Nemenis Street was silent and dark, the Annamite and Japanese brothels had closed their doors and didn't light their bamboo oil lamps, casting the street into inky blackness. It was early in the evening, barely 8 o'clock. Fierce's feet echoed on the pavement, and the pounding on Torral's door hammered out in the darkness.
Torral himself promptly opened the door. He held a lamp, which he shone in his visitor's face first. Recognizing Fierce, he went ahead of him into the opium den. Fierce entered, dragging his feet, like defeated soldiers walk.
Torral set down the lamp on the ground. The opium den was empty, missing its mats, its cushions, its pipes, just three white walls, and a black table in the middle, a funeral slab with clay epitaphs.
The light spilled onto the soil. Torral saw Fierce's shoes, muddy from the streets, and the fabric of his pants, stained with red.
"Where did you come from? Why are you here at this hour?"
He spoke with brusque worry. Fierce tried to search for the words to respond. He didn't reminder. Yes, why was he here? To talk about his pain, to share it, to work over it? For what reason, now that everything was over? The courage and the words escaped him.
He slid down against the wall. Torral studied his silence and his haggard eyes, then with a shrug of his shoulders, he gestured around at the empty room.
"You see? I'm going. I'm deserting."
"Ah?" muttered Fierce, indifferently.
Torral repeated it twice more. "I'm deserting." In the silence that followed, the word finally wormed its way into Fierce's head, who understood slowly.
"What are you deserting?" he asked.
"My battery, damnit, Saigon itself."
Fierce took the lap back up, and shone it on Fierce's face.
"Even sicker than I thought you were," he remarked. "Is it your broken marriage that sent you down the drain? Did you know that was has been declared?"
With his head and shoulders, Fierce motioned that he didn't know anything, and that it didn't matter anyway.
"Declared," repeated Torral. "And since noon, the English have been blockading Saigon. The news arrived just a few hours ago, with the liner that received the first shells lobbed at it."
Fierce thought for a minute, trying to see if there was any influence at all from that on his own disaster. No relationship, obviously. Torral continued on.
"Reserve officers are being called up tomorrow morning, and they're being sent straight off to the firing line. I'm so grateful! Batteries are an unhealthy place, and you know how I don't like to put my health in risk. I've booked a cabin onboard of a German liner that's leaving tonight for Manilla. And I'm leaving you crazies to go out at amongst yourself."
Fierce didn't say anything back. Without a doubt, Torral's desertion was a logical and understandable act, that he arrived at with his wonderful formula - the least pain, the least effort. Fleeing rather than dying, that was better all around, couldn't argue with that. Torral accepted the silent agreement, and less bitterly went on.
"That said," he finished, "you crossed the whole city, and you didn't even notice the hubbub on Catinat Street?"
"No, not in the slightest..."
"Very sick indeed."
Fierce pitied himself a bit, mixed with self-hatred. But it was the first kind word that Fierce had heard, and his whole heart burst with pain and gratitude.
"Oh, if only you knew..." In a convulsion of pain, he put his joined hands behind his neck and stiffened, his back against the wall, like he was crucified. "If only you knew," he repeated.
He started to speak. The words came to his mouth now, hesitant, halting, but heated. He spilled out wildly everything in his heart, the despair that poured out in ribbons of bile. Wildly, he poured out his live and his shame, and the great hope that had for a brief second rescued his grey life, and the terrible death of his newfound paradise lost. He spoke, he cried as he spoke, he cried with great racking sobs - like barbarians cry. Torral listened to him impatiently, judging him with his hard eyes.
"All right, that's enough," he broke in suddenly. "I told you this would happen, didn't I? When you abandoned all common sense you were courting disaster. You can't complain too much, the fall could have been even worse. Your failed marriage saved your life. Now you're free, and you've been miraculously saved from the madhouse that you were going to be imprisoned in to the end of days. Idiot! Instead of crying, you should laugh. Maybe the cure was bitter, but you're cured! All of what you've been mumbling about doesn't have a wisp of logic in it. Your paradise lost wasn't real, it's a land of lies and mirages, you could go past its pearly gates and never find the slightest real happiness in it. In fact, you know something now right? Listen, I'm going to be gone from Saigon within an hour, and it's probably the last time in my life that I'll see you. We've been friends, I want to give you something more than advice, a testament: come back to the right side of things. You were a civilized man, and centuries of continued perfection of atavism don't fade. Come back to civilization. Lose your last outcroppings of conventions, religions, principles. Instead go back to what you were before the crisis, a man among the children that make up this planet! And you'll fit right back in with that joy that men have, the healthy and reasonable joy that is not suffering."
