In Saigon, the initial worry had changed to curiosity, and then curiosity into indifference.
The revolt had lasted too long - and then it was too far away, as it dragged on in the depths of Cambodia, in the marshy forests that no one had ever seen before. The first week they had been concerned, even a bit afraid. But then normal life restarted, carefree and nonchalant.
The hot season arrived, the rainy season, with its gifts of malaria and dysentery. Soon Saigon had become a swamp itself - its beautiful red roads sheathed with mud, its gardens dirtied by yellow water, the end of strolls, tennis matches, and balls under the open sky. They had to hurry the last two days, to get in the last of the parties and joy. Saigon was a gluttonous city, and people were eager to get in their last days of happiness. The same story repeats time and time again in cities throughout history: imminent catastrophe lurking around cities mad with pleasure and debauchery, delirious with celebration in their fatalism. For Saigon, the native revolt was a dancer and perhaps a warning - the murky presentiment of an even greater danger, of the sword of Damocles that hung over Gomorrah. Unconsciously wise, the Saigonese tried to dull their senses and to drink away their sense of foreboding.
Doctor Raymond Mévil didn't participate in this generalized madness. He was sicker and sicker, his body just as much as his mind. Mrs. Malais and Marthe Abel were the two obsessions of his life, and two obsessions that were completely forbidden to him: he forgot to eat and to drink, and even worse, to love. Torral had judged his case well, diagnosing him as a type of alcoholic who had chosen women rather than alcohl, and once he was brutally cut off from his drink, Mévil was withering away.
It was a pathological case. Mévil had been a satyr for a very long time, and yet his youth didn't seem to have been altered or spiled. But his very bones had been weakened by this perpetual trial. In any case they weren't very healthy bones, sturdy human bones: Mévil after all was a Civilized, a greenhouse plant, modified, deformed, atrophied by an insane cultivation, and who had become monstrous with tiny leaves, oversized flowers, and petals in the place of stamens - speculation instead of instinct, and a very impressive and quite deformed brain. At first his mind had wrapped itself up in a comfortable self-absorption, leaving the senses their liberty, separate from their wastage - but in time the rot of his nerves had won out. Mévil, at the end of his youth cut short so soon, had entirely, and suddenly, gone off the rails and collapsed. Instead of his pleasures that he enjoyed before there was now a succession of deep passions and obsessions, the final flowering of the greenhouse plant, a strange and tragic flowering, propelled by a noxious, unhealthy, carefully constructed type of fertilizer.
Mrs. Malais, an honest woman who presented herself as a great lady, a French provincial saved by her husband from colonial infection, was the most difficult woman to seduce. She didn't respond to sensuality, or fantasies, there was no hand hold to capture her: above all, she loved her husband. Mévil grew more and more dispirited pursuing her, a chase that was all the more frustrating because he put his whole heart and mind into it, and he didn't just want to have this Galatea, but for her to love him, to stir her to passion, to transform her. Instead he just annoyed her and made her afraid. She smelt a dangerous and mysterious creature in this player who was after her, a magician who could magic her into a forbidden kingdom despite herself, where her marital fidelity would be rent asunder, her source of pride and joy. Wisely enough, if perhaps a bit tempted, she avoided his hooks and slammed the door on her pursuer.
So Mévil only saw her from far away, shopping, at the theater, on strolls. She turned away when she saw him, and hid if he tried to approach her. It was a game that he couldn't stand. Torral, the attentive spectator to this drama, was waiting for violence and a scandal. But Mévil no longer had the energy in him to be violent.
He was chasing two preys, and couldn't abandon one to catch the other. They were leading him along, the ravenous madman, on two different paths: Mrs. Malais was a sensual fantasy that he could never reach, Marthe Abel stirred sentiments in him that he didn't know he had, that frightened him to experience: mystical and superstitious feelings, the sentiment of a cold and somber love, mortality. He thought about the love of nuns for the Christ in their cell. This pale and serine girl, this statue of alabaster, this Egyptian sphynx brought to life, was more and more an enigma that he wanted to understand, or die.
