While Fierce was still slumbering, his batman came to his room. He was a small sailor with bare feet, wearing a kknitted striped short sleeved shirt. Dutifully, he cleaned the chamber, scurringg around quietly like a mouse. The place had been turned upside down, and no doubt Fierce had rummaged around to find his way to bed, without worrying the slightest care in the world about the uprooted clothing that had been thrown on the floor, or the single chair which had been knocked over with its legs in the air. But soon enough, order was restored. On the properly arrayed chair there were the clothes once more, laid out immaculately, with a freshly ironed jacket restored to its shining glory, with its blazing golden anchor buttons on the front. The sink was filled with water, the tub brimming, the sponges taken out of their nets and arrayed on the counter, the vials arrayed in columns. And when everything was laid out as it should be, the little sailor spoke, his voice thick with a Breton accent.
"Lieutenant! It's seven thirty!"
His violet eyelids fluttered and the eyes shone like two lamps in the night. Instantly, Fierce was lucid and of clear mind: opium was a decent enough antidote for alcohol, and his heartache combatted the hangover. Just as soon the innocence and serenity vanished from the awoken face, and the normal fatigue and lassitude returned.
The little sailor had left. Fierce got up, slightly pale and his face moist, and started out the day by gulping down half a flask of coffee reserved amid his perfumery. Then, with his heart a bit steadier, he took off his white pajamas, and lowered himself into the tub. And then, with his skin luxuriously wet, he let the morning breeze dry his shoulders, and took a look at himself in the mirror. He wasn't a fop, but he appreciated the advantages that a well maintained body and a handsome face gave in life. He was pleased to note that, despite having passed twenty six years of living life to the fullest, his stomach was still flat and his forehead unwrinkled. He seated himself, still naked, languidly.
He laid his neck against the back of the chair. The opium was still thick in his veins, his limbs heavy. A circle of iron gripped his head, and his chest felt empty, without a heart or lungs. Without a doubt he had risen too soon from the mats in the opium den, which had been so pretty really, such an elegant gateway out of this humdrum world to enter into the dream of the gods! Yes, definitely, he had gotten up too soon. But he had to get back, get back onboard, return to life. And now he had to get dressed and go, give orders, receive his commands, deal with the stupid and vain human machinations. Gone would be the majestic tranquility of the opium-fueled night, replacing the drunken and lustful orgy before, to forget the golden wings that had let him soar over the earth, and the marvelous kisses of a fairy-like princess delicately posed upon the smoker's feet. In fact, it was that petty little Annamite troll, but even still, she had a nice style with her lovemaking, to kneel between your legs... very discrete.
Up too early, truly! He still needed still a bit of coffee, to dry this damned sweat. Returns shipboard like this one were wretched, with the bumpy and rickety rickshaws, the soaked sampans reeking of rot, and the nausea which made the stomach churn miserably.
Before he put on the gold-adorned linen jacket, he wet his hand and pressed it up against his thighs. It was fresh, like the caresses yesterday from the little Japanese woman Otaké-San, and he laid finger after finger against his skin, conjuring up memories of her nails stroking his skin. Then he put on his vest, attaching the false collar and the cuffs, to make it look like he was really wearing a dress shirt, to spare himself the heat of yet another garment. Already the heat was starting to build as the morning coolness dissipated.
A bit of powder sufficed to lighten up the dark circles under his eyes, and he brushed his cheeks with a swab to give them some blush. Prepared for the day, he took his leave of his chamber.
On the bridge, they had put out the covers that stood over the hot deck in the tropical sun, the curtains were lowered, and the sailors were busy scrubbing the strakes. The admiral's musicians had been assembled, and the helsman surveyed them from the porthole of the wheelhouse. At the gangway, the guards were loading their rifles for morning colors.
Fierce looked at the time and struck the tricolor signal fire. In the harbor there were two cruisers and the full division of the Saigon coastal defense gunboats. Bugles called from ship to ships, the masts vibrating a bit at their ends from the constant repetition.
The clock's hand had just passed eight o'clock. At a sign from the aide de camp, the regulation commands cried out crisply.
"Attention to the colors!" "Haul down the signal!" "The admiral presents!" "Presented!"
The shots crashed out in volleys, making clouds of blue smoke, and the music played while the flag was raised. Sailors saluted with their hats off, and Fierce held his hat in his hand, the spliced lines of the covering sunshades. The French flag was hoisted up slowly at the poop of the ship, as magnificiently proud as on the evening of Austerlitz. Fierce watched it, smiling and squaring his shoulders imperceptibly, seven words from a book he had liked for its genuineness springing to his lips in a murmur: Blue like cholera, white like hunger, and red like fresh blood. He put his hat back on and turned around to descend to the admiral's cabin.
