Here is the tenth episode of Bian’s Tale; the third part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
This is a short episode. This whole section ‘Darkness Falls’ needs a lot of polish. The scenes themselves are okay (I think), but as I re-read it, the section lacks one of the vital ingredients of tension – the feeling that time is running out. From the moment La Poste effectively identifies Bian in their article quoting Lieutenant Governor Hubert, there must be a ticking clock.
Even over Christmas, the blog is getting a lot of hits, but you’re mostly being very quiet, certainly in comparison to A Name Among The Stars, or for that matter, the first time I posted the first half dozen chapters of this book. Many thanks for those that have made comments.
Feedback folks. 🙂
Anyway, all that aside, here come the monsters…
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Part 5 –Darkness Falls
I sat in the library during the hot afternoon. As the sun dipped, I walked through the city. The western horizon turned into a lake of fire which painted the bases of the lowering clouds with blood.
By the time I returned to the house, I was ready for another confrontation with the Fontaudins. I could not back down; it was a matter of principle. I would not let them chase me from my parent’s house.
But the house was empty, silent but for the sounds of my heart beating and the air rushing into my lungs.
I changed into my Annamese peasant clothes, and hid some small coins in a little pouch. I didn’t take too many; Cholon, especially at night, wasn’t as safe as Saigon. Thinking of those dangers, I also took the kris knife from its hiding place. I couldn’t carry it openly and I’d never thought of fighting with a knife, but the kris looked threatening. Maybe that was all I’d need. After some thought, I fashioned a sling from some leather strips and hung the knife down my back, under my shirt. I searched through the house and found an old conical straw hat, the type every peasant had. It lay on my back, held with a string around my throat and it hid the knife.
Enough. I slipped back out into the boulevard.
Last time I’d gone out like this, I’d been so excited about meeting Lunh, I’d not really noticed how much I changed my identity when changed my clothes. Colonials didn’t see me. Annamese and Chinese didn’t care. There were people who looked at me: the soldiers and police. There were more of them than usual, groups on corners, watching all the Annamese and Chinese who passed them.
There was a feeling in the air I hadn’t noticed earlier, a restlessness, a charge, like before a storm.
The tram station was closed. Police stood outside. I walked past and continued toward Cholon. I could walk along the Arroyo Chinois. It wasn’t that far. I still had lots of time.
But a few minutes later, I saw more police on the road ahead. People were being stopped and questioned.
My street sense prickled. Danger.
I was carrying a knife. If that was discovered…
I turned into one of the alleys and doubled back.
It wasn’t late yet, I could go back to the high road, the one that went through the old Khymer tombs. It wouldn’t add that much to the journey.
But instead, I found myself in a large group of workers heading back down the arroyo to where it emptied into the Saigon river. I kept to the middle of the group, head down, looking around carefully.
Even more soldiers now. We passed the end of the alley where the Party of the People had taken me. There were police knocking on doors and questioning the people living there.
What had happened? Was it a coincidence, or were they looking for Lanh and Thiêu?
Had Lanh gone?
I couldn’t stop. I kept glancing back until I suddenly realised where the group I was hiding in was headed: the Khánh Hôi footbridge. No one walking in this direction was being questioned, but the soldiers were watching everyone.
It was too late for me to leave the group.
But Khánh Hôi. Where Bác Thảo ruled.
I felt sick as we walked over the bridge.
I told myself it was ridiculous. Even Manon and Rochelle would have difficulty recognising me, let alone a gang lord who’d never seen me. I was just another Annamese girl. It was a good disguise.
As soon as I was on the Khánh Hôi side, I made a right turn, back along the creek. If I followed this road and crossed one of the bridges further down, I would be in Cholon.
At least there were no soldiers on this side.
Neither were there any street lights. The dark mouths of every creekside alley in Khánh Hôi seemed to be reaching out toward me as I trotted by. I could feel the hot, stinking air flowing out of them, like the breath of dead things. Just its touch made me feel unclean.
It was a relief of a sort when I reached the end of Khánh Hôi. No more alleys. Fewer people. But the road became a dirt track I could barely see as the last glimmer of lights from the town died. There was no moon; the sky was black with muttering clouds. I stumbled as I hurried.
Beside the track, sampans covered the creek, stirring on the uneasy waters. The odd shout from the sampans or suspicious glares from people who loomed suddenly out of the night had my heart in my mouth the whole time.
Why hadn’t I gone back and taken the high road? I didn’t like the tombs, but this was worse.
A group of young men drinking on a sampan and lit by a single lamp watched me go by, like hungry dogs watching the butcher’s cart.
Just as I started to get really scared, I saw the lights of Cholon and heard the sound of voices from their night market carrying across the creek.
I hurried over the first bridge, which took me to the edge of the market. I bought bot chien, a little rice cake, from an old Chinese woman. It was cheap, and the sort of food I could afford with the coins I had.
“Aunty,” I said politely. “Where is Mat Hem, please?”
She squinted at me through the smoke from her cooking fire. She didn’t speak, but tipped her head to the northern end of the market, then turned away and spat.
I recognised the gesture. She wouldn’t speak, or show me exactly, because that would bind my fate with hers. I should not be going to Mat Hem, in her opinion. And if I did go there anyway, the fate that waited for me would find some tenuous thread of karma that linked back to whoever had sent me, or guided me, on the way. She wanted no part of it. She spat out the thread, as she saw it.
Superstitous foolishness, but a little cramp of fear clutched at my stomach.
I had to ask twice more before I finally stumbled into the entrance of an alley that ran up the hill, away from the creek. It was dark, apart from a big lantern hanging outside a building half way along. In comparison to the market, this narrow alley was quiet. But not silent. A sewer ran down the middle of it, sealed with iron gratings, and through that, I could hear the trickle of water and the rustle of cockroaches swarming below.
I’m crazy. This isn’t safe.
Heart in my mouth, I edged into the alley and let the darkness swallow me.
Was Riossi laughing at me? Or was there something worse, something evil going on? Was I offering myself up to my own kidnapping?
I froze at a noise ahead. A man, a European, well dressed, emerged into the light of the lantern.
There was a murmured exchange of Chinese and French voices and then the man walked toward the entrance of the alley, his heels scuffing.
I pushed myself against a wall, deep into the shadows.
What if he recognises me?
Stupid. It was so dark, he wouldn’t recognise his own family in this alley.
Still, I stayed where I was, trying not to breathe so loudly, and to not think about the rats and cockroaches.
Was Riossi trying to test how brave I was – or how insane?
As soon as the Frenchman left the alley, I walked quickly toward the lantern, moving to the middle of the alley, close to the scuttling sewer, away from the shadows.
Riossi’s note said the House of the Red Door in Mat Hem.
Closer to the lantern, I saw a moon gate sealed with a red-painted door. This had to be it, even though it looked strange. On either side of the gate stood carved columns, about my height and the thickness of my leg. The tops of the columns glistened, as if they’d been annointed with an oil. A floral fragrance wafted from them, fighting against the smell of the sewer.
I knocked timidly on the door, and after a minute it opened to let a large Chinese man out.
His head was completely shaved. He leaned on a chang gùn, a carved wooden staff, that was as tall as he was. His plain tunic was gathered by a belt, from which hung a set of large iron keys.
“What do you want, boy?” he said, speaking Cantonese.
“I need to see Phan,” I replied in Annamese, hoping he’d understand. My Cantonese was not good.
He stepped forward and peered at me. “Not a boy,” he grunted, still in Cantonese. I didn’t catch what he said next. Something about work. Was he asking if I wanted work, or saying Phan was busy working?
“Not want work,” I switched to Trade. “Want see Phan. She know, she wait, I come.”
He grunted again, but after looking down at me for a long minute, he stepped to one side, allowing me to pull the door open and go through. He closed it behind us and I could hear the scratch of the key as he locked it.
I stood at the entrance to a small courtyard. The middle was given over to a pink-blossomed frangipani tree standing on a little island in the middle of a round carp pool. Along the sides of the courtyard were raised wooden walkways. There were doors, evenly spaced in the walls, and lamps, hanging at the corners.
The man jerked his head to indicate a room to the side, and I went in.
It was a plain room without windows. In one corner, a woman with grey streaks in her hair sat on cushions beside a small table. She was painting in the courtly Chinese style—a young girl looking down at a frangipani blossom floating in a stream.
She looked up as I entered.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc?” she said in French, her eyes sharp and her pronunciation surprisingly good.
“Yes.” I shifted my weight uncomfortably under her gaze and indicated my clothes. “I thought it would be safer to dress like this.”
She tilted her head and looked at me thoughtfully.
“That depends on what you wish to be safe from.” She made a last stroke with her brush and placed it in a bowl of water. “I am Madame Phan and you are Monsieur Riossi’s friend, come to see my house.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know why I’m here. This is some kind of test, and…”
I wanted to talk. I wanted to explain why I was doing what I was doing. To ease my fears. To justify myself. To persuade someone else that my reasoning was sound.
All of those.
I couldn’t expect anyone’s blessing, but if I could have their understanding…
“It is test, after a fashion. Are you sure you want to go on? You could leave now,” she said.
“I have to go through with it.”
“Whatever it is.” She wiped her hands on a cloth and stood.
It was half way to a question, but I said nothing in response.
“Very well. Walk with me. Walk softly. Do not speak.”
She took the small lamp from the table and we went into the courtyard. I followed her around the walkways to a door on the opposite side, and we went through that.
Inside, there was a narrow staircase, bare and leading down into more darkness. The only light was from her lamp and she had the wick turned down as far as it would go.
A faint smell of incense floated through the still air, masking other scents. Something salty, sweaty, sour. Something smoky. And a distinctive whiff of flowers. Someone was smoking opium.
Was this an opium den? Why send me here?
Madame Phan walked down to the first landing. Our shadows leaped around the stairwell as she turned. The stairs continued down, but she chose instead the passage leading to the right. The corridor was completely empty, as was the next on the left. Everything—floors, ceiling, walls—was wooden. It was like being inside a box.
Half-way down that corridor, she stopped.
There was a sound of music, voices and laughter, very faint. It seemed to come from all around us.
There was nothing I could see but she reached up and moved a flap, uncovering a tiny hole in the wall. She put her eye to it briefly, then stood back. She put her finger to her lips and then waved me forward to look.
Riossi’s test is to spy on people?
The room I looked into was not brightly lit. There were soft seats and green plants everywhere. Some men, Europeans, played musical instruments in the corner of the room, others sat and took drinks being offered to them by women. Women who were half naked.
I jerked back from the peephole.
Madame Phan held her finger to her lips again.
She slid the peep flap back into place. She walked around the corridors back to the staircase, and down another level.
I looked at the stairs leading up and out. I should run now and pray the guard would let me out.
A brothel. I was in a brothel.
Riossi’s test was…what?
Is he here? Is that his idea of a ‘gift’?
I followed numbly, down to the next level, steeling myself. Nhung had lived in a place like this for five years. My cowardice shamed me.
There was no conversation or laughter seeping in from the rooms here. Instead, there were faint moans and cries from all around us.
There were three peepholes for each corridor in the square. Three rooms each side for three of the sides. On the first corridor, Madame Phan looked and rejected the first two. At the third, she motioned me to look.
The ony light in the room came from a candelabrum on a side table. It showed a European man slouching naked in a big chair. A Chinese girl knelt on the ground between his legs, head in his lap.
I jerked back again.
I knew that the physical love my parents shared was not the whole spectrum of what people did. I knew about brothels. I knew there were other things people did.
This was my test. Did that mean Riossi expected this from me? Would I have to do what I’d just seen for him to agree to search for Nhung?
Madame Phan gripped my wrist as pulled me onward.
Three more peepholes that level. Six on the next.
Girls on their knees, on their backs, on their stomachs. Arranged in whatever position the men wanted them. Doing whatever the men wanted them to.
And… inviting them. Encouraging them. Urging them.
Somehow their voices made it worse.
I was feeling sick when Madame Phan opened a door at the end of the last corridor and waved me inside.
Now? Is he here? Is it my turn?
For all the jangling of my nerves and pounding of my heart, the room was empty.
It was furnished as a bedroom, and in the middle there was a curtained, four-poster bed. I pulled the curtains aside hesitantly, still not absolutely sure that Riossi was not there.
On the bed was a box with my name in Riossi’s handwriting on the lid. There was no other written message. Another puzzle for me to work out. I opened it. Inside was a gold chain bracelet. I lifted it up into the light. Real gold, but not a bracelet; an ankle chain.
I ran the links gently through my fingers.
Its beauty did not hide its function. It was a fetter, a shackle.
What had he said? A little secret to keep me in your mind.
It was more than that; it was a reminder he would have a claim on my body. It was a sign of ownership.
But Nhung had no options. No choice to wear the chain, or not.
Swallowing hard, I put it on my ankle and let the pant leg fall back to hide it.
Madame Phan silently guided me back up the stairs to the door, where the guard let me out.
As I hurried down toward the faint light at the mouth of the alley, I heard the brothel’s door lock behind me.
And steps following me.
My heart raced and I looked back over my shoulder.
A shadow. A shape that loomed in front of the lantern. Big. As big as the Chinese guard in the brothel. If I screamed, would the guard come back out?
I couldn’t be sure, so still looking at the man behind, I sprinted away. Straight into the second man waiting in the darkness at the mouth of the alley.
He twisted me around, clamped an arm over my face to muffle my scream.
I bit him, hard. I kicked back and caught his shin.
He swore. “You’ll pay for that, bitch.”
Mandarin! Not Bác Thảo’s thugs from Khánh Hôi. Not the Party of the People either.
His arm shifted under my jaw, holding it closed.
I struck backwards with my elbow, hitting him in the ribs. Not hard enough.
The other one, the big man who’d chased me down the alley, punched me in the stomach.
I coughed and tried to double over, but the man holding me had trapped one of my legs. I couldn’t get air in my lungs, but I still struggled.
The big man reached out and gripped my shirt, jerked me forward and slapped me hard across the face. Once, twice. I saw stars.
My shirt was tough. It didn’t tear, but two knot buttons slipped their loops.
I gasped as he jerked more buttons loose.
“He only told us to catch her and take her back,” he grunted.
The other one laughed. “He didn’t say we couldn’t enjoy it, eh?”
His free hand pulled my shirt open, grabbed my breast and pinched.
I tried to twist away, tried to scream, but neither worked.
“We’ve got time.” I could sense him looking around. “Here?”
“Down near the creek,” the big man said. “We won’t be disturbed.”
He thrust his hand into my pants.
I still had one leg free. I kicked him in the groin.
He crouched and swore, but he’d been too quick to turn away and I hadn’t really hurt him.
“It seems you hardly need my help,” a familiar voice sounded from behind me.
Surprise made my captor’s grip loosen a fraction as he swivelled to see who it was. I twisted desperately, freeing my jaw.
“Qingzhao! Run! Get help.” I screamed.
She didn’t. She stood calmly at the entrance of the alley, leaning on the old chang gùn I’d seen her use for exercises.
“You!” the big man spat. He drew a long blade from a sheath hidden in his belt. “After we’re finished with you, we’ll let you crawl back to Song and tell him we have his little toy. He does what Zheng says or we send her to him a piece at a time.”
Qingzhao laughed. “Your stupidity continues to be unbelievable. You come here to Cholon, to our own territory and try to tell us what to do? When that fails, you sneak in at night and try to threaten us?”
“She will die slowly if Song doesn’t obey.” He pointed at me with the knife. “You know how painful we can make that.”
He hissed. His mouth seemed to go hazy, and for a moment I thought I saw his teeth had been filed down to points.
But my captor took that moment to jerk my head further back while he drew a blade of his own.
“Stupid.” Qingzhao shook her head, still speaking calmly. “You’re right here, not safe in some fortress up the river. And the only way out is through me.”
What was she doing? She couldn’t fight them.
She lifted her staff above her head, idly spinning it between her fingers, one-handed.
“You think we’re afraid of that?” the big man sneered.
The man holding me laughed. He moved again, forcing me behind him. I turned, carefully, shifting under the grip around my neck.
Qingzhao did not answer the big man. A look came over her face, an eagerness, almost like hunger. Her chang gùn spun faster, flickering in the light from the lantern. There was something strange about the blur it made. The noise. How big was it? How could she spin it like that?
Even the big man faltered as he edged closer. As much as he tried to hide it, the spinning chang gùn worried him.
The man who held me also seemed drawn by the flickering circle. I took a chance, shifted some more.
Qingzhao put up her other hand, and with a crack the chang gùn came to an abrupt stop against her palm.
It now had gleaming blades sprouting from the ends, each as long as my forearm.
“Huh?” The big man was still looking at the staff, opened mouthed, when Qingzhao sprang at him and slashed.
He yelled and leaped back.
They’d both moved faster than I could blink.
I twisted some more, reached behind me, underneath the crushed straw hat, and tore my kris knife from its hiding place.
“Hold still, you stinking bitch,” my captor yelled, pushing me down. He thought I was just trying to escape.
With the knife still wrapped in its leather binder, I stabbed him in the thigh as hard as I could.
He screamed and let go, but as I tried to get away, he punched me. His blow was like being kicked by a horse’s hoof. I collapsed. My head reeled and the whole alley around me was a black mist of confusing shadows.
The big man was shouting something, staggering, swaying, his arms windmilling. My captor limped away, tugging at the kris buried in his thigh. Light glittered on Qingzhao’s blades.
I tried to get to my feet. Couldn’t. Seeing double. No strength in my limbs.
There was a thud. A spray of something warm on my face. A body fell in front of me. It ended hideously at the neck, which was spurting blood. A second later, the head rolled out of the night. It was the big man, still looking shocked.
I vomited into the gutter and passed out.
Here is the ninth episode of Bian’s Tale; the second part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
Bian must face what she will have to do to rescue her sister Nhung, as her existing problems mount and she uncovers new ones.
I may not post episodes over Christmas & New Year, but I *hope* that the completed novel will be with the beta readers and editor soon.
Feedback folks. 🙂
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Part 5 –Darkness Falls
To wander blindly around in Saigon, dressed like an Annamese youth, the very day that Bác Thảo found out who I was from the newspaper. They must have been watching the house and couldn’t believe their luck when I just walked out.
Stupid, stupid girl.
I didn’t struggle on the floor of the carriage. They’d only tie me up.
Pretend to be too frightened to move.
There might be a chance when we stopped, if I wasn’t tied up. The Malabar couldn’t cross the footbridge into Khánh Hôi. There were always people walking over the bridge. I’d run away from my captors. Even if they caught me, they’d have to drag me across the bridge. Surely someone would stop them if I fought and screamed?
Maybe. Maybe not. Better not to be caught. Dive into the creek.
The journey didn’t take long. I could feel the carriage rocking as the road changed and became more uneven. The smell of the Arroyo Chinois made its way into the carriage.
But it was too quiet. The footbridge was a busy, noisy area.
Where were they taking me?
We lurched to a stop. The door opened and I was pulled out roughly.
I tore at the sack over my head and kicked out hard.
They had expected it. My kick missed. I couldn’t even get the sack off.
I could hear them laughing as they held me and pushed me inside a house. The door banged behind.
I was forced down onto the floor and the sack was taken off.
They loomed over me. The two dusty workers from the market.
One held a piece of paper in front of me with the zhèngdào characters and Lanh’s message.
“Don’t fight,” he said.
His accent was northern.
“Who are you?” I said. “Why did you bring me here? What do you want?”
“Shut up. Wait.”
I was still angry, but there was a glimmer of hope; they didn’t seem to be Bác Thảo’s thugs. Unless he’d caught Lanh and found a copy of his message.
I asked more questions, but they ignored me. One slipped back outside. The other kept the door open a tiny amount, so he could look through and watch his companion.
Are they criminals? Looking out for police?
Perhaps it was too early for hope.
I heard a soft sound and spun around. Another man had come in the room, and he sat down on the floor across from me.
We were lit only by a single, dim lamp. He was an older man, maybe forty or fifty, round-faced, thin but strong, dressed in plain workers’ clothes like the two who had kidnapped me. He looked Chinese rather than Annamese to me. His face was expressionless, but I saw a cold intelligence in his eyes. He was watching me closely.
“Your brother is here,” he said. His accent was also northern, but he was well educated, unlike the other two. He startled me by switching to French, which he spoke well, but stiffly. “You may talk to him after I have finished.”
“Who are you?” I asked. “What do you want with me?”
“It’s better for you that you don’t know my real name,” he replied. “Call me Thiêu. As for what I want; that has greatly changed since your brother and I set out to come here.”
The name he’d given meant ‘burn’ in Annamese. It had an ominous sound to my ears.
“What do you mean?” I said. “What has changed?”
“When we set out, you were the adopted Annamese daughter of the Frenchman who was going to be Governor of Cochinchina. Now? I admit, I’m only speaking to you because brother Lanh believes you may still be of some use.”
“To the patriots of Annam.”
Revolutionaries! The secrecy. The lookout at the door.
“You’re the Can Vuong.” I made a wild guess from discussions with Papa about the unrest in the north of the country.
The man’s mouth pursed in distaste. “We have no interest in returning this country to the emperors who abandoned it, like the fools in the Can Vuong. We are the Party of the People.”
He used the Annamese words to name his group – Đảng Vì Dân.
I had never heard of them, and he saw it. He was irritated, even if he hid it well.
“You have heard the words of the American president, Lincoln?” he said. “A government of the people, by the people and for the people?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied. It was a favorite of Papa’s.
“Are we not people, too? May we not have the same aspirations?”
