The Universal Religion 4

As soon as the convoy was really under way it began to travel at high speed. Except where we were forced to slow down for roadblocks the Citroen was doing a steady sixty m.p.h. The deserted paddy-fields through which our road ran were the colour of putty and the sunshine reflected blearily from the muddy water. As we passed, congregations of egrets launched themselves into the air, rising straight up in a kind of leap, assisted with a few indolent wing-beats and then settling down uneasily in the same place again. There were distant villages, raised on hillocks above the water, and solitary villas – Mediterranean-looking, with their verandas and flaking stucco, except for the china lions in the garden, grinning at us absurdly, and the roof with its facetious dragon or sky-blue ceramic dolphins. Sometimes such houses had been burned out. There were no signs of human life. The populace had evidently received orders, as for the passage of the Son of Heaven, or of one of the Divine Emperors, to keep indoors. Sometimes, at what I suppose were considered danger points, lines of Vietnamese auxiliaries stood with their backs to the road, rifles at the ready. At short intervals we passed beneath the watch- towers; squat structures, made of small Roman-looking bricks, shaded with Provencal roofs, and surrounded with concentric palisades of sharp¬ened bamboo staves. In theory, the whole length of the road can be swept by machine-gun fire from the towers, whose defenders are also supposed to patrol the surrounding area. These pigmy forts lent a rather pleasant accent, a faintly Tuscan flavour, to the flat monotony of the landscape.
After about thirty-five miles we entered Cao-Dai territory, in which, according to my official guide, complete tranquillity had been restored. His friend said something about bandits and rats, and spat out of the window. I asked why the towers were even closer together and why machine-gunners squatted behind their weapons which were pointed up every side-road. Monsieur Beauvais said there was no harm in making sure, sighed, and brought the subject