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CHAPTER XII EXILES OF THE OUTLANDS
From Pnom-Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to Saigon, the capital of Cochin-China, is in the neighborhood of two hundred miles and two routes are open to the traveler. The most comfortable and considerably the cheapest is by the bi-weekly steamer down the Mekong. The alternative route, which is far more interesting, consists in descending the river to Banam, a village some twenty miles below Pnom-Penh, on the opposite bank of the Mekong, where, if a car has been arranged for, it is possible to motor across the fertile plains of Cochin-China to Saigon in a single day. That was the way that we went.

Though separated only by the Mekong, that mighty waterway which, rising in the mountains of Tibet, bisects the whole peninsula, Cochin-China is as dissimilar from Cambodia as the ordered farmlands of Ohio are from the Florida Everglades. In Cambodia, stretches of sand covered with low, scraggy, discouraged-looking scrub alternate with tangled and impenetrable jungles. It is a savage, untamed land. Cochin-China, on the other hand, is one great sweep of plain, green with growing rice and dotted with the bamboo poles of well-sweeps, for water can be found everywhere at thirty [271]to forty feet. These striking contrasts in contiguous states are due in some measure, no doubt, to differences in their soils and climates and to the industry of their inhabitants, but more largely, I imagine, to the fact that while the Frenchman has been at work in Cochin-China for upwards of sixty years, Cambodia is still on the frontier of civilization.

The roads which the French have built in Indo-China deserve a paragraph of mention, for, barring the rivers and the three short unconnected sections of railway on the East coast of the peninsula, they form the country's only means of communication. The national highways consist of two great systems. The Route Coloniale, which was the one I followed, has its beginning at Kep, on the Gulf of Siam, runs north-eastward through the jungles of Cambodia to Pnom-Penh, and, recommencing at Banam, swings southward across the Cochin-China plain to Saigon. The Route Mandarine, beginning at Saigon, hugs the shores of the China Sea and, after traversing twelve hundred miles of jungle, forest and mountain land in Annam and Tongking, comes to an end at Hanoi, the capital of Indo-China. The entire length of the Route Mandarine may now be traversed by auto-bus—an excellent way to see the country provided you are inured to fatigue, do not mind the heat, and are not over-particular as to your fellow passengers. A motor car is, of course, more comfortable and more expensive; a small one can be rented for ninety dollars a day.

Nowhere has the colonizing white man encountered [272]greater obstacles than those which have confronted the French road-builders in Indo-China; nowhere has Nature turned toward him a sterner and more forbidding face. But, though their coolies have died by the thousands from cholera and fever, though their laboriously constructed bridges have been swept away in a night by rivers swollen from the torrential rains, though the fast-growing jungle persistently encroaches on the hard-won right-of-way, though they have had to combat savage beasts and still more savage men, they have prosecuted with indomitable courage and tenacity the task of building a road "to Tomorrow from the Land of Yesterday."

Saigon, the capital of Cochin-China and the most important place in France's Asiatic possessions, is a European city set down on the edge of Asia. So far as its appearance goes, it might be on the Seine instead of the Saigon. The original town was burned by the French during the fighting by which they obtained possession of the place and they rebuilt it on European lines, with boulevards, shops, cafés, a H?tel de Ville, a Théatre Municipal, a Musée, a Jardin Botanique, all complete. The general plan of the city, with its regular streets and intersecting boulevards, has evidently been modeled on that of the French capital and the Saigonnese proudly speak of it as "the Paris of the East." In certain respects this is taking a considerable liberty with the truth, but they are very lonely and homesick and one does not blame them. Most of the streets, which are [273]paved after a fashion, are lined with tamarinds, thus providing the shade so imperatively necessary where the mercury hovers between 90 and 110, winter and summer, day and night. At almost every street intersection stands a statue of some one who bore a hand in the conquest of the country, from the cassocked figure of Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran, the first French missionary to Indo-China, to the effigy of the dashing Admiral Rigault de Genouilly, flanked by charging marines, who took Saigon for France.

