Fierce never received Torral's letter, and nor did he get the hefty post from Sélysette, which left the same day on the same mail ship. The Bayard precipitously advanced its depart by three days, weighing anchor at Hong Kong without any news from Saigon. Surprises like that are hardly unexpected at sea, and sailors accept them hardily enough most often. But Fierce regretted not receiving any letters, and it was hard to leave, to set off for destinations unknown - a secret destination, where he would travel without the fortification of sweet words, tender thoughts, a scrap of paper brushed by his fiancée.
This letter that he longed for, the cure for his sickness, he was dragged away from before he could be healed. He left feverish and troubled, his body hurt, his spirit injured. All of his cynicism, his nihilism that had occupied him before had come roaring back since the English party. Despite being betrothed, despite the pure and deep love that coursed through his heart, all it had taken was a libertine excursion and a minute of weakness for him to be on the verge of treason, so that his determination collapsed and he was sliding towards debauched sin. A bitter self-doubt welled up inside him. Wasn't he irredeemably rotten from his life before? This altar of civilization, the civilization of Torral, Mévil, Rochet, rationalist civilization of men without God, without master, without laws, wasn't it a mysterious mental illness, a rotting of the soul, that seized grip of its victims and refused to slacken its hold? All of his life, all 26 years, Fierce had chased after pure reason, and now he had thrown it aside, declared it vain and harmful, but alas, how could he cleanse himself of its infection! Was it enough, to heal him, to be in love with an honest and faithful virgin Sélysette's love for him was like a ray of sunshine, but his mind drifted to the tuberculosis victims who would linger on, in a hot and dry climate, in their doomed lives: a cold wind, a bit of rain, and death came roaring back. To be stripped of the salvation of the sun for a minute would be a death sentence.
The Bayard left Hong Kong quietly, stealthily, making an escape from the clutching city. A mystery, unexpected depart, abruptly decided upon in far away Paris, at a minister's office where they were discussing the fearful question of peace or war. A feeling of unease pervaded the harbor, disturbing the ships of all countries which watched the French admiral part. The Bayard steamed past the poop of the King Edward and the two ships, so friendly the day before, brought together by their parties and pleasure, saluted stiffly, the sharp sound of the cannons echoing in the bay, the white sailors and the red soldiers coldly set face to face, bayonets fixed, the rising sun dousing the world with blood.
Towards the sea the Bayard sailed. Hong-Kong disappeared beneath the horizon, as they steamed towards the west. The Chinese coast turned blow to starboard. At twilight, Chaozhou appeared under the setting sun and Jacquelin Mountain appeared, part yellow, part black, sand below and scrub above. The Bayard, the following dawn, entered the Maxie river, ascending to the estuary of Guangzhouwan, between two green banks protected by breakwaters, speckled with villages under the spreading cover of trees. The French city sprawled out with its barracks, its docks, its schools - empty. in the port, a cruiser lay at anchor. The Bayard stopped, signalled, and the other ship weighed anchor and both of them, in line formation, set off down the river.
Fierce counted the days. Still three until they were at Saigon, if they went as the crow flew. But they didn't - they passed through Hainan's strait, Orvillier's division bound to concentrate in Tonkin, at Halong Bay. Fierce despaired. Sélysette's charm that had regenerated him, made him young again, honest, innocent, happy - broken, so far from her, now old, debauched, cynical, civilized. Vainly he gazed fervently at her dear stolen portrait, which had been his protective talisman so many times, but the charm was broken. The portrait of Sélysette was just a powerless image, when he needed more - her voice, her hand, her soul - and quickly, before the incurable relapse!
The Bayard vanished into the Tonkinese fogs. Suddenly they were surrounded by a tiny bubble of a world, and the ocean was as flat and murky as a lake: strange rocks, as high as cathedral towards, peeked out of the fog. They steamed forth among fantastic forms of clouds and islands, that blended into each other under so that one couldn't tell the difference between heaven and sea. It was a nightmarish archipelago, a petrified legion of giants who slowly arose from the foam flecked waves to encircle the ships. From the grey sky fell a steady drumbeat of rain, a drizzle that seemed eternal.