Monsieur d'Orvilliers was a duke and peer of France, a rear admiral commanding a division of the China Squadron. He seemed like one of the Marshals of the First Empire who had just stepped out of the pages of a book, taller, thinner, and more heroic man than those around today, with a fiercer grey mustache and thicker hair than men had now. His eyes though, perhaps because he had never seen a battle, had become mellow and kind, always looking straight ahead with an honest, candid, and perhaps even a bit whimsical expression. Mr. Orvillier's personality was very much like those eyes.
He held out his hand to his aide de camp, and beamed at him affectionately, admiringly the handsome, young, intelligent and upright young man, and - of this Mr. Orvilliers was quite certain - spotless in his actions and in the purity of his thoughts. Fierce took his hand, responded evasively to the customary questions about his evening and his night, then cut short the advice on ceremonies and the need for prudence by asking for his orders for the day. Suddenly Mr. Orvilliers became grim, telling his aide de camp that the political and naval situation was serious. Fierce didn't really believe it, since he was well acquainted by now with the long-standing pessimism of the old man. But Mr. Orvilliers kept going, speaking about England and Japan, shaking his head at France's policy of appeasement, and ended by predicted that there would be a war in all probability, one that would ignite before three months were up.
"In March," replied Fierce, unfazed. It was still late December.
"In April or May, yes", confirmed the admiral, seriously. "And," he added, quietly and calmly, "For sure not one of us will return alive, but at my age, death is an inevitable sleep where, willingly or unwillingly, you will come to rest in the evening, and the only question is when you will finally lie down. And for me it would be the greatest joy, one I hardly deserve, if I can die like Bruey, Nelson, and Ruyter fell..."
Respectfully and patiently, Fierce counted until 21 mentally, then went back to the original question.
"So, the orders for today, admiral?"
Mr D'Orvilliers gave them to him. They would need a carriage at 3 o'clock. Fierce remarked that the sun would be very intense at that time, but the admiral shrugged and said that however hot the sun was, that couldn't stop him from first going to meet with the governor, and then to confer with the defense council and the naval and army officers. And there was a pile up of dispatches waiting for them, and if the aide de campe would be so kind could he perhaps decode them himself before he went ashore, if he wanted to have a walk before midday.
"Of course," said Fierce.
In his room, the first telegram was waiting for him - the weather bulletin from Shanghai.
"Humph, probably the war signs which are worrying us so: Formosan coast, stormy seas, typhoon at Manilla, gosh, everything's going well my dear Orvilliers, nothing more on this English war..."
He looked over his knick knacks, his book covers, his Venus of Syracus with the ambre marble glowing in a corner.
"A shell landing in her? That'd be some new decorations for sure!"
He didn't think about it any more and took a book.
"If the dispatches arrive early enough, I'll go to see Mévil when he wakes up, his new girl Hélène must be charming in bed... And as long as the old man gives me some shore leave this evening, even if it's just an hour... eight months that I haven't been able to walk around here, always the inspection!"
The dispatches started to come in. The last cruiser sent to China was arriving from Djibouti. But the minister was immediately recalling it to France.
"What the devil..."
From Hong Kong, fifteen close lines of numbers followed. Fierce looked at them dispiretedly and let his hands fall into his lap, and then he squared his shoulders and looked for the consul code book dictionary.
'Doubtless, an English cruiser shifted moorings, or maybe the royal governor's horse had a sprain..."
He stenciled out the translation with a pencil.
"Yangz ... flotilla ... concentrated... fifteen ships ... ("really!?") ... London .... Bulwarck ... Venerable ... Duncan ... Cornwallis ... Exmouth ... six battleships, six. ... Cressy .. Aboukir ... Hogue ... Drake ... King Alfred ... Africa ... Kent ... Essex ... Bedford .... "Nine armored cruisers, fifteen alll told, all ofteh mstronger than us of course..."
He lay the pencil down and let his gaze wander around the chamber.
"A shell landing in her? That'd be some new decorations for sure..."
Fierce brought the dispatch to the admiral. D'Orvilliers read it without surprise or worry, satisfied.
"It's what I said."
Fierce went very calmly, fatalistically enough that the new news didn't break his serenity, in a good state physiologically. He smiled thinking about the admiral.
"A misfit from another century who missed his calling in life, without a doubt. Under Napoleon, he would have been a great man for sure. Today, a caricature. But still sympathetic as a whole. And I like him well as he is, however much I might mock him."
Around 10, Fierce, his task finished, was down on the quai, in uniform, since he hadn't taken the time to change his clothes. Luckily, there was a lively enough breeze to sweep away the stuffy heat of the streets and made it bearable to walk - at least in the shade.