The most characteristic feature of Saigon is its café life. During the heat of the day the Europeans keep within doors, but toward nightfall they all come out and, gathering about the little tables which crowd the sidewalks before the cafés in the Boulevard Bonnard and the Rue Catinat, they gossip and sip their absinthes and smoke numberless cigarettes and mop their florid faces and argue noisily and with much gesticulation over the news in the Courrier de Saigon or the six-weeks-old Figaro and Le Temps which arrive fortnightly by the mail-boat from France. They wear stiffly starched white linen—though the jackets are all too often left unfastened at the neck—and enormous mushroom-shaped topées which come down almost to their shoulders and are many sizes too large for them, and they consume vast quantities of drink, the evening usually ending in a series of violent altercations. When the disputants take to backing up their arguments with blows from canes and bottles, the café proprietor unceremoniously bundles them into [274]pousse-pousses, as rickshaws are called in Saigon, and sends them home.

Along the Rue Catinat in the evenings saunters a picturesque and colorful procession—haggard, slovenly officers of the troupes coloniales and of the Foreign Legion, the rows of parti-colored ribbons on their breasts telling of service in little wars in the world's forgotten corners; dreary, white-faced Government employees, their cheeks gaunt from fever, their eyes bloodshot from heavy drinking; sun-bronzed, swaggering, loud-voiced rubber planters in riding breeches and double Terais, down from their plantations in the far interior for a periodic spree; women gowned in the height of Paris fashion, but with too pink cheeks and too red lips and too ready smiles for strangers, equally at home on the Bund of Shanghai or the boulevards of Paris; shaven-headed Hindu money-lenders from British India, the lengths of cotton sheeting which form their only garments revealing bodies as hairy and repulsive as those of apes; barefooted Annamite tirailleurs in uniforms of faded khaki, their great round hats of woven straw tipped with brass spikes like those on German helmets; slender Chinese women, tripping by on tiny, thick-soled shoes in pajama-like coats and trousers of clinging, sleazy silk; naked pousse-pousse coolies, streaming with sweat, graceful as the bronzes in a museum; friars of the religious orders in shovel-hats and linen robes; sailors of the fleet and of the merchant vessels in the harbor, swaggering along with the roll of the sea in their gait; Armenian peddlers with [275]piles of rugs and embroideries slung across their shoulders; Arabs, Indians, Malays, Cambodians, Laos, Siamese, Burmese, Chinese, world without end, Amen.

But, beneath it all, a paralysis is on everything—the paralysis of the excessive administration with which the French have ruined Indo-China. There are too many people in front of the cafés and too few in the offices and shops. There is too much drinking and too little work. The officials are alternately melancholy and overbearing; the natives cringing and sullen. It is not a wholesome atmosphere. Corruption, if not universal, is appallingly common. Foreigners engaged in business in Saigon told me that it is necessary to "grease the palms" of everyone who holds a Government position. As a result of this practise, officials who are poor men when they arrive in the colony retire after four or five years' service with comfortable fortunes—and France does not pay her public servants highly either. And there are other vices. The manager of a great American corporation doing business in Saigon told me that ninety per cent of the city's European population are confirmed users of opium. And, judging from their unhealthy pallor and lacklustre eyes, I can well believe it. But what else could you expect in a country where the drug is sold to anyone who has money to pay for it; where it is one of the Government's chief sources of revenue?

On the native population the hand of the French lies heavily. In 1916 there was an attempted jail delivery of political prisoners in Saigon, but the plot was [276]discovered before it could be put into execution, the ring-leaders arrested, and thirty-eight of them condemned to death. They were executed in batches of four, kneeling, blind-folded, lashed to stakes. The firing party consisted of a platoon of Annamite tirailleurs. Behind them, with machine guns trained, was drawn up a battalion of French infantry. The occasion was celebrated in Saigon as a public holiday, hundreds of Frenchmen, accompanied by their wives and children, driving out to see the sight. The next day picture postcards of the execution were hawked about the streets. But the authorities in Paris evidently disapproved of the proceeding, for the governor of the colony and the commander of the military forces were promptly recalled in disgrace. The terrible object-lesson doubtless had the desired effect, for the natives cringe like whipped dogs when a Frenchman speaks to them. But there is that in their manner which bodes ill for their masters if a crisis ever arises in Indo-China. I should not like to see our own brown wards, the Filipinos, look at Americans with the murderous hate with which the Annamites regard the French. In Africa, by moderation and tolerance and justice, France has built up a mighty colonial empire whose inhabitants are as loyal and contented as though they had been born under the Tricolor. But in far-off Indo-China French administration seems, even to as staunch a friend of France as myself, to be very far from an unqualified success.