Naturally my brother, always filled with the sense we should have pride in ourselves as a people, had fallen in with revolutionaries. At the same time, it hurt me. It sounded as if he’d only considered returning to Saigon because his party thought it would be useful to recruit me as a spy in the governor’s house.
That wouldn’t have worked. However much I loved Lunh, however much I might support the idea that Annamese should be ruling themselves in Cochinchina, and however much I was torn between my love for both my families, I had to draw the line somewhere. I would not have spied on Papa.
But these revolutionaries were dangerous. Not as bad as Bác Thảo, but equally capable of killing me if they felt I threatened them in some way. Could Lanh protect me? He seemed to be junior to this man. I had to be careful, for his sake as well as mine.
“I can’t think what use I would be to you now, Monsieur Thiêu,” I said meekly. “But I would still like to speak to my brother, please.”
He looked silently at me for a minute before he nodded. “Very well. I will let him explain our purpose here.”
He leaned back and rapped on the flimsy wall.
Lanh came in. After five years, I knew him in an instant, though he’d changed so much. He was taller, stronger, but he moved differently, more cautiously.
I wanted to hug him, but something told me that would be wrong with Thiêu watching, so even though my heart ached to do it, I stayed where I was while he sat on the floor next to Thiêu.
“Elder brother,” I said respectfully in Annamese and bowed. “I am pleased to see you.”
He nodded, his face stiff. This was not the Lanh I remembered. He’d been animated, enthusiastic, quick to anger, quicker to forgive. Easy to read.
“Even though the Frenchman is gone, you still have a chance to do something useful,” he said.
I could hardly believe his first words to me. Five years and this indifferent sentence – it was like he’d slapped me.
“Not even a greeting? And what about our parents?” I said angrily. “Have you nothing to say about them?”
He shook his head, as if to dislodge a fly.
“They’re not important.”
I gasped. “Lanh! What has happened to you?”
“They are safe. Is that what you want to hear?” Lanh said. “He failed to get back in the mandarinate in Hué. He borrowed money and bought a small farm. As far as I know, he’s still there. I don’t care. I left to join the struggle against the oppressors. I no longer acknowledge the people you call parents.”
“How can you—”
“Listen to me, Bian. You’ve been living like a French girl. Good food, good clothes, a nice house. Just like the mandarins, and all of it on the backs of the people. The rest of us are no more than beasts to the French and the court.” He spoke quickly, angrily. “Your father wanted to go back and join the mandarins, to be part of the cesspool of corruption and treason around an Emperor who collaborates to keep our people downtrodden, just so long as he was all right.”
“So long as his family was all right, you included,” I snapped back. It was bad manners for me to argue with him, especially in front of strangers, but I could not stop that coming out.
He looked surprised, as if he hadn’t expect his little sister to argue back.
We had both changed. I knew from Papa that these new revolutionaries put aside the Confucian family order, the obedience of the son to the father, of the daughter to the son, and so on. They said was all the sort of superstition and bad culture that made us weaker and easier for others to dominate.
Lanh had put those traditions aside. If he did not acknowledge a need to be respectful to our father, then I didn’t need to be respectful to my elder brother.
But arguing with him about it was not going to work, however much I wanted to. I needed to be clever. It sounded as if my birth parents were safe. I could think about what I might do to help them at a later stage. What I had to do now was to get Lanh’s help for Nhung.
I must appear to submit to him and mention Nhung when he might be more receptive.
I bowed my head. “I am sorry. I will not argue with you about your decision.”
Even if it’s as sensible as Jade telling me I can’t escape my bad joss.
“We know about Beauclerc. He was better than most,” he said grudgingly. “The party thought he was good enough to send Thiêu and me here to talk with him. But he’s gone, and Hubert is not the same.”
I kept my head dipped. I wasn’t going to disagree with that last comment.
“So now, we must do things for ourselves and not expect to recruit any of the French to our cause.”
“I still don’t know what I could do to help,” I said.
Or what I might want to do. There were many things wrong with French rule, but if Thiêu was an example, I doubted the ‘Party of the People’ would be better.
I saw an exchange of glances between Thiêu and Lanh. Evidently, from my words, I had passed some minor test, because Thiêu nodded, and Lanh continued.
I blinked, surprised. “Song? You think I might influence him?”
“You might, but we are not at that stage yet. What we need now is an introduction.”
“Song does not allow us to enter Cholon openly,” Thiêu said. “He does not respond to our messages. We will not creep around like thieves.”
Yet Lanh had crept in to send me a message on the Words on the Wind.
“He probably thinks we are like the Can Vuong,” Thiêu went on. “You need to convince him that we are not. That we are more like him.”
Even if my tutor was a gang lord, I doubted that he was anything like Thiêu, but something about the man frightened me, so I kept silent.
“Instead of fighting each other, we should unite,” Lanh said.
I nodded as if reluctant.
Careful not to be too accepting, too quickly, I pretended to let them convince me over another hour of talking about how bad things were for the Annamese and Chinese, who were the rightful owners of this land, and how much better everything would be if their party were in control of it.
I didn’t dare let my true feelings show.
One thing I did not doubt is that they fiercely believed they could improve things. Thiêu believed it with a deep passion. He’d chosen his nom de guerre well – he burnt with that passion, and the flames had a hypnotic quality. I’d never met a person like him, but Papa had warned me about them.
To live as they do, these fanatics, they give up many things. They expect their followers to make the same sacrifices.
Lanh was not quite so fierce and absolute, but I could see he was gradually falling under the spell of this man.
And I remembered another thing that Papa had said: this kind of fanaticism needs them to regard their enemies as less human than they are. They are capable of unbelievable cruelty because, in their own minds, there is no cruelty in hurting lesser beings.
That was what my street sense told me about Thiêu. Even with Lanh here, I was in danger. If I wasn’t part of their party, I was not truly human in their eyes. They seemed to have no awareness that it was the same fault they accused the French of.
It was as if the spirit vision that Song had shown me had returned to my eyes. I could sense the frightening rage beneath Thiêu’s calm exterior. I could also sense his arrogance. He expected to find a submissive Annamese girl with a spark of spirit that he could bend to his party’s purposes.
The Bian side of me knew, if he saw what he expected to see, I might be safe.
“I will explain your messages to my tutor as well as I can,” I said finally, bowing my head again.
So, whatever he was, I’d have to go and see Song.
And if he was really the head of the Chinese gangs in Cholon?
Now I was over the shock of Meulnes accusation, I found it less upsetting. Maybe I was becoming numb to such things.
If Song was powerful, maybe he could kidnap Lanh, for his own good. Maybe he could think of a way to find Nhung. But if his tutoring had all just been a strategy to help an understanding with Papa, why would Song want to help me now?
So many things to think about. So many dangerous paths.
But whatever the truth about my lǎoshī, I trusted him more than I trusted the Party of the People.
“Good,” Thiêu said, bringing me back to the conversation here. “You should do anything to persuade him.”
I kept my head bowed in case they could somehow see my thoughts, and watched them beneath lowered eyelids.
“You advised me well,” Thiêu said to Lanh. “Your sister is the sort of girl that we could use to spy on the French. They will find her attractive.”
Lanh went pale, but his face showed nothing.
I felt a shock, down in the pit of my stomach.
Bình tâm. Bình tâm, I said to myself. Keep calm. Keep calm.
I’d learned to school my face when Phèdre or Chantal tried to provoke me. And I suspected this wasn’t aimed at me; it was a test for Lanh. Thiêu was watching him, not me.
I couldn’t allow myself to be sidetracked by Thiêu talking about me as if I were a whore for his revolutionary party, any more than I would have responded to Phèdre suggesting my parents deliberately sold Nhung.
Given what I’d planned doing with Riossi, Thiêu was closer to the truth. I felt a little sick, but it was far more important to get their help for Nhung, if I could. I couldn’t leave it for another time. And now was a good time to get Thiêu’s attention off my brother.
“I must ask something in return,” I said.
“I don’t make bargains,” Thiêu said, but his cold gaze came back to me. “But tell me what you think is so important.”
I hated him then, even more than I feared him.
“My brother has disowned our parents, but his elder sister is still family,” I said. “She needs help.”
I explained what I knew—how ‘Aunty Kim’ had tricked our parents and what she actually did with the girls she bought or kidnapped.
Thiêu he made no comment. He was watching Lanh again.
I’d fallen into a trap, putting Lanh through another test.
But Nhung! His sister! He can’t ignore her.
My elder brother’s face was frozen. His eyes would not meet mine.
“The only sisters and brothers I acknowledge are in the party,” he whispered eventually.
They let me go shortly after that.
I found I was down by the Arroyo Chinois, a couple of alleys away from the footbridge to Khánh Hôi. I hurried back to the market.
It was just as it had been before. Everyone going about their business, heedless of me.
I supposed I was lucky. Apart from a few bruises, they hadn’t physically hurt me at all. But in my mind, I couldn’t stop hearing Lanh’s voice. The only sisters and brothers I acknowledge…
It was because Thiêu was listening. He didn’t mean it. Not Lanh.
But at the moment Lanh and the Party of the People were just another group who wanted to use me for something. There was no help for Nhung from them.
I would talk to Riossi tomorrow. I heard the distant chimes from the cathedral and corrected myself: today.
Nothing is done but we do it ourselves. We chose the paths we walk, and there is no more time. I swear to you, my sister.
It was strange. A numbness had leaked into me.
If Thiêu had suddenly appeared in my life a month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.
If my story had leaked out to Bác Thảo a month ago, I would have been frozen in fear.
But now, it was as if everthing that had happened was preparing me.
For what? What is coming that is worse?
I was so bound up with thinking about that, I almost got caught.
A Malabar was coming slowly up the boulevard. Too late, I realized it was stopping in front of my house. I was already reaching for the front door when Fontaudin stepped down from the carriage.
I was saved by the fact that he was drunk. His foot slipped on the step and he sprawled onto the ground.
My first instinct was to help him, but another man was immediately behind him and I couldn’t let them see me dressed like this and out in the road.
I slipped quickly into the house, closing the door silently. The lamp had gone out and I stood in the darkness.
From the window, I could see Fontaudin getting slowly to his feet, helped by the other.
“Far too much to drink, Yves,” his companion said. The voice was thin and harsh. Hadn’t I seen him getting off the ship when we met the Fontaudins?
“I’m fine,” Fontaudin mumbled.
“Well, let your head answer to that tomorrow,” the man said. He was frowning. He sounded irritated. “You need to get to work, earn some money. The sooner the better, eh?”
“I told you, I can pay you,” Fontaudin said loudly, slurring his words. “Just a bad run of cards… won’t last forever.”
I heard a creak from above and fled upstairs, but not so quickly that I missed a last rejoinder from Fontaudin’s companion: “Neither will my patience.”
I skipped the noisy steps, crossed the landing and was inside my bedroom, leaning against the door, heart thudding, as I heard the answering thump of Madame Fontaudin’s cane at the head of the stairs.
Fontaudin was a drunk and a gambler. Papa had left him in charge of his interests here in Saigon.
It was hardly surprising I slept badly again.
Nightmares about tigers that crept into the house while I slept. A city full of people with their faces hidden behind stiff white masks. Fanged monsters that seethed out of the sewers like spirit vipers and filled the air with their hissing.
In the twilight before dawn, I sat at my window, caressing the flesh of my arm with the sinuous kris knife and watching the sky bleed and congeal into a thunderous, aching bruise of a stormcloud that spanned the horizon.
The monsoon season was late, and it gathered itself slowly above Indochina.
It needed release. I dreamed I had a magic knife; that I could reach up and cut the cloud; that the sweet, cool rain would fall and cleanse the earth.
I dozed through the morning, not bothering to go downstairs. The Fontaudins didn’t care. The whole house remained quiet, as if everyone were holding their breath.
It lasted until late morning, when I was roused by the sound of shouting and angry voices. Slamming doors.
Had I dreamed it? Perhaps I’d heard an argument from the boulevard outside?
It wasn’t important. Riossi would be going to lunch soon.
I dressed carefully, and left without anyone noticing. I took a parasol in case that stormcloud burst. And to shield me from the view of others.
My hands were trembling and I could barely feel the street beneath my feet.
I crossed Boulevard Charner and Rue Catinat to arrive at the side of the Hôtel de l’Univers. I slowed down in the shade of the trees lining the street. At midday, most colonials were inside. No one was watching me. No one was noticing whether I looked nervous or guilty.
Could I do this?
My heart thudded in my chest, pulsed against my throat. I felt sick to my stomach.
What if one of my friends sees me?
I could claim to be walking down to the Ronde. For the exercise. Without a chaperone.
I wanted one of them to see me. It would give me an excuse to not go in.
None of them were here.
The arched Italianate windows on the upper stories of the hotel looked down at me like rows of disapproving raised eyebrows.
My sister does not have a choice of what happens.
I turned at the end of the street. Roads ran away from the Ronde like the spokes of a wheel. The main entrance to the hotel was in the next street. Right in front of me.
Breathing as hard as if I’d run there, I walked up to the doors.
No going back.
Servants opened them, smiled and bowed as I passed. I looked straight ahead, concentrating on forcing my trembling legs to carry me in that direction without stumbling.
Through the lobby.
No one paid me attention. Perhaps they saw only my clothes.
A short passage and the restaurant lay ahead.
After the bright light outside, it seemed dark. The room was tall. Huge punkas softly waved above the tables, keeping the air stirring.
Guarding the restaurant was a heavy wooden lectern, and behind the lectern was the maître d’hôtel, a Frenchman, who was carefully writing names into a large book, his concentration total.
He looked up, startled, as I neared.
“Madame?” He recognised me and gave an embarassed cough. “I beg your pardon. Mam’selle Beauclerc. Welcome.”
His smile was broad and empty as the sky in the dry season. He craned his neck to look behind me, failing to see who was bringing me to his restaurant.
“Monsieur,” I replied.
“How many in your party, Mam’selle?” he asked, flicking the page back and holding his pen ready to write the answer in.
My mouth felt dry.
“Actually, I’m here alone to meet with Monsieur Riossi.”
The man blinked and laid his pen down carefully beside the ledger. He did not raise his eyes to look at me.
“Is Monsieur expecting you?”
Obviously not, otherwise he would have told you.
A few minutes ago I’d been begging fate that I would have an excuse not to come in here, but now I had forced myself this far, I wasn’t going to be denied by the gatekeeper. I’d never get up the courage to try again.
“Yes,” I replied and walked past.
“Oh! Mam’selle. No, no. It is forbidden to interrupt.”
He had to scuttle out from behind his lectern, so I was in the middle of the room before he caught up.
The restaurant was almost as quiet as a library, and the maître d’hôtel was making enough of a commotion that Riossi could not fail to hear. I was far enough into the room that he could see me as well. He sat beside a gauze-curtained window on the far side.
He looked up, his face unreadable, and made no sign. The maître d’hôtel was right at my elbow. The hotel was famously protective of its patrons’ privacy. Without Riossi’s invitation I would not be allowed to join him and I wasn’t sure if I’d have the courage to do this again.
“Please, Monsieur Riossi,” I said quietly. Too quietly for him to hear, but he could see. He smiled and stood, his open hand indicating the unoccupied chair at his table.
Without so much as a blink, the maître d’hôtel changed. He snapped his fingers and two waiters had laid a place for me in the time it took me to walk there.
Riossi held my chair for me. I sat, clasping my hands in my lap to hide the trembling.
“Thank you,” I said mechanically.
“My pleasure,” he replied easily, returning to his seat.
A waiter poured a large glass of iced water for me, and the maître d’hôtel handed me the menu.
“You are well?” Riossi said.
“Yes, thank you.” I took a long drink of water. I couldn’t look at him yet. “I trust you are, too.”
“Yes. It was an immense shock for us all, at the Harvest Ball,” Riossi said. “I could scarcely believe what was being said, let alone the manner in which it was delivered. I wrote to your father along those lines, but his leaving was so rushed he may not even have read it. No matter.”
Why did he need to bring that up?
I couldn’t respond angrily.
I can’t antagonise him. This is Nhung’s only chance.
“I’m sure he’d wish me to thank you for your concern, Monsieur Riossi.” I looked at the unopened menu in my hands. “I really didn’t…”
“Come now. Forgive me for pointing out that you’ve arrived in a state of some trepidation, Mam’selle Beauclerc. It’s to be expected. You are very young, very inexperienced in the ways of the world, and very worried. But nothing is going to happen here.” He opened his hands and indicated the room. “We are merely having lunch. Making conversation. It is unexceptional. That is, unless you just sit there while I eat. That would be noticed. It would even be impolite.”
I have to do this the way he wants.
Riossi nodded at a waiter, and he approached silently on felt-soled slippers.
“We’ll both start with the cream of chicken soup,” he said. “Then for mam’selle, the medallions of fish. I’ll have the beef ribs in juice. Seasonal vegetables for both of us.”
The waiter bowed and took our menus. He hadn’t even glanced at me the entire time. I did not have an opinion on what I wanted to eat, or if I did, it was only to be expressed through my male companion.
How many times had Papa managed to deflect this when we were out, without me even noticing?
Now, I was on my own and saw it clearly.
The maître d’hôtel appeared silently behind me and poured me a glass of the wine from the bottle in the ice bucket beside the table.
“A bottle of the Latour to go with my beef,” Riossi said. “Open it now and let it breathe if you would, Jacques.”
“Of course, Monsieur.”
A tilt of the head, a bow, a small smile. Monsieur has immense good taste. The perfect wine for his meal.
“I’ll leave the Muscadet for you,” Riossi said. “It’s an excellent accompaniment to your fish.”
I sipped it, to please him, and looked at him through my eyelashes.
He was not as ill-looking as some Frenchmen became in the heat of Asia; all gaunt and yellow. Neither had he become immensely fat and pink, as others did. He was fleshy, but not uncommonly so. His skin was as dark as mine, like many of the Corsicans. His hair was black and neat. His eyes brown. His hands clean. His clothes elegant.
He is not repulsive. I must school my face.
“It irritates you,” he said, making my heart skip a beat wondering what he was going to say. “The way they ignore you; it grates, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does.”
“We are not so different, you and I,” he said. “We’re both outsiders.”
“You’re making fun of me, Monsieur Riossi. They bow and scrape to you.”
“No. They bow and scrape to money and power and influence.” He stared intently at me. “We cannot be Monsieur and Mam’selle in our private conversations, Ophélie. You must call me Bernardu.”
It caught in my throat.
“I should like to hear my name on your lips,” he said.
“Good. Good. Yes, outsiders, as I was saying. You see, I am Corsican, and the French do not believe we are entirely French.”
“But Saigon is full of Corsicans, and don’t they group together and regard French as outsiders?”
“Indeed they do. But I’m an outsider to them as well. My wife is from Paris. I am not to be trusted.” He waggled his eyebrows and chuckled.
I’d never met Madame Riossi, who seldom ventured outside of her house, and here I was with her husband. My shame was intense.
But Nhung did not have that privilege. I swallowed it.
“I think you would see it differently,” I said, “if you looked through my eyes.”
The waiters served our soup.
It was strange. I wanted him to be uncouth. Rude. Perhaps I wanted an excuse to be so mortally offended that I could leave.
Apart from the impropriety of our meeting and the intimacy of using given names, nothing improper happened while we ate. Riossi was charming, his conversation light and witty. He gave me plenty of opportunity to speak. He listened to what I said, and with my tongue loosened by the wine, I spoke too much.
I could not help but speak about the Fontaudins. Riossi shook his head, and commented that Monsieur Fontaudin would not last the period envisaged by his company.
“If he does not run out of health, he will surely run out of money!”
But he would not be drawn on details.
As they cleared away dessert at the end, I began to wonder if I had misjudged everything and had made a complete fool of myself. What would a rich, urbane, married man like Riossi want with an inexperienced Annamese girl like me? Was he sitting there laughing at me?
Business began over coffee.
“You wish my inspectors to add to their duties,” he said, sipping at his coffee and watching me over the rim of his cup.
“Yes,” I stuttered, caught unawares by the sudden turn in the conversation. “The situation is abominable. The Sisters are ready to help. It is such a little thing for Messieurs Picardin and Valois to help so many out of a slavery that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.”
“Something we ought to do.” Riossi smiled. “For the good of the many girls caught in this web.”
My throat constricted. I could not answer.
“You haven’t come here for the good of the many, my little Ophélie, have you? You haven’t come here to rescue some distant cousin either. It’s much closer to home, is it not? We’re not so different, really, Corsicans, Annamese, French. For such bravery and sacrifice, I would look for a reason within the immediate family.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “A sister?”
“Nhung,” I said quietly, the anger returned, cleansing me of everything but my purpose. “Her name is Nhung. Yes, she’s my sister.”
“Good. I like that we will be honest with each other, should we progress,” he said.
“What… what do you expect of me? For us to progress?” I cleared my throat, my heart in my mouth. “What must I do?”
“Ahh. That.” He tossed his napkin on the table. “First a gesture. I think both of us should demonstrate something to the other. To build trust.”
I looked up at him, my hands hidden underneath the table again.
“Understand me, Ophélie, I believe we would always have become good friends over time. This delightful lunch only confirms that to me.” He leaned forward, his voice smooth and low, his eyes bright as a serpent’s. “The unfortunate situation that you and your sister are in merely precipitates what would have happened anyway. Working together to solve it will bring us closer, quicker. You’ll see, in time. Your young mind is full of the unknown now, which quite naturally, you fill with fears. You are scared of outrages, as if sin was original. It’s not. You will come to see it as normal. As something… everyday. Like having lunch. And then you will come to find enjoyment in it.”
