The Annamite horses were barely bigger than donkeys, but they were as lively as squirrels, and pulled the victoria at a frantic speed as bounced and bucked down the streets. The native driver pushed his beasts, confident in the wide road, deserted and as bright as day with the light of the electric street lamps. Disdaining the white men, he didn't look back on them, facing forward rigidly on his seat.
They had waited a long time at the theater's door, and Mevil, still recovering from his mysterious shock, had stamped his feet feverishly on the sidewalk in impatience. Then the singer came, hesitant and uncertain, and he threw himself at her with lusty fire, towing her around like his prey. All four of them had mounted inside the too-small coach, and once the introductions had been made, nobody had said another word.
Mévil, burning with impatience, had first conquered the lips of the woman - and she was no blushing maiden, and she accepted his caresses readily. The two of them stuck together, their teeth clicking at every bump of the road - but with Torral and Ferce, coldly, awkardly, looking at them.
Torral lit a cigarette, careful to not burn anyone with the flame when they were all piled together. Fierce saw one of Hélène Liseron's hands which was hanging there, abandoned and limp, and he took hold of it, caressing it, leaning forward to press his lips in her palm, before he let it drop and stared at Torral's cigarette, like a little red lantern in the dark night.
The victoria left the streets and entered into the garden - one unlike any other on the world's three continents. They all shivered as an Asian perfume, rich with the smell of flowers, musk, and rotten incense, invaded the inside of the carriage, overwhelmingly powerful. There wasn't a breeze, but even still, the bamboo leaves rustled, and that made a piercing sound, like the kiss of two loves bound together. In the bushes, behind the invisible bars of the cages, the tigers, panthers, elephants, all of the imprisoned animals, slept laid out on the hard floors, snorting lazily when the party went past. When the horses heard the hoarse breath and saw the glowing pupils in the night, they whinnied and trotted faster.
Afterwards there was the stream which hemmed in the garden and the bridge of pink bricks. The water underneath was so silent, and so black, that the arch seemed to be flung forth out over a great empty void. Saigon ended suddenly, and already they were in the countryside, with the villages of little Vietnamese huts that were too low to see them in the dark night.
Hélène tore her lips away from Raymond to mumble three words that they couldn't make out. Torral and Fierce tried to ignore the two, looking outside for a minute, until Fierce leaned forward to light his cigarette on Torral's, both indifferent to what happened on the other bench. Hélène, whose arm they saw on the neck of her lover, caressed him with her body slowly, rhythmically, letting forth muffled sighs and moans. Another carriage rattled along after them, and passed them with a lightning speed, others coming along behind it. The road turned to the left, continuing into a road leading to another park, prettily surrounded with lawns and little stands of trees. It was the Inspection - another ritzy place, where the night was turned into day and given over to pleasure. It was festooned with bright lanterns, brilliant in the darkness, illuminating lines of carriages in two files. You could make out the faces of people, but nobody greeted each other - discretion meant keeping who you knew a secret.
Hélène unpinned herself from Raymond and shook loose her hands. She was breathing heavily and fanned her face, gulping for air. Fierce, decently, stretched out his hand and straightened out the folds in her dress, and in doing so he found the hand of the young woman. She squeezed his fingers hard, trying to calm her still anxious nerves. Mévil, his head laid back, swallowed up by the cushions, was immobile like a cadavre.
"That was really stupid," said Hélène a few seconds later. All of those people there saw us."
With her chin, she motioned at the carriages in the line next to them.
"Take a look at them yourself, " said Torral with an expansive Gaullic shrug.
In every carriage, there was a man and a woman - or sometimes two women - or sometimes a man and a young boy. And every couple, without exception, held each tightly other in complete disregard of any of the prying eyes around them, doing whatever they wanted with each other - and the night made a poor showing of covering it all up.
"What a city. It's revolting." Hélène Liseron shook her head.