During the ten days that I spent in Saigon I stayed [277]at the H?tel Continental. I shall remember it as the place where they charged a dollar and a half for a highball and fifty cents for a lemonade. It was insufferably hot. I can sympathize now with the recalcitrant convict who is punished by being sent to the sweat-box. Battalions of ferocious mosquitoes launched their assaults against my unprotected person with the persistence that the Germans displayed at Verdun. In the next room the tenor of the itinerant grand opera company that was giving a series of performances at the Théatre Municipal squabbled unceasingly with his woman companion. Both were generally much the worse for drink. One particularly sultry afternoon, when the whole world seemed like the steam room of a Turkish bath, their voices rose to an unprecedented pitch of violence. Through the thin panels of the door came the sound of scuffling feet. Some heavy article of furniture went over with a crash. Then came the thud of a falling body.

"Thou accurst one!" I heard the tenor groan. Then "Help me!... I'm dying!"

"She's done it now!" I exclaimed, springing from my bed.

"Are you stifling with blood?" the woman hissed, fierce exultation in her tone.

"Help me!... I'm dying!" moaned the man. "And done to death by a woman!"

It was murder—no doubt about that. Clad only in my pajamas though I was, I prepared to throw myself against the door.

[278]"Die, thou accurst one! Perish!" shrieked the woman.

I was on the point of bursting into the room when I was arrested by the sound of the tenor's voice speaking in normal tones. There followed a woman's laugh. I paused to listen. It was well that I did so. They were rehearsing for the evening's performance the murder scene from La Tosca!

On another occasion, long after midnight, I was aroused from sleep by a terrific racket which suddenly burst forth in the streets below. I heard the crash of splintering bottles followed by the steps of the native gendarmes beating a hasty retreat. Then, from throats that spoke my own tongue, rose the rollicking words of a long-familiar chorus:
"I was drunk last night, I was drunk the night before, I'll get drunk tomorrow night If I never get drunk any more; For when I'm drunk I'm as happy as can be, For I am a member of the Souse Fam-i-lee!"

Leaning from my casement, I hailed a passing Frenchman.

"Who are they?" I asked him.

"Les touristes Americains sont arrivés, M'sieu," he answered dryly.

By the light of the street-lamps as he turned away I could see him shrug his shoulders.

Thinking it over, it struck me that I had been overharsh in my judgment of the homesick exiles who in [279]this far corner of the earth are clinching the rivets of France's colonial empire.

The next morning I set sail from Saigon for China. Leaving the mouth of the river in our wake, we rounded the mighty promontory of Cap St. Jacques and headed for the open sea. The palm-fringed shore line of Cochin-China dropped away; the blue mountains of Annam turned pale and ghostly in the evening mists. A sun-scorched, pestilential land.... I was glad to leave it. But already I am longing to return. I want once more to sit at a café table beneath the awnings of the Rue Catinat, before me a tall glass with ice tinkling in it. I want to hear the pousse-pousse coolies padding softly by in the gathering twilight. I want to see the little Annamite women in their sleazy silken garments and the boisterous, swaggering legionnaires in their white helmets. I want to stroll once more beneath the tamarinds beside the Mekong, to smell the odors of the hot lands, to hear again the throbbing of the tom-toms and the soft music of the wind-blown temple bells. For
"When you've 'eard the East a-callin' You won't never 'eed naught else."

The End


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