May 17th, 19.. It was ten at night. There was no moon. The sky was dark, heavy with rain.
In single file, the Saigonese torpedo boats silently descended the river, steaming towards the enemy. Seven torpedo boats, every last vessel that the arsenal could put into the waves, a desperate effort for a surprise attack that would break the blockade of the city before the Hong Kong regiments arrived. Four torpedo boats had their regular commissioned crews: the others had been equipped ad hoc, filled out as best as they could by sailors from cruisers and gunboats, and Admiral Orvilliers had given them his aides de camp as captains.
There were no shots, no signals, nothing that could let them be observed. The black torpedo boats slinked stealthily forward in the night towards their prey.
A captain's chair as large as a tea table, surrounded by an iron guardrail, seated Fierce, his hands wrapped rigidly around the sweat stained metal. Below, the pilot was bent over his compass, and on both sides spray of phosphorescent water was flung up by their passage, while all around them the warm rain plunked into the river. Soaked clothing fabric hung heavily from their shoulders.
Fourteen knots. The two banks rushed past, flat and alike. They had to pay attention constantly to be able to steer through the sinuous channels. But that was mainly the worry of the head boat of the line: Fierce commanded the 412, the fifth boat, and only had to guide his torpedo boat through the luminous trail left by the boat in front.
It was an easy task, for the moment at least. Fierce motioned to the navigator, pointing to right, to the left - like this, to keep them on their path, and allowed himself to daydream, his distracted thoughts travelling to other times and places.
By god, everything had finished better than he had hoped. Just an hour before he had been dead, just yesterday morning that the catastrophe had destroyed his life, two days and a night of suffering. But in the scheme of things that wasn't much, and it would all end better than he hoped. Even this death was being offered to him promptly and cleaning. It wasn't easy to die without too much uproar and scandal, so that Sélysette wouldn't suffer, so that shame wouldn't stain her spotless soul! No, it wasn't easy at all, and the best thought out deaths always had a whiff of suicide about them, and the suicide of a fiancé was the worst of the worst. All of it would end well now. It was impossible to live now, not even imaginable, and he had to find a way to escape from what had befallen him...
What a funny place to die, in this captain's chair. Too small by half to put a cadaver in it. Oh well!
Seven torpedo boats, pathetically outmatched by even a single battleship, and the semaphore from Saint-Jacques had signaled a squadron of three divisions! David against Goliath. But that pleased Fierce very much, since his goal was to die here, and he was as certain to perish as if he had put a revolver to his heart. Everything was going to end so well! The hardest part was this lightless rush through the dark: it wasn't even possible to light a cigarette, the last cigarette of a condemned man before his death, as he brushed himself up to die.
Old Orvilliers didn't suspect a thing. In the tumult of the declaration of war, he hadn't even seen the Sylvas. And tomorrow, when Fierce would be dead, they wouldn't tell him a thing of course: they would respect his naivety and his illusions about Fierce. He would never learn. So much the better! If he had known, that would have been a stab in the back of the admiral. Fierce truly did like him, the old grizzled man. He wasn't a Civilized man, that fellow!
Ahh! Civilization! What a catastrophe! Mévil was dead, and they had buried him that afternoon: only Hélène Liseron had been there to watch as the coffin went into the earth. Torral was on the run, the military court had condemned him in absentia. Rochet, the journalist, was hiding out, they said that he had been betrothed... really? With who them? Didn't matter! And Fierce? He was the one who was going to go out the best. Fierce would go out very well indeed.
"To the left, helm, to the left." Here, the channel passed very close to the bank. The trees let out heady bursts of perfume in the rainy night. It was like a breath of Saigon, a kiss of love that the sensual and gay city graced the torpedo boats that were going to die for her with.
