Bian’s Tale – Unravelling – First Half
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.