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An Epic Novel of Vietnam
By Anthony Grey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Anthony Grey
All rights reserved.
Crinkled quiffs of white foam spurted from the steel bows of the five-thousand-ton French passenger freighter Avignon as they parted the warm, tropic-blue waters of the South China Sea. The ship which had left Hong Kong two days earlier was heading south towards the equator under a fierce afternoon sun, and in the sweltering darkness between decks, three hundred Chinese coolies and their families jostled together in silence, straining up towards the fresh air currents playing beyond the iron grilles that confined them.
On the upper deck outside the half-dozen first-class cabins, green-and-white-striped awnings fluttered gently in the breeze of the ship's movement, and in their shade Senator Nathaniel Sherman sprawled at ease in a canvas deck chair, his long legs splayed comfortably in front of him. Tall, ruddy-faced and tending to corpulence in his early forties, he had about him the self-satisfied air of a man who has already achieved some measure of public acclaim; he wore his thick shock of fair hair brushed across his forehead from a center parting in two matching wings, and his upper lip was thatched with a fashionably luxuriant mustache. He had removed the jacket of his white linen suit but the sense of decorum bred into him by his aristocratic Virginian upbringing compelled him to retain its matching vest and a cravat of maroon silk held in place with a small diamond pin. The same ostentatious pride in Southern good manners also prompted him to sit up immediately when one of the ship's white-uniformed junior officers appeared at his side bearing a tray of iced drinks for him, his wife and two sons.
"This sure is mighty civilized of you, m'sieur, to look after us like this," he drawled, letting a gracious smile play across his face. "Especially when you've already got your hands full running this tidy little ship."
"Please don't mention it, senator. The captain sends you these refreshments with his compliments." The young Frenchman inclined his head deferentially, speaking his English with the caution of one unused to employing it. "We have never before had the honor to carry such an important representative of the United States of America to Saigon."
"Please thank your captain most kindly for his consideration. Your legendary French hospitality promises to make our stay in your colony a memorable one."
The boyishly handsome officer inclined his head once more, then turned his back on the senator to offer the tray to his wife, Flavia, a strikingly beautiful woman in her late thirties. Her pale, oval face framed with raven-dark hair and her slender, high-breasted figure betrayed the Louisiana French blood in her veins, and the officer smiled directly into her eyes as she lifted a glass of fresh lime juice and glace pilée from his tray with a white-gloved hand.
"Merci beaucoup, monsieur," she murmured, smiling back at him for a fraction longer than necessary. "Vous êtes trap gentil."
The Frenchman, before turning to her sons, let his glance fall pointedly for a moment to the swell of her breasts tightly bodiced beneath a new Fifth Avenue day dress of sheer white silk chiffon; then he smiled secretly at her again and this undisguised expression of passionate interest brought a faint flush to her face.
Across the table her youngest son, Joseph, saw her cheeks burn, and she looked up to find him gazing at her in mystification. To hide her embarrassment she fumbled in her handbag for a little mirrored compact backed with tortoiseshell and turned away to repowder her face. Joseph took a glass from the officer's tray but didn't drink; instead he continued looking in his mother's direction, ready to smile in sympathy. To his puzzlement, however, she kept her eyes averted and wouldn't look at him.
"I wonder what he would have said, Chuck, if I'd told him he'd just served a drink to someone who's probably going to be much more important one day than a run-of-the-mill Democratic senator from Virginia?" Nathaniel Sherman chuckled and leaned confidentially towards his eldest son's chair as the Frenchman departed. "What if I'd told him that the Avignon was carrying a young man named Charles Sherman who's destined one day maybe to become the President of the United States?" He squeezed Chuck's forearm then glanced across at his youngest son. "That would've made him sit up and take notice, Joey, wouldn't it?"
Joseph nodded and picked up his drink. "I guess it would, Daddy," he replied shortly and drained the glass without looking up.
Six years separated the two brothers, and although both were fair-haired, Charles Sherman at twenty-one bore the strongest resemblance to the senator. As tall as his father and with the slender, broad-shouldered build of a natural athlete, he had regular features of that open, well-chiseled handsomeness that also suggests unusual strength of character. Already he sported a blond mustache that was a passable imitation of the older man's, and he twisted a strand or two of it between finger and thumb as he shot a comic grimace of pain in Joseph's direction to convey his discomfort at the extravagant declaration of faith in him. Joseph grinned ruefully back at him for a moment, then sensing the senator was warming to a familiar theme, he picked up a history of French Indochina that lay open on the table before him and sank down in his chair behind it. Of slighter build than his brother, at fifteen Joseph still had the unfinished face of a growing boy, but his features were already set in a more thoughtful, reflective cast than Chuck's and there was a hint of his mother's sensitivity in his smile. When his father began talking again, a little irritated frown wrinkled his smooth young brow, but although he made a great play of concentrating fiercely on his reading, he still listened carefully from behind the book to what was being said.
