conducting here. There were no brothels in the colony you see before we came — but every town now has a fair selection. So perhaps it should really be called a mission syphilisatrice — in English a ‘mission of sphilization,’ yes?”
Chuck guffawed uncontrollably and Joseph laughed too, but a little uncertainly, wondering whether he correctly understood the French boy’s irreverent humor.
“It’s really true then, Paul, is it, what we hear about Frenchmen?” inquired Chuck in a low voice. “That they are all sex maniacs?”
“It certainly is not true!” Paul Devraux allowed himself to look outraged from a moment. “Only most of us are sex maniacs.” He smiled and twirled one end of his black mustache in a little gesture of bravado, and the Americans laughed again.
“I must say from what we saw on our way here tonight the local female population seems fairly unapproachable,” said Chuck, “even though they look good in those snazzy little silk dresses.”
“You’re absolutely right, mon vieux,” said the French boy, gravely twirling his mustache again. “They are very unforthcoming. The mandarin classes, you see, have very strict morals. When an Annamese girl gets married, her husband spreads a square of snowy white silk on the bed on the first night of their honeymoon. If she fails this test he’s allowed to send her packing and make a public announcement saying why.”
“So how do all you French sex maniacs manage to preserve your sanity then?”
“Ah,” said Paul, raising a didactic finger. “You obviously haven’t heard of the noble institution of the congaie?”
“No,” admitted Chuck, “I haven’t. What is the congaie?”
“The congaie is the house girl, the houseboy’s sister — or sometimes even his wife. Peasant girls from the countryside mostly.” He flourished his hand around the rest of the gathering. “See how few wives there are in the colony. Most French colons come here alone — for the congaie. That’s why there are forty thousand métis in the colony.”
“Métis? What are they?” asked Joseph quickly, anxious not to be left out of the intriguingly adult discussion.
“People of mixed race, mon ami — half French, half Annamite. In French they are called poules-canards, you understand? ‘Chicken-ducks,’ neither one thing nor the other. They get left behind when the French colon goes home to France. If she is lucky, the congaie and her métis children are passed on with the furniture to the next occupant of the house. If not, too bad. Nobody worries. ‘C’est Ia vie coloniale,’ they say and shrug their shoulders.”
“But your mother makes sure you keep clear of the congaie, I’ll bet,” added Chuck, laughing again.
“My mother is unfortunately dead,” said the French boy quietly. “She drowned in an accident four years ago.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Chuck hastily.
The French boy dismissed his apology with a little motion of his hand. “But in any event I don’t admire those of my countrymen who treat the Annamese congaie so badly. 1 came to Saigon eight years ago when my father was in the army. After my mother died he decided to stay on and make a living hunting, so I’ve grown up here with Annamese boys and girls of my own age. Perhaps I have a different point of view from the older generation” He glanced up for a moment towards the senator and Jacques Devraux, “I don’t always see eye to eye with my father for instance about the way things are done here.”
Joseph tugged at his brother’s sleeve suddenly and nodded across the room. “Look, Chuck, there’s the man we met on the boulevard tonight.” Chuck followed his gaze and saw the stoop- shouldered Frenchman, dressed now like all the others, conversing with a smaller, pallid man with dark-ringed eyes like his own. “We saw some prisoners being beaten,” explained Joseph, turning to Paul Devraux, “but he told us not to feel sorry for