He didn't try to chase her: how can you try to seduce an enigma? He didn't try her in any way. The idea that she was a woman herself, a woman to find pleasure with, never occurred to him. He loved her even more chastely than Fierce loved Sélysette, and when he thought about marrying her, he didn't think about the wedding night: if he had thought of it, it was to shrink before it perhaps, seized by fear.
Marry Marthe Abel - Mévil came up with that idea in his imagination in a particularly fevered moment. Marriage for him would be, with his principles and lifestyle, like a bull in a china shop. Just hearing it, Torral had burst into laugher, and Mévil had shamefully hidden away the idea in his drawer of crazy thoughts.
But soon enough his rules and principles were cast aside. In love as he was with two friends, and yet celibate with both of them, he had suddenly become impotent with any other women. He could no longer love. At first it had been a repugnance that he didn't try to overcome, but then he realized it was even worse: it was an impossibility. Torral, who tried to take care of him as a friend, had ordered him to keep a few mistresses, but he wilted away like an old man. He was only 30 years old, but he looked older than he was, and the disarray of his interior could be read easily on his face, the face which had always been handsome but now was exhausted.
It was then that he understood that he was walking straight towards a cliff, and that anything he could do to save himself from it was better than what he faced. Thus it was when the news of Fierce's marriage arrived that he thought it was a great example. He took up his project, tossed it around in his mind, and thought that it would soon be an excellent and workable plan, exactly in accordance with his rather imprecise desires. From that point on, he wanted to put things in action. But when he went off to try to get Marthe Abel, he saw the sphinx eyes that fixed him with her great staring gaze, was stunned, couldn't speak, and left.
The eyes of Marthe Abel. Mévil, alone, dreamed about them for the first time. What was there behind those cold black lights? He had loved many women, he had watched them live and when they were impassioned: he knew their normal tricks, ambition, vanity, sensuality, or in other words venality that summed that all up. But what was there behind Marthe Abel's eyes! She was a sphinx, as much within as outside. He abandoned try to figure her out and shifted to more practical daydreaming. Miss Abel was 20 years old - she was an only child, well raised, very pretty, if without a dowry, ridden with debts, hardly overrun with suitors - as a whole, quite difficult to marry off. Himself, Mévil, was young, had his clientele, his reputation, a good sized fortune - a good match, without a doubt! So why didn't she accept him?
Why? He looked at himself in a mirror. He was handsome, as handsome as her. He returned that same evening to Marthe's house, and once again retreated, fearfully.
But two days later, on the street in the morning, he ran into Torral, who was coming back for lunch. "Fierce arrives this evening with his Avalanche," said the engineer. "I spent the last hour at the capital: the revolt is over, or at least that's what they say."
"Ah. Fierce's coming?" responded Mévil. The marriage of Fierce and Sélysette wasn't a mystery anymore, the banns had just been published.
"Yes, Fierce is coming, the poor bastard! The Sylvas came back from Saint-Jacques Cape yesterday. He'll spend the night with his family I'm sure. His family! Fierce! Ahh, I thought he was better than that: But let's not talk about that anymore. This evening, the two of us, we'll dine together?"
"I don't know.."
"If you aren't sure, the answer is yes. We have to shake you up my friend! Eight o'clock at the club, or a bit earlier, at Catinat Street.
Alone, at home, Mévil sat down, his cheek resting on his hand.
Fierce was coming back, and Fierce was getting married. So it was possible for a Civilized, despite their excesses, despite their tiredness, to find a good girl and to marry her, like barbarians do. It was possible! He mulled over the idea for hours, cherishing the vertitude. At 4 o'clock, he called for his rickshaw. About to leave, he realized that the request that he was about to make was quite similar to a duel. He had seen them from time to time and was well acquainted with helpful drugs to shore up failing hearts, and he drank a flask just in case. The Tonkinese porters marched quickly, too quickly.
It was stormy, and the clouds hang low in the sky. It had rained that morning, the first downpour of the monsoon, and the evening's squall was building up. The streets were muddy, and the porters stopped to raise the hood and undfold the blankets: Mevil thought the stop was entirely too short. As the rickshaw was arriving in front of the palace, the first drops of rain felt. But the Tonkinese, with grunts of effort, hauled him up the threshold and the master got down under the collonade of the entreeway, without having to wet his cloth shoes. The doorman, hurriedly clicked his heels and stood to attention, his gun on his shoulder. A serving boy coming out of the hall hastily scuried aside to let the European man past.