He took a cigar from his pocket and a waiter appeared with a lighter.
We sat in silence until it was lit. He blew a cloud of smoke that danced in the gentle wash of the ceiling punkas.
“I will give you a sign of good faith,” he said. “This evening, my inspectors will visit one of the largest brothels in Saigon and test the procedure Monsieur Beauclerc suggested. Tomorrow, you and I will meet and discuss the results, and our next steps.”
Steps. Like a dance.
What had Phèdre said? He’s very sure in his moves.
I took a last sip of the wine to ease my throat. “Thank you, Bernardu.”
“Who knows, we may be lucky and find Nhung on the first attempt.” He smiled again. “Also, I will present you with a gift, a little secret to keep me in your mind. In return for these tokens, I ask only a demonstration.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s admirable that you’ve sought me out here. However, I would like to be completely sure of your ability, your bravery and commitment to carry this out. So…” He took out his wallet and found a piece of paper. On the back, he wrote in neat little letters and handed it across.
“Tonight, at midnight, go to this place. They will expect you, and your gift will be waiting there for you. If you dare.”
As I took the paper from him, a man rushed into the restaurant, ignoring the attempts of the maître d’hôtel to detain him.
The newcomer ran up to our table.
“I apologize, Monsieur Riossi.” He gathered himself. “A… situation, at the docks. It requires you. A carriage is ready outside.”
“Wait in the carriage for me,” Riossi said.
The man hastened away, apologising again.
“I am sorry, Ophélie. Power is not all priviledge and pleasure. There are responsibilities as well.” He stood up and moved around the table to lean over me. My left hand rested on the tablecloth and he covered it with his.
“I will send you a message tomorrow and we will meet,” he said.
“Yes, Bernardu.” I looked up at him.
“The lunch is on my account, naturally. And don’t worry. Together, you and I, we’ll find your sister and free her.”
His hand squeezed mine briefly and then he strode away.
My earlier fears were groundless. I had not misjudged the situation, and he had not been sitting there simply indulging me. The last few minutes and that little squeezing of the hand had adequately communicated his intentions.
No poor girl raised in a single room with her whole family grows up entirely ignorant of sex. For that matter, my French friends knew more than their parents suspected. We were all of an age of awareness and potential, but none of us, not even Chantal, had turned that uncertain knowledge into experience.
And so the heart of it, the true power, that was a mystery.
I would be his whore. I repeated that. Whore. I needed to make myself used to the name, so it lost its capacity to hurt me. And, while I was his whore, his inspectors would search for Nhung alongside their other duties.
But how long would this work? How fascinated was he? What if he grew bored with me?
Against my better judgement, I finished my glass of wine.
I would discover this power. Riossi would remain fascinated for as long as it took for his inspectors to find Nhung. That was my responsibility.
As for my finding enjoyment in it… perhaps that was what he needed to believe. Perhaps, if I learned to convince him of that, I would find part of the key to this secret power.
And I would not be put off by his challenge—this first ‘demonstration’ to visit somewhere at midnight.
The piece of paper was an address in Cholon; one of the riverside alleys called Mat Hem, and I should ask for someone called Phan. Did he really think I wasn’t brave enough to visit Cholon after dark?
I felt a little fear, and an exhilaration at the same time, possibly helped by more wine than I was accustomed to. I had taken the first step. Already, if he kept his word, there would be one less brothel that Nhung could be captive in by this time tomorrow.
On the other hand, people at lunch had seen me with Riossi. The gossip would start today and I would soon have to practice not caring about it. It couldn’t be helped.
Tonight, I would take the second step and visit Cholon.
But this afternoon, I had another urgent destination: the bank.
Fontaudin’s drunken discussion in the road last night and Riossi’s comment about Fontaudin today had me very worried.
At the bank, the worry blossomed. The assistant manager paled at my demand to view the details of the account set up for me by Papa.
“You should be accompanied by a responsible adult,” he said, peering through the door to see if there was someone there.
“I presume you think that would be Monsieur Fontaudin,” I said. Papa had needed someone to elect as a trustee in his absence, and Fontaudin had been right there and available. A member of the family. Someone to trust.
“He is the nominated party. I can’t show you the statements unless he is in attendance,” the man said. He fiddled with his little round glasses, taking them off and squinting. Perhaps he thought if he couldn’t see me, I would go away.
I demanded to see the manager of the bank, and after further prevarication, I was eventually admitted to his spacious office.
“I fail to understand why you will not even show me statements,” I said, impatiently cutting the formalities as short as I could. “What possible requirement or advantage would there be to having another adult present?”
“Well, to explain matters,” he stumbled. “These are not—”
“Is the manager of the Bank of Indochina unable to explain the intricacies of a simple bank account to me?”
His mouth opened and closed.
“The truth is, Mam’selle… this is most irregular. I had assumed you were informed. Most irregular.”
He found something fascinating on the glossy desk between us.
“You no longer have an account,” he said abruptly. “It has been closed and the balance moved.”
“To Fontaudin’s account?”
“No, but I cannot reveal the destination account. That is confidential to the parties involved.” He stood, tugged at his jacket. “I understand this comes as a shock, but we have acted entirely within our rules. You must raise this with Monsieur Fontaudin.”
“I certainly will.”
There was nothing more I could do at the bank and no sensible target there for my anger.
On Boulevard Charner, of course Madame Sévigny, mother of Chantal and Alain, happened to be passing. Of course, she immediately saw I was unaccompanied.
It all seemed so trivial; all these petty proprieties that people kept uppermost in their minds while they walked the clean, tidy streets and the horrors seethed out of sight.
I ignored her. Another meaningless blemish against my character. It would not be the first, or the last. Certainly not the worst. I couldn’t afford to care.
I stormed into the house and found both of the Fontaudins in the salon.
He looked unwell. Good.
“Where have you been?” Madame Fontaudin shouted at me, before I could say anything. “How dare you go out alone?” She shook her walking stick at me. “No wonder the servants have left. It’s your fault. Tell her, Yves.”
She banged her stick on the floor with such force I could see the marks in the wood.
“You really should not be out—” he began.
“The servants, you idiot! Those arrogant, stupid, superstitious fools that my witless cousins left for us to look after.”
“Ah. They’ve gone,” he mumbled.
The shouting that had woken me this morning. I had dismissed it as unimportant.
“They disobeyed me!” She emphasised every word with another bang of the stick against the floor. “They argued with me.”
Jade was sullen, without a doubt. She had argued with Maman, too, but she’d not left because of it. The sight of Madame Fontaudin’s red face and the fury with which she was striking the floor gave me a clue to what had happened.
“You hit them, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did! What else was I to do? How do you expect obedience from them without discipline? Who do they think they are?”
“They are servants, not animals!” I said. “We pay them, they work. We hit them, they leave.”
“Well of course, you would side with them. Yves! Tell her! She has to be more respectful.”
He foundered like a fish out of water.
“And anyway,” she went on before he’d actually said anything, “it’s you they blamed. You bring bad luck or something.”
She snorted. “I could almost become superstitious, seeing the trail you’ve left behind you.”
“Indeed, perhaps it was some of that bad luck that took me to the bank today.”
Monsieur Fontaudin gasped. He looked to struggle to his feet and escape, but his wife clutched at his arm.
“What?” she said. “What are you talking about, girl? Why would you need to go to the bank?”
“To check the money in my account. I found it’s no longer there. Neither that money not the funds that my father left to pay for the upkeep of this house, where you’re living for free, remain.”
The loss of the second account was a complete guess, but I was sure I was right.
“What?” she said.
He looked even sicker and tried to get up again.
“Your husband has stolen the money from both accounts to pay off his gambling debts.”
“No, no,” he said, waving his hands. “Merely a convenience, to collect them in one account, you see.”
“Yves? What is she talking about? What money?”
“If the money has been simply moved to your account, Monsieur Fontaudin, then we should walk down to the bank now and you can prove it to me. And then you can transfer it back, as it is not convenient to me for it to be in your account.”
“How dare you?” Madame Fontaudin spat. “He has no need to walk anywhere to prove anything to you. Sit down, Yves.”
He sat, refusing to look at me.
“Thieves,” I said and walked back out.
In minutes I was in the Central Post Office which sat in the square by the cathedral. From there, telegrams could be transmitted around the world.
But not to ships at sea.
I stood inside the beautiful building and closed my eyes for a moment.
It was hopeless. I could try and send a telegram to all the ports where the Victorieuse might be stopping, but the navy did not announce where it would visit. If my parents had gone on a commercial liner, then that company would have transmitted a telegram to their offices in the next port, but on a naval corvette, Papa and Maman were out of touch for six weeks.
I would send a telegram to the family in Bordeaux to wait for their arrival. I had plenty of time to compose it. I would tell him what had happened, and then that he should instruct a lawyer and immediately continue on to Paris to present his arguments for the development of Indochina to the Quai d’Orsay. I was going to have to emphasis that he must not delay.
There was the smallest possibility that the news about my behavior in Saigon would arrive in Paris only after he persuaded the Quai d’Orsay to post him back here, with the authority to proceed on his projects.
It was the best I could hope for.
What else could I do now?
There was no point going to Police Chief Meulnes. As the appointed trustee of the funds in the bank, Fontaudin had broken no laws. He was entitled to dispose of the money as he saw fit.
Who else could I even talk to?
Here is the eighth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first part of Section 5 – ‘Darkness Falls’.
Seemingly alone in Saigon with only the unpleasant cousins from France, Bian comes to realize that she cannot satisfy all the demands made on her. To pursue one course is to destroy another. She must choose. Who will she betray?
In a Saigon haunted by a demonic tiger shifter, who is also the gang lord that wants the secrets of the Emperor’s gold from her family, will she even get the chance?
Who can she trust?
And, oh yes, this one ends on a cliffhanger.
Feedback folks. 🙂
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Part 5 –Darkness Falls
When I could no longer see any part of the grey corvette I turned away and looked for the Fontaudins.
We hadn’t started off well, Maman’s cousins and I. My life was going to be awkward enough without complications at home. I had to remind myself, we hardly knew each other and they knew nothing about Saigon and Indochina. I should give them some leeway.
Never make an enemy you don’t have to Papa had told me, many times. It was very sound advice.
I sighed; I would find some compromise. It would not be such a burden. I needed some freedom to proceed with my plans to find my sister, and, while not exactly there in place of my parents, the Fontaudins would be regarded as my guardians by French society. I needed to respect that. I would have to charm them to pursue those plans while keeping my home life tolerable and as respectable as it could be, on the surface.
I had to pause as a squad of soldiers marched along the docks. It seemed they had not been stood down yet, after the precautionary alert in preparation for the changes to this region brought by the Victorieuse.
It sounded a strange note in the clear Saigon morning.
What did they think would happen? A revolt? The changes hardly seemed to matter to anyone outside of the French colonials.
Not my concern.
The Fontaudins were sat under the awning outside the cafe where Rue Vannier met the Ronde.
“Thank you for waiting,” I said, slipping into a seat opposite them. “You are so kind to agree to all this at such short notice.”
Despite the early hour, I noticed Monsieur Fontaudin was drinking absinthe with his coffee.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Nothing,” he said. “A grievous week for you. A terrible blow for Zacharie and Thérèse. Terrible.”
Madame Fontaudin’s mouth was a thin line. “We must go back to the house now,” she said. “If my hip gets worse, I won’t be able to face those stairs.”
“Oh, one moment, my dear,” her husband said, as he took another sip.
“Hurry up,” she replied brusquely, and turned to me. “Get a carriage. One of those…malaback things.”
“Malabar,” I said. “We call them that because the drivers mainly come from the Malabar coast of India.”
“I don’t care why you call them these outlandish names. Why are you still sitting there?”
“Blanche,” Monsieur Fontaudin remonstrated gently.
His wife turned her face away.
I went outside and waved. There was a Malabar just discharging his passenger on the other side of the Ronde, and he trotted his horse around quickly.
“M’zelle.” He beamed, pleased to pick up a new fare so quickly.
“For Boulevard Bonnard, please. It will take a moment for my… guardians to arrive.” I nodded in their direction. “The lady needs help to climb in.”
“Yes, M’zelle.” He jumped down, still beaming, put some steps on the ground and stood ready to help.
Monsieur Fontaudin finished his absinthe and helped his wife to her feet.
She gripped her stout walking stick and began to make her way towards the Malabar.
“God! The heat, and it’s early yet,” Monsieur Fontaudin said, wiping his pink brow with a handkerchief. He held her right arm at the steps.
As she paused, the driver reached out.
“Keep your filthy hands off me,” she spat and made a swing at him with her stick.
He jumped back, shocked.
“He was just trying to help,” I said.
She ignored me, banging her stick on the floor as she entered the carriage.
Monsieur Fontaudin shook his head in embarrassment and followed her in.
I stayed outside and apologised quietly to the driver.
His face had gone completely blank.
“It doesn’t matter, M’zelle,” he muttered.
I wanted to walk home, but I made myself get in and we set off.
Bình tâm. Keep calm.
Give them time. They are adapting to Saigon. Charm them.
“So, what are your plans for the future, Ophélie?” Monsieur Fontaudin asked.
“Do you mean until Papa and Maman come back, or for ever?”
“You shouldn’t assume the Beauclercs will come back for you,” Madame Fontaudin cut in.
“What do you mean, Madame?”
“Hush, Blanche,” her husband said. “This isn’t appropriate at the moment.”
“Nonsense. The sooner she understands, the better.” She raised her chin. “It is not kindness to be unclear on this. She is not French, and she will never be accepted into real French society. Not even here, let alone in France.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What do you mean, Madame?”
“You were a ploy, nothing more. A move that seemed clever at the time. Who better could understand the Asian question that a man who had adopted an Annamese girl? Who better qualified to lead the colony?” She sniffed. “Well it failed.”
“This is outrageous!” I said. How dare she?
“Is it? Monsieur Beauclerc works for the Quai d’Orsay. He will go where they tell him to. They are certainly not going to send him back here. You’re a fool if you believe they would.”
“Blanche, this is needless, and you do not know these things for sure,” he said.
“Oh! Fah!” She snorted and turned to look out the window.
Monsieur Fontaudin made a calming gesture with his hands, as if he were trying to put out a fire. “It is true that Zacharie must heed the orders of the minister, but I see no reason they will not return him here, Ophélie. Eventually. You must be patient, I think. We must be patient and careful with the money, and so on. That’s all we can say now. That is all.”
Careful? What does he mean?
Papa had left more than enough to maintain the house on Bonnard, and it wasn’t as if they were being charged to stay there. Monsieur Fontaudin had a job while he was here in Saigon, and a good income from it. This was all ridiculous.
Still… what if his company ordered Monsieur Fonatudin back to France before Papa returned? I didn’t need the Fontaudins to look after me, but it was not acceptable in society for a young lady to live on her own.
None of which possible complications excused Madame Fontaudin.
The rest of the trip passed in an icy silence, and as soon as we were home, I left to meet with Rochelle, Jade in tow. There was no point returning until my temper had cooled.
Could there be truth in what she said?
Who would I trust to tell me?
Coffee with Rochelle was a somber affair. We spoke with every effort to be normal, but it was clear to me how much we both missed Manon. It was Manon who would continually bounce the conversation to a new topic before we’d quite finished the last. Without her, the talk seemed to slow, almost stuttering to a stop.
I was ashamed that it was a relief when Rochelle said she had to return home.
I stayed at the table, watching her collect her companion, an Annamese woman they called Belle, and setting off down the street at a leisurely rate.
They walked together, talking. Not like Jade and me.
I could see Jade looking across from her table, but I was not ready to go back and face Madame Fontaudin yet.
I waved at the waiter and asked for La Poste, the main Saigon newspaper, to read.
What are they making of all the changes?
It was the third day since the ball, and the lead article was still full of the implications of the new colony of Indochina. Much of the text echoed what had been said by Hubert already: better structure, clearer purpose, responsible management.
I wondered if others saw through the text; the cancellation of projects to relieve the poverty of the people; the emphasis that Indochina would fund itself from the output of Cochinchina—rice and opium. A whole page was given over to the responses of planters and merchants.
They were all for it. There were voices raised against some of the changes, but they were small and tucked away in the corners of the page.
The last page featured an interview with the lieutenant governor himself. A modern style interview, where they quoted passages from him verbatim, as if he were talking directly to the reader.
I was about to cast it aside, but the word tigers caught my eye.
I have thrown aside a mountain of misguided projects and useless, meaningless tasks. Here’s one that defies belief: an investigation requested of the police to chase down gangsters who can turn into tigers at night! A girl, adopted by a French family, claims to be hunted by one of these; a terrible gangster by the name of Bac Thao, a man a hundred years old or more, and all because her father stole some gold from the Emperor.
No. This is the end of the 19th Century. This is a land governed by France. A land we will govern with clear heads, with intelligence and rationality. We will cast aside old superstitions and the moldering past. We will bring this land into the modern age. That is how we will bring the most benefit to the great numbers of people under our rule.
The police chief was the only person who knew my story and could have told Hubert.
For the second time that day, I was trembling with anger. My hands were clumsy with it, making the act of paying far slower than it should have been.
I stalked out of the cafe, the newspaper clutched in my hand.
It was not far to the police headquarters on Rue Lagrandiere, and early enough that Meulnes would not be gone to lunch.
By the time I got there, I was thinking more clearly, so I was amazed when I was actually allowed into the building and shown into his office.
I was still angry enough that I slammed the paper on his desk.
To his credit, he winced visibly.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc. Please. Take a seat.”
“You promised to keep this confidential!”
“No, Mam’selle. I said to you, most carefully, that I am required only to speak to the governor.”
“So you told Hubert everything?”
“Lieutenant Governor Hubert asked specific questions of your family, and I was constrained to answer them. He has access to notes and messages passed between your father and me. He would have found out if I had refused to speak about a matter that we referred to.”
“He deliberately mocks me, in a newspaper article, and he might as well have had my name printed!”
“That, I cannot control, and for what it’s worth, I regret his behavior,” Meulnes said. “In his defence, he thinks no harm can come from it. He simply doesn’t believe there is anything in the story.”
“And neither do you,” I said. “Yet all your disbelief will not protect me. Even if you don’t believe there can be someone real called Bác Thảo, you admitted there are gang lords who know the story about the gold. They will hear of this article.”
Meulnes shrugged. “That’s true. Yet what I believe has no impact on this matter. There is nothing I can do, no resource I can spare that the lieutenant governor will not find out about.” He shifted in his seat, moved the large blotter on his desk a fraction to one side. “Should you be harmed, we will of course act with the utmost vigor.”
“That will be such a comfort to me.”
The sarcasm was a mistake, I saw.
His voice became harder. “You should consider your position, and those of your adoptive parents, very carefully.”
I gasped. “Is that some form of threat?”
“No, Mam’selle, not in the sense that I am issuing a threat,” he said. “But there are many dangers to you that you seem not to be aware of.”
He paused a moment before continuing. “You must realize that words spoken in Saigon sound different in Paris. We talk to each other through the artificial constraints of telegrams and despatches. There is no subtlety as there is in talking face to face. Meanings are lost. What may be the truth in Saigon…” he shrugged again, “may have no more weight than a rumor in Paris. And vice versa.”
“I don’t understand, Monsieur. What truths and rumors are we talking about?”
He sighed and pressed his hands flat down on the blotter.
“It is the nature of these things when a politician falls out of favor, that those who cause it will seek justifications for their actions.”
“You are saying there are allegations being made against my father?”
“Indeed. The matter of your adoption, for instance. There are questions raised over the legality.”
“Governor Laurent himself signed the papers. Are you saying that he broke the law?”
“Perhaps. I am not an expert in that kind of law. Certainly, there were questions put to me by Lieutenant Governor Hubert, as to whether you’d been bought and sold, like chattel. And if there are such questions here, what will Monsieur Beauclerc face in Paris? Eh? Monsieur Laurent is in no fit state to support him, or defend his actions, not even to counter the claim he was already too ill to govern when this took place.”
“That’s just false, and you know it. This is monstrous!”
“It is politics, Mam’selle. But yes, it is also monstrous.” He got up and went to the window, where he began rocking on his heels as he often did. “Nor does it necessarily stop with allegations directly against Monsieur Beauclerc.”
Everything was spinning out of control. I had come in with a legitimate complaint about the newspaper article. Now the chief was talking about lies being spread about Papa, or about me.
“What do you mean?”
“I am aware of questions raised about you and your Chinese tutor,” Meulnes said.
“What? Me? And Monsieur Song? What possible questions could there be?”
He ran a weary hand through his hair. “Out here, in Saigon, we understand certain things about life in the East. That, for instance, the indigenous population is familiar with strong rulers and personal rule. Happier with that structure. That they see our system of courts and laws, where plaintiffs are faceless and equal in the sight of the law, almost as a weakness.”
I made to interrupt, but he waved me to silence.
“Now, Monsieur Song is a good man. His rule of Cholon is benevolent. I understand this, and I’m willing to work with him for the good of all communities. But describe the situation to someone in Paris and that man will call Monsieur Song a gang lord. They would have trouble seeing the difference between descriptions of Monsieur Song and Bác Thảo.”
“He’s nothing like that! He’s a respected man and a leader of his community.”
“More accurately, he is a leader of the Cholon Harmonious Societies.” Meulnes spoke on over my protestation. “Even I, with years in service in Cochinchina, have trouble telling the difference between a Harmonious Society and a triad or a tong. Certainly, in the end, they must all maintain their position with illegal force.”
“I am sure Monsieur Song would be better able to argue this with you, if he were here. I simply don’t believe it. Why do you say such things?”