"But not in the slightest," said Fierce with scorn mixed with indulgence. "It's completely normal, and a good example for all of the hypocrites who pretend to be holier-than-thou. I find the whole prejudice and mystery about love and sex to be a stupid notion, and given how you were right now, I would have thought that you would be on the same page. Myself and many of my friends, we don't have any false airs about it. Don't look over there, if it upsets you, and listen to a tale for a story: a few years ago, chance and some similar tastes made me a friend, a certain Rodolphe Hafner, a diplomat and a great fellow. Hafner had a pretty mistress at the time who he really loved, and who he liked to talk her up to me. He did that so much that I finished by falling in love with her too. Hafner noticed, and without saying anything, he gave me the best friend's gift that I've ever had. He invited me a one evening to dine with him and his mistress, the three of us. Then, after having nicely intoxicated the two of us, he left for the smoking room, and started to play the piano. He was a real lover of music, and I knew that one he started to play, lightning and thunder wouldn't be enough to cause him to budge from his stool. So he played, and it was as smooth and sleepy as a lullaby: so languid, that we didn't listen to it until the end. The adventure finished on a Turkish divan, very soft, and I don't believe for a second that it was there by simple chance."
"I hope so," said Torral. "But your friend Hafner was a boy rotten with elegance and entirely too idealistic. If he had been a real civilized man, without any false rills, he would have told you straight up: you want her, here she is. When I was working on the Sassenage viaduct, in Dauphiné, I had two colleagues who I still really miss - they died in the Engiens collapse. The three of us, young, good heads on our shoulders, and empty pockets, we had a woman, just one - we had brought her from Grenoble, paid the bill the lot of us. She wasn't much - I mean about her head - but we set her up. Every night, one of us slept with her, we each took turns. We spent the evenings together, by the fireplace. It was a lot colder there than here for sure. We worked on mechanics and our designs in the evening, and the girl listened without permission to talk. Midnight, to make it up to her, her lover for that evening would open up a cute book and read a little bit to her. It didn't take long: the childish words worked on her like a love potion. You hadn't turned two pages and she was astride you, on her lover of the day. But despite that I ask you all to believe that we all finished the chapter without batting an eye. For heaven's sake, I don't know why it's shameful to try to have children, and I don't know why we hide it when we try to do it - or at least we pretend to.
Liseron sat up to look at Torral.
"You're all horrible," she said, and turning tenderly towards Raymond, "isn't that so dear?"
"Yes," breathed Mévil quietly, colorlessly - the voice of people who respond without having really heard. He was still sunken into the pillows in the back, and the others couldn't see his face, hidden by the shadows. Fierce squinted his eyes to look at him, but he heard the other man breathing normally, an even rise and fall of his chest, and he tucked his worry away.
"Cholon," called out Torral to the native driver.
They had left the alley of the promenade. The horses trotted ahead. The drive turned underneath some trees, between opaque hedges. Suddenly, there was silence, solitude and obscurity. They travelled a long time in the sleeping countryside, and at the end of the tunnel of trees, they exited onto a vast plain.
They had ceased to talk as soon as they had found themselves alone - gagged in a way by the dark night of the thickets. The plain, less sombre, shone faintly underneath the stars - completely barren, without a tree or a bush, but even still, they didn't feel the slightest urge to talk out there on its great expanse - out on the the Plain of Tombs. To the edge of their view, on every side, the ground was studded with regular rises, each one the same and squeezed in next to each other, hand-fulls of dust under which were yet other hand-fulls of dust, all of it incredibly old and faceless, giving off a feeling of abandon and oblivion. No stones, no epitaphs. Endless ranks of broken bricks, crumbling, stone grey with lichen. And still, until the end of the Earth it seemed, the same identical tombs - numberless and monotonous like the waves of the sea. Infinite, the dead Asians who possessed for all eternity their homes of death. Centuries might have passed since their deaths, but no one tried to remove them from their abodes. Never would the old bones cede their place for young ones, and they all reposed in peace, side by side. The carriage rumbled along, and it took ages to traverse their realm.
