Region Inconnue 3

In half an hour everybody was feeling well enough to look at the car. It was a wreck, one of the front wheels folded half underneath the chassis. By the best possible luck we had covered all but about thirty kilometres of the distance to the first military post, but it was going to be dark in two hours’ time. Suery seemed to think that it wouldn’t be a good thing to spend the night in the car and Nha explained why, later. We had our second piece of good luck when Nha remembered the existence of a hut used by the Moi guard, which, he thought, couldn’t be more than a mile or two from where we were. Taking what we could easily carry, we set out and in about half an hour came to a shallow clearing in the jungle with a plaited bamboo hut raised on piles. Two young Mo’is in army tunics and loincloths peered out at us through the door-opening. They seemed as pleased to see us as if we had been disreputable relations. A brief, dubious scrutiny, and they both turned away, hoping that by ignoring our exist¬ence we might be persuaded to leave them in peace. Nha called and one of them came and stood at the top of the stepladder. Nha beckoned to him and he turned away as if to appeal to the other. Finally the pair of them with the clearest possible reluctance came slowly down the ladder. Suery gave Nha fussy details of what he was to say to them and Nha, who said he only knew a few words of the language, started, as best he could, with the interpreting, while the Moi’s stood there, fidgeting and unhappy. They were gentle, girlish-looking lads of about twenty years of age. Following local custom they had had their front teeth knocked out and wore their hair in a bun. They had a few narrow brass bracelets round their wrists, and a silver churchwarden pipe protruded from the pocket of each army tunic. Nha first explained that Suery was an officer and they must consider themselves under his orders. Did they realise that? There was a doubtful assent.
‘Very well,’ Suery said, ‘ask them what arms they have.’
The Mois said they had two rifles.
‘Tell them to go and get them,’ Suery said, looking a trifle relieved.
The Mois went trotting off and reappeared with the rifles, carried smartly at the trail. Suery took each gun, opened the breech mechanism, inspected it and looked along the barrels. He seemed pleased.
‘Ask them how many rounds of ammunition they have between them.’
Nha translated this and the Mois shook their heads. They had none.
‘My God,’ Suery said, ‘well what have they got to defend themselves with?’ The Mois said they had a crossbow apiece. ‘Any arrows?’ Suery wanted to know, with sarcasm. The Mois said, yes, they had arrows and also coupe-coupes. ‘Very well,’ Suery said. ‘Tell them to go and bring the coupe-coupes’ The Mois came trooping back with the coupe-coupes over their shoulders. They had heavy, curved blades, as sharp as razors, about eighteen inches long and could be used as knives or axes. ‘Good,’ Suery said. ‘Now tell them they are to set out for Dak-Song immediately; get there as quickly as they can and bring help. I’ll give them a note for the Chef de la Poste.’
While Nha was trying to put this into their language you could see the Mois’ faces cloud over. They just said they didn’t understand. This was the line they took and they stuck to it. The simple, polished bronze faces, until now good-natured and rather bewildered, suddenly emptied of expression. The light of comprehension went out, or rather, was switched off.
Suery accepted defeat. He knew that nothing in the world would get those Mois to walk along that jungle track in the dark. He asked Nha if he would go with one of the Mois and Nha, looking slightly sick, said yes. But when the proposition was put to the Mois they prepared a second line of retreat by saying that their sergeant had ordered them to stay there until he came back. And where was the sergeant? He was wounded and had gone away, where, they didn’t know. It was days, perhaps weeks since it happened, but he had told them to stay where they were, and stay they would. Did they not realise, said Nha becoming indignant, that a lieutenant was more important than a sergeant and that his orders would override any they had received? Once again the Mois did not understand.
The lieutenant got up and said he would sleep in the hut.
The idea of spending the night in a Moi hut filled Nha with revulsion, as he told me as soon as the lieutenant was out of hearing. A hut that had been occupied by savages – imagine the smell. Well- I would soon see for myself. And there was another angle that had to be considered. Supposing bandits – or pirates as they were invariably called – happened to find the wrecked car. This would be the first place they would think of to look for us. Didn’t I realise that the lieutenant had been thinking of pirates when he decided against sleeping in the car? Only a few hours away there were several villages and the junction of various cross-country routes. Just the kind of place, in fact, where pirates could always be expected to hang about. He wasn’t thinking so much of the Viet-Minh as ofpirates vulgaires mixed up with Japanese deserters. That’s what the Moi guards were there for. Naturally the pirates didn’t bother about such small fry; but if they knew we were here – oh malheureux! These dolorous exclamations of Nha’s were always accompanied by a bright smile. I’m sure that he wasn’t particularly impressed by the hazards to which we were exposed, but enjoyed, as people do, making the most of them. The next peril he produced was tigers, remarking with a gay conviction that, ‘les tigres vont causer avec nous ce soir’. I pointed out that the Mois were still alive. He said that although the Mois were disgusting savages they knew how to deal with tigers and we didn’t. Nha had all the distaste of the conservative, plains-dwelling Vietnamese for everything that had to do with forests or mountains and their inhabitants. The Vietnamese, like the Chinese, prefer their landscapes to possess the comfort of the familiar rather than the mystery of the unknown. Nha was already sickening for the ditches and rice-fields of Cochin-China.

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