Bian’s Tale – Unravelling – second half
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.