Mévil entered. The hall was empty, the door of the little salon open, and he went into it. The blue flask had fired him up, and he almost wasn't afraid when he say Marthe. She was there, alone, seated at the piano: she read a music sheet without playing it, her fine artist hands resting above the keys. The mats on the tiles whispered as he walked towards her. She turned her head, and stood up to greet him as she offered her hand. They sat down facing each other. Politely, she thanked him for coming to see her through the rain: the deluge was streaming down the windows now, and the salon, normally somber as Annamite living rooms tend to be, started to feel like a crypt or a cave. Mévil imagined that perhaps it really was one, the cave of the sphynx, where the victims were ripped to shreds.
Even so, he steeled himself the attack. But rather than going head on, he thought of a way to approach the subject from a new angle. The Fierce-Sylva marriage came to mind.
"Jacques de Fierce is arriving this evening from Cambodia," he said.
Miss Abel looked surprised.
"You're sure? I had breakfasted this morning with Sélysette, and she didn't know anything about that."
"The news comes from the Government."
"Too bad then. The Sylvas have left for Mytho early, and they won't come back until after diner."
"Oh well! They'll see each other tomorrow then."
The conversation felt stilted and pained. He made an effort - the decisive question seemed like a leaden weight to push out.
"A nice marriage, isn't it?"
"They'll be happy."
She gave a shrug of ignorance.
"You don't know Fierce," he insisted. "He's been my friend for ten years, and he's loyalty, sincerity, itself."
"That's good for Sélysette, she deserves to be happy."
Mévil watched the pendulum of the clock on the wall sway: ten minutes down the drain already. He realized suddenly that a visitor might burst in on them. The trench was there, and he had to act now. He gathered up his courage.
"A marriage is an example to follow. What do you think of it?"
"A good example or a bad example?" She gave a peculiar laugh, quick and humorless. "Me? I haven't thought about it yet, not in the slightest."
"You think?" she said indifferently.
He crossed the Rubicon. "I know... one at least... that only wants you, that only dreams about you."
She looked at him very attentively.
"And do you know who it is, by chance?" she said as she rose. "Could it be you?" She laughed again.
She didn't hesitate a second. "My god! You could have warned me! Is that a declaration? Or an official proposal?"
She was still laughing, but couldn't be calmer.
"Let's put this all to music, if it suits you?" She seated herself again at the piano, pressed two choirs, and threw her fingers into a Sarabande of burlesque notes, ending suddenly, without any transition, by a phrase in minor, mysteriously. She was mocking him, and he grew annoyed.
"I don't understand the sonatas. This one here, what does it mean? Yes, or no?"
She spun around on her stool, to stare at him directly. "Are you serious?"
"More than I have ever been."
"You want to marry me?"
"It's all I want?"
"Seriously, not a joke?"
He thought she was being coquette.
"On my honor," he said heatedly, "if you give me your hand it'll be the most wonderful give of love that a woman has ever done!"
She made a face of polite rejection.
"That's too bad then, since that gift isn't something I can give you."
"Because - truthfully, I can't."
He hadn't expected to just have her melt into his arms. Women only say yes one time: he knew that better than anyone.
"Madamoiselle - he was standing, ready to retreat. Listen to me please: this isn't a game, it's a question of my happiness, of your happiness even! You know who I am, my name, my situation, my life: I have money, if not a fortune, the woman that I'll marry with be happy in many ways. That women will be you or no one, because I love you passionately, like I've never loved before. Don't say anything! Not yet! There's nothing in my words that could offend you. Think, take a bit of time, ask for advice. I'll wait two days, three days, a week... And remember that my life is yours, and my destiny in your hands..."
He bowed deeply and walked to the door. Upright, her temple furrowed, Marthe Abel had let him expound freely. She called him back.
"Don't wait for anything, sir, for it's useless." She spoke directly, her eyes fixed coldly upon him. "I told you no, and that won't change - it will never change. I understand, believe me, the honesty of what you've said, I'm even flattered, because I know your name, your life, your wealth, and all the other advantages that you've spouted off to me. But I can't marry you. If you truly want a reason to chalk up my refusal to, let it be that I am too young.
