would leave miss Ivory alone, although she didn't seem to be too out of sorts about being abandoned to a tourist eager for pleasure and the great outdoors.
"We came from Australia and New Zealand," she said, "and when Alix is married, I'll go to Egypt - first off at least."
Fierce questioned her curiously. "So still always on the move? No rest? And what about your home?"
"Later - later."
He pushed down his own thoughts about a home that occupied his thoughts. "And what about love?
"Love?" She looked at him coyly. "When it's time for me."
He hadn't really meant for things to head in that direction...
After the dinner, they walked on the spar deck, transformed into a garden. She breathed in deeply, a sensual and robust woman, her breasts swelling up her bosom, her hand resting on the arm around her. He looked at her from time to time and couldn't help but find he beautiful, a wild air, her voluptuous and hard eyes, her hair a long wave of proud golden fleece that cascaded down her back.
The fiancéed friend bound for Bombay came to join them, an English ensign wrapped around her. The four of them leaned on the handrails of the back of the ship. The harbor bespeckled with lights was hot and heady with smells: the palm trees and ferns that had been heaped up on the bridge gave a sentiment of seclusion and secrecy. Close by, in its corbel, a Nordenfeldt rested long and sleek, with polished steel that shone like silver.
The Englishman, a big ruddy fellow, started after his partner. Miss Routh didn't try to resist very long. The night pushed them together sweetly. They stole kisses in her shadows, and fleeting hands moved between them. Maud's hand started to clench on Fierce's shoulder.
He felt an unhappy iron feeling deaden his veins. he wanted to push her away: "Mind yourself, dear, miss Alix doesn't have a free heart tonight.."
"Bah," derided Maud. "Bombay is far away - loin d'ici !"
Yes. And other cities too, and other pledges.
But in any case, shocked perhaps by an excessively daring caress, Alix suddenly pushed away her companion and hauled over Ivory for a private confidence. Leaning on the railing, the two girls whispered to each other, brushing up against each other like cats. The Englishman, sheepish next to Fierce, tried to look busy and fiddled with the breech of Nordenfeldt, opening it up.
"Handsome gun," said Fierce to break the silence.
"Handsome indeed," repeated the Englishman.
They weren't thinking about what they said, just waiting for the Americans to finish their whispering session, and so they talked shop, their thoughts far away.
"Twenty four pounder?
"How many like it?"
Fifteen. A good battery against torpedo boats.."
Fierce took hold of the levers on the breech: the breechblock pivoted, sliding in its path. The barrel appeared, round and black, rifled in parabolas. The cannon let itself be touched like a friend's hand, smoothly and without protest. A slight effort raised up the block and closed up the tube once more: steel clinked against steel with a dull thud. Fierce searched for the trigger and pressed it: the spring clinked obligingly.
Around them it was spacious, sheltered from the wind. They would be comfortable here, on this pleasant bridge - even during a gloomy night of battle - ready to hunt down torpedo boats, on the lookout for those miserable glorified toy boats doomed to be gunned down as they raced under the curtain of steel..
Hearing the sound of the cannon's movement, the Americans came back over, taken by curiosity. The Englishman closed up the breech again.
"Military things, a trifle." He accented mockingly the phrase with a laugh, taking back the arm of miss Routh. Fierce was distracted for a moment and didn't repress an old movement, hardly forgotten; that came back to him as his right arm, instead of offering itself to Maud, reached out to encircle her waist, while is left arm seized her fingers. She melted into him and he didn't dare to abandon the willing waist. But a feeling of remorse troubled him anyway.
The American girl, surprised and piqued by the reserve of her partner, took the opportunity to show off her talents at flirting. She plunged into a stream of romantic phrases which turned into declarations: she annoyed him with risqué suggestions, she reigned coyness to bring him out, she grew hot and excited, panicking him, his blood rushing and addling him. The other couple at the same time wasn't holding back from their play, and the ruddy face of the Englishman paled at intervals. The two girls were hardened by experience to the game and cool as professionals, eyeing each other with laughs and egging each other on.
A table was close by and they sat down to dine again. A few extinguished lamps plunged things into semi-darkness. Suddenly the glasses changed hands, the knees pressed against each other. Miss Routh, bending forward flirtatiously, offered to her partner half of a litchi that she held in her lips. A kiss in the shadow, with the slightest click of teeth clinking against each other.
"What a fiancée!" exclaimed miss Ivory teasingly, her hand reaching out to a pickle lightly sensually the mouth of Fierce.
Fierce didn't kiss the offered hand. Fiancé. The word was ice in his heart. A horrible shame coursed through his conscience. Look how quickly his dirty past was catching up to him! He was truly, truly, the victim of an incurable illness, the pig that couldn't help but roll around in his muck! A gangrenous limb that needed to be cut away to save the rest?
On his thigh, another thigh pressed, a half-naked flesh touching his sensitive parts, straddling him, possessing him. But tears of disgust rose to his eyes, and that night he betrayed his love no further.
- 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