He looked straight in Fierce's eyes, and Fierce looked back at him too, pensively. Their two minds mulled over their parted paths. Torral took out a cigarette and lit it. In the silence, they watched the lamp sputter, on its last drops of oil.
"So, you're happy?" said Fierce suddenly.
"You don't want anything more? That's enough for you? Sleep, eat, drink, smoke tobacco and opium, make love with women - no, with boys for you?"
"And in the bottom of your heart, you believe that good and evil are baloney, and that there's no god, no law?"
"Time for my sermon. There's only one god I believe in: determinist evolution. I believe in good and evil, in the sense of useful ways to control society, cunningly invented by crafty people to keep the gullible under control, and I even believe that man as both a body and a soul, the former being mathematically defined, an inherent part of the chemical reactions of the latter. Now, to expand on that, I'll simply say that the Civilized creed is a secret that you have to keep safe from people, because they're not worthy it of it, and keep it for special people, people like me, elites. This civilization has to be selective, and if you let its mysteries out then that sends evolution spiraling down to barbarism.
He inhaled the last puffs of smoke of his cigarette and crushed it under his foot.
"But in any case I imagine that you know that just as well as myself?"
The flame of the lap was dying with little flickers which threw dancing red shadows on the wall. Fierce gazed at the floor. What could he say? Torral was speaking the truth, and there was nothing he could argue against Torral's logic. Suddenly, among the ghosts of his thoughts, Fierce saw Sélysette again - truthful, faithful, absurd, happy.
"And yes!" he suddenly shouted. "I do know it. Your creed is something I learned in middle school and even before then I was applying it, and that it's the only truth and everything else is a lie. Yes damnit I know all of that! There's no god, no law, no morality, there's nothing, just the right for anyone to cavort however they want, and to live at the expense of the weak. And then? I lived my life according to that, and I abused it. My only master was truth and truth was the most implacable and dominating mistress I could have. Is it my fault that now I'm suffocating in her embrace? Is it my fault that I only found weariness and heartbreak where I was told there was happiness? To not suffer - to not feel anything! That's not enough for me. I need something more. Not just to resign to a life of living to eat, drink, and sleeping around. I don't want this truth of yours anymore, that has nothing more to offer me. If everything else is a lie, then it's the lie I prefer, with its tricks, its treasons, its tears!"
"No! I'm seeing it clearly at last. The truth, what's that to me? Nothing, nothing at all! What I need is happiness. And I've seen men who live their life according to lies, in their t angled web of religion, morals, honor, virtue. It was those men who were happy.."
"Happy like prisoners working on a chain gang."
"And so what? Maybe it's better to be in the dungeon than to camp under the stars?"
"Try it then, and you'll find out."
"I can't anymore! You can get out of that dungeon but you can't get back in. I've seen the truth and I can't go back to the lies. But I miss the lies, and I hate the truth."
"Mad," said Torral sorrowfully.
"The truth, what has it down for us, we who loved it like the Christians with their Christ? What did it do for Rochet, Mévil, for myself? We're sick and we're old, doomed to waste away or for suicide.
"For myself, it's made me happy."
"Then go! A fugitive, an outcast, with a life that's been shattered and broke, who dishonored, condemned, hunted everywhere, won't even have a cemetery where he can be buried!"
"Perhaps. That doesn't prove anything.
It was very solemn. The lap was on the verge of finally flicking out, and it was a lade creature that still danced in the gathering darkness. That doesn't prove anything," Torral reaffirmed. "Perhaps I'm wrong, but that's just a problem of calculations. The method that I'm following is the right one. I'll start over again."
He heard the hour sound on a clock.
"I'll start again. It's just a life that I have to put back together. I'm leaving: adieu. Before, I would have taken you with me, and we would have deserted together, two living men who would escape alive and happy from the ruins that are going to collapse here and bury you in them. But you've spit on civilization, you're joining the barbarians, and I leave alone. Goodbye."
He walked to the door. The lamp was in his way, and he kicked it over with a single blow.
"Adieu," he repeated again, and then he left.
Torral, alone in the ink black opium den, listened as the paces grew more distant, faded away. As he listened, he heard a distant rumble that sent goosebumps down his spine: a low thunder of distant English cannons, far away on the sea.
- 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