"I know you come over a little shy when I talk about you this way, Chuck, but I do it for a good reason," continued the senator, lighting a Havana cigar with elaborate care. "It's never too soon to get a big idea planted in a young head. I believe there's nothing a man can't do once he's made up his mind. If you start early enough, there isn't a thing on this earth that can stand in the way of real determination — remember that. The Commonwealth of Virginia is famous as the birthplace of American presidents, isn't it? Washington, Jefferson and six other Virginians besides have led our nation; so why shouldn't President Charles Sherman in about thirty-five years' time — say round about nineteen sixty — be sitting in the White House? I've told you before — you've got to set your sights high." He paused and pointed his cigar at his eldest boy in friendly admonition. "If you do, the impossible will start to seem probable."
Chuck Sherman squirmed in his deckchair and frowned humorously at his mother. "Oh boy, here we go again — you will come and visit me in the White House sometimes, Mother, won't you, so I don't get too lonely there?"
"Nothing would give your mother greater pleasure I'm sure, Chuck, than to see you bring distinction to yourself and your family," cut in the senator reprovingly before his wife could reply. "She wants to see you succeed as much as I do."
Flavia Sherman smiled sympathetically at Chuck for a moment then turned to her husband with an ill-concealed sigh of exasperation. "Wouldn't it be better, Nathaniel, to let us all relax and enjoy our expedition for a few weeks? Can't we leave Washington and Virginia politics at home just this once?"
"I certainly want us all to enjoy this rare journey, my dear," replied her husband, smiling and waving his cigar in front of his face in an expansive gesture. "Particularly you. You look most delightful this afternoon in that new frock. I think the trip's been a tonic for you already. It was lucky for us all, wasn't it, boys, that that fancy new Saks store opened up on Fifth Avenue just before we came away?" He directed an exaggerated wink at his two sons, then dropped his voice and reached out to pat his wife's hand on the arm of her chair. "I hear there's a rumor going around Manhattan that they had to close down again the day after you shopped there because they'd run out of Paris fashions; is that true?"
Flavia Sherman forced herself to smile while recoiling inwardly from his touch. During the past three days of the voyage her first contact for many years with French life had begun to stir long-forgotten feelings in her. The gallant compliments of the captain and his officers particularly had reminded her that the beauty so widely admired in her youth had not yet faded. The many deadening years spent bringing up a family in the narrow society of Tidewater Virginia seemed to be evaporating rapidly from her memory in the heat and excitement of the tropics. She had been lonely from the start of her marriage, despite the presence of a small army of black servants in the Queen Anne plantation house overlooking the James River, and several years had passed before she understood fully that her husband had used his frequent absences, at first on plantation business, then in Washington, to conceal an almost total lack of physical interest in her. Eventually she had become resigned to a dull, passionless existence; her husband had masked his indifference to her real feelings with elaborate public courtesies, and her only role outside of motherhood had been to act as a decorative hostess at his political functions. In the end she had become so used to living the lie of marital contentment that she had perhaps come to believe it herself. But now that her once-passionate nature was reawakening and she was beginning to feel vibrantly alive again, the cold perfunctory touch of her husband's fingers seemed suddenly more repugnant than ever before, and she withdrew her hand hastily from his and picked up her glass to conceal the real reason for breaking the contact.
"I shall be much happier, Nathaniel, if you don't bother Chuck every few minutes about his future," she said quietly without looking at her husband. "I'm sure he's very excited about the hunting. Why not just let him enjoy himself?"
Nathaniel Sherman removed his cigar from his mouth and patted her hand patronizingly once more. "You're right in one way of course, my dear. We certainly intend to enjoy the hunting and bag ourselves some of Cochin-China's rare game animals. But we are traveling to a little-known corner of the globe, remember. Life in a French colony in Asia will be very different from anything we've seen back home. Every journey, wherever you go, is a new education — that's what my father taught me! Chuck — and Joseph too, of course — might learn something here that will be useful to them later. I aim to help them learn to look at things right, that's all." He paused to smile at Chuck. "Even a Harvard man has still got an awful lot to learn from life. You don't get all the wisdom of the world from a library, no matter how good a scholar you might be...."
The sudden snap of Joseph's history book closing caused the senator to glance up briefly but he didn't pause in his monologue; his abstracted gaze followed the younger boy for only a moment as he sauntered away along the deck. "The fact is, Chuck," he said turning back to his older son, "just seeing what's happening around you isn't enough. Whether in Indochina or Washington you've got to learn to interpret events correctly...."