Jacques-Raoul-Gaston de Civadière, the last Count of Fierce, killed by the enemy. An agreeable proposition. Mademoiselle Sylva would be able to remeber her fiancé without shame. Sélysette... Ahh, it would have been sweeter if he went to his death with the taste of her kiss on his lips... earlier, after having left the cabin of the Bayard and and after having carefully ripped up the pastel picture he had of her, its scraps still there, on his breast, and the empty frame looking like the yawning mouth of a crypt, he had closed the door to his cabin and thrown out the key through a porthole. Why the hell not? Fierce, in the night with its gathering darkness, had slunk to Moïs Street to feast his eyes on the little light which shone in the windows of the veranda. The veranda with its ebony wood, and its screen of young vines, and the kiss when he betrothed her...
Two quarters to port, and there were lights that lit up the night - Saint-Jacques Cape. But the river twisted around on itself like a serpent, and their destination was much less close than it seemed.
To die, to sleep. To sleep - to no longer dream. They had travelled from Shakespeare. Too bad, the false hope of the dream was the only thing that made life tolerable. Ahh, truth, naked truth itself! What a beautiful thing to see! But put some clothes on whore!
Still an hour to live, two perhaps, but not three. Definitely not three.
There were a lot of lights at the Cape. The English had only bombarded the batteries, and the villas were intact. In any case, the shooting had stopped at sunset.
She would cry tomorrow perhaps. There was nothing more to wish for at the moment. Eventually she would understand. She would forgive him, and that warmed his soul. My god, he was hardly guilty in the end. If he was a civilized, whose fault was that? The treason from the day before was nothing, nothing more than a faux pas on his unsteady path, a path which he hadn't chosen. He wasn't contemptable, he wasn't guilty. They had shoved him into the clutches of this terrible modern equation of truth from his very birth. So what if he had assimilated it, taken it to heart, solved the equation to a fault, looked truth in the eye? The only difference was that others had been less courageous or stupider, and had been content to be blinded by the lies. He had escaped, because he was more noble than them. He hadn't deigned to accept a reasonable mix of theory and practice, he had devoted his life to the formula of this philosophic laboratory. Was it a crime? No, just naivety. But hypocritcal fate doesn't like naive people. And that is why Fierce would die.
At heart, there was more injustice than any nihilist had ever been able to fix with their bombs.
There was the Cape right up close now, enormous, blacker than the night sky, thanks to the contrast thrown by the lights, like silver dots on a funerary shroud. To the right, to the right! They had to round the promontory. Yes, his life had had its share of injustice, more than there had been in the inky depths of coalmines, among miners whose lot of slavery made the helots of ancient Sparta pale in comparison!
Not responsible, not responsible. Innocent! Even still condemned to death by civilization, by civilization which had stolen away his dreams of happiness, his dreams of love. First blinded, then robbed, then killed. It would be good to get in some vengeance, before the end.
Ahh, they had passed the Cape, now just the ocean! Waves slapped against the hull, sending up waves of foam. There was no more forest with its heady perfume, just the brisk breeze from the sea, wild and fresh, washing over Fierce's forehead, drying his damp temple, cleaning and refreshing his thoughts. Far away, lost in the darkness, the dimly seen horizon separated the sea and the land. But it was less dark now, the rain having stopped, the clouds breaking up here and there, and three stars appearing, silver rays of moonlight shining through from above.
It was auspicious weather. On the moonlit water, they would have a better chance of finding the enemy. Finding the enemy was always the most difficult part, since the torpedo boats were so low to the water that their field of vision was badly limited. Nine times out of ten, their patrols passed in futile hunts. Thankfully today the moon was on their side. So, everything would go well.
He glanced at the torpedoes. The 412 had two large caliber tubes, 450mm. More likely than not, they wouldn't do anything: the English cannons would have wiped them out long before the 412 got into firing range. Nine battleships, a hundred and fifty 3 inch guns, and that's before you started talking about the Maxim guns! In fact, the King Edward was out there... The vision of the Nordenfedly battery on the ship leaped into his mind, and the ball, and the dinner. Bizarre. No, the torpedo tubes wouldn't amount to much. It would be ironic in any case, to torpedo the King Edward before they sank him. The torpedoes were ready, loaded, prepared, armed. All he had to do was pull the cord, and the big steel shark would throw itself into the waves and charge after its prey.