“Why indeed, Mam’selle? You seem to think I am trying to damage Monsieur Beauclerc, his friends and you. I am not. In fact, I am doing what I can to protect you. And I am not lying.”
“Protect me? You haven’t even been able to keep my name out of the papers.”
“What I have been able to do, Mam’selle, is keep as many facts as I am able out of common knowledge. Facts which would be used against you and Monsieur Beauclerc.”
“I have been able to hide all mention of your sister from the lieutenant governor and others. Imagine what Monsieur Beauclerc’s enemies in Paris would make of it if they could say your sister is a prostitute.”
“But she had no choice! She was sold; she’s a slave. My parents were tricked.”
“I must assure you, such details would not make a difference to the people in Paris who would wish to say these things.”
He raised his hands to quiet my protests.
“Please, this is not the matter at hand. I am not about to make any information available that I do not have to. I merely mention it as an aside. For Monsieur Song, well, there’s nothing that we can say or do that will change things. But for you, Mam’selle, I have a warning. If you were to make complaints and people were to go looking for ways to discredit you, they would find them. Not from me, but they would find them. And in discrediting you, they would also discredit Monsieur Beauclerc.”
“What could they possibly find?”
“Rumors. Suspicions. But serious ones.” He tilted his head. “You are aware of the Deuxième Bureau?”
“The secret service. Of course. Why would they—”
I stopped. They’d seen me at the Words on the Wind in Cholon. Monsieur Song had warned me that it was used by rebels. I hadn’t been back, but as Meulnes said, a mere suspicion here in Saigon might be regarded as the absolute truth in Paris. Papa might be confronted with this ‘fact’, and in the time it took for the truth to be discovered, the damage would be done.
If he was going to have a fight just to get posted back here, as Madame Fontaudin suggested, it would become an impossible task if there was a flow of more ‘rumors’ from Saigon. I understood what Melunes was saying: that bad as it was, making a nuisance of myself would certainly make it worse.
I took a deep, despairing breath. Saigon wound its coils around me tighter and tighter.
“There is nothing in the Deuxième Bureau’s suspicions,” I said. “I want no part in rebellion. I was looking for messages from my family as countless others do.”
Meulnes just shrugged. He clearly didn’t suspect me of treason. And yet, as he said, what he believed didn’t counter the power of this lie.
“And so much for being a secret service,” I said. If Meulnes had heard it, who else might have?
“They are indiscreet,” Meulnes acknowledged.
Never make an enemy you don’t have to.
I had come close to making an enemy of the police chief, and that would be a mistake.
I dropped my head. “I’m sorry I shouted at you, Monsieur.”
“Your situation is not easy,” he replied. “Please remember that neither is mine. My duty has requirements of me. And my advice to you is to sink out of sight. To do nothing. To be unavailable for people to use you in their political schemes. To hope to be forgotten.”
I looked down. It was good advice. Ophélie would take it. She understood about being a meek French girl. About not causing a fuss. Bian was a different matter.
“Thank you for your advice,” I said. I made to rise, but paused. “Would you speak the truth to me about my father, Monsieur Meulnes? My adopted father.”
Meulnes frowned at me.
“Yes, of course.”
“How likely is it that he will be able to return? If no one… forments other rumors to damage his case.”
The police chief returned to his chair and blew out a long breath.
“He will return. The East has a way of getting into your blood, eh? Whether he remains in the administration is a matter of politics beyond my ability to predict.”
It was a fair answer, and he liked that I had asked him. It seems I had avoided making an enemy of him.
“I see. Thank you for your honesty,” I said. “Is there anything I can do that will help him?”
“Nothing.” He looked to the side, embarrassed. “Forgive me, but you are just a girl, and not even French in the eyes of many.”
I left the police headquarters under a boiling monsoon sky. A sense of hopelessness hung over me.
Just a girl. Not even French. Helpless. A liability.
If I did nothing, Papa might still face impossible obstacles preventing him returning in a position to carry out his plans for Cochinchina. If I made a nuisance of myself, they would whisper that his adopted daughter was a traitor. And if I followed the only path to find Nhung that seemed open to me, the whispered word would be whore.
And somewhere out there, Bác Thảo would be hearing news of me and dreaming about the fortune in the Emperor’s gold that he had chased for so long.
Threats loomed from every side.
I could not return home yet. In my current state, one comment from Madame Fontaudin and I would lose control. Even the Bian side of me realised that everything could be made more difficult if I gave the Fontaudins cause.
Be invisible, Meulnes said. Hope to be forgotten. Do nothing.
I couldn’t. Nothing was not acceptable.
An hour ago, I might have asked my tutor for advice. Now? Was my tutor a gang lord? Did Papa know of this? How could he not? Or was Meulnes mistaken?
Without advice that I trusted, I had to be realistic. I couldn’t help my birth parents, and there was nothing I could do to help my adopted parents. I couldn’t hide from Bác Thảo.
The last remaining action left to me was to help my sister.
I swear to you.
I had sealed that oath with my blood.
I didn’t know how to do what was needed, but every journey starts with the first step. And it was easier that Maman and Papa weren’t here to witness.
I looked up; as if they’d known in advance, my wandering feet had brought me to the office of the Opium Regie, where Messieurs Valois and Picardin had warned me against asking favors of their boss.
There would be no turning back, once I started down this path, but what else could I do?
Hide for six months and pray that Papa would return with some authority?
If he no longer worked for the administration, what could he do? I would have waited six months for nothing.
My legs felt weak.
Ophélie cringed at the thought of shame she would bring to her family. Bian had made an oath.
I’d walked past the entrance. I needed a little more time.
I turned around suddenly, startling Jade.
I ignored her. My breath came short and my heart raced as I entered the building.
Only to be confronted with the same arrangement that I’d seen at the City Hall. A guard stood in the way.
“I’ve come to see Monsieur Riossi,” I said. My voice sounded weak.
“He’s not expecting you, Mam’selle.” The guard looked at his list.
“We didn’t make a specific appointment.” I held my hands together to stop them shaking and looked up at the guard. “I’m sure he’ll see me, if you ask him. Would you ask him for me? Please?”
Was there a particular way I needed to smile? How would Emmanuela smile? I couldn’t imagine a guard stopping her from going in.
The guard rocked back. He pursed his lips. “Ah. Well. In any event, he is out.” Then, after looking around first, he leaned forward and whispered. “He’s seldom in the office, Mam’selle. Look for him at the Messageries Maritimes in the early evening. Or catch him at lunch.”
“What a good idea. And where does he lunch, Monsieur?”
He huffed. “Hôtel de l’Univers has the best restaurant in town. If you don’t find him there…” he glanced around again. “Come back and speak to me. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Monsieur. You’ve been most helpful.”
Still trembling, I turned away. I made myself look back over my shoulder at him and smile.
It had been difficult and not so difficult, at the same time. There would be far worse to come.
And still, I’d been defeated at the first step, if only temporarily. Out onto the street, dazzled in the harsh sun after the darkness in the entrance to the Regie, I wondered where to go next.
“M’zelle! M’zelle B’clerc!”
It was little Hamid, the urchin who’d brought me Lunh’s message from the Words on the Wind. He was trotting across the road toward me with something in his hand.
My heart stuttered.
Lunh had said not to use the wall, but he hadn’t said how he would contact me. What better way than to use the urchins, especially if he knew which one had brought me his message from the wall.
Or was it a message from my tutor? What would I do, if it was?
“Hello, Hamid,” I said and knelt to be level with him. He had a huge grin on his face.
I could hear Jade’s snort of disapproval, but she didn’t say anything, thinking Hamid was just another beggar and I was a fool to talk to him.
“Got message,” Hamid said in Trade, handing a piece of paper across out of Jade’s sight. “I come quick-quick find you.”
“Thank you,” I said in French and then switched to Trade. “Not got little bread now. Here coin. You buy good food.”
He took the coin. It would be enough for a meal from a stall in Cholon. His eyes grew wide.
“Thank you,” he sang in French and decided to leave before I changed my mind. “Thank you. Thank you,” came drifting from him as he trotted back the way he’d come.
I unfolded the piece of paper.
It was Lunh’s writing.
Under the ideogram for the right path, he’d written hastily in Annamese:
Be by the banh xeo food stalls on Crocodile Creek at the start of the second watch
There was no Crocodile Creek any more; it had been filled in and covered by the market, but people still used the name. Second watch was the old Annamese way of telling time. It started at 9pm.
How would I do that? How would I get out of the house in the night, without anyone following me? How dangerous would it be?
That was Ophélie speaking. Bian would find a way.
A little seed of hope pushed its way through all my despair at being powerless. Maybe Lanh could do things I could not. Find Nhung. Get our parents to somewhere safe.
Lanh was clever and capable. He could go places I couldn’t. No one would be watching him and Bác Thảo wouldn’t know he was here in Saigon.
All I needed to do was sneak out of the house and down to the market.
It was scary. I couldn’t tell if that was my street sense warning me, or just the reaction to Ophélie thinking about wandering the streets of Saigon alone at night.
No matter. I could not turn down this opportunity.
What luck that there had been a guard on the door of the Opium Regie, that Riossi had been unavailable. Maybe I didn’t needed to commit myself to a course of action that would shame me for life, and damage Papa’s plans for the people of Cochinchina.
I returned home, determined not to provoke a scene with Madame Fontaudin.
That determination was sorely tested. Nothing would be good enough for the woman. I sighed in relief when she went upstairs to rest from the heat after lunch.
The afternoon passed, slow as an overloaded bullock cart. Thunder growled away to the east, but no rain fell in Saigon.
Monsieur Fontaudin had been told to take some time to acclimatize, so he was not at work. He complained of the heat even more than his wife, but he also seemed very distracted and restless. In the late afternoon, when it had cooled a little and businesses would be open again, he announced he would be going out.
Madame Fontaudin was still resting from the heat in the bedroom, so he and I were alone in the salon. He stood and patted his pockets.
“I need to go to the bank,” he said. “No need to disturb Blanche. Let her rest. Just some of these silly formalities one has to do. Nothing to concern anyone.”
He was sweating profusely and his gaze flicked around the room, anywhere but me.
What is wrong with him?
Not all Frenchmen could stand the heat, and it looked as if Fontaudin might be one of those. I shouldn’t make too much of it; he wasn’t as bad as his wife. He certainly was under no obligation to explain to me why he was going out.
I should be thankful for small mercies. I could relax alone for a while, think about Lanh and plan on how to leave the house without anyone noticing.
“Should I arrange for a carriage?” I asked.
“No. No need. I will walk to the corner and take a rickshaw.”
He fumbled and fussed for another minute before leaving, carrying a small file of papers.
In the quiet that followed, I found some grease to put on the hinges of the front door and checked each step of the stair for creaks.
Soon after Monsieur Fontaudin returned, still red-faced and evasive, Madame Fontaudin came down the stairs, banging the floor with her cane and complaining about her hip.
As often happened with French people newly exposed to the heat, she had no appetite for an evening meal. When Monsieur Fontaudin declared he had business meetings over dinner and left in a rickshaw at six, she decided to retire to the bedroom again. My bedroom, she said and it was like the screech of rusty hinges to my ears. That was my parent’s bedroom.
But nevertheless, it seemed luck was going my way.
At eight o’clock, I changed into clothes that my tutor had provided for me to do exercises in. They were dark, made from a tough cloth and shapeless. I tied my hair and hid it down the back of my shirt. I would look like hundreds of other Annamese walking through Saigon in the evening, and to a casual glance, people would scarcely be able to tell if I was a boy or girl.
Lanh might recognise me. I was sure I would recognise him.
At quarter past eight, I crept out onto the landing and listened. There were no sounds from my parent’s bedroom.
Carefully, I went down the stairs. There was a lamp in the hallway. The rest of the house was in darkness.
I moved the lamp so that less light shone on the front door and slipped silently out into the breathless night.
There were people strolling along Boulevard Bonnard, even people I knew. No one noticed me as I scurried down the road. In these clothes they didn’t even look at me. My confidence grew with every step. Putting aside worries of being caught, I started to look forward to seeing my brother again. We would have so much to say. I would need to be careful to get back home before dawn.
Why was Lanh being so secretive? Did he think he was an embarassment to me? Or was he hiding from Bác Thảo?
Or was it something else?
The market was a very different place at night; it was much quieter and full of shadows.
The stalls were almost all food vendors at this time. They were lit by hissing hurricane lamps and the glow of the coal fires they used for cooking. Food sizzled and the stallholders rattled their pans as they called out their prices. Clients ate and moved on, like a river running through the streets.
I was too early. It would look odd if I just stood and waited, so I bought a banh xeo, one of the fried pancakes full of shrimp and pork and egg. I kept my face averted as I paid, but the sweaty stallholder paid me no attention beyond what was necessary to hand across the pancake and wave his hand at the bowl of spicy sauce.
I squatted down, resting against the front of a closed shop across the street from the stall and ate my food.
It had been five years. How would Lanh have changed? I imagined him taller. Smiling to see me. Laughing. He had always been too serious when we’d lived in Ap Long.
I finished and wiped my hands on my pants. More clients came and went. A young woman in a hurry. An old man, his stringy chest bared to the sweltering air, eating as he shambled on down the street. A couple of dour, stocky men in dusty work clothes, who stood not far from me to eat their pancakes.
Bullock carts’ wooden axles squealed as they made their way down to the Arroyo Chinois. Tall Malabar carriages rattled by. Some soliders wandered past.
Then a Malabar came to a stop right in front of the banh xeo stall I’d bought from. No one got out and I couldn’t see inside it.
Was this Lanh?
But as I stood to look, strong hands grabbed me from behind. My arms were pinned by my sides. Another hand gripped my jaw; I couldn’t shout. I could smell the banh xeo spice on the strong, dirty fingers. A sack dropped over my head and I was lifted into the carriage.
“Silence,” hissed a voice, speaking Annamese.
Here is the seventh episode of Bian’s Tale; the second half of Section 4 – ‘Unravelling’.
One by one, the pillars of Bian’s life are taken away.
A short episode.
< * * * >
I left the Customs Office, silent with shock. With Jade following, I walked back to the house on Boulevard Bonnard.
I had no doubt what they wanted to warn me about; what favor Monsieur Riossi would require in exchange. Behavior of his that they had clearly seen before.
I shuddered in the heat.
Those eyes of his that followed me. And his words at the ball – little favors exchanged make the world so much more enjoyable for all.
I knew it was the fullest extent of the courage of Messieurs Valois and Picardin that they had told me as much as they had. If I did nothing, they would not put any real effort into finding girls who had been sold into prostitution, whatever they had just said. They might find it horrible, but it was not their job, they had been told to concentrate on what made the Opium Regie such a moneyspinner for the colony. And Riossi would make certain they knew that, because it was something to hold over me. It was entirely possible that Hubert had made no specific demands about the Opium Regie, that Riossi had just seen an opportunity.
His daughter, Phèdre’s little comment at the ball – he’s very sure in his moves.
A warning? From Phèdre? That if he wanted something, he would find a way to get it?
I’d lost myself in my thoughts, and finding myself back at the house, I stopped to look around me.
Each block on Boulevard Bonnard was wide, effectively two roads separated by a small park in the center. Each little park was shaded by trees and there were benches you could sit on. Gardeners kept the parks clean and tidy.
What a restful, elegant place to live.
What a contrast for my sister. What did she look out onto? Did she even have a window?
Five years she had endured horrors while I lived in luxury; while I lived the lifestyle her sacrifice had bought me; while I enjoyed the privileges that her lifestyle paid for every day, even now.
Even right now.
I felt physically ill, unsteady on my feet.
“Mam’selle?” Jade wanted to go inside.
I nodded and walked into the house, my footsteps dragging, still feeling dizzy.
The Fontaudins had gone out, leaving Papa and Maman to discuss what they were going to do.
They looked up with a start as I entered.
“Ophélie! Are you all right?” Maman rushed across and hugged me.
“It’s nothing, Maman.” I made myself smile and look up at her. “A little faint in the heat.”
She didn’t believe me, but she poured me some water and we sat on the sofa. Papa stood with his back to the window. He looked as pale as I felt.
“There is bad news,” she began reluctantly, and I took her hand to stop her and comfort her, as much as I was able.
“I’ve heard. All your projects, Papa. I’m so sorry.”
He nodded sharply without speaking, his eyes fixed on the floor between us.
“And we are to return home immediately,” Maman said. “To France, I mean.”
She gave a brave smile. “I have wanted to show you Bordeaux for so long,” she said, brightly. “It will be a marvellous holiday, and there are so many of the family to meet.”
“Maman, I know,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I could not help overhearing from the hall when I came back from my lesson with Monsieur Song. I heard what our cousins said about me.”
She stiffened. “No, Ophélie—”
“You mustn’t misunderstand,” Papa said.
“I don’t,” I said. “It’s very clear to me. This is nothing to do with us as a family, or what you feel. It’s not even really about me.”
Papa came and sat beside me as well, just as they had done the day of the execution. That felt so long ago. Today, they were not comforting me; I was trying to comfort them. But I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.
“Other things are becoming clearer to me, too,” I said, finding words in the dark. “We’ve talked so often, Papa, about duty.”
His breath caught, and I wanted to stop so much, to not cause him more pain, but I knew if I did stop, I would never start again.
“I feel you have a duty now, both of you. It’s a higher duty. A duty you owe to all the people here in Indochina, not to one person. Not to me.”
“No,” Papa whispered.
“It means you have to go back to France and you have to persuade the Quai d’Orsay of the necessity of your projects. They have to see that the schools and hospitals are needed. Then you have to persuade them to restart the committees with the leaders of the Annamese and Chinese and Malbars, so that the people here understand that these are their projects, that they are French. Then hundreds, or thousands, will benefit.”
As I spoke, intending to comfort them, I reinforced the decision that I hadn’t even consciously taken, to stay in Saigon. I also realized that I was not going to speak about the meeting I’d had with Valois and Picardin. Papa could do nothing and it would only distract him.
He needed to go to Paris. Maman needed to support him. I needed to stay here.
There was a feeling of inevitability about this, of implacable fate, crushing down on me. I wasn’t supposed to go to France. If I had been, we would have gone long ago.
As I spoke, what I needed to say became clearer to me, and at the same time, I felt separate, as if I was looking into the salon, seeing my body sitting on the sofa, hearing my voice talking.
“But we must do this together,” Papa was saying.
I shook my head. “They don’t see your vision yet, and they won’t, if I’m there to distract them, or to provide a way for enemies to question you. You have to win the arguments with logic alone. And you need your families in Bordeaux. They have supported you all this time. Let them support you once more without having their attention diverted by me.”
“But we can’t go back without you,” Maman whispered.
“You have to,” I said. “I will stay here this time. Next time will be for the Centennial Exhibition, we’ll all go together.”
I felt a chill. It was bad joss to claim that. Had I not just had the thought that I wasn’t fated to go to France?
We discussed it as the morning turned to noon. We discussed it over lunch. We discussed it as the heat of the day reached it’s zenith and the Fontaudins returned. It was one of those disjointed arguments full of stops and starts, where the end never seemed to be reached. But I sensed, in their jangling, painful sentences, the same feeling that was in my mind. There was an inevitability about this—they would return to Paris and I would wait for them here.
When I went to my room late that evening, I turned the lights out and sat by the window, staring out over the boulevard.
What could I achieve, when Maman and Papa were not here?
Staying in Saigon would help them with the situation in France, even they saw that. But what could I really achieve?
I would be here for my brother Lunh to contact me.
He would have news of our parents, and I might be able to help them, if they had to return here. Surely I could find some friends who would take them in? That would give them some small measure of safety from Bác Thảo.
And then there was Nhung.
What could I do?
Maybe Lunh had already found her and rescued her? That was a pleasant dream for a few minutes, but I knew it was just a dream.
Which led me back to Riossi.
I couldn’t leave Nhung wherever she was. Monsieur Song might try to help, but his reach did not extend over all of Saigon, and he had his own troubles, I could see. I couldn’t wait for Papa—even the best of all possible outcomes would be months away while he travelled to Paris and back. I couldn’t make Valois and Picardin search for her in the meantime, and had even less chance of persuading Police Chief Meulnes.
The one way remained, and Riossi sat, like a spider, waiting for me on that path.
Outside, there were gas lamps lit in the little parks along the middle of the empty boulevard. In the faint light they cast through my window, I watched my indistinct reflection. It floated in the glass pane like a rootless Chinese ghost.
I didn’t want to be like that; to drift, insubstantial and powerless, always outside, looking in. I wanted to be strong, strong enough to make people do things. Or was that only a dream too, like my brother Lunh rescuing Nhung?
A dream. Were all dreams nightmares, in the end?
I dozed fitfully.
I dream a child rides upon her sister’s hip. She lives where life is fair and rules are certain; she knows that good will follow virtue. It is her time of innocence. Of pure and simple joys. Of sharing.
My sister was a shadow behind me in the glass of the window, out of reach of my fingertips, her hair hiding her face. But the lamps on the boulevard had been extinguished and there were no images in the glass that I had not dreamed there.
The child lives in a hut of palm-leaf woven with bamboo. Saigon is a dream of stones and silk, a city waiting, soft and heavy with tales, peopled with dragons that dance in the streets. Somewhere in the darkness, waiting for her. A city where innocence is far away and long ago.
We want you to be happy, my birth mother had said. Free of the tall man, free of our shame.
I took my kris knife from its hiding place and laid it in my lap as I sat before the window again.