Halong Bay lay there, blanketed by fog. A long ghost floated on the water, hard to make out in the gloom of the rain: a cruiser patrolling for them. They halted for two days. Barges loaded with coal came out from the port, invisible despite being so close by, and filled up the bunkers. Then, the division sailed off again for the high seas. The grey sky still cried over the grey rocks in the never ending grey fog.
Away from Halong, the sea grew rougher, and the monsoon whipped the scoured hulls of the ship with foam. The sun lit up the Annamese coast, abrubtly transforming the world into gold. The division headed towards Saigon, but slowly: they crawled all along the coast, hugging every promontory, nosing into every bay. They guessed that somebody wanted them to show the ships, the cannons, the tricolor flag everywhere. They anchored several times, at Thuan-an, Tourane, Qui-nhone, Nia-trang, hours lost forever. but finally, the tenth night, they passed Padarang's lights, then Saint-Jacques, and Saigon awakening in the morning hove into appearance on the river, above the masts and the halls of the cruisers reflected in the current. They had been gone for 31 days.
Fierce, impatiently, scanned the city. But first, he had to go through and decipher the accumulated mail. In addition to the monthly dispatches - which they hadn't had forward to them - there were military and diplomatic orders which had arrived just recently. The command staff passed four hours at the task. Every aid de camp, isolated in his chamber, was sent after separately parts of the text, and the finished pieces arrived one by one on the admiral's table, where they were all put together and you could finally get what they were saying. Fierce decrypted his part without bothering to find out what the big picture was: what did it matter if it was peace or war in the cards, when his mind was drawn to Moïs street.
He rushed there as soon as the first launch was in the water, and the burning sun of midday at 3 o'clock didn't cool his ardor. He went on foot rather than wait for a carriage, and his heart beat headily to see once more the villa and the lovely veranda of his engagement. A shudder of happiness twinged through his heart: he still loved and so nothing was lost, nothing was sullied, those thirty troubled and nerve wracking days would disappear like a bad dream, at the first smile of his fiancée. He called at the fence. A boy opened it, idly, and recognizing him, went off to fetch a letter. Fierce, surprised, anxiously, ripped open the envelope - and was stunned, the letter falling from his hands. Sélysette wasn't in Saigon, her mother had had to leave the city for the sanatorium of Cape Saint-Jacques.
Fierce felt bitter disappointment, but also was reassured: he had been afraid, when he had opened the envelope, that the news would be worse. After all, the Cape wasn't too far from Saigon, and the river boats went there every day in two short hours. Fierce reread the letter, two pretty pages scrawled out hastily, before the departure: Mrs. Sylva had much suffered from the excessive heat and humidity of the end of April, and Sélysette, always careful and motherlike, had extracted a couple weeks in the mountains. The governor was off in Tonkin, and so his villa at the Cape was empty: they would move in there now, and Fierce would have a room there: they were waiting for him as soon as Hong Kong had finally relinquished the poor Bayard.
"Tomorrow," he thought, "I'll ask for leave, and I'll dine at the Cape."
Comforted by this certitude, he suddenly realized that the sun was high in the sky and his hat entirely insufficiently. He hailed a Malabar - the Malabars are the run down flea-ridden taxi cabs of Saigon, hopped in and resigned himself to going back onboard the Bayard. At Catinat Street, he stopped amidst the stores: after thirty days of absence, a few purchases were in order.
Saigon hadn't changed. He noted it without displeasure, and it was a good distraction from his disappointment. At the laundry, there were still the same Chinese figures hunched over the clothes, their cheeks swollen with water to humidify it with a steamy rain, before the heavy pounding of big irons loaded with embers. At the taillor, the big scissors still cut the same white cloth folded six times, to make half a dozen outfits faster. Fierce entered A-Kong, his favorite merchant's, store, and the old Cantonese hurried over to greet him, a large smile written across a face as wrinkled as a lemon. "A cup of tea - real Fouchou, captain! And what do you want? You come from Hong Kong? What the English do? When fight?"
