And at least in New York my life had a sort of purpose. I went to meetings, I sent articles to newspapers and magazines, I ground out theses for inept scholars, and I did what I could to support a wide array of noble lost causes. I made myself useful. Minna depended upon me, and so, in a more remote way, did my son, Todor, in Macedonia. Now Todor’s mother, according to word that had made its way from Macedonia to Athens to London to New York, was awaiting another child.
What good would I be to that unborn child or to Todor or to Minna or to anyone if I managed to get myself killed chasing wild geese in Laos?
I chewed. I spat inexpertly, and ruby saliva trickled through my beard. I wiped it away and said one of the English words I had taught Dhang. Somehow the sight of the jeep had brought reality home to me in an uncomfortable way. We were out of the jungle now. We had returned to a mechanized world, a world of cars and planes, of rapid-fire automatic weapons, of uniformed soldiers, of passports and visas and sundry documents. If Tuppence were a prisoner in Tao Dan, she was no doubt a well-guarded prisoner. They were not a band of primitive guerrillas. They would not have her hanging in a bamboo cage. I could not dance naked among the uniformed guards, babbling of magic tricks and gassing them with cyanide. Nor could I expect the town of Tao Dan to be sleeping when I visited it in the dead of night. There would be men on duty all night long, and one glance at me would assure them that something was wrong, and they would either shoot me or capture me or both.
I uncapped my canteen, took a sip of water, and rubbed the tip of my index finger over my blackened teeth. I stretched out on the ground and closed my eyes and gave myself up to a veritable orgy of betel nut mastication. The narcotic properties of the nut could not begin to cope with the general wave of paranoia that was beginning to engulf me. I divided my thoughts into rumination over what had already gone wrong and speculation as to what would go wrong next. The waking dreams that the betel nut provided were fantasies of terror and betrayal.
Dhang would sell me out, I decided. He had one thing on his mind and one thing only and he would do anything to get what he wanted. After all, one had merely to look at his past performance chart. Once I promised him a woman, he promptly betrayed his guerrilla companions and cheerfully joined me in annihilating them left and right. Now, in Tao Dan, he would stick to form. He would go to the authorities and explain that if they provide him with a woman, he would repay them by leading them straight to an American spy who was conspiring against the Pathet Lao.
I couldn’t really trust him, I told myself. For that matter, I couldn’t trust anyone.
Tuppence, for example. What did I know about Miss T’pani Ngawa, when you came right down to it?
Blessed little. It had somehow never occurred to me to wonder whether the kidnapping had been the genuine article. But now that I thought it over, there was more than one possible explanation. Suppose she and the quartet had not been kidnapped at all. Suppose they had managed to steal the royal gems all by themselves, and suppose they had subsequently headed for Laos quite voluntarily, picking the northern retreat as the safest and simplest escape route. Any reason why that was impossible?
None that I could think of. The more I thought it over, the more possible it became. I actually knew rather little of Tuppence’s political leanings. Every type of political orientation was represented in Africa lately, and both the far right and the far left were to be found in such organizations as the Pan-African Unity League. Tuppence had given the impression of being generally apolitical, a sharp and fun-loving girl more interested in treble and bass than in left and right. Yet it might all have been a pose.
What if Tuppence had been a Communist all along?
It was possible, I told myself. She could have come to the States as a Communist agent ordered to infiltrate Black Nationalist political groups. Then, when the State Department sent her on a Far Eastern tour, she bided her time and waited for a chance to strike a blow at the West. She masterminded a plot to steal the jewels, thus driving a wedge between the United States and Thailand, and ran off to freedom in Pathet Lao territory in Laos. And then, after she was home free, some harebrained insomniac named Tanner was fool enough to chase all over Southeast Asia to rescue her.
That would be the best one yet, I thought. Here the knight sets out in shining armor and winds up with his armor severely tarnished and his lance broken and his teeth black and his beard itching murderously; and when he finally approaches the dragon’s lair, it develops that the tender maiden has a thing for dragons and wants to stay right where she is.
Understand, these thoughts did not come all at once. They spaced themselves over the hours, and they were broken up with other interesting observations – that I was getting hungry, that I was tired, that the sky was darkening, that I was very hungry, that I was very tired, that Dhang had evidently disappeared, and, finally, that it was night.
And he still hadn’t come back.
The night was cold and dark and damp and gave every appearance of lasting forever. Clouds blotted out the moon and all the stars. I did not really have to remain hidden in the clump of brush. I would have been equally invisible in the middle of the road. It was that dark. After a while I decided that one did not have to be a paranoid to realize that Dhang was not returning for me. If the darkness had not been so utterly impenetrable, I might have tried going on after him, but as things stood, it was out of the question. I hefted the flashlight and clucked at it. At that moment I would have gladly traded it, gold and all, for a flashlight that worked.