The handle was worn smooth with sweat and use; the blade writhed like a pale serpent in the night. But the knife was innocent, whatever it had been used for. Innocent, and full of wisdom.
The child lives a dream of Saigon, but the right path is full of lies, and dreams must end. She must waken.
Just a little more time, a little more. Please, she prays.
I caressed my forearm with the sinuous blade of the kris. It was soothing.
What exactly will he want? How much? How will I hold him to any promise he makes?
The blade whispered of monsters in Saigon. Creatures that changed to tigers, creatures that drank blood, and creatures that sought power over others.
My tutor was right. It was not their capabilities that makes monsters, but their actions. And in those, humans could be every bit as evil as monsters.
I dream a child is no longer a child. An innocence put aside and a mark upon her. Others read that mark and the word they speak is ugly.
Her sister cries. I only made you promise not to hate me, she says. Do not do this.
I jerked awake.
I told her I loved her. If they called me a whore for rescuing her, well, that’s what they’d called her for five years. I was as old now as she’d been when she decided my opportunity was worth more than her innocence.
I knew they would be no turning back.
Ophélie feels sick. The strength has leaked from her limbs.
I stood and rested my head against the glass of the window.
Bian is strong. Bian understands that the knife is innocent. Bian understands that nothing is done but we do it ourselves. We alone can chose the paths we walk.
Just a little more time. Please.
But the sky was growing lighter, moment by moment. Prayers would not hold back the day.
Will it hurt?
I turned the blade of the kris so that it pressed against my flesh.
Yes. It would hurt. But more inside than out.
They say Saigon at dawn is like waking from an opium dream.
But I’m waking to a nightmare.
I will find a way to speak to him and persuade him to search for you, whatever it costs, as soon as Maman and Papa have gone. I promise you, my sister. I swear to you.
The knife broke the flesh, and a thin line of blood sealed my vow.
After breakfast, Maman arranged for a message to be sent to the Gosselins, and a Malabar carriage to take us there mid-morning.
She was concerned, naturally, as Monsieur Gosselin was not always well. However, Madame Gosselin was a strong and capable woman, and Manon was my best friend. Their house on the far side of the Governor’s Palace was spacious and pleasant. It never crossed my mind that there would be any other place that I should stay, or that our request would be refused.
The first sign of a problem was that there was no message returned. It was not significant in itself. This was not Paris, with the absolute formality that one had to be invited with an exchange of letters before visiting.
The carriage arrived and we set out.
We were quiet. We crossed Boulevard Norodom right in front of the gates to the Palace, and Maman would not look out of the window.
I was more concerned with wondering how I would be able to carry out my plans without the Gosselines realizing what I was doing and stopping me. That was, if I had the courage of my night-time convictions. Everything I’d decided on in the dark of my room seemed harder to accomplish in the light of day.
Manon saw us arrive. She rushed out of the house as we got down from the Malabar and she threw her arms around me, in tears.
I thought she was upset for me, for what had happened to Papa, but as I patted her back, her mother came out and I realized she’d been crying too.
We were invited into a house as cheerless as our own at the moment.
A fresh pot of coffee was delivered as we were ushered into the salon. I knew the Gosselin’s servants and had always spoken with them. This time the maid hurried past in silence with her eyes downcast.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to your message, Thérèse,” Madame Gosselin said, when we were sitting. “And, of course, I’ve heard about your news. I’m truly, truly sorry. I know how much his projects meant to Zacharie. To all the people here. It is a travesty, what has happened.”
She put her coffee cup down and clasped her hands tightly in her lap.
“I’m afraid, we also have had bad news,” she said with an effort to speak levelly. “We, too, are being sent back immediately.”
“I’m so sorry,” Maman gasped. “But why? What reason?”
“My husband is not well. We all know this.” Madame Gosselin stared fixedly at her hands. “It comes and goes. In truth, it affects no one else.”
The upstairs floorboards creaked as someone walked above us. It was the master bedroom; Monsieur Gosselin, I assumed. Neither Manon nor her mother looked up.
“However, the Lieutenant Governor has decided that it damages the colony, that he should sometimes be seen to be unwell by the… by the natives,” Madame Gosselin continued, her eyes flicking across at me in a sort of apology. “He says that it damages respect for France. That we must seek treatment in Paris.”
“This is outrageous!” Maman said. “That man! What does he think he’s doing? Your husband doesn’t even work for his administration.”
“Yes, we said that, too.” Madame Gosselin sighed. “However in serious matters of health, the government can enforce repatriation apparently. We have no basis to refuse.”
She dabbed at her eyes.
“The Victorieuse leaves tomorrow, and we must be on board, or be arrested and taken to the ship. There is no time for anything. We will have to leave half the packing to a shipping company. And what am I to do with the servants? They have been with us since we came. They deserve better than to be turned out. What can we do for them?” She shook her head and went on more quietly. “I’m sorry, I know these are all things you face as well.”
We did, but Maman had decided her cousins should stay and look after the house on Boulevard Bonnard, so we were better off in many respects. I hated the idea of the Fontaudins in our house, but there was nothing for it.
Maman exlained why we’d come, even though it was now clearly not possible. When she explained that I would be staying, Manon wanted to stay with me, but Madame Gosselin did not know how long it would take for her husband to be cured, if ever. She ruled out leaving Manon behind.
We left their house shortly afterwards. Time did not pause for tears, any more than it paused for prayers.
The Malabar had waited for us and Maman gave the driver another address, where my other good friend, Rochelle Champin, lived with her parents.
But it was desperation and we both knew it. The Champin’s house was small and Madame Champin didn’t feel she could accept responsibility. She wrung her hands and wouldn’t meet our eyes as she listed everything that made it impossible for me to stay there.
I could tell Rochelle was disappointed, but she wasn’t the sort of daughter who would let it show in front of her mother.
When we left the Champin’s, Maman told the driver to take us back to Boulevard Bonnard. My parents had many more friends, but Maman’s faith in them had been shattered by the events at the ball.
“Perhaps I could stay at Monsieur Song’s,” I suggested as we rolled away.
“Nonsense,” Maman said. “Cholon is not an acceptable place for a young lady.”
She stirred uneasily in her seat.
“I understand he is a very good tutor to you, Ophélie, but honestly, if it were only down to me, I wouldn’t accept you even visiting him for lessons. Whatever his merits on other matters, whatever the truth of his position in the Chinese community, he lives there with his wives and concubines. That is his business, and his culture, but it’s not an appropriate place for you to be.”
“Yes, Maman.” There was no point arguing with her. “Where then?”
She sighed. “I know it’s not what you would want, but the best solution at the moment is for your to stay in our house with the Fontaudins to look after you.”
It was the day the Victorieuse departed. It was early; another pre-dawn gathering of mist dragons slid off the Saigon river as the sun turned the eastern sky pink. Taller quayside buildings began to glow as the light caught them, but it still felt chill and dark beneath the imposing ironclad bulk of the corvette. The navy ship loomed alongside the Quai de la Marine, tall and indifferent to the petty concerns of the peoples gathered before it.
I didn’t care how it looked or how brave I’d been before; I clung onto Papa and Maman.
Don’t go. Not yet. Just a little more time, a little more.
I felt sick and numb at the same time. My heart was pounding so hard, I could feel it in my throat, but Maman said I looked so pale.
Time was running out.
They’d carried ex-Governor Laurent aboard on a stretcher an hour ago. In the gas-lit darkness, he’d looked exhausted, struggling to acknowledge farewells.
The Gosselins were ready to go aboard. Monsieur Gosselin looked utterly bewildered and lost. Taking him away from the place he loved seemed to have exactly the wrong effect. Madame Gosselin rushed around for both of them, making sure everything was in place, that she’d said goodbyes to all their friends.
“I’ll write,” Manon said through her tears, still hugging me as her mother plucked at her sleeve. “I’ll write every week.”
“You won’t,” I said. “But try to write every month. I will treasure each word.”
And I would. Letters from Manon would be hopelessly tangled with her exuberance and so precious to me.
The family made their way carefully up the wobbing walkway onto the deck. Their former servants clustered on the quay and waved, some of them crying.
Then, finally, there was just Papa, Maman and me in the shadow of the Victorieuse.
The Fontaudins had bid their farewells to my parents and left us to our grief in private. Madame Fontaudin had needed to rest her hip, so they sat and waited for me outside one of the cafes on the Ronde.
Maman had been right about the majority of our friends in Saigon; few of them had come to say farewell. The Champins did. A half dozen others. But now that they had all gone, there was one final friend: Monsieur Song and his daughter, Qingzhao, approached.
We exchanged formal bows and greeting with the Songs. Then Song offered Papa his hand to shake in the Western manner.
“I am most upset at this parting,” he said seriously, as he and Papa shook. “I am even more upset at the behavior of this new regime. Hurry back, my friend, Saigon needs you.”
There was a silence for a minute. Whatever Papa might say privately, it was shocking to hear the opinion said openly by my tutor, and yet it was true. Whatever the reasons for the Lieutenant Governor’s actions, perhaps to ‘put his stamp’ on the new administration, he had damaged so many things in such a short time.
“I will need the full backing of the Quai d’Orsay,” Papa said. “But I have every intention of returning to repair these problems.”
“Ophélie is staying behind with our cousins,” Maman said. “Will you be willing to continue giving her lessons?”
Monsieur Song first looked surprized and then glanced briefly over at where the Fontaudins sat waiting.
“Of course,” he replied.
“We don’t wish to impose a burden on our cousins,” Maman said carefully. “They don’t understand the communities here like we do. I wouldn’t want them to be concerned about where Ophélie goes for lessons. Could you come to our house on Boulevard Bonnard?”
My tutor paused before replying. “So long as I am welcome there.”
There was such an undercurrent. I wasn’t sure whether Monsieur Song was not pleased that I was staying, or not pleased that it would be with the Fontaudins.
The Songs exchanged glances. They both slipped hands into their sleeves and their faces smoothed. It made me think of the surface of a pond after a single breath of wind has rippled across and died away.
They bowed once more and left us.
“Boarding!” A seaman shouted from the top of the gangplank.
It seemed such a brief time since Papa and I had walked down here and spoken of the Duke of Magenta, and how most political careers end in failure. Papa looked somehow less alive than he had then. His shoulders were lower and the spring was missing from his step.
He saw my look and straightened up. “It’ll not be long, Ophélie. In just six weeks, your mother and I will be back in France. Then we’ll clear up the misunderstanding at the Quai d’Orsay. We’ll send you telegrams. It’ll take four months, six at the most, and we’ll be together again, here in Saigon, on this very spot.”
He blinked and swiveled round as the last of their luggage was being carried aboard on the long, springy gangplank.
“Hey! Look out there. Careful with that,” he called.
He passed one hand across his eyes and then rubbed his hands together briskly.
“I must check that they’re getting them to the right cabin.”
“Papa,” I said and hugged him. “I love you. I’ll miss you so much.”
“No more than six months, my daughter. I love you very much.” His voice had become tight. He gave me one final squeeze and hurried away up the gangplank, leaving me a few more precious moments with Maman.
She was looking so pale.
“I love you, Maman,” I whispered. “It’ll pass quickly.”
“Ophélie, my beloved daughter,” Maman replied, “this day of all days, I cannot lie to you.” She looked down and her hand clutched at the gold locket where she kept tiny locks of our hair knotted together. When she spoke again, her words came slowly, and stumbling. “I feel a…a shadow in my heart and I fear for us all.”
Her words chilled me. I seemed to feel it then, as well. Some horror we’d all overlooked, one that was in plain sight. “Maman—”
“Hush, hush, my girl. Let me speak while I still can.” She took a deep breath. “Children grow on the foundation laid down by their parents. Unless that foundation is firm and constant, how difficult is it for a child to grow to be upright and strong? I’m sick with the knowledge we’ve failed you, Ophélie: not just Zacharie and me; both your sets of parents. We couldn’t give you that time of careless innocence that children need, and without which they grow bitter and suspicious. For the right reasons, we’ve made all the wrong choices. Now, we are stuck. All we can give you is our love and our hopes.”
Tears gathered in her eyes. I hugged her wordlessly.
“Boarding!” came the call again.
“It’s only a few months, Maman.”
A tearful smile trembled her lips.
“I know you will grow up to be fearless, my precious child, but may you also grow up to be true. I wish, with all my heart, you find an easing of your burdens, and you come to your fulfillment, whatever that may be.” She kissed my forehead. “I love you. May darkness never dim the light that shines in you.”
“Aboard! All aboard!” A seaman was hanging over the railing and calling out. “Last call.”
One final, awkward hug that I wanted to hold forever and Maman was last up the gangplank before they swung it away.
Then the cables were being winched in and the bow eased out into the current. The river never seemed so swift as it did that morning, when the Victorieuse slid around the first bend and took them out of my blurred sight.
Here is the sixth episode of Bian’s Tale; the first half of Section 4 – ‘Unravelling’.
After the shock of the Harvest Ball, things get worse. Ophélie/Bian begins to see the aspects of Saigon that she has ignored so far. And as the Lieutenant Governor Hubert’s changes start to come into effect, the first hint that the search for her sister will cost her dearly.
A short episode.
< * * * >
Part 4 – Unravelling
No one in the house at Boulevard Bonnard slept well that night.
I dozed, jerked awake by nightmares of Lieutenant Governor Hubert marching through the streets, banging on doors and shouting. People came drifting out of their houses as if sleep-walking and fell into step behind him, their Yang faces becoming indistinct, their Ying faces bearing a sorrowful brand I could not quite see.
And behind Hubert, in the middle of the street, Alain danced with a young woman.
Her head fell back when they spun, and she laughed.
Whenever I woke, I heard the creak of floorboards as Papa paced, and once or twice a murmur of unhappy conversation.
I finally got up before dawn to an exhausted silence in the house, and went out. I didn’t wake Jade. I needed a little time, a little space without the constant abrasion of her anger.
Saigon was physically unchanged from yesterday: it still had broad boulevards lined by trees, and the pale buildings along them were emerging from the night. I could hear the sound of insects, the scurry of lizards hunting them, the familiar, waiting quiet; the feel of the city gathering itself to spring forward into another day.
Workers were already picking up the litter of lanterns and paper from the festival last night.
But the Saigon dawn that the old-timers said was like waking from an opium dream; that had become a fear of waking to a nightmare for me.
With Papa denied the governorship, how much would go wrong?
They had to retain him in a senior position, that was obvious. His knowledge of the colony, how it ran, why things were done a certain way; all of that was invaluable. But there was a huge difference in power between the man at the top of the administration and those who advised him.
He might not have the authority to protect my birth parents, for instance. Papa could advise the Lieutenant Governor that Bác Thảo should be arrested, but his word would carry less weight than Chief of Police Meulnes, who didn’t even believe in Bác Thảo.
It was lucky the project to rescue the girls from slavery was mainly divided between the Opium Regie and the Sisters of Saint Paul. Of course, the Lieutenant Governor might not add the resources of the administration behind it, but at least it could proceed slowly. I could still hope to be reunited with Nhung.
And I could still check the mandarinate lists. Maybe my father had not rejoined the mandarinate in Hué. Maybe all my concern about my birth family being sent back here was groundless.
But for Papa: I feared for all his projects. Behind the words at the ball last night I heard the phrases about ‘adventurers’ and ‘new ideas’, the watchword of ‘efficiency’. Papa would need to fight for everything, and some things he would lose.
I arrived at the docks as the eastern sky paled.
At the bakery near the Ronde on the Quai du Commerce, I bought an armful of hot croissants, the first of the morning’s output, and had them wrapped in layers of paper so they’d stay warm. We had salted butter at home, and it would be the work of a moment for me to get coffee percolating. Nothing else would be needed. This would be a difficult day for Papa, and I hoped a good breakfast could help start it the right way.
The day seemed to hurry after on me as I returned quickly. The east deepened into fiery rose. A few lazy puffs of hot wind came up out of the south, carrying the tang of the distant sea. The city stirred around me, full of distant calls, the scurry of traders intent on the best places in the market, and the clatter of the Malabar carriages.
I had turned off Boulevard Charner, and I was almost trotting along Boulevard Bonnard when, through the morning sounds, came one I eventually realized was directed at me.
It was like the chirping of a cricket.
I turned. A street urchin was chasing after me as fast as his little legs could carry him.
I stopped to let him catch up.
A message from my tutor? Was I right he used the urchins?
In my concern for Papa, I had forgotten that many of his hopes for the colony were shared with Monsieur Song. The arrival of the new Lieutenant Governor had an effect that would reach down into Cholon as well. In fact, it would reach the whole colony. The whole of Indochina was waking to the new regime today.
The boy reached me, and made me sorry I had moved so quickly. He looked very out of breath.
I couldn’t understand his French, and he was Malabar rather than Annamese or Chinese. We settled on speaking Trade. His name was Hamid.
“Come wall night,” he said, pointing one finger down, meaning this last night.
He was holding a piece of paper crumpled in one grimy hand. He held it out to me.
“For you,” he said. “You M’zelle B’clerc.”
My heart skipped a beat. The wall? The Words on the Wind?
I knelt so we were on a level.
“For me?” I said, not daring to believe, as I took it. “Sure?”
“Sure-sure,” Hamid waggled his head, full of confidence. “Got chop.”
Chop. The ideogram at the top.
Could it really be?
I unfolded the paper and there it was, in stark strokes: zhèngdào; the right path.
Beneath, in the rushed and careless script I recognised from years ago, was written in Annamese:
Not this way, but another.
I will come to you.
Speak of me to no one else.
Lunh! My elder brother had been at the Words on the Wind in Cholon last night.
Despite my parents’ thanks for the fresh croissants and my efforts in preparing the meal, breakfast was the most awkward we’d ever had together. Fortunately, the cousins were not up yet; their presence could only have made it worse.
Maman and Papa didn’t notice my preoccupation, or thought it was from entirely the same source as their own. The conversation moved in jerks and stops, some of it obviously continued from their nighttime discussions.
Maman was still angry, and she was angry enough to suggest leaving the Far East completely. Then she would apologize, and sit without talking for a minute.
Papa was still shocked by it all. One minute he’d be silent, the next he’d be listing reasons why the work he’d started was so important to the colony, and how the new administration would need him to maintain progress.
Before we’d even finished eating, a message arrived from the Lieutenant Governor. Papa was required to attend a meeting at 8 o’clock. It was an ackowledgment of sorts, that his must be the first meeting of the morning.
Earlier, I’d sent Hamid, my urchin messenger, back to Cholon with a croissant, some centimes and a request for me to speak to Monsieur Song today. It was a huge relief to hear my tutor at the door, after Papa had left and before the cousins had come down to their breakfast.
Maman waved me out. I felt guilty I was leaving her alone with them, barely ameliorated by the sense that they might be easier for her to talk to, without me present.
Jade, of course, followed me, a dozen steps behind. My parents had assumed she’d been with me buying the croissants, but she knew I’d escaped. She wasn’t going to say anything, but it didn’t make her happy. Not that anything seemed to.
Song and I spoke in Mandarin. My tutor had already heard the first reports of the what had happened at the ball, and he listened with a grave face as I recounted every detail I could remember about Lieutenant Governor Hubert.
“This is a considerable blow to the whole community,” he said when I finished. “There is no hiding that.”
“But you and Papa can both still work toward your aims. It’ll just be slower and harder, won’t it?”
Monsieur Song hummed, and didn’t answer directly. When he spoke, he was obscure: “A man who has far to fall, falls far,” he said. “And much of my authority, my power, comes from people knowing whom I work with. If it is the same man, but a lower position, I am reduced as well. We must see what the new Lieutenant Governor intends for your father. But in every possible path, this will make many things more difficult.”
“It’s all wrong,” I said.
“That’s the way people are,” Monsieur Song said. By that time, we had walked past the theater, and arrived at the Ronde on the docks. “Let us talk of other things. You have received a message from the Words in the Wind.”
“Yes! My brother.” Lunh had told me not to tell anyone, but my tutor knew already, and I trusted him. “He says to not use the wall, and wait for him.”
“A suspicious or cautious man, and perhaps justifiably.” Monsieur Song nodded as he looked around at the bustle of dockside Saigon. “He is alone, then, or your parents would have sent the message. It will be interesting to see what he has to say.”
He turned north, to walk along the Quai du Commerce.
“If I can help, I will,” he said. “But in any event, we will have to wait.”
“Could we not find him?”
He raised an eyebrow. “How?” he asked.
“With the spirit vision. I saw Papa, I was drawn to him. Would that not work with Lunh?”
“Ahh.” Song chuckled. “We must talk a little about the vision, too.”
“It was real, wasn’t it?” I said. “I saw how many hidden enemies Papa had, and then at the ball, I saw the way all the people who’d pretended to be his friends deserted him.”
“Clearly a true vision then.”
I had the feeling my tutor was being evasive.
“So, the rest of it is true as well. I saw Bác Thảo. I saw he is a tiger demon, and he does change shape—”
“Indeed, Bác Thảo is what you call hô con quỷ in the Annamese language.”
I shivered. “In my vision, he looked at me. The tiger, I mean. Could he sense me? Does he have the power to see into my spirit vision?”
He frowned and we walked on a minute before he answered.
“The spirit vision is not quite as straightforward as that. It may show you what others say, and it may show you some things you believe. What significance should you give to Bác Thảo looking at you?” He hummed before going on. “I believe it means that he knows of you as a possibility, as a ghost, if you like, a suspicion, that might haunt his mind. It does not mean that he actually saw you. You should not fear that.”
“Well, good. But if he is a tiger demon, surely we should be able to prove it to the police. If he is as bad as he seems from what I’ve heard and from what I saw in my spirit vision, then he should be imprisoned or executed. The laws apply to everyone, monster or human.”