Mid-way, the driver stopped, a lantern having gone out. For an hour they had all been studiously silent - the plain of death weighed on them like a shroud on a cadavre. Torral shook himself from his torpeur, and leaned forward to look outside. A hundred paces away, something grey stood out against the sky - a grey building, alone among the tomb. Another tomb, the sepulchre of the bishop of Adran. Torral cried out his name loudly, just to speak, just to break with a human sound the intolerable silence. But no one responded and the cry died in the dead night. The driver whipped his horses, and once more they set off, for what seemed like another eternity in the night. Fierce, almost asleep, dreamed that they were passing through a labryinth of Hades, and that they would never, never, return to the land of the living.
All of a sudden they came back to the word of life, like a plain which shot forth from a tunnel. Cholon, suddenly, appeared in the shadows, leaped up around them. There wasn't any transition, and they were there in the middle of a city - a Chinese city, incredibly noisy and teeming with people, with busy boutiques, bamboo lanterns as big as pumpkins, the shop windows lacy with gilded wood, the blue houses selling of opium and rot, the shops full of customers, lit by the flickering flames of oil lamps. A dizzying range of foods were for sale, with names that were impossible to say. There were streets full of men, of women, of children, all laughing and yelling, a joyous, tumultuous, commotion. All of the men wore the long queue with its end in silk, and the women had their hair up in buns, embellished with shining green glassware - to show that they were Chinese, and not Annamites. There were no Annamites in Cholon,, and Saigon's suburb wasn't in the slightest a brown Vietnamese city, delicate and melancholic, but a yellow Chinese city, exuberant and vulgar, just like the southern Chinese cities of Guangdon and Guanxi.
The driver cracked the whip to make the crowd part, and the horses thundered forward. Torral started to whistle a refrain, and Fierce reached out his cane to push aside a child who was diving underneath the wheels. All of them perked up again in good humor, cheery in the bustling city, with a superstitious burden lived from their shoulders to have escaped from the tombs and the aching silence. They chatted and laughed. Mévil woke up suddenly from his sleep, and kissed the lips of Hélène, cuddling her in a way that she took for tenderness. After the press of the crowd a fashionable cafe popped up, and they dismounted and ate inside, glad to be happy, glad to have left behind them the terrible plain of death.
Torral pointed out that it was one in the morning, and that it was ridiculous to be out at night at Cholon at this hour and to not be drunk - drunk on alcohol, opium, or something else. Fierce swung right into action and chose the liquors, mixed them, and started to drink, after having observed that the place wasn't right for getting high on opium, which required a nook for refined and philosophical reflection, just like being drunk on ether, which went well with alcoves, passionate lips, and a bed with the sheets dragged up over the couple. He drank coldly, with a single draft, after having examined the color of the liquor when he raised up his glass to let the light of the lamps shine through - and then he laid it down empty, and watched the ice cubs like a painter examines his color palette, his head tipped to the side and his eyebrows raised.
Torral disaproved of excesses of any sort, and he raised his arm and called out for dry champagne, excellent for a quick inebriation that would pass just as soon. Mévil only said two quiet words to the serving boy, who went to make a iced drink for Hélèn, sweet and treacherous, that she downed like water without qualms - and for himself, Mévil ordered a great glass of an opaque brown liquid which stank of pepper. The doctor coughed twice as he downed the contents, but as the alcohol rushed through his veins he had the most delightful tipsiness, as frisky as he had been in the carriage, when he had been tasting his first pleasures with his mistress - and he fondled lustily the young woman whose modesty melted away like magic with every draft she took of her own drink.
All of them were drunk, each in their own way. Torral shattered the glasses, and Fierce bludgeoned one of the serving bows who had dared to laugh when looking at them.
Pell-mell they mounted up again into the carriage and returned to Saigon, singing at the top of their lungs, behind the silhouette of the driver ironically imperturbable on his seat. They came back on the high road, the one me nicely perfumed with magnolias.