“That I may live to see it,” he said fervently. “That I may live to see my poor country take her place among the lands of the French Empire, side by side with France herself, and with Algeria, and Senegal, and French Equatorial Africa, and Quebec-”
I stiffened at attention. I began, thin of voice and oddly lightheaded, to sing the “Marseillaise.” “‘Allons, enfants de la patrie – - ’”
He jumped to his feet. “‘Le jour de gloire est arrivée,’” he sang out loud and clear, his hand over his heart.
“To share with you my rice bowl and my razor, that is my pleasure,” the old man was saying. “But clothing is another matter. My own would not fit you, and I have no other. Perhaps it would be possible to dry your garment by the fire…”
My garment was filthy as well as sopping. Besides, I had the feeling that a panung draped around me would render me fairly conspicuous in a town like Tao Dan.
“I have money,” I said.
“I fear the money of France is no longer of use in this land.”
“I have gold.”
“Gold!” His eyes brightened. “Gold is another matter. No matter who runs a nation, no one is fool enough to despise gold. It is the universal solvent. Everyone softens in its presence. You wish me to purchase clothing for you? To obtain anything of quality I would have to go into town-”
“I don’t want quality. Just ordinary peasant clothing.”
“Ah,” he said. He eyed me closely. “You are French and would pass as a peasant. When one grows old, one asks too many questions. I wonder if you might be working secretly for the French government?”
“Say no more. Perhaps if the day of glory has not arrived, well, perhaps it is not too far away, hein? Let me consider. You wish to pass as a peasant, is it so? You are tall for one of us, but that is not so great a difficulty. The Muong tribesmen are men of some height. It is your fair complexion and large white eyes which render you noticeable. In Tao Dan you would be quickly recognized, I fear.”
“Perhaps I could ride in a cart or something. The less anyone sees of me.”
“Ah, yes. If I had a bullock, you could ride in a bullock cart, and fewer men would look upon your face. But I have no bullock.”
“Could you buy one for me?”
“Have you much gold?”
I unscrewed the back of the flashlight and took out the dummy battery. I pried the case open and spilled the gold coins into the palm of my hand. The old man’s eyes went wide at the sight of them. It was a shame, I thought, that I had chosen British sovereigns. A roll of Napoleons d’or might have had more impact upon the old Francophile.
But gold, evidently, was gold the world over; it mattered little whether the head on it was that of Louis Napoleon or Victoria Hanover. “With this it will be a simple matter to purchase a bullock and a cart,” he said. “And clothing as well. There is more than enough.”
“You may keep whatever is left for yourself.”
“It is not necessary, my friend.”
“ France rewards her faithful sons,” I said. Besides, I thought, leaving the rest with him would keep him free from temptation.
“It is reward enough to serve the beautiful France.”
“Would you be in poverty on the day of liberation?”
He lowered his head in gratitude. “I will be able to buy a mattress,” he said. “And perhaps a bullock to ease my labor in the fields. I shall not forget this.” He was silent for a moment. Then, quickly, he scooped up the handful of yellow coins. “I go now,” he said. “I shall return with clothing and the bullock and cart. My razor, here. There is water, you may heat it upon the stove. I have no soap.”
“I will manage.”
“What food I have is in the pot. You see it? I will bring more food. Good food. Not the haute cuisine, I regret, but the best that it is possible to find in this god-forsaken land.”
“It would be well,” I suggested, “that no one know too much about this gold or whence it came.”
“No one will know.” The old eyes narrowed. “No man will wish to talk, for talk would bring official inquiry, and the officials would confiscate the gold. It is not permitted to own gold here. But the people, the people prefer to retain their gold nevertheless.”
At least the French had taught one lesson, I thought. The French peasantry and the bourgeoisie as well are notorious hoarders of gold and silver, and periodic inflation over the years has proven them right more often than not. I hoped the habit of secret hoarding persisted in Laos.
The old man left. I heated water on the stove and soaked my beard. His ancient straight razor was sharp enough, but it had a particularly difficult job ahead of it. My beard was long enough to be difficult with abundant lather, and shaving it off without any soap at all was quite a problem. I didn’t even have a mirror but had to make do with the slimy bottom of a cooking pot, which was more trouble than it was worth. The straight razor is a depressingly barbaric instrument to begin with, and I was not using it under optimum conditions. Still, I managed to get the job done. I accumulated a few minor nicks, scraped myself here and there, and wound up looking like something less than a matinee idol, but at least the beard was gone.
My complexion was still very wrong, the effects of the sun on my forehead notwithstanding. I stuffed a wad of the old man’s pipe tobacco into my mouth and chewed it as if it were betel nut. It tasted terrible. I spat tobacco juice into my cupped hands and rubbed it all over my face. It burned in the shaving nicks like white phosphorus – although, come to think of it, it probably functioned as an antiseptic in the process. I checked the mirror surface of the cooking pot and decided that the results were not entirely ineffective. I chewed more tobacco, rubbed the juice on my face, and kept repeating the process until I was satisfied with the yellow-brown color I had achieved.