Everywhere was ready. Now, his eyes scanning the night's horizon, Fierce searched, searched, looking for the ennemy.
The enemy. Even in the most feminized minds, softened by the passage of civilization upon civilization, the word still rang cleanly, mysteriously garbed in echoes of barbarism and violence. The enemy! Two hard and cold words that summed up the avatarism of all of human ferocity since the savage battle of two cave men, that woman watched, smugly and fearfully, from high above in the tree where she had sought refuge, to the massive wars of confederations and empires, throwing themselves savagely against each other with all of their rage and power. The enemy! The unknown being, the stranger, different, who they hated and feared. The enemy, that they killed.
Fierce searched the enemy, to kill him, and he began to hate him. Surely, there was a savage miasma in the air, prehistoric, spread out in the humidity of this night of battle! Here came the breath of patriotism that went headily to his head. Before in yesteryear, the lords Fierce had too marched to battle against the English! Ahh! How could the English battleships have dared to fire upon the soil of France! They would pay for it. Good lord, how it was nerve-wracking, this calm before the storm. Were they going to be playing hide and seek all night? How the sea grew so dark when a cloud passed in front of the moon! Before, a long time ago, when he was a child, Jacques de Fierce, feared darkness with agonizing terror. It was such a horrifying thing, in the old Faubourg hotel, to have to go look in the evening for books in the somber library, the big picture book that served as an alphabet. Wwhat was the name of his German governess again? A name with a.. what? A light? Where? No, there was nothing. Even so, the helmsmen, they had sat up and peered more intently into the inky blackness, they were definitely seeing something, maybe good old foam, lit up at the horizin by the first ray of moonlight. "A red light, right ahead!" It was the joke of sailors for centuries. And here Fierce surprised himself to laugh again at the joke again in this nervous night.
Naturally, there was nothing. It had been three times now that the torpedo boats had sketched half circles around Saint-Jacques in ever widening loops. It wasn't hide and go seek, it was blind man's bluff. How he hated the moon! Every five minutes, it was a dim scattering of rays that danced across the waves, and just as soon the darkness was back. No, no English. To hell with them! They must have made for the open sea at sunset. They would have to chase them into the opean ocean, and with that, their hunt would become risky and the sea uncertain. Oh well, they couldn't hide forever! Would death, death and her promised freedom, really be so shy, so coquette as to refuse him? How could she? To start life again tomorrow, life with its horrible, terrible pain, and all of the bitterness to dwell on again, the embarrassment of this failed combat.. No, no, not that!
The torpedo boats, in line across now, spaced widely, steamed across the sea like a giant rake, still striving to pick up the enemy if he hadn't fled too far in the black night. And Fierce, wracked with his desires, strained his eyes to spot something on the horizon, tired and frustrated. The cowards, they were afraid of fighting! He bent forward, his neck rigid, his hands strangling the guardrail, biting his trembling lip. The salty wind breathed strange proud hallucinations. It was Civilization, all of it, that he chased after, that he hunted, as fast as his trembling torpedo boat could go, murderous civilization which for 26 years now had crushed him little by little, muscle by muscle, nerve by nerve, in its unstoppable march forward, and in just a bit would finish him off in a shell explosion. So be it. But fear the final blow of the vanquished! The battleships, sailing out there somewhere in front of his torpedoes, they would be his prey of vengeance! They were the quintessence of civilization gathered up behind their bastions, the heart of civilization ready to be destroyed. Fear! Watch out for the last blows of the poor human beast, dying, would give in its final agony!
But, like a pale goddess, granting his dying wishes of vengeance, the Moon swept away the clouds that hid it, and cast down upon the waves silvery rays of light that dispelled the dark. And Fierce had to throttle a cry of ferocious joy, for there, there! Among the sparkling waves, the inky black battleships sprung forth from the waves.
- 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