“The laws the French apply have no concept of people who shift their shape, or people who practice the spirit arts, or others who do not fit into the narrow shape that French call ‘real’. And to call them ‘monsters’ is to fall into the trap that many people would; a trap of fear and misunderstanding.”
He was using a mixture of Annamese and Mandarin. For magic, he used the Annamese ma thuật, spirit art.
“What should we call them? The people who practice ma thuật, or the hô con quỷ, or the Tò Dara?” I was mixing languages to name them all as well.
“You need only concern yourself with hô con quỷ. But they are not demons, and whereas Bác Thảo is a monster, not all shape-shifters are. That distinction would not be easy for many people to make. Would you not feel responsible if innocent shape-shifters died due to panic among humans caused by your revelations?”
There are other shape-shifters?
“I would, Lǎoshī.” I knew that was the only possible response.
“Good. The Bugis name is better. They call them Tò Harimau, which means no more than Tiger Clan. People who happen to be different, but still people underneath. Some may be monsters, but it is not their shape or instincts or spirit art that make them so.”
Bugis. We were walking along the docks. Close to where the captain of the Bugis ship Salayar had leaped up and returned to his ship, muttering ominously about Tò Dara.
My tutor had dismissed the Tò Dara before, and I didn’t want to raise it bluntly again, but what if I approached it obliquely? Should I tell him about the kris knife? Surely he would agree that the Tò Dara were monsters?
I didn’t get the chance.
As I was about to speak, I sensed Monsieur Song grow tense, and we were interrupted by the approach of a Chinese man who I didn’t recognise.
He was short and unremarkable. His hair was tied back in a queue and his clothes were those of a wealthy man, but not ostentatious. He rolled a little, as he walked, and he squinted, as if his eyesight was not good, but I had the impession his eyes missed nothing.
He spoke in Mandarin; the sharper, quicker version that my tutor used in lessons.
“I went to your house, Song. I was surprised to find you were here, and who you were visiting.”
“Had you warned me of your visit, Zheng, I would have greeted you.”
The lack of welcome and the tone used told me plainly that there was no friendship between them. It seemed Zheng was a visitor from far away. Perhaps he didn’t realise how important Monsieur Song was in the Chinese community.
“The path you chose has ended. None of this would have happened if you’d agreed to our plans. Now, you waste your time,” Zheng said. “We have much to discuss.”
“Unless you’re on the path, it’s unwise to declare it’s ended. Yes, we must discuss, so long as it remains a discussion.”
Monsieur Song turned his back on Zheng deliberately.
“Excuse this person’s lack of manners, but I regret I do have business I need to attend to.” He looked around. “Jade will accompany you back to your home, and I will try and visit your father, perhaps tomorrow.”
He left with Zheng.
Jade and I returned to Boulevard Bonnard.
I was hoping that I might have some time with Maman. An opportunity for a quiet conversation in the salon.
But I heard the voices raised in anger from the hall. Papa was back already, and I’d never heard him so furious.
Her duty done for the moment, Jade disappeared to the back of the house.
I should have gone in. I would have, but I heard my name, and froze outside the door to the salon.
“…part of the problem, don’t you see? Even, maybe, the core of it.”
That was Monsieur Fontaudin. His wife was agreeing with him.
“No, Thérèse, believe us,” Madame Fontaudin said. “You’ve been here so long, you’re out of touch with attitudes back home. I assure you, whatever your motives, adopting an Annamese girl has made people doubt your judgement. Please listen to us.”
“You’re not saying that this all came about because we adopted Ophélie? You’ve met her! How can you say such a thing?”
“No, no, no,” Monsieur Fontaudin tried to calm Maman. “It’s not all due to that. Not at all. But you have to admit, Zacharie’s list of projects would utilise the entire revenue from Cochinchina for the benefit of the native population. That’s simply not—”
“It’s for the benefit of the whole population,” Papa said. “French, Annamese, Chinese, everyone. Can’t they understand? And it’s all investment. A healthier, more educated citizenry must lead to improvements for the whole country. Tell me that’s not the policy in Paris.”
“For France, and French people, yes.”
“How can you say Ophélie is not French?” That was Maman.
I had never heard my adoptive parents so angry.
“It’s not important what I think,” Monsieur Fontaudin said. “Not important. I’m merely passing on what the family have asked me to pass on. We had a family meeting, you see, and, given we were coming out here, I was tasked to pass this on to you. To explain that, despite the family doing what they could at the Quai d’Orsay, their lobbying is having less and less effect.”
“You’ve been here, without a single visit home, longer than anyone anticipated, and of course, the family was tremendously excited when they learned you might become governor,” Madame Fontaudin said. “But that gamble has not paid off.”
“You must look at this as an opportunity,” Monsieur Fontaudin said. “Hubert has ordered you back to France. You must use that, of course! Go! Go straight to the Quai d’Orsay and make your case. Make it well enough and who knows? You might return as governor for the whole of Indochina.”
“But taking this girl… this adoption… to Paris will only give enemies an opening to attack,” Madame Fontaudin added.
It felt like I was trapped in one of my nightmares. I went and found Jade.
“I’m going out again,” I said.
On Boulevard Bonnard, we walked past the statue of Garnier, the Frenchman who’d explored the Mekong. Then down Rue Blanchy, commemorating a Frenchman who made a business out of farming peppers in Cochinchina. That took us to the Ronde, where the traffic circled around a statue of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, the French naval commander who had captured Saigon forty years ago.
None of it was new to me, but all of it looked different after what I’d heard.
I sat at one of the shaded tables of a cafe and looked into a swirling cup of coffee as if answers might be found there.
What would Maman and Papa do? What should they do?
Papa’s mission was far more important than me. His projects would benefits hundreds, as soon as they were finished, and thousands or millions in the future. All he had to do was persuade the politicians in Paris, and to do that, he needed to go back without me.
Because despite living and behaving as a Frenchwoman, I was not French.
It wasn’t the color of my skin—many Corsicans were darker for instance. It wasn’t the language—I would defy any person to tell I was not French from only hearing my voice. Was it the tiny fold in the corner of my eye? Their shape?
Those defined me?
Did I truly want to be part of a society that thought that?
Was I somehow untrustworthy because my instinct was that all the people who lived in Cochinchina were citizens? Did that mean Papa was untrustworthy as well?
What if the politicians did not agree with Papa, whatever he said? What if the damage had already been done, simply by adopting me?
I was unable to find any answers. I blundered instead from imagining one dreadful scenario to another. I could wear a veil in France like a grieving widow, obscuring my face. Or I could hide at the family home in Bordeaux while Papa visited Paris. I could stay in Saigon.
But if I was the weakness that others would exploit, what did it matter how disguised I was or how far away I hid?
Wouldn’t it be better for his cause if he reversed the adoption?
I spilled the coffee in my rush to get up. I had to do something. Anything.
With Jade trailing behind I walked quickly back toward the center of the city.
I didn’t have a clear plan, I just needed to be too busy to think about being abandoned.
It was a surprise to find myself in front of the City Hall, and yet it was the ideal place for the distraction I needed. I could go to the documents library and finish reading the ledgers of all the appointments to the mandarinate in Hué and see if I could tell what had happened to my birth family from that.
That was exactly the right level of concentration I needed.
There was a guard on the door; not everyone could go in of course. I normally went in with Papa, but the guard would recognise me.
He did, but that did not help.
“I am sorry, Mam’selle Beauclerc, but I have orders. Only people on the list may enter the building without a letter of invitation from someone who works here, or a written authorisation from Lieutenant Governor Hubert.”
“But I don’t want to see anyone, I just need to go to the documents library.”
“I understand, Mam’selle, but the documents library is inside, and my orders are very clear. I don’t know why this is necessary.” He shrugged and ran his thumb down the edge of the list he held, then shuffled the pages as if he might find my name elsewhere. “Perhaps it is just temporary. You could try again next week.”
It wasn’t his fault.
I walked away, a scream building up inside me. Not even a full day in Saigon, and Hubert had torn my life at the very foundations. I felt like an empty sampan on the river, spinning idly, a captive of the current, drifting and directionless.
What else would he destroy?
There was the familiar kick of guilt as I came to think of my sister, Nhung, last. The agreement Papa had with Monsieur Riossi. Surely, Hubert would not stop that? He would not prevent the inspectors rescuing girls who’d been sold as slaves. There was no saving for the colony that he could point to. It was all incidental to the inspectors work and the caring for the girls would be by the church.
“Mam’selle!” Jade called behind me.
The Customs Office was only in next block.
There was no guard on the door, and the crack of my heels as I ran down the marble-floored corridors echoed behind me. Heads came out of offices to see what was happening.
The inspectors’ office was open and they were startled when I rushed in like a madwoman.
“Monsieur Picardin, Monsieur Valois, please tell me that you haven’t been ordered not to search for kidnapped girls.”
“Mam’selle, please, calm youself.”
Picardin pulled up a chair for me and closed the office door carefully. Valois poured me a glass of water from a tall decanter.
I accepted the glass numbly. The looks on their faces told me the answer to my question.
But it was not that clear-cut.
“There are no orders, but, umm…” Monsieur Valois foundered, his hand circling as he tried to reach the correct phrase.
“An indication, no more,” supplied Monsieur Picardin. He squeezed his thumb and finger together as if picking up something small.
“Yes, the budget,” Valois said. “It appears it is too small to allow the increase of this department by two new inspectors. The fellows we wanted from the Department of Roads, they will be deployed elsewhere. There is, therefore, not the anticipated spare capacity.”
“Nothing else?” I said. “Just no increase in the team?”
“Ahh…” Picardin wobbled his hand.
“A request for more detailed reports,” Valois pursed his lips and nodded his head thoughtfully.
“An acute interest in what we do. The efforts we put in,” Picardin mimed offering something and then taking it back, “and the financial results that return from that activity.”
“It could be construed as a requirement for evaluating our request to increase the size of this department,” Valois suggested.
“Yes.” Picardin frowned.
Or it could be a way of telling them to concentrate on what they were paid to do, couched in language that only a civil servant would understand and could be denied later.
“This change in opinion on your budget and interest in your work, it comes from Hubert?” I said. I could not grant him Monsieur, let alone his official title.
“From the office of the Lieutenant Governor, certainly,” Valois said carefully, emphasising his elevated rank. “Monsieur Riossi did not elaborate.”
Hubert could not command everyone on the colony to do as he said, even if he was the Lieutenant Governor. He had to work with people who were in positions of authority. He would have put this to Riossi as a request for Riossi to implement.
“I could talk to Monsieur Riossi,” I said. “He is the director of the Opium Regie. Hubert cannot tell him how to run his department.”
They sat back abruptly, both of them.
“Mam’selle,” Valois spoke slowly. “It is best not to take this to the director.”
“He is a very busy man,” Picardin said.
They exchanged glances.
“Very busy. Very important.” Valois licked his lips. “Not someone who should be approached…casually.”
“This is no casual matter for me,” I said. “I should go right now.”
Picardin went to the door and peered out into the empty corridor, before closing it again. He stood with his back to it, like a sentry.
“We understand, Mam’selle Beauclerc,” he said. “We will do what we can for the girls on this project, and we do not know what that will be, but we both advise you…both of us…and please, do not repeat this, Mam’selle…we advise you most strongly not to seek assistance from our director.”
“He can refuse to even see me,” I said, “if he is so busy—”
“Mmm. Or he could accept, and agree.” Valois interrupted. He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. “As a favor.”
“And request…favors in return,” Picardin said. He did not look at me as he spoke.
Here is the fifth episode of Bian’s Tale; the second half of Section 3 – ‘The Right Path’.
In which Ophélie/Bian has a close brush with the sinister Pere St Cyprien, makes great progress with some of her tasks, has a peek beneath the veil of the paranormal in Saigon, meets the French cousins (an ominous beginning), and attends the Harvest Ball, where…gasp…
I’m on a writer’s retreat, staying on my own in an apartment in Madrid. I’m writing half the time and exploring the other half. I’ll post pictures and comments on Facebook.
< * * * >
Part 3 –The Right Path
“Mam’selle!” Jade called out urgently from behind me.
I looked up and I was surrounded by a mixture of people from the market. Chinese and Annamese, Malabar and Singh, traders, merchants, peasants and fishermen. Lots of them. More even than the busiest of Cholon. They were pushing, looking over their shoulders toward the market, trotting hastily away from it, and as my head came up, some signal seemed to spark through the crowd. Like a flock of startled birds suddenly taking flight, they began to run; to surge and jostle in panic. In moments, there was no possibility of moving anywhere but the direction the crowd was going, no possibility of thinking about anything but keeping my feet.
To fall would be to die in the stampede.
They were as rough as the mob that had watched the execution, but unlike them, they were moving in a direction, like water from a burst dam they fled from the market.
Just as I thought I would fall and be trampled, we exploded out from the narrow side road onto the wide Boulevard Charner and the pressure eased. I managed to get out of the most frantic stream, but I couldn’t see Jade. I couldn’t see anyone I knew in the frightened faces around me.
What on earth is happening?
A black-clad arm reached out and held me, pulled me sideways into the shelter of a doorway.
I screamed in shock, but no one from the crowd spared me so much as a glance.
I screamed a second time as I looked up into the face of the man who had pulled me out of the flow: Père St Cyprien.
“Mam’selle Beauclerc,” he said solemnly. “Are you injured?”
“No,” I managed to say, shaking from head to foot. “Just startled.”
Was this the tall man that the captain of the Salayar had meant? Was the priest Tó Dara? A blood-sucking, soulless monster?
Monsieur Song said there was no danger. He hadn’t said there were no Tó Dara, and how could he be sure that there was no danger?
If there were Tó Dara, who was it? Who had the Bugis captain seen on the dock?
Even with a lack of other candidates to suspect, I couldn’t be sure about the priest. The Bian part of me sensed something dangerous about St Cyprien, but not enough to make the Ophélie part forget her manners.
“Thank you, Père,” I said, with a bob of my head. “What’s happening? Why are they running?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “but you’re safe here with me.”
Not safe, my street sense contradicted him.
St Cyprien looked even more pale and haggard than ever, those features always accentuated by his stern black cassock. His face floated above the white collar, dominated by his large nose and his bushy gray eyebrows. His eyes were a watery blue. He habitually squinted against the sun, even here, in the shade cast by the buildings. His eyes were restless, continually passing over my face and then sweeping the area around us before returning.
He licked his lips, hurriedly, like one of the tree lizards. “That was a brave thing you did at the execution.”
I flinched at the reference, but I would have to talk about it to someone eventually, and here we were, not a minute’s walk from where the guillotine had stood. I shuddered.
“It was foolish, Père. I just thought she might say where all her victims had gone. I mean, right at the end, when she was standing in front of the guillotine. I thought…” I stuttered and left the sentence dangling.
He nodded, as if it wasn’t foolish at all. “It was a good thought, and a Christian impulse.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down nervously. “The considerations of men and women change when they are faced by their imminent mortality,” he said.
He spoke quietly, and I had to lean forward to hear him.
“Death speaks to us all in our last moments. I believe that to be condemned to death and facing your imminent execution is, strangely, somewhat similar to a state of grace. Thinking becomes clearer. The Devil’s temptations and diversions are put aside.”
As he spoke those words, he looked as if he’d forgotten me and everything else around him. His face relaxed.
Then he blinked and squinted again.
“Who knows?” He cleared his throat and continued. “Madame Cao might have recanted and given up her evil conspirators. Certainly, confession would have lightened her burden, and then it would have been a very good thing that you’d done, in the eyes of the people and the Church.”
St Cyprien lifted his circular black hat and passed a trembling hand across his sweaty brow. “Your steps are slow, coming to the Church, my daughter.”
We’d spoken about this before. I’d been brought up with a blend of Buddhism and Confucianism. I wasn’t comfortable with that any more, but neither did I feel ready to commit to the Catholic Church, despite attending with my parents.
When I didn’t answer, he touched my arm and then withdrew his hand quickly, as if he’d found the contact painful.
“I will speak to your mother. Come and see me at the church,” he said.
It was Jade, and for once, I was enormously pleased to see her.
“Stupid people. Stupid army,” she said. She explained what she’d heard: a minor scuffle between traders had resulted in an over-anxious lieutenant leading his Marine squad into the market with their rifles ready. Everyone had assumed something terrible was happening.
It had all been for nothing. Already, people were drifting back to the market.
I thanked the priest for his help.
“Good day, Mam’selle,” he said abruptly, turning to walk quickly away, his black robe flapping around his ankles.
There had been a dispensation for Catholic priests in Cochinchina to wear cooler white robes instead of black, but Maman told me St Cyprien wore the black as acknowledgment of, and atonement for, his sins.
I wondered what sins were included, and what sensible reasons I could give for keeping away from him, and never, ever being alone with him in his church, whatever he said to Maman.
The nightmares came with renewed vigor in the next morning’s pale pre-dawn.
I woke, sweaty and twisted in my sheets, struggling with questions which drifted like grey phantoms in the shadows of my room.
The suppressed and formless anguish about my birth family was now edged with a painful possibility; I might see them again. But how would they feel about me?
I didn’t want to think what Nhung had gone through while I lived in comfort. Was still going through. My nightmares would flee with the dawn. Hers would only begin again.
How could I excuse how long it had taken to rescue her? Or my stupidity in not understanding what had really happened that last night in Ap Long? How would her awful experience have changed her?
What would she think of me? I was no longer simply Bian. What if Nhung didn’t like Ophélie?
And my birth parents who had sold me, intending I would live in France. Would my remaining here in Saigon bring shame to them?
Shaken with nightmares, in the uncertain light, I couldn’t call my mother’s face clearly to mind. Or my father’s. However strongly I tried to hold onto them, they were fading like dreams. In fact, when I thought of ‘parents’ now, I usually meant Papa and Maman.
I was no longer the Bian who cried silently at night so that others wouldn’t see my weakness, but neither was I completely Ophélie. The next step in my life seemed to have so many different directions it could take.
One set of paths led me back to Bian. On the other set, my birth family’s faces faded away to nothing, and I became entirely Ophélie. It weighed on me like a cold stone in my chest.
I sat sleepless at my window and watched the sky deepen into fiery rose. The sun floated up out of the east and the day rushed up on me, indifferent to my worries.
My plans had changed yesterday evening at dinner.
Papa had long promised that, when my Mandarin was good enough, I would have to exercise it in his office, where there were many jobs such as translating for trade delegations. I wasn’t ready, but the world didn’t wait on me. The government’s interpreter had taken ill yesterday, on the very day an important trade delegation had arrived from Canton. They had no interpreter of their own, and a group of French merchants were eager to speak to them. I’d agreed as soon as Papa asked me.
It was still early when I accompanied him to the City Hall; so early the delegations had not arrived.
While I waited in the main hallway, I was surprised to see Emmanuela hurrying in.
“Oh, Ophélie, this is good luck,” she said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see you to say goodbye.”
“No! What’s happening, Emmanuela? Where are you going?”
We’d only just met and I really enjoyed her company. There was so much she’d done in her life, so many places she’d seen. I had so many things I wanted to ask her about.
“There’s a Navy barge going up the Mekong. It may be the last for a while, and they’ve agreed to take me,” she said. “I’m just in to register the journey. It’s fortunate, really. Reliable transport is difficult to arrange, and this is my best chance to go and find my father.”
“Of course.” Despite my disappointment, I understood. “I’ll miss you.”
I knew, as Ophélie, I shouldn’t like her so much. Too unconventional, too outgoing, too outrageous for polite society. All the things the Bian side of me liked, along with her breezy confidence and the spell she seemed able to cast over young men.
“I’ll miss you, too.” She smiled and drew me aside while others passed down the hall. “Now, I don’t know if anyone has spoken to you about what happened on Boulevard Charner, but I want you to know that what you wanted to do was very noble. Don’t let others tell you anything else.”
So the official story had reached her ears. That was good and bad. Good that what Chief Meulnes considered would be acceptable had got out there quickly. Bad, because it wasn’t the whole truth, and I hated that there were new lies I had to hide behind even with her. I really wanted to tell her the whole truth, before it came out in some other way.
I had the feeling that she would not judge me. Unlike many in Saigon.
There wasn’t an opportunity now. The front doors opened to admit the Cantonese delegation, ushered in by the colonial official in charge of the meeting.
“Ay! Ay! Adelante! Good luck,” Emmanuela whispered as we kissed cheeks.
Maybe when she returned, I would tell her the truth.
She bowed politely to the Cantonese.
“Take care,” I said as she left to register her Mekong trip with some functionary in the building.
I turned my full attention to the delegation.
Oh, yes, good luck is what I need.
The group were clearly from the more traditional culture of mainland China. All of them were in glossy silk robes and ornate hats; the more senior, the more gorgeous. The important among them also grew their fingernails, and favored long Confucian beards. The whole group had deliberately blackened teeth. All these fashions had been described to me by Monsieur Song and Papa, along with the protocol of who I should talk to and how.
I hoped I could keep it all in mind.
I bowed deeply and was introduced by the French official.
He was nervous that the delegation would be offended because the Saigon administration didn’t have a man available to translate, or that I wouldn’t be capable. As it turned out, no one paid my gender any overt attention. On the other hand, the Cantonese spoke Mandarin so quickly and with such a heavy accent, within the first few minutes my stomach was already tied in knots and my hands were trembling.
At which point, Monsieur Gosselin arrived with three other French traders.
I hadn’t realized he would be in the meeting.
What if he starts talking about tiger demons?