Fierce picked his way through what cool sections he could find, choosing the densest trees and buildings with arches in front. Gone from Saigon for eight months, he savored the pleasure of seeing every corner of the city again. At the same time there was such a stark contrast between Saigon's summer now and the Japanese winter that he had just left behind him that it was an almost painful malaise, a feeling that he held close to his heart for its rarity. His promenade had an air of magic about it from all of the sensations, keeping the sun and the dirt from irritating him when he arrived at the Gardens. The sandy red pathways curled out amidst the grass and the sinuous arroyos. Streams flowed in gentle meanders, so hidden underneath the reeds and the ferns that carpeted the banks that the tranquil water could hardly even be seen. Every tree you could find under the tropics was mixed up in this wondrous forest, keeping the burning heat of the sun at bay. But the most beautiful ornaments of all in the park were the bouquets of bamboo wrapped together, the skinny stalks joined together into bundles, towering above the crowns of betel palms and tamarind tree. From far enough away, every bouquet looked like a single tree, as delicate as lace, gigantesque in size.
The red pathways were deserted, while on the arroyo, a sampan floated down the water's current, the occupations silent under the cover of pleated straw.
Fierce got agreeably lost in the exotic forest. A path called out to him, because the multiform palms, tendrils embracing overhead in a vault, made a emerald green tunnel, a helter-skelter tunnel which seemed to run into a bush every ten paces and finish in a cul-de-sac. An even smaller covered path led past a pond of standing water, its surface dotted with lotuses, with thick set iron gates holding in the water. The flat head of a crocodile peeked out from the middle, completely immobile, like a log in the water. Fierce sniffed the fetid odor, overwhelmed by the pungent perfume of the magnolias, inhaling a muskier scent from further away.
The magnolias and palm trees thinned out, and once mor the path turned, the woods opening up on a shaded clearing. A huge cage reared up amidst the last trees, and a circle of people, natives, soldiers, and women - three Europeans with pale parasols - looked on curiously.
It was the tigers' cage. There were only two of them within, but they were striking, indescribably majestic and huge. The female was pretending to sleep, spread out on her stomach with her head between her paws: a feined sleep, playing along for the male, her talons extended from their velvet sheaths kneading the ground slyly, waves undulating across her striped hide.
The male watched her, as still as a tiger sculpted from stone. He was much taller and longer than any lion, his chest as white as snow rising and falling headily as he breathed in the odor of the female tiger lying on the floor.
A pink parasol jetted up at Fierce, whose footsteps crunched in the gravel.
"Hey, you? You've come to see these big beasts in all their horror?"
Fierce saw Hélène Liseron, freshly turned out under her cloud of powder, her eyes crinkled a bit from the sun.
"What have you done with Raymond?" he asked.
She had held her hand out to him, and he took it, caressing each of her fingers one after another. She laughed softly. "Rather, ask him what he did with me..."
She laughed harder and made a face.
The tiger started to roar. He stopped to gaze at the puny creatures who spied on him, then, with a majestic disdain, he turned away from then and paced slowly to the tigress. He pushed his head against her, but she played dead and didn't move. Angered, he headbutted her harder this time, rolling her over like you might a little kitten. Now she got angry, bouncing up, the talons extended, and jumped at him. But he didn't budge and she was frightened by the staring eyes with their green, fiery pupils watching her. She bowed silkily, coyly twirling about his bulk, staring sweetly up at her mate. Suddenly he slapped her with his paw, throwing her to the ground, covering her. The two coupled beasts grew still, the triumphant tiger continuing to rumble deeply.
Excited, a bit afraid, Liseron grabbed Fierce's hand and watched fixedly, breathing quickly. Every roar of the tiger and her nails dug in a bit deeper, and when the tigresse at last her coyness was brushed aside and the tiger took her, the scratched palm was starting to bleed.
Fierce looked at the hand, then back up at the young woman.
"You wouldn't mind to be the tigresse I see..."
She struck him on the arm with her fan. "Be quiet you!"
The spectacle had ended in the cave. The tiger, on all fours next to the female lying by his side, was silent, proud, his eyes gazing ahead, indifferent to the watchers.
"You came here on foot?" Fierce asked Hélène.
"No, of course not! My carriage is parked nearby. You have your own?"
"I came here on a walk."
"Surely you're not going to return back by foot in this atrocious heat?"
"It appears I'll have to."
"That's crazy! It's hot enough out there that even the flies won't budge! If you weren't in uniform, I would offer you a place with me.."
"Why not then?"
"Well, everyone will see you..."
"And so what?"
That doesn't worry you?"
"What a silly thing to be concerned about!"
In the carriage, he slipped his arm behind Hélène's waist - to smooth out the wrinkles of the blouse.
"Where should I let you off?" she asked.
"At your place. You're going back to Ramond?"
"No, I'm going to my appartment, Catinat Street..."
"Ok then, Catinat Street."
The carriage set off.
"Raymond's let you out of your cage to flit around the city like this, from dawn?"
She turned her face up in a pout.
"He would have had trouble keeping me! I left him so fast asleep that he's probably not even noticed yet that I've left."