My big white eyes were another problem. I pulled at the skin just behind the corner of each eye – it produced the desired effect, but I would have had to staple the skin to the bone to maintain it. I experimented with squinting, which didn’t work, and with keeping my eyes half lidded, which was a little better.
The whole shape of my head was wrong, but there was nothing much I could do about that. The mouth, though, was the most glaringly bad feature. It was too big, the lips too prominent. I practiced drawing my lips in and making my mouth appear smaller, working both with and without the improvised mirror. This made quite a difference. One of the main reasons why people in different countries look different is that they learn from the cradle to handle their faces in certain ways. By lowering my eyelids and compressing my lips I did not quite manage to look Laotian, but I did succeed in rendering myself somewhat less conspicuous. I might not fool anyone who took a very close look, but maybe, with luck, no one would get that close to me.
A wave of nausea shook me. I went to the stove and picked up the pot of rice. It had been cooked in some sort of animal fat and was well seasoned. I was ravenous, and it tasted excellent, and even at that I had trouble getting the rice down and even more trouble keeping it down. I felt feverish and weak.
I wondered what had become of Dhang, and I wondered what had happened to Tuppence, and I realized suddenly that I had not thought of either of them since entering the old man’s squalid little hut. I felt rotten, and my prospects were not especially pleasing, but I was moving again, and that made a world of difference. It was the sitting still that had driven me half mad, that and the damned rain. Now at least I had something to do, a particular direction in which to point myself. I had to work for the French liberation of Indochina, that it might take its rightful place alongside Quebec and Algeria and Madagascar.
“You have changed,” the old man said. “Your whole face, it is very much different. You no longer look like a Frenchman.”
I never had, but that was beside the point. I put on the clothing he had brought me, a pair of loose-fitting olive drab trousers, a tan tunic, a pair of more elaborate sandals than I had been wearing. A large white coolie-style hat completed my costume and covered my shaggy brown hair, which had not been a part of the image I had wanted to project. I would have preferred to dye my hair black but couldn’t think of a way to manage that. Shoe polish would have done the trick, but where does one come upon shoe polish in the wilds of Laos?
Outside, a hump-backed bullock stood hitched to a rickety cart. The cart was piled high with straw. If I rescued Tuppence, I thought, she could hide under the straw while I drove the cart. If I found Dhang instead, I could hide under the straw while he drove the cart. If I didn’t rescue anyone, I could hole up somewhere and cook the bullock over a straw fire. If I was captured, the bullock could work for the greater glory of the beautiful France. If…
I was still a little feverish. It would come and go, waves of dizziness and nausea. I wondered if I could possibly have contracted rabies. Maybe I should have let the ghoulish doctor put needles in my brain. At least, I thought, I couldn’t have plague. Or cholera. What did that leave? Jungle rot, malaria, typhus, typhoid fever, dengue fever, trench mouth, gonorrhea – I could have almost anything, I decided.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “A slight touch of la grippe. I guess I’d better go now.”
“I have brought food-”
“I had some rice. I don’t think I’d better eat anything more just now.” My stomach toyed with the notion of returning what I had already eaten, but I managed to change its mind for it. “I wonder if you have heard any news of five black persons who were brought this way. Perhaps they are now in Tao Dan.”
“Five black persons.”
“Four men and a woman.”
“I have little contact with the world here. I sit in my hut, I work in the fields-”
“They might have passed this way any time within the last few weeks. They came from Thailand.”
“I know there are prisoners in Tao Dan. I have heard talk, but no one mentioned their color.”
“Perhaps it is they.”
“Perhaps. Are they the reason for your presence in this accursed land?”
“In a way.”
“You must be very cautious in Tao Dan. The times are dangerous, and the military police act with abandon. You speak the Khmer tongue, but when you came to the door of my hut, I knew at once that your accent was not of these parts. You would do well to speak as little as possible.”
“There are many among us who speak French, but of course it would not do for you to do so. It would be a hazard.”
“I’ll try to keep silent as much as I can.”
“That is good.” He smiled shyly. “I have brought a flask of rice wine that we might drink together. It is a poor local product. In the old days we would drink cognac, would we not? This is an inadequate substitute, but you would do me a great honor to drink with me.”
We drank a pasty white rice wine from a round tin flask. We drank to the glory of France, to Charles de Gaulle, to Napoleon, to Louis Quatorze. He capped the flask and told me to take it along with me, and somehow I managed not to. Somehow, too, I managed not to vomit up the pasty white rice wine. God knows how.