"The All-Saigon?" asked Fierce, looking at the half-filled boxes.
"The All-Saigon," said Mévil. The theater is too big for the public. And it's also well laid out, it isn't as stifling. Normally, the room is almost deserted. But this evening, it's showtime for premiers! There's a new singer who debuts, and even if she's definitely rubbish, as they all are, it's good taste to go watch her, if not to listen to her."
Without worrying about the raised curtain, or about the actors performing on the stage, he sank into one of the chairs and declared "I'll be your tour guide!" He impertinently gestured with the tip of his finger in a row at each of the theater's boxes.
"Downstage, on the right, between the tricolor flags; you have his eminence the governor general of Indochina - citizen nobody back at home, but here he's proconsul of the Republic and viceroy. Yes, that little old man with the crochety face, that's him. His neighbor, the noble old figure in the style of the Tower of Nesles from Dumas - well, I don't know him, unfortunately."
"He's my admiral. "Father Orvilliers," said Fierce.
"A newcomer, that explains everything. I'll continue. Downstage on the left, in front of the political-military powers, the economic-financial powers, more stable. The enormous brute, the big rectangle, with the wolf teeth and the scary hands, that's sir Malais, the tax farmer for rice, tea, and opium, and my particular enemy - He has forty million francs to swing around, and every last penny ill gotten. At his side you have his wife, more blonde, more dimpled, thinner than the type you find around here, and unfortunately too expensive for my pocketbook - if she wasn't, I would have already left my wallet on the tea table of her veranda. Moving on. The box in front, semi-officials, while on the left, with the pile of green brocade, sumptuously embroidered, the tiny little brown hand in the pagoda sleeve, you have miss Jeanne Nguyen-Hoc, the only-daughter of the new Phou de Cholon, a strange and mysterious little thing who you can't decide if she's more European in appearance or more Asian in reality. on the right, the lieutenant-governor Abel, our beloved under-tyrant, who's on his throne between his first daughter and his second wife, who look for all the world like two sisters: one pretty and the other ugly..."
"Damned pretty, the pretty one," remarked Fierce, "a sphinx in alabaster, with eyes of black diamond..."
Too young of a girl, and a step-mother who's not flexible enough. Not interesting. Look a bit further, if you're looking for classic beauties: you have the mauve blouse and the pearly grey hat, next to the lemon-colored caricature of a man of law - Mrs. Ariette, the wily wife of the wily advocate."
"Mévil is paid to know that," said Torral, seated, without turning around.
"I'm not paid," corrected the doctor. "I'm the one who paid - and still pay. Bah! The minx is pretty, and it would delight me to see her chaste face on my pillow. I told you it all earlier: every women is for sale here, right?"
He turned back to the scene on the stage.
The new female singer, doubtless horse, had just cut her song short. Confused and annoyed, she stayed with her arms dangling, caught between the amused irony of the other performers and the mocking curiosity of the public. She was a pretty, voluptuous woman with red hair and laughing eyes.
A whistle rang out, and people started to laugh. No, the new singer wasn't hoarse, it was simpler than that - she didn't have a voice, not a voice at all. She had other assets, with good-looking arms, elegant shoulders, and a nice rear, and doubtless she had come to Saigon in the hope that that was enough. To tell the truth, Saigon, normally, didn't ask for anything more. But this evening, the crowd had been bitten by a musical taste, and the crowd seemed close to actually demanding that the singer sung.
Coldly, the actress took her part and crossed the stage, trailing her skirt behind her. On the stage's left, she stopped, turned, and launched herself again at the uncooperative lyrics. But she was too high - she changed her tone, insolently, not carrying at all about the orchestra, and now it was too low. The whistles took off again, and she stopped mid-chant, and put her hands on her hips, then phlegmatically, philosophically, with a very soft voice which reached into all of the hostile ears, she pronounced Mister... and turned her back.
There was a strangled silence. But then, suddenly, somebody started to furiously applaud, and the singer, more amazed than anyone, turned around, dumbstruck. She saw a handsome elegant man who ho devoured her with his gaze, tearing apart his silken loves. Charmed, she blew him a reverential kiss. Mévil, struck in his caprice by the kiss like a shot of cocaine, seized the orchid from his buttonhole to throw it at the feet of the woman. They looked at each other smiling, as if it was already agreed upon that they would sleep together.
After all, this two person comedy deserved another one, and the public, interessed, started to laugh and soon applauded. The men, their eyes bright, nudged each other, while the women, jealous and contemptuous, still throw their flowers at the heroine so that they didn't see their jealousy. What a theatrical success that the two loverbirds could share!
Mévil, however, raised questions.
"Who is she? What's her name?"
A spectator hurried to respond, to share in the golden glow of the adventure.
"Her name is Hélène Liseron, mr. Would you do the honor of taking my program, sir?"
"Liseron?" said Fierce. "Then I do know her. She was the mistress of my comrade Chose last year, in Constantinople, and when we thought that he had been killed in the famous Bulgarian assassination, she tried to off herself then and there by shooting herself three times in the breast, but thankfully not one found the right spot. The two of them were put up next to each other in the hospital, and they loved each other so much that everyone was predicting a marriage and the nurses were crying from how lovely the whole thing was. Three weeks later, and they both were running away, an absolutely brutal falling out - and nobody knows the reason why.
"Very good," said Torral.
Without listening, Mévil was scribbling away on a card. He read it conversationally.
"Doctor Raymond Mévil asks for the exquisite Hélène Liseron to deign to accept his coach to escort her home by the longest possible road."
"Now," he continued, "let's go. I invite you all, you Fierce particularly: on your first Saigon night, people like us don't sleep on it. We'll takk this charming women and we'll go first for Cholon, an appropriate place for the type of party that I'm planning. After Cholon, wherever. And, just more virtuous people, I want us to be able to see the dawn tomorrow."
They rose. Fierce gave a last look at the boxes - at Ariette the lawyer, even more yellow than earlier, at his woman, so chaste and magnificently impassive after the public infidelity of her lover, to the Abel family, decently attentive to the spectacle - the young girl, just like a sphinx, so immobile that the thought of her as an alabaster statue encrusted with diamond eyes rushed back to him.
"My dear," he said to Mévil as they left, "you're truly mistaken to disdain that child there. She deserves the title of the most beautiful woman in the hall."
"The little Abel girl?" cried Mévil. "What a good joke!"
But still, he looked, contemptuously.
Had he truly never really looked at her, never been stunned by the uncommon beauty presented to his eyes? It seemed that he dazzled, stunned, by the glowing beauty of the young woman, changed into stone for a second. His body didn't move an iota. His hand, which gripped Fierce, dangled senselessly. They had to tap him for him to come back to himself.
His two friends looked at him with worried airs: he fixed his troubled, clouded eyes on them.
"It's stupid," he whispered, his voice hardly audible.
He wiped his forehead with his hand and struck out for the door without saying anything more.
But, once outside, he was back, like nothing had happened.
"In fact, yes. She isn't such a little girl as I had thought. Actually, she'll be a very beautiful woman."