"You're an old rascal," said Fierce with a laugh. "We won't fight at all. You'll send me rice powder, extra dry champagne, Pedro Ximénès and some violin strings."
Immediately, A-King confidentially offered a new batch of rice paper - very good quality - and white and red tennis balls - easy to see on the ground. "About, what is there new, captain Malais, of the Big Lake side?"
'What's that? The rice tax?"
The old man, prudently, shifted to another thing, changing his subject with a diplomat's cunning. The Chinese were the silent conquerors of Indochine, and in every city and village had set up their commercial network, and were brilliantly informed by their secret Free Masonry and new every detail of what was going to come, and profited from this by constantly and cynically taking advantage of everything to enrich themselves amidst the indolent Annamites and the astonished Europeans.
Five o'clock sounded. Fierce was hot, and the Bayard, roasted by the sun still high in the sky, had become an oven. Rather than returning onboard, it was better to ride another two hours in the carriage - until the evening. Fierce paid his Malabar and found a much better fitted Victoria. The driver, without even asking, took the classic road: it was the Inspection's hour. Fierce let him go.
Saigon was on parade on the Poteaux alley. Everyone was there, and Fierce recognized people who had crossed his path from his previous life - at a supper, at a ball, in a gambling den or in a bed. Strange! That sensual and cynical life that he had lived, until now he had taken his leave of it, he had fled it, so completely that he had stopped noticing it, no longer even remembered that it existed. But still it was there: it continued to parade around with its licentiousness and open arms, in the carriages filled with flesh for sale and consciousness to be bought - ready at the drop of a hat for him to return to its embrace. Fierce, in an instinctual reaction, ordered the chauffer to go faster, but he couldn't in the dense traffic.
A cart pulled by a lone pony crossed in front of them. Torral was inside, with one of his boys: he liked to show off his vice from time to time in the city center for everyone to see, cynically outraging the teetotalers who he despised. He saw Fierce and called out hello, then with the flood of carriages pulling him away, turned around to ask if he had received his letter. Fierce was already too far and didn't understand, just looking forward.
At the end of Poteaux Alley, there was a little brick bridge, and it was custom that the carriages didn't go any further and that there they would turn about. Fierce seized on this tradition to quit the crowd. Beyond, he would be in the open air, far from these vicious and jaded men and the false women in their damp dresses.
But a hand fell upon his shoulder: doctor Mévil, peddling a bicycle, had slipped through to him, barely escaping a few wheels in route in his reckless path. Fierce hadn't read Torral's letter after all so the suffering face of the doctor stunned him: Mévil was the color of wax, his blue eyes were wide and gaping as they stared at nothing, his lips, otherwise red like they were bleeding from women's bitemarks, had paled to a dull pink, his light mustache of a decadent Gaul was drooping and ragged despite all the power of cosmetics. Fierce asked about his health: he shrugged his shoulders in response, but his hand sought out his friend's in thanks.
"What happened to you?" said Fierce.
They travelled together side by side, silently. Hélène Liseron happened upon them suddenly in her carriage. Doubtless she had reconciled with Mévil, because she puckered her lips for a kiss: she had never been the type of person who could hold a grudge against someone a long time, and when she saw Fierce, she stuck her tongue out at him laughingly.
"You're back together with her?" asked Fierce.
Mévil shook his head. He spoke in monosyllables, like an exhausted man. Suddenly, he looked Fierce right in the face.
"So, is it true? You 're marrying Miss Sylva?"
His voice was filled with a due respect, and a sombre sadness. Fierce, moved, gripped his hand.
"Yes, and I'm very happy..." he said.
They were arriving at the little brick bridge. The carriages turned about and returned, always marching smartly. Inside, women smiled, vain in their dresses - Mévil watched them, then slowly, shrugged, and murmured "goodbye." He turned, shook himself, and hurried off in the opposite direction of Fierce, in pursuit of the women, of one or another, or maybe one who wasn't there... Fierce, pensively, gazed at the flooded rice paddy, and the setting sun that set it afire with sparkling ruby.