"Ah? You left him as tired as that?"
"Fierce! That's none of your business!"
But a smile lifted the corner of her mouth, and Fierce's hand caressed her shoulders. The two of them laughed, thinking the same thing.
"It's odd," she said. "He's young, handsome, strong, and, and -"
"He gets tired quickly."
She nodded her head and cast her eyes down modestly."
"My god," retorted Fierce. "He's young if you think so. He's thirty years old my dear."
"Thirty years, a few adventures - I don't think that I'm shattered any illusions of yours if I told you that you aren't exactly his first love. So a few adventures, a little bit of spice to life here and there... it wears a man down. If you're on display so much, you stop being quite as fresh."
"At thirty already!"
"Alas! I'm only 27 myself, and believe me, I have some difficult nights at times..;"
"Now now, what stories are you telling now?! Me too, my dear sir, I'm thirty years old, and it's a wonderous age really. I'll tell you that these thirty years don't weigh any more than when I was 20."
"It's different for you."
"And I know some very serious - even a bit aged men - fifty year old men! - who, I have to say, are worth more than your friend!"
Fierce gave a gallic shrug, and didn't say anymore. Yes, you aged quickly, if you lived the sort of life that the three of them had lived, Mévil, Torral, and himself. In his thoughts, the degraded, ignoble image of Rochet flashed before him disagreeably. To drive it away, he wrapped his arm more tightly around the shoulders of his companion. A bit of blood flushed through his veins, and he was relieved that he was still young and virile alongside this pretty woman.
The carriage came to a halt.
"I'll leave you here? said Hélène.
"I'm not allowed to come up with you?"
"Oh, if you insist of course. But dear me, you're going to find such a disorder... I'm camping up there, nothing more."
The apartment room was rather rundown. The walls were roughcast, and the window didn't have a screen over it. But the big bed, soft, clean, and well made, had a comfortable atmosphere under a carefully closed lacy mosquito net, and a long wicker dresser was strewn with articles of makeup.
"Allow me?" said Hélène Liseron.
Upright, her arms raised, she took off her hat in front of a mirror. He sat down and watched her. Her wed hair fluttered forth in newfound freedom, and the abundant nape of her neck shone under a hairnet of pure gold. Her firm and plump arms bloomed out of her short sleeves, and a warm dew beaded her skin. Her fingers ran through her hair, arousing a piercing, delicate perfume.
In the mirror, Fierce saw her playful eyes watching him, then a strange smile. Then, simply, he rose behind her and seized her with both hands. She was stunned or pretended to be.
"What the - what's the matter with you?"
He didn't say anything, because his mouth was on her neck covered with its golden fluff. He touched her all over, the back of her legs with his knees, her shoulders with his chest. She cried out "Are you going to let me go!?"
Once again, the opposite, picking her up like a doll, a hand underneath her shoulders and the other her waist, spilling her on the long bench, among the dresses that rustled as she sprawled among them. She struggled for real this time, but not for long.
"Stop it, damnit!"
"But I am, he said."
And he did stop, at his own pace, and straightened up, calm, immediately correct again.
Without saying a word, she turned back to the mirror and smoothed out her hair, then laughed in good sport. Playfully he had returned behind her to nibble on a perfumed strand of her hair.
"So," she said suddenly. "What about Raymond?"
"What about him?"
"You don't have any second remorse?"
He whispered into her ear. "You're far too pretty for that."
She made a flattered and coy pout in the mirror, and asked again.
"You're close friends both of you, and yet you'll do this?"
"But of course."
"And if he found out? He'd be furious..."
He struggled to keep himself from laughing. Jealousy wasn't a civilized sentiment, and Mévil couldn't care less about any of his mistresses."
She looked at him again, tenderly, seeking a kiss. Evidently she took Fierce's treason to Raymond to be a serious crime, and the blackness of the deed committed in her name tickled her vanity nicely. He gave her the kiss, indulgently if a bit ironically. Now that he had won the battle for her in any case, he couldn't really be bothered with her. "Why the hell", he asked himself, "did I jump all over her earlier? Bah!"
At midday, he returned onboard the cruiser to lunch. A signal officer was on the watch for Fierce to hand him a freshly signed order. He read it quickly.
"The Rear Admiral in command of the Second Division of the Chinese Squadron commands that;
From this day onwards, basic training and gymnastics will cease to take place on the division's ships.
Instead, the captains will exercise in turn, and for all men of their crews, both general training and gunnery training.
Furthermore, each evening, nighttime training will take place after the hauling down of the colors.
The admiral insists on the great importance of all of the aformentioned exercises, and counts upon the energy and patriotism of all in order to promptly increase the fighting force of the ships assigned to his command by the Republic.
Signed on board of the Bayard, this December 19...
"So," thought Fierce, "looks like this stupidity is out of the bag."
- 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