There was nothing to do but wait for daylight or for Dhang, whichever appeared first. I curled up in the clump of brush and chewed betel and waited and hoped something would happen, and eventually something did.
It began to rain.
The rain didn’t last very long. This was fortunate; a steady downpour like that one would have flooded all of Southeast Asia if it had lasted an hour or so. As it was, it rained on me without interruption for perhaps fifteen minutes, at the conclusion of which time I was soaked through to the bone.
There was nothing to do but sit there like an idiot and get rained on. The ground on which I sat quietly turned itself into a sea of mud. The rain pelted my panung until I thought the poor garment would dissolve. There was no cover available, no place to go, no way to see where I was going if I tried. I stayed where I was and I got very wet, and finally, after a fifteen-minute version of eternity, the rain gave up.
I sat through the rest of the night, shivering, shaking, now and then rending the still night air with a sneeze. I waited for Dhang and for daybreak with the certain feeling that neither would ever arrive. There was nothing to eat. I had run out of betel nut. Everything that could possibly go wrong had already gone wrong, and if someone had come up and shot me, it would have been anti-climactic.
When dawn broke, finally, I left my weapons and my canteen in the clump of brush and started down the road with the flashlight, a wet, feverish Diogenes with an inoperative lantern. I left the weapons behind because I was fairly certain they wouldn’t work anyway after all that rain and mud, and I left the canteen behind because I could not imagine ever wanting water again. I walked off down the road in the general direction of Tao Dan and I stopped at the first hut I saw.
It didn’t require any great courage to walk into the little shack. I decided that the worst that could happen was that I would get killed and I told myself reasonably that this was probably also the best thing that could happen. I went inside. An old man sat in a chair that someone had fashioned from an empty oil drum. He was smoking a pipe. He looked wordlessly at me, his eyes saying that he had seen all manner of strangeness in his time, that I admittedly was one of the stranger phenomena to which he had been subjected, but that it would take more than a wet, bearded maniac to rattle his composure.
“I must wash myself and remove my beard,” I said. “I require dry clothing. And food. I have not eaten in many hours and must have food.”
He merely looked at me.
“I am hungry,” I said. I made pantomime motions, one hand clutching an invisible rice bowl, the other shoveling food into my mouth. “Food, a shave, clothing-”
“You are not of this country.”
“No, I am not.”
“Oui, je parle français-”
And off we went in French. I don’t suppose I should have been surprised. French influence had been considerable in Indochina since 1787, and the French had held the area as a protectorate for many years before Dienbienphu. Still, I had been talking and thinking in nothing but Siamese and Khmer of late, and the sudden transition to an Occidental language was jarring. The old man spoke reasonably good French and seemed delighted at the chance to show it off.
“For years I worked for the French,” he said. “I was a very valuable man for them. I was chief overseer on a large rubber plantation. They knew that I possessed the ability to keep the native laborers in line. I was well paid and performed my work with skill and diligence.” He turned sad eyes on the mud-floored hut. “And look at me now,” he said. “At what I have come to.”
“These are bad times,” I said.
“They are. That a man like myself should not be respected in my old age. The Communists and anarchists run wild throughout the country. Ah, bad times, eh?”
I thought to myself that the old man was lucky to be alive at all. After all the years he had spent serving the French colonial interests, it was incredible that he hadn’t been killed after the liberation, even more extraordinary that he was allowed to remain alive in Pathet Lao territory. Yet it was undeniable that his present life was a great comedown from earlier prosperity. The hut contained a straw pallet in one corner, a kerosene stove, a few pots and pans, the oil drum chair, and very little else.
“You are French, my boy?”
“Yes.” My head was reeling. I am whatever you want me to be, I thought. Feed me, clothe me, let me sit by the side of the stove, and I will be any nationality you prefer.
“That is correct.”
“What district? Saint-Germain-des-Prés? Montmartre? Montparnasse? Ah, you are surprised at my knowledge of Paris, are you not? And I will tell you something that will further astonish you. I have never been to the beautiful France. It has been my dream, but I have never been there. I live and die in this wilderness.” He shook his head. “Once this devastation was a part of France, a part of the French empire. Once it was on the road to dignity, to civilization, to life itself. Now!”
I said, “Perhaps one day-”
Gallic fire burned in his wrinkled brown face. “Ah! I can see it now as I have so often seen it in my dreams. Mon Général Charles de Gaulle leading battalions of French troops through all of Indochina, recovering lost territory, bringing my poor country back under the protection of the French flag! And at his side those other brave soldiers of the beautiful France…” – and he named two generals who had been implicated in an OAS plot to assassinate De Gaulle.
“Perhaps that day will come, old one.”