Bian’s Tale – Darkness Falls – second part
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?