"And am I too old then? I'm not thirty yet.."
She smiled, impertinently. "Ah? I thought more. But enough with that, if you please. I imagine that this is a hard conversation for you, just as it is for me. I have told you no twice, and I believe that one time would have been enough for your pride, if not your curiosity?"
He grew more animated. "It is about my pride! How much time I have pined for you! It's been two months that I have been your shadow, two months that I have loved you, two months that I've abandoned my life, two months that Saigon, which held me as proud and haughty before, has laughed to see me laid so low. What does it matter! It's a matter of my heart, not of my pride - and my heart can't live without you, my heart and my life, since if you reject me, then I will die!"
She inspected him with a curious and cynical look. "You're so very elegant! I understand so many things that I hadn't beforehand... Tell me, when you speak to Mrs. Malais, do you say the same things?"
He paled. The Sphinx had won again, the enigma was indecipherable. He looked fixedly at hear black eyes. She didn't want... why didn't she want him? He despair at once of his defeat. Before, he would have had the comeback to strike back at arrogant women like her. He struggled to try to find them, to throw at her.
"Is that so?" he said as he backed up. "You're know more than I thought. So much the better: if you've started to be frank, I hope that you'll be so all the way. Just one word, and I'll go, forever. If I kill myself when I leave here, I want to know why. Please, tell me the reason for why you refused me - the reason."
She stiffened. "I don't have to tell you."
"So do I have to try to guess it, me?"
She rose, haughtily, and looked for a bell.
"Don't call," said Mévil heatedly. "I might not show you enough respect in front of your servants. Let's end this. You don't want to marry me. But are you capable of going without me? You're as poor as a beggar, you know well enough: do you hope to find another man like me a second time, ready to take you for nothing, ready to pay your father's debts?"
She listened to him, her two hands posed on top of each other neatly. Suddenly, he saw her smile, mockingly, proudly. He stopped suddenly, a flicker in his mind. "What an idiot I am! You found her, your dupe! And yet why... who is it? who?"
He searched furiously, with the sharpened clarity that you have in hours of nervous tension. She drew up her shoulders, the first sign of refrained anger, and then she became the impassive Sphynx once more, that mere men could never touch, never affect. She almost pitied the man in front of her, rambling with rage.
"Go sir," she said simply, and as he didn't move, she herself advanced two steps to the door. He dared to raise his hand to her, and she stopped him with an arm. She shook him off, snake like with speed, her eyes burning in her pale face. "Leave me!" she shouted. "I wasn't wrong when I refused you earlier! I saw who you are and I judged you well, you coward, you cur, vile, husk, scoundrel! There, there's why I don't want you, that's why I despise you! Look at yourself in this mirror! Look at yours, look!"
He looked despite himself.
"Your hollowed eyes? Your sunken cheeks? Your whole degrading, abject life, it's written in your flesh! Yes, you can see it, it's plain as day, that you're not a man anymore, you're just a crazy puppet with broken strings. You talk about marrying me, buying me off with your pocket change, me who's young, who's healthy, who's pure! From you who's already older than old men, who'll be rolling about in a wheel chair soon enough? You're mad! It costs more than that, buying a virgin!"
He tried to fight back, stricken with shame.
"More expensive? How much! What is the price! And the buy's name! A rich man, a good dupe ready for anything, a happy cuck! And damnit, I know the name, it's Rochet! There's no one in Saigon who's more indulgent, no one who's richer! And I remember very well, I had seen him hanging off your glove, that evening at the governor's mansion!"
She didn't blush.
So you saw? So much the better. Yes, I'll marry him, if I want, if I consent, if my life's sadness obliges me, as poor as a beggar as you say, to sell myself off. The buyer at least, will be as rich as a king. You on the other hand.."
With her finger, she gestured towards the door. Her eyes were spitting lighting. He recoiled in fear. As he backed up, two chairs, that he stumbled into in his retreat, clattered over. He slammed into the door. He stared at the carpet, not daring to raise his eyes up to her, to see her upright, straight, pale, her arm extended, the terrible Sphynx. On the doorstep, the rain was still pouring. He didn't even notice it as he fled.
- 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