Further along from the bridge, he stopped in the middle of the road which was emptied of travelers. A few trees cast their shade, and he liked this refuge, especially since one evening the month before he had stopped her with Sélysette, and a flock of fireflies had buzzed around them. Heady with this memory, he descended from the carriage, but then his mood sourred suddenly: the Ariettes' carriage stopped at the same moment and he couldn't escape a run in with them. The yellow lawyer grimaced with his friendliest smile, and Fierce had to come to the door to hold it open for Mrs. Ariette, distractedly, to unglove her hand for him to kiss it.
"You're back from Hong Kong? It was such a long trip!"
Ariette seemed delighted to run into his good friend: he invited him to eat the same evening at his house, without any ceremony.
"I can't," said Fierce bluntly. "I'm a bit under the weather and I am leaving for the sanatorium tomorrow..."
"Another reason to come: you need a family dinner, and a peaceful, relaxing evening. So come!"
"It'll be such a pleasure for us," added Mrs. Ariette, her eyes still modestly downcast."
He was forced to give in in the end.
The dinner was tense and troubled. Mrs. Ariette's fingers, pretty and supple, danced lightly on the tablecloth, arching and bending like secret caresses, and Fierce, despite himself, remembered caresses received and given from before. Underneath the table a foot touched his own, and he responded involuntarily to the touch. A lust filled his veins, and his long abstinence weighed more and more heavily upon himself.
He felt afraid and tried to pull away from them: the lawyer mouthed something about a plea that he had to read over to leave his wife and guest alone: Fierce pulled out his watch and exclaimed that the hour was late and that he had to go - not noticing the disappointed glance that the couple exchanged.
"I'll accompany you to the quai," said Ariette suddenly. "My plea can wait."
The streets were as white as the moon, and the night was hot. They rambled along slowly. In front of the club, Ariette insisted so strongly on going in that Fierce gave in.
The poker games were going full blast. Fierce had to give in to being the fourth member. The pot was huge, and Ariette schemed to make it even larger. Fierce lost, and started applying himself fully to the game. But luck wasn't on his side: he kept on losing, kept at it until the dawn, and then left bitter and exhausted. For four hours, the cards in his hands, he had forgotten Sélysette. He crossed the gangplank of the Bayard with remorse and worry: a presentiment of doom seized him.
But he didn't expect the blow which was about to fall. On the table, a paper was waiting for him, a big official letter stamped with an official mark. He read it, stupefied.
"IT IS ORDERED
That Mr. Liutenant Jacques de Fierce to debark from the Bayard April 20th, 19.. and to embark instead on the Avalanche the same day.
Mr. Fierce will be in command of the Avalanche, which will be fitted out April 20th.
Executed, the Bayard, April 20th, 19..
The Rear Admiral commanding the subordre, D'ORVILLIERS."
It was all in order. Not understanding any of it, he hurried off to the admiral.
"Now you are a commander," declared Orvilliers. "At your age, that's not bad.."
He stopped when he saw the anxious look on Fierce's face. "You've seen Miss Sylva, I hope?"
"No, she's at the Cape..."
"Blast! My poor man, what rotten luck for you! At the Cape! You won't have the time to go there. The arsenal has finished fitting out the Avalanche and you'll leave this evening.
"For the Great Lake. All of Cambodia is aflame with revolt, and the Siamese are getting involved. The dispatched arrived this revolt. It's a serious revolt and it broke out without warning: there's English money there for sure. I predicted it, and it's the beginning of the end..."
He started off on his favorite activity, the prophet of doom predicting catastrophes. The fiancé de Sélysette, immobile and silent, didn't hear anything.
"Admiral, " he said suddenly, "Is the Bayard remaining here at Saigon? You'll see Miss Sylva..."
The old man stopped suddenly, and tenderly, rested his two hands on Fierce's shoulders. "I'll see her. Don't worry, she'll know, and she'll be waiting for you."
Oh, if it was only her patience and her fidelity that he doubted instead of his own!
- 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