But he was all business, and completely lucid, as if nothing had happened at the racecourse.
We moved to one of the airy meeting rooms and sat down. Monsieur Gosselin and the others wanted to talk business right away, and I had to restrain them while the Cantonese delegation were served tea and conversation consisted of polite observations about Saigon and Canton.
All too soon, that was over and the talk turned to trade opportunities.
Soon, I had no time to worry about him as I struggled to keep up. It was lucky that Monsieur Song and Qingzhao made their Mandarin discussions so difficult; it prepared me for the business negotiations I had to translate that morning.
By the time everyone declared themselves happy with the matters they had brought up, I felt shaky at the sustained effort.
“Mam’selle,” one of the junior Cantonese tried out his French, “you speak Mandarin good, like teacher when I boy. I Canton. When I young boy learn Mandarin.” He held his hand out to indicate a child’s height. “You very correct, like teacher. Very clear.”
He explained what he’d said to the others in Cantonese, and then again in Mandarin. The younger ones smiled. The leader nodded solemnly.
I took it as a great compliment, and the French merchants were pleased too. Monsieur Gosselin patted my hand. Everyone bowed, the junior members of the delegation tried out shaking hands with the French and finally, the two delegations went their separate ways.
As soon as they were out of sight, I collapsed ungracefully back on a chair.
Thank you, Lǎoshi. Thank you, Qingzhao. I have not disgraced myself, or your teaching.
Tempting as it was to sit there and relax, I couldn’t dawdle.
Lunchtime was fast approaching and if I delayed, the Opium Regie inspectors would be out for hours. I could come back in the afternoon, but that was the time they usually conducted their inspections, and also the time I had mentally put aside to visit the government general documents library, where they stored the latest communications from Hué.
If I met with the inspectors this morning, I could have all afternoon to look through the lists of officials employed in the mandarinate or undertaking the examinations.
I walked quickly to the next building, the Customs office, where I found I was in luck—Messieurs Picardin and Valois, the Opium Regie inspectors, were in their office and available to see me.
The two men were amiable and bewhiskered, both rather overweight and slow moving. They clearly enjoyed talking, but they were also nervous about giving offence when they discussed what they would be doing.
“It will be easy to include this task, Mam’selle,” Picardin said, “and will likely get some results. You understand, many of the establishments we regulate as part of the opium licensing…” he paused and wobbled his hand, uncomfortable with what he had to say. “They are inclined to be diverse in the…ah… entertainments they offer.”
“We apologize,” Valois said. “This is not a topic we normally discuss with ladies.”
“I understand. Please don’t be concerned on my behalf. What you are doing is much more important than my modesty, Messieurs.”
“We are confident of success, if not immediately, then relatively soon,” Valois said. “There is…” he hesitated and the pair of them exchanged a glance. Picardin made a moue with his expressive mouth and the tiniest nod for Valois to continue. “There is a new proposal to increase this small department. The addition of two gentlemen who have been languishing in the Department of Roads and an increase in the number of our Annamese assistants.”
“Excellent news! I admit my surprise,” I looked down modestly. “I hear so often of financial restrictions.” Meaning that almost everyone petitioning Papa in my hearing was told that there was no more money until a new budget was introduced. A budget that would have to wait until the current governor recovered from his long illness, or a new governor was installed, or the Victorieuse brought some unexpected bounty.
From the corner of my eye, I saw another glance between them.
“Yes…” Picardin said, but there was a little shared shrug and they moved the conversation away from the funding.
I stayed and talked with them about the ‘project’ as they called it. Having got over the awkwardness of offending my modesty, they were delighted to have someone interested in what they did.
They knew the official version of why I’d been at the execution of Madame Cao, and obviously they knew Papa had requested their new task from Monsieur Riossi. They had been told, or deduced, that unspecified ‘relatives’ of mine might be among those kidnapped by Cao and her organization.
Giving them Nhung’s name was out of the question. Everything else aside, however discreet they were, it would become plain that they were looking out for someone. Bác Thảo would hear. That would be dangerous for Nhung.
Instead Papa’s requirement was for them to collect all the names and submit them to the colonial office, where the reports would be copied to the documents library. The girls themselves would be taken and housed in temporary barracks with the Sisters of Saint Paul.
I would check every report and I would visit the sanctuary every day until we found Nhung. The inspectors assured me that, once the project was up to speed, they would be able to visit every opium den two or three times a year, and adding houses of prostitution would not delay them or compromise their primary task. The first complete sweep would be completed within a matter of months.
“Such hard work and such a large project,” I said, as I prepared to leave, much later than I had thought I would. “You are to be commended for being willing to include this in your duties. I am most grateful to you both, and to Monsieur Riossi.”
They shrugged, almost bashful now, as they followed me out and closed their office behind them.
“It’s not so much,” said Valois.
“And it needs doing, Mam’selle,” said Picardin. “The new staff will help enormously. Thank goodness the funds…”
He stopped and they both looked embarrassed.
Valois licked his lips and cleared his throat. “We know Monsieur Beauclerc doesn’t approve of rumors, but in this instance…”
“You will attend the Harvest Festival Ball of course, Mam’selle?” Picardin said.
“Yes, of course.”
The Harvest Festival Ball was organized by the governor’s staff. When they’d started the tradition, they’d chosen the name and the date to coincide with the Annamese festival, Tết Trung Thu. That was a harvest celebration, but in addition, it was a festival for children, and in keeping with that, the Harvest Festival Ball was the only one of the governor’s balls where younger people were also invited.
For my friends, it was the social highlight of the year. I was always there with Papa, and I got him to ensure my friends’ families were on the invitation list.
“Well, then, you will know it soon,” Picardin said. He leaned forward, tapped the side of his nose and whispered. “We heard yesterday. We will have a new governor announced at the ball, and that is why funds are suddenly to be made available.”
I left the building in a daze, taking my leave of them on the steps, where Jade was waiting impatiently for me.
I walked back home with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.
Jade must have thought I’d been hit on the head and lost my wits.
But Papa would be governor, and then soon, soon, I would be reunited with Nhung. She would be free. I put aside my childish night-time fears about whether she’d like me or not.
There was a letter for me waiting at home, from Alain Sévigny. I read it in the privacy of my bedroom. He had such beautiful writing. It was almost calligraphy, and I had to trace the characters with a finger, imagining the way his hand had moved to form them.
The letter itself was about the Harvest Festival Ball. Alain was thanking me for ensuring that the Sévignys got invitations. He hoped I didn’t think it too forward for him to request a dance with me.
No, not at all.
I hadn’t asked Papa to include the Sévignys with a mind to Alain being there. I was only trying to make sure that all my friends’ families got invitations, and it would have been spiteful to exclude Chantal’s.
I hadn’t expected a letter of thanks from her, let alone from Alain.
Of course, he was just being polite.
I shouldn’t read anything into it, I thought, as I traced the loops and curls of his words.
And nothing would come of it, certainly not if Chantal had her way.
I already knew my Mandarin lesson the next day would be most unusual, but even that anticipation did not prepare me for what happened.
We started early. Monsieur Song sat with me in the dining room at Boulevard Bonnard and began by listening patiently while I explained the complex story of my birth family in Mandarin.
I was nervous, but I trusted him, otherwise I wouldn’t have been saying anything. I trusted him more than I trusted Meulnes, and so I also told him about the meeting with the Chief of Police and what had been said there.
Song had a different kind of knowledge about Cochinchina, about things that the French dismissed because it didn’t fit into their view of the world. Things like hô con quỷ, the tiger demons. Did he believe in them? Would he confirm that they were here, in Saigon? Was Bác Thảo real? Was he a tiger demon? Could Song help me? Would he?
When I fell silent at the end, he leaned back and sighed.
“Chief Meulnes is not a fool, but he is wrong this time,” he said.
I felt relief. And a chill in my bones. “In what part?”
He didn’t answer directly. Instead, he got up and walked to the windows.
As usual, during the day they were open and covered with gauze curtains.
He seemed unsure how to proceed. I’d never seen him like that before.
“He’s wrong about much of what you already suspect,” Monsieur Song waved his hand. “Not only is Bác Thảo real, but he’s also the most powerful gang leader in Khánh Hôi, and I can assure you, he has not forgotten the stolen funds for the Emperor’s mausoleum, nor has he forgotten the name of Trang.”
“But it was all made up—nothing was stolen,” I said, arguing against my own fears. “The mandarins didn’t really believe in the theft, and that must be accepted now, otherwise why would my father believe it was possible to get back into the mandarinate?”
Monsieur Song pursed his lips. “Only the mandarins who made up the story know for sure that it is false. You might be right about it being widely accepted as false, but you cannot be sure. Your father might not have wanted to depend on that understanding of the situation. He might have changed his name and applied under a new identity. He could have relied on no one recognizing him after the passage of time.” He nodded thoughtfully. “To be sure, the senior mandarins take little or no interest in juniors.”
I’d spent yesterday afternoon at the City Hall and I was about half way through the lists from Hué. If my tutor was right, then I would need to go back and check all the lists again for all candidates for the examinations, regardless of their names. Suddenly it was a more difficult job than I had originally thought.
“I understand, Lǎoshi.”
“That is my guess, but there’s another possibility.” My tutor grimaced. “There might be mandarins who still believe the stories that the gold was stolen, and also that your father was part of the group responsible. Your father might exploit that. He might get one of those to sponsor him, if he is brave.”
I frowned. “Why would they sponsor him, if they believe he stole it?”
“Precisely because of that. They would do it in the hope of discovering where the gold is hidden, and stealing it for themselves,” he said, his tone neutral. “The quality of the mandarinate is not what it once was.”
A maid interrupted what I was sure would be a lecture on the decline of the Annamese administration by bringing us hot water. As he usually did, Monsieur Song made the tea, and talk was not permitted while he did this.
“The core of the problem is what to do about Bác Thảo,” he said when we had our cups. “Everything else can continue as you have started. To be harsh: you will find your parents, or you will not. You will find your sister, or you will not. But you cannot help your birth family safely while you are threatened by Bác Thảo.”
“Surely the police can arrest him,” I said. “Can you think of a plan to persuade them?”
“That’s not so simple.” Song returned to the window. He stood there, sipping his tea and looking out thoughtfully through the gauze curtains.
I joined him and waited. It was always difficult to know what he was thinking, but this morning, I sensed a reluctance to tell me things.
“These curtains allow the light to come in, the breeze to flow. Flies and insects are kept out,” he said. “The French also like to keep things out in the mind. Things that do not fit with their view of the world. Few listen to Monsieur Gosselin, and he is an ill man. Yet, in his muddled ravings there’s often truth.”
I felt another chill along my spine.
He turned abruptly to me. “Do you trust me, Bian?”
“Yes, Lǎoshi. But I am Ophélie now.”
“You are both,” he said, guiding me back to my seat at the dining table. “The part of you I want to talk to is the Annamese, the Bian, and I think we will do so through some of the ritual heritage that we share.”
While I sat, he brought a candle on a small metal tray from the side table and placed it in front of me.
He lit the candle.
From my folder, he took a piece of blank paper, the broad-nib pen I sometimes used to draw Chinese ideograms and the pot of ink.
“Describe to me the three realms,” he said. “Briefly.”
I was puzzled why he asked, but this was an easy question about Chinese mythology that we had spoken of before.
“Well, the three are Tiantang, Yang Jian and Ying Jian. Tiantang is heaven, a place of repose for those souls that have earned it. Yang is the living material world all around us, the world we perceive with our senses. Ying is the spirit world, the world that passes through Yang but is not perceivable to us, although our souls exist in both Yang and Ying.”
“Excellent.” While I spoke, he had been writing with deft strokes. “How could you perceive the spirit world?”
I blinked. What was he doing? “In the myths there might be a guide,” I replied. “Or dreams, perhaps. Or a spell that allows you to talk with the spirits.”
“That would be more than we need,” he said. “More than we have the time for. All we need are spirit eyes, for the passage of flame across the paper.”
He put the pen down. The writing on the paper made no sense to me. There were symbols for ‘safe’ and ‘passage’ and ‘eyes’ that I picked out, but some of the others I didn’t understand.
“What are we doing?” I said.
“Opening your spirit eyes. Do you still trust me, Bian?”
“Then you will be safe.” He stood just behind my chair, one hand on the back. “I am here. Now just watch the flame. Watch.”
He reached across and touched the paper he’d written on to the flame and placed it on the metal tray.
“See how it sways, how it grows.” His voice dropped.
The flame did sway. And it grew.
“See the curl of the smoke in the air,” he whispered. “So slow.”
It was so quiet here in the dining room at Boulevard Bonner. I could hear the sound the candle flame made as it danced on the wick. The crackle as the paper burned.
All so slowly.
The smoke that drifted from the flame’s tip swirled up in the air, producing fantastical shapes.
Shapes that seemed to grow familiar.
A mask? Of my own face?
It was like a mask, it did look like me. It was almost transparent at the edges. In the center, where the eyes would be, it was a deep grey, the grey of swollen monsoon clouds.
The mask drifted toward me, or I drifted toward it. I closed my eyes and gasped as it touched my face. It was cool, like water, like a mist or spray, touching my skin so softly.
When my eyes opened again, the world was not the same.
Here was the dining table, the side table. There were the chairs, the pictures on the walls, the chandelier above us.
But the light was different. It was as if everything now gave off its own light. As if everything was, at the same time, both solid and yet no more substantial than smoke.
I drifted like a ghost and I passed through the gauze curtains. They were no more a barrier to me than if I’d been smoke and air.
There was no sun in the sky, no moon. No day, no night. Everything had its own light, everything was both hard edged and intangible.
I realized my eyes were seeing the Ying world, the world of spirits that flowed around and through the Yang world, the world of the living.
And at the same time, I knew this was madness. Impossible. Irrational.
I floated. It felt as if I were falling, in a nightmare, and yet, in the way of dreams, I never hit the ground.
There were people on the streets. I could see both Yang and Ying aspects, but the Yang, the face that the living world saw, was indistinct to my spirit eyes. The Ying spirit hovered around the same space, tethered in some way, but pulling to one side or the other. The spirit faces were clear and mobile, unrestrained and expressive, whereas the Yang faces were wooden and obscured. Many of the Ying faces were distorted and grotesque, and for those, their pale spirit bodies were tainted with colors that suggested strong emotion.
I swooped past them, drawn towards the offices of the colonial administration. Through the walls and inside.
Although his living face was indistinct, I knew it was him. His spirit body was calm and sat easily within the boundaries of his living body. It was pale blue, as pale as the sky at noon. His Ying face looked calm and resolute, with his eyes looking steadfastly forward.
But around him was a different scene. The building seethed with others who were not at all the same as him.
Their Yang faces were also calm, their bodies moved as stately as lawyers through a courtroom, but their Ying faces screamed, and their bodies glowed with suppressed emotions.
Are these my father’s enemies? So many!
I could not hear their spirit screams, nor the measured words of their living mouths, but a darkness seemed to leak from them and it gathered in every corner of the building, until it overflowed, trickling out of windows and doors like a fog.
There, beside Papa, was Monsieur Therriot, who had greeted us on the docks. I recognized him from the way he had of touching my father’s arm to emphasize a point, or to stress that he was supportive.
His Yang body was green and twisted back on itself, almost as if it was a knotted rope, and the face looked bitter, the eyes sliding back and forth, only looking to the sides.
I wanted to stay and find out more, but whatever had drawn me to the building now drew me away.
There on the street, I saw Monsieur Riossi and Père St Cyprien talking together.
But I was flying upwards. I had barely a moment to observe them, their outer faces calm and their inner spirits in turmoil. I had no more than a glimpse, a sense of redness, then I was too far away.
I paused high above Saigon, above the Ronde, in the middle of the docks, looking south to the Arroyo Chinois, where the face of the water was nearly covered with sampans. On the far bank across the Arroyo from Saigon sat the dark warehouses and choking, lawless streets of Khánh Hôi. To my right, a kilometer or two down the Arroyo, was Cholon.
My spirit view was different from up here. Time passed more quickly than it had below, and I couldn’t see individuals on the streets; instead, I saw movement like rivers. People flooding into Saigon from Khánh Hôi and Cholon to work on the new buildings as the architects extended the reach of the city. Those people at the end of the day, flooding back. I was seeing the pulse of the city.
I swooped down, so quickly my breath caught in my throat, down to the point that the flows of workers separated, at the first bridge across the Arroyo Chinois. Left to Khánh Hôi, straight on to Cholon.
Spirit time slowed again, so I could see individuals in the flow, and I passed like a ghost among those that walked over the bridge to Khánh Hôi. No one soul looked worse than others I’d seen elsewhere in the city, but overall, as an accumulation, there was a darkness that hung about them, that slowed their movements, weighed them down.
As I lingered, I saw where that darkness came from—almost all that crossed the bridge carried a brand on their spirit faces. On some, it was no more than a blur, but on others, it was clear enough to see that it was an image of a tiger.
I was pulled deep into Khánh Hôi, through the warren of narrow streets, turning always in the direction the darkness increased, where the brands were more and more visible, until I came to the heart of it.
The tall man. His Ying soul was a tiger, and while I watched, the Ying and Yang bodies of the man moved like smoke, shifting, passing through each other, reforming, until they’d exchanged places.
The tiger turned its lambent eyes on me, full of fury.
I wanted to scream, but a ghost has no breath.
I heard Maman’s clear voice as if I was underwater.
I gasped, sucking air into my lungs like I’d been holding my breath the entire time. I was not in the stifling passages of Khánh Hôi. I was sitting in the dining room at Boulevard Bonnard, with a cooling breeze coming though the gauze curtains. In the center of the table, a candle burned on a metal tray. At the foot of the candle lay the ashes of a piece of paper, with the last wisp of smoke escaping from it and vanishing.
“There you are.” Maman opened the door and put her head around it. “My apologies, Monsieur Song, but we’ll have to curtail this lesson. Our cousins are about to arrive from France. The ship has been sighted on the river.”
She went back out.
My mouth moved with questions to ask, but it seemed an age before my voice worked.
“Lǎoshi! What? How? What have I just seen? Was that real?”
“Sometimes, to perceive the method is to lose the substance of the lesson.”
We spoke in Mandarin still.
“Think on this deeply,” he said. “We will speak further, but not a word to anyone else at the moment. We should be in a much better position after the Harvest Ball.”
Clearly, he’d heard something about the announcement that Papa would become governor, but that was as much as I could get from him.
At the door, he bade us both a good day in French and left, his long queue swinging like a pendulum across his back.
It was more difficult than I’d expected to find our cousins, the Fontaudins, in the crowd of people disembarking from the steamer Toulouse.
Passenger ships at the dock came in all sizes, and the only way to get people off them efficiently was one of the cumbersome, whitewashed gangplank assemblies. These iron and wood constructions were wheeled across and winched up until their long boards formed a footway from the deck down to the dockside. There were iron railings to hold onto and canvas panels draped on either side so people couldn’t see you slipping and stumbling. The Toulouse already had the biggest gangplank against her side and the first passengers were gingerly making their way down, the whole thing flexing and swaying beneath their feet.
Knots of people waited on the dockside, and a swarm of coolies ready to carry the luggage down.
There were lots of returning colonials on the Toulouse; they were the easiest to spot and the quickest to leave. They’d either have friends meeting them or, with a whistle, they’d have their luggage loaded in a cart to follow them, while they were whisked away in a Malabar carriage.
There were new government officers, wide-eyed and nervous, wondering whether they’d made a mistake going for a Saigon posting. They’d thought they’d gotten used to the heat on the ship, but it was a different matter on the dockside. I could see, between their doubts and the assault of noise and color, they were left with the sinking feeling they wouldn’t cope. They were easy to spot, too; they wore the tropical suits they’d been advised to buy in France, and which were all subtly wrong. If they stayed, they’d learn to cope and they’d soon be dressed more comfortably, and for a fraction of the cost, from local tailors.
There were travelers on business, straining to see the company officials sent to meet them. That was the group where the Fontaudins should have been.
Then lastly, the pleasure travelers, unsure and gruff with the coolies, most of them with far too much luggage.
I couldn’t see anyone who I thought could be the Fontaudins. What would they be like, these cousins?
Maman was beginning to worry. The last few passengers were coming down the gangplank. There was no-one on the dockside who was obviously searching for us.
“Look, Maman, Papa,” I said, pointing. “On the side of those trunks.”
A team of coolies were carrying three large, grey-green trunks down the gangplank. On the side, the name ‘Fontaudin’ had been clearly stenciled in square, white letters.
And then, as the disembarking deck emptied, they finally made their appearance.
Blanche Fontaudin was a tall woman. She was brown-haired, heavy set and pale. Her skin was rouged and her lips pinched. A double necklace of pearls swung from her neck and her powder-blue dress was the severest, most elegant cut I’d ever seen.
The reason they were last quickly became apparent. On the deck, Blanche was able to support herself with a stout walking stick and the arm of her husband. On the gangplank, she required assistance and Papa ran up to help.
Her husband, Yves, was plump and jolly. His skin had gone pink from the sun and his thinning, light brown hair was combed back. He wore a white suit that was far too stiff and looked uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, he was laughing as, between them, he and Papa maneuvered his wife down the swaying gangplank and onto the safe, stable ground of the quay.
I hung back slightly as Maman greeted them.
“Hello! Hello! Wonderful to be here at last. Splendid,” Monsieur Fontaudin said loudly, and he kissed her on both cheeks.
“Thank goodness, we were getting worried,” Maman said. “How are you?”
“This heat—my God, I’m going to melt. How do you stand it? Other than that, we’re fine, absolutely fine. Sorry about the delay. Just needed the gangplank to be clear.”
“This is our daughter, Ophélie.” Maman beckoned me forward.
“Monsieur Fontaudin, Madame,” I said, and bobbed.
“Well, yes. Hello. Hmm.” He blinked at me. “So, you are Ophélie. So, ah, grown up.” He swiveled around. “Blanche, just look at her.”
“I have eyes, Yves,” she said. “Can we kindly get out of this sun?”
“You wait right over here,” Papa said, guiding them to the shade of one of the trees. “I’ll get the Malabar to come to you.” He strode off.
“That leg seems painful,” Maman said. “Did you fall on the ship?”
Madame Fontaudin shook her head. “An old injury that gets worse with the heat. I have an excellent doctor at home. No chance of that here, I suppose. I’ll just have to make do.”
“Perhaps it will settle with rest, now you’re on firm ground,” Maman said. “Here’s the carriage now.”
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Madame Fontaudin retired to her bedroom without lunch. Monsieur Fontaudin thought himself a great raconteur, and regaled us while we ate with stories from France. Finally, he, too, retired for the worst of the afternoon heat.
Papa had to return to the office, and I took the opportunity to accompany him. It got me away from the Fontaudins, and by walking with him, Jade as well.
Was it the after-effects of whatever had happened with my tutor in the morning? Either it had stirred up my imagination, or I was catching glimpses of people’s spirit souls.
Surely just my imagination.
As Maman said, there was a lot going on, and having Jade’s constant disapproval was wearying. As for the Fontaudins, I had gone down to the docks excited to meet these relatives. From their unenthusiastic welcome to their general cool disregard of me, I’d quickly moved to actually disliking them and hoping they quickly found their own house to stay.
In contrast, working on Hué lists in the quiet of the library through the afternoon was a welcome relief and an opportunity to think.
Despite not liking him, I’d listened carefully to Monsieur Fontaudin over lunch. For someone who worked in the clothing industry, in Toulouse, way down in the south of France, he was eager to show he had his fingers on the pulse of the capital.
It was clear, he said, that the government in Paris was going though one of its periodic reassessments. Finances were being husbanded, budgets were being cut, and every department’s watchword had become ‘efficiency’.
That we already understood. Papa had commented to me over the last few months that every communication he’d received from Paris included the word ‘efficiency’ as if it were a mantra.
But Monsieur Fontaudin went on.
According to the rumors, he told us, the Quai d’Orsay had suffered some defeats against the Ministère de la Marine, and there was some disquiet about Cochinchina which must be held against the administration.
Papa waved that away. Rumors were not to be heeded. His length of service would speak for him, and the income of Cochinchina was going a long way to supporting the entire French presence in the Far East. They could hardly ignore that.
And although I could not repeat rumors in front of Papa, the inspectors at the Opium Regie had told me he would be announced as governor at the Harvest Ball. That would provide security against the bickering between the departments in Paris.
Boulevard Norodom was the widest and most splendid of Saigon’s boulevards. It ran from the Botanical Gardens, past the old Citadel, right up to the gates of the Governor’s Palace.
To feel the heart of trade that beat at the center of the South China Sea, you would go down to the Quai du Commerce and the Old Market, down to the shops and brokers that clustered in the streets from the Ronde to Boulevard Charner.
To sense the awe of the French navy, you would visit the Quai de la Marine, be dwarfed by the ironclad ships, and gaze in wonder at the mountainous coal bunkers next to the imposing bastion of the arsenal.
To see the majesty of the French empire, you simply came to the Governor’s Palace.
It was set in formal gardens, facing Boulevard Norodom across a lush, circular lawn big enough to ride a dozen carriages around. It was the embodiment of France in the Far East, an echo of the recently deceased Duke of Magenta’s proud statement: J’y suis. J’y reste. Here I am, here I will remain.
From where we were waiting, I could cast my eyes over the triple tiers of the building. Every detail was in harmony, from the upward sweep of the pale stone staircase, through the cloisters of arched windows, up to the crowning Louis 16th cupola; all designed to project a sense of the divine right of French imperial power, of agelessness. Of inevitability.
In the middle of the circular lawn, the dying light of the setting sun highlighted the French tricolor, hanging limply from the tall flag post.
The day had seemed to last forever but now we were finally—finally—on our way to the Harvest Ball. Papa had arranged for a Malabar carriage to deliver us right to the doors, but that meant we were in a procession of them, and had to wait our turn.
I was excited. The whole of Saigon had exploded with the celebrations of Tết Trung Thu, the Harvest Festival and Children’s Festival. So many lanterns glowed, the house and street lights seemed dim. Dragons and lions danced in the streets, chasing bands of drummers while children ran, laughing and playing, between them. Every trader seemed to be out selling mooncakes to the crowds.
And soon, this evening, it would all be crowned by the Harvest Ball.
The palace had begun to use electric lights, and these had been switched on by the time we finally drew up to the stairs.
“Monsieur, Madame, Mam’selle.” We were greeted politely, and quickly ushered through the lofty, marble-floored passage to the huge reception room with its deep red and gold carpets.
It was filled, side to side, with a sea of faces and a froth of the most fashionable dresses, stark, formal jackets and military uniforms. Ladies’ throats and fingers dripped with jewels, and officers’ chests with medals, until they rivalled the chandeliers with all their glitter. All their voices were joined together in one hum, like a huge hive of bees.
Among the guests, Annamese servants in loose blue trousers and starched white tunics passed silently, bearing trays of drinks.
I attempted to take a glass of champagne, but Papa swopped it for a tall, cold mango juice with sprigs of mint.
If I’d waited just another minute, he would have been too occupied by the swirl of people asking him for news of the Victorieuse, or clarification of some rumor. He shrugged off all the questions, but made a supportive comment for every person’s concern.
I could not help him with this task, and moved away to search for my friends.
I found Manon and Rochelle talking to Phèdre Riossi.
Their conversation was about the Victorieuse. I greeted them, but didn’t join in.
Tonight, Papa would be announced as governor, and at last some of these rumors would be laid to rest. It couldn’t happen soon enough for me.
I wondered how it would be done. Governor Laurent himself would have to make the announcement, surely. I couldn’t see him here. Was he well enough? I searched the faces.
But at that moment, the orchestra began to play, and a stir went through the crowd.
I watched as gentlemen approached ladies for a dance, noting the way an elegant lady, not far from where we stood, took her time before inclining her head gracefully, with a small smile. She laid her hand on his arm and allowed him to lead her to the floor.
That’s how you do it.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Phèdre sneer and fade back toward the wall.
There was a tap on my shoulder.
“Now, young lady, are you too old or too young to dance a gavotte with your Papa?”
“Neither, Monsieur,” I said and was about to make a grand curtsey, then I remembered and tried tilting my head slightly like the lady I’d watched. Gracious, not arrogant. It was difficult to get it just so.
Rochelle stifled a giggle, which I’d make her pay for later.
Papa took my hand and led me to the floor, our steps quickly taking up the rhythm of the dance so we arrived with others already in time with them.
The gavotte was not my favorite. It was old-fashioned and stuffy, but so what?
Round and round, flap hands, bow and step. It was really the silliest dance, and even Papa couldn’t help but laugh as we bobbed and twirled.
At the end he bowed. “Alas, now I must return to duty,” he said, making his eyebrows wiggle. “I have every lady in the colony keen to whisper in my ear this evening.”
I curtsied formally and returned to where I’d left the others, but they’d dispersed. Those that had missed the gavotte now had a more simple two-step to navigate.
I took another juice drink from a tray and looked around the ballroom.
I couldn’t see the governor yet, but it was difficult to be sure with so many here.
By the far wall, Colonel Durand stood, surrounded by Marine officers. He was speaking, but every so often his eyes swept over the room, as if he was watching everyone. He saw me and I could not mistake the anger in his eyes.
Was it because I’d slipped through the cordon of his Marines at the execution? Or simply because I was here?
I looked away.
Much closer to me was Monsieur Riossi. His eyes also swept the room.
I shivered. I was obligated to him. This was the man who had agreed to let his inspectors search for Nhung and the other girls who’d been sold into prostitution. I had thanked the inspectors, and I was safer here than in many places; we were in a ballroom with hundreds of onlookers. Nothing was going to happen. I should be mature enough to thank him. It was the least I could do.
His eyes swept back across the room and held mine.
I smiled and took a step. Immediately, he excused himself and walked over to me.
He made a little bow. “A dance, Mam’selle Beauclerc?”
I had only wanted to talk, but I was trapped now. To refuse would hardly be the opening for me to thank him. The dance was half-way over anyway.
“Monsieur.” I tilted my head again and laid my hand on his arm.
He moved smoothly, dancing well despite his weight. His right hand held mine and his left pressed lightly on my lower back. He smelled of strong, scented soap and expensive cigars.
My vision, or my hallucination, if that’s what it was, had given me a glimpse of threatening redness in his spirit soul, him and St Cyprien, but I refused to let that dominate my thoughts, or to give in to my street sense about him.
Instead I spoke. “Have you had an opportunity to enjoy the festivals in the streets today, Monsieur Riossi?”
He did, and we had a civil and unremarkable conversation until the end of the dance.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for allowing the Regie inspectors to assist with my father’s project to rescue girls,” I said, as he escorted me out of the dance area. “It’s a cause close to my heart.”
“Naturally it is, Mam’selle,” he said. “And I am pleased if it gives you pleasure. Such little favors exchanged make the world so much more enjoyable for all.”
Someone waved at him. “Ah! You must excuse me. Thank you for the dance.”
He moved off.
The words were so vague and probably just his way of speaking. I mustn’t see hidden meanings.
I rubbed my hands together, surreptitiously wiped them on my dress.
Rochelle joined me as the orchestra struck up a Viennese polka. They seemed determined to start off the evening with a different dance of every kind. The polka was much more my sort of dance, but it seemed the gentlemen were occupied with others.
Phèdre also appeared, quiet as a ghost beside us. Behind her curtain of hair, she looked impassively out over the dancers.
“Did you enjoy dancing with my father?” she said.
“He dances well.” I tried to deflect the question.
“Yes, he’s very sure in his moves.”
She looked as if she might have said more, but Rochelle interrupted: “I swear Chantal’s wearing a corset.”
I picked her out, near the center of the floor, dancing with an elderly man. She was certainly moving stiffly.
“Who’s that dancing with her?” I asked.
I was surprised that it was Phèdre who answered. “His name’s Janin. He has a huge rubber plantation, up past Binh Long, right next to the border.”
“How old is he?” Rochelle asked.
“Old enough to remember when gentlemen wore wigs to a reception,” Phèdre said without expression. “And he’s sorry they don’t still.”
Rochelle and I smothered our laughs. Yes, Monsieur Janin was old and very bald.
The polka wound down to its end and many of the dancers left the floor.
“I believe I have already put in a request for the pleasure of this next dance, Mam’selle?”
I spun round and almost fainted. Alain Sévigny.
I caught myself, managed to incline my head graciously as I’d been practicing that evening, and let him take my hand to lead me toward the dance floor.
What would it be? Another polka? Something old like a cotillion? I hoped not; that was almost as stuffy as the gavotte. It was all right to laugh while dancing with your father, but less so dancing with the handsomest young man in the room.
Whatever the dance, I was never going to forget this. My first dance, other than with Papa and my parents’ friends, or obligations like Monsieur Riossi.
My first real dance, I thought, though that was silly.
My first dance with Alain.
We reached the center. There was a slight, expectant hush and the first notes came; a horn, so clear and pure, I bit my lip. It couldn’t be! Then the strings quickly followed and the beautiful music swayed through the room. Strauss. An der schönen blauen Donau. A waltz! My favorite waltz, my dream dance.
Heart in mouth, I turned toward Alain and placed my hand gently on top of his shoulder. His hand slipped behind me and—two, three, one, two, three—we floated away across the floor.
I swallowed and remembered to breathe.
“This is my favorite dance, my favorite music.” It felt as if I had to squeeze the words out of my chest.
“Really? Mine, too. I was surprised they let it be played.” A smile played about his lips. “Some people say it leads to decadence.”
One, two, three. One, two , three. Do not think of decadence. De-ca-dence. One, two, three. He has such lovely, languid eyes. The same blue as Chantal, but not sharp.
“They say decadence becomes fashionable toward the end of a century,” he said.
“Well, only a few years now. Do you believe there’s something in the numbers?”
“No.” He laughed. “Rank superstition, but people think there’s significance in the numbers and therefore, there’s significance.”
“Well then, what will the end of the century mean for us here in Saigon?”
“Who knows exactly?” Alain said. “There’s a new century coming. What some call decadence is just a chance to sweep away old restrictions and traditions. A chance to reinvent the world as it should be. Starting out right here, in the furthest part of the republic.”
I’d never had much chance to speak with Alain privately before, if you could call speaking on the dance floor private. He spoke with an excitement and passion in his voice that was intoxicating.
He leaned closer and his voice dropped. “I hear there will be an announcement about the governor, right here at the ball. With your father in charge, perhaps that will signal the start of changes.”
Of course, if the Regie inspectors knew, others might also know that Papa would be announced as governor tonight.
But I must not speak of rumors, so I just smiled.
We turned and Colonel Durand brushed past, dancing with Rochelle’s mother.
Alain noticed that I looked away.
“Colonel Durand. I think he doesn’t like me.”
“Perhaps. You can’t expect everyone to like you.”
“No. I suspect he doesn’t like me because I’m…”
“Because you’re Annamese? Yes, there are many like that, here in Saigon. But why worry?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s just posted here.” Alain gave a tiny shrug. “In a few years, he’ll go back to France and become a bore, telling wildly exaggerated stories of the ‘hardships of Cochinchina’.”
“Another will replace him.”
“And another, and another. But they come and they go. Saigon will remain, and eventually the Durands will not come.”
I wanted that with all my heart.
“Maybe. What about you, Alain? Your father’s the city architect. They’ll run out of the need for more civic buildings eventually.”
He laughed again; freely, easily. “No, never. And this is our home now. I know, we weren’t born here. My family is French, but my father has poured his heart into making Saigon what it is. How could we leave?”
“You really feel that way about it?”
“Yes! Look at the city. This is the Paris of the East, and without the numbing rubbish that goes on in France. A place for new starts. A place to experiment. A place that’s exciting. Why on earth would I leave?”
We turned again, dancing closer that we strictly should have.
It could be, it really could. Enough dreamers to dream, and the dream would be the new reality. Sweep away the old.
I tilted my head back, feeling a little drunk. Chandeliers spun like constellations of stars above me. For one glorious waltz, I believed we could dance our cares away.
Papa would become governor.
I would be reunited with my sister, and Papa would protect my birth family if they returned here. He would have Bác Thảo arrested and thrown into prison. His enemies in the administration would not dare move against the governor, and by the time he finished his term, it would be the new century and things would be different.
In Papa’s words, France itself would finally wake to the glorious possibilities of the East, to embrace its dynamic peoples, to reinvigorate itself and, as a unified new state, to become once again pre-eminent in the world.
I would work beside him, and beside others who shared his dreams.
There were threats and problems and puzzles here in Saigon, yes, and not just for me personally, but for all the people. Those threats might be stubborn. But we would defeat them all, and even if we could not eradicate them, well, we were young and strong and full of life, and we would outlive them. With people who believed in the dream they were building here, nothing was impossible. We would inherit this wonderful city and we would sweep all the problems away. Nothing was impossible. Nothing.
Alain and I…
The music faltered, stopped, and couples on the floor stuttered to a standstill while voices called out questions. A buzz of speculative conversation broke out.
There were men in naval uniforms, plain working uniforms, stopping the orchestra and clearing a space on the stand.
Victorieuse someone said behind me. Another voice took it up.
A gong sounded and the buzz quietened, became a murmur.
Then Governor Laurent walked in, and there was absolute silence.
Most of the people here, like me, hadn’t seen him since his last official engagement months before. I could see my shock echoed in all their faces.
His skin was pale and loose, as if his inner body had shrunk. His uniform, heavy and bright with gleaming medals, was hanging off him. He leaned heavily on a walking stick. In his left hand he held a piece of paper.
I’d met him and remembered most the lively, piercing green of his eyes. Those eyes were now dull and clouded. He raised them to the assembly without expression, and I wondered if he could actually see anyone. Were we just a blur to him?
Yes, I wanted Papa to become governor, but not like this.
Governor Laurent looked at the piece of paper in his hand and frowned. The paper shook.
“Mesdames and Messieurs.” He stopped, and looked around again.
His walking stick trembled. His left hand closed, crumpling the paper, and then moved across to steady his right.
“My friends and colleagues,” he started again, more strongly. There was a sigh, like a breeze that passed through the grand chamber, and his eyes seemed to clear a little.
“I came out to this colony twelve years ago, full of a sense of purpose, full of a vision, a dream for all the people of Cochinchina that I know many of you still share. A dream of a dynamic, exciting part of France, where we would light a great beacon, and call out to the young and adventurous. A wonderful, wonderful dream. But those of you who are as old as I, know only too well that dreams may die, and if they do, the body soon follows.”
There was a sharp intake of breath throughout the room.
“To fulfil that dream was my sacred mission,” Governor Laurent said, “and my last duty for the republic, but I have fallen far short. The body you see before you will not much longer bear the rigors of this task. It is time for me to step down, and this should be no surprise to some of you. I have resigned my post and will return to France on the Victorieuse.”
He sighed and looked down as if to gather his strength.
“The world does not stand still, will not stand still. You cannot stand still, and thus, you must embrace the change. If you accomplish your goals only to find they are redundant, it is as if you did nothing. And so I leave you, my friends and colleagues, to carry forward such ideals as may fit in the new vision, this new and higher purpose. I will not advise you further, for the way ahead is dark to me; I have dropped the torch and cannot see.”
He turned to look at the group behind him briefly.
“It remains for me only to introduce you to the herald of this new vision, the envoy from Paris who has, this very hour, arrived on the Victorieuse with his family. He bears the authority of the Quai d’Orsay and the Ministère de la Marine. His name is Monsieur Andre Hubert.”
People stirred and craned their necks to see.
Governor Laurent walked to the back and sank into a chair. He leant forward and rested his head on his stick; his speech looked to have exhausted him.
Taking his place in the center was a man I assumed to be Monsieur Hubert.
He was new to the East—his cheeks were red and sweaty with the heat, his jaw covered in a dark, pointed beard. His hair was combed straight back and shiny with pomade.
Behind him stood a woman I assumed to be his wife, and next to her, a boy and girl of about my age.
When Hubert spoke, his voice was strong, but too even, as if he were shouting.
“Thank you. Good evening, Mesdames and Messieurs. I apologize for interrupting your entertainment, but a wide gathering offers such an efficiency of communication that I could not forego doing so.”
There was a stir among the guests, many of whom probably recognized the political watchword—‘efficiency’—from Paris.
I immediately didn’t like Monsieur Hubert, and I didn’t like what I felt lurking behind what he was saying.
“It is also perhaps suitable that we use these festivities as a marker, an end of an era if you like. The era of adventurers and light responsibilities, the era of trials and testing of new ideas, in short, the era of youth. Yes, it is time, time for change, time for our colonies to reveal their maturity.”
People shifted uncomfortably. In the Far East, only Cochinchina was a true colony. And for someone just off the ship to be saying our colony hit a false note.
The feeling I had that something was wrong was growing with every sentence he said.
“The time has come for Indochina to stand separately as a responsible part of the Republic. Long intervals between orders from the Quai d’Orsay or the Ministère de la Marine, and conflict in directions, all those are a thing of the past. For the majority of civil matters, Indochina will effectively govern itself as a new entity, the Federation of Indochina.”
Someone clapped and was hushed.
What did this mean? Papa? I looked around, but I couldn’t see him.
“Practical concerns mean that the Federation must have an administrative capital as well. After much consideration of the strategic issues, we have chosen Hanoi as the capital, where the Governor of Indochina will reside.”
Shouts of disbelief were quickly silenced as he continued without pause.
“Cochinchina, Laos, Cambodia and Annam will be ruled by Lieutenant Governors. Let me assure you, there is no slight intended on Saigon. It is simply that Hanoi is more populous, closer to China, and also the harbor of Haiphong is better suited.”
Where was Papa? I should search for him, but the droning voice continued.
“I will take time to meet with many of you in the coming days, starting with the outgoing administration. I know the rest of you will join me in taking this opportunity to thank them. Normally, we would have a full parade and ceremony, but I’m sure we can all understand that Monsieur Laurent would wish to return to France for therapy by the quickest possible route, and the Victorieuse must leave in two days’ time.”
Of course, we could all see that the Governor, already Monsieur again, wasn’t able to wait on ceremony.
“It remains only for me to formally relieve Monsieur Laurent of his duties,” Hubert said, “and, at the same time, to accept the honor of the position of Lieutenant Governor here in Saigon for the remainder of his term.”
I stumbled through the room searching for Papa.
Maman was already at his side when I joined them. They stood alone. His face was pale, but composed.
“…a deliberate and calculated insult,” Maman was saying. “I’d like to leave now, Zacharie.”
He nodded, but remained silent. As a family we turned, seemingly ignored by the room.
I looked back. I couldn’t see Lieutenant Governor Hubert, or his wife; the press of people around them was too thick.
I could see his children, though, standing to one side. Chantal Sévigny was talking to them, welcoming them to the bright, new Saigon. Monsieur Hubert’s son was clearly dazzled by Chantal. Not so the daughter. For Alain was also there, and she had eyes only for him, as he had for her.