Joseph kept walking until the slow drawl of his father's voice became inaudible to him. Then he stopped and leaned on the rail at the top of the companionway, staring with unseeing eyes at the deck below. He found he was angry with himself for leaving his seat; he had badly wanted to hear what his father was about to say, but the all-too-familiar sound of him praising his brother had produced its usual feeling of agitation. Not for the first time he wondered why it should affect him like that, when he himself was fond of Chuck and admired him, too. No answer suggested itself, however, and after a minute or two he became aware that as these thoughts whirled through his mind he had been staring down at the grilles confining the Chinese coolie families. They seemed to come into focus only slowly, a silent mass of tightly packed yellow faces glistening with perspiration; scores of dark eyes had been watching him unwaveringly all the time, but their expressions remained uniformly blank. He realized with a shock that they reminded him of steers he had once seen in a railroad siding back home in Richmond, Virginia, crowded uncomprehendingly in trucks bound for the slaughterhouse. He was wondering whether the slaves who had been shipped to America had looked like this, when he felt his mother's gentle touch on his shoulder and turned to find her smiling fondly at him.
"Don't brood about it, Joseph," she said softly. "You know your father gets a hornet in his hat every now and then about Chuck. But I'm expecting great things of you, too."
Joseph nodded and managed to smile back at her, relieved that they were communicating again. "It's nothing," he said quickly. "There's no need to worry about me."
At that moment the French captain of the Avignon, a stocky, spade-bearded man, appeared beside them smiling and holding a pith helmet in his hands. "You must always be careful, Monsieur Joseph, not to expose yourself unduly to the sun in the tropics." He placed the helmet squarely on the American boy's head and glanced at Flavia Sherman, who had put on a wide-brimmed sun hat of white felt decorated with colored ribbons. "Your chapeau doesn't look as pretty as your mother's but it will save you from sunstroke just as effectively."
Because the captain had spoken French, Joseph thanked him haltingly in that language, then motioned towards the lower deck. "But what about those people down there, monsieur? They must be feeling the heat worse than any of us — and there are women and children among them."
"They're potential troublemakers, young Joey, that's why they're kept under lock and key."
The French officer half turned at the sound of Nathaniel Sherman's voice as he came up behind them with Chuck, and nodded in agreement. "You are perfectly correct, senator," he said switching to English. "There are three hundred Chinese on board and only a handful of us. They are illiterate coolies from Canton mostly, emigrating to Cochin-China. But there may be pirates hiding among them. The waters of the China coast are full of pirates. Only last week a gang boarded a British ship disguised as steerage passengers. They attacked the bridge in the dead of night and when the crew barricaded themselves in, they set fire to the decks."
Joseph's innocent eyes widened in alarm. "What happened? Were they all burned alive?"
"Fortunately not." The captain smiled at the eager intensity of Joseph's inquiry. "The British master of the ship turned her to windward and the fire was blown back towards the pirate mob. They all had to jump overboard and a lot of them drowned."
"Wow, that was a smart trick," breathed Joseph, his face alight with excitement at the thought of the drama. Then his expression clouded again. "But all the Chinese down there can't be pirates, can they? Isn't it a bit unfair on them?"
"It's only for the voyage, remember," said the captain smoothly. "There is no other way. Certain things have to be done differently in the colonies." He lifted his shoulders in a little Gallic shrug of helplessness and smiled. "C'est la vie coloniale, Monsieur Joseph. You will soon get accustomed to it."
Joseph's expression remained dubious for a moment, then his face lit up again and he pointed westward over the captain's shoulder. "Isn't that land over there?" he exclaimed excitedly.
The Frenchman peered through his binoculars for a moment. "Yes, Monsieur Joseph, you are right. That is the coast of the most beautiful and prosperous French colony in the world." He glanced at his watch and offered the glasses to the American boy. "Would you like to look? We shall probably be landing in Saigon sometime after lunch tomorrow."
With his naked eye Joseph had glimpsed only a faint smudge of coastline, but through the glasses he was able to see more clearly some of the rocky peaks of the thousand-mile-long mountain spine that linked the rich southern rice lands of the Mekong delta and Saigon with the fertile plain of the Red River around Hanoi in the north. From the book he'd just put down he knew that vast tracts of virgin tropical forest covered those mountainsides and large areas of the lowlands too; in the book there were sepia-tinted photographs of primitive tribesmen who still hunted with stone-tipped arrows and poison darts in those same forests that also teemed with elephant herds, tiger, buffalo, black bears and countless other rare species of animal life that had been left undisturbed by the march of civilization. Joseph had devoured the contents of the book avidly during the long Pacific crossing and had begun reading it again after they left Hong Kong.
Excerpted from Saigon by Anthony Grey. Copyright © 2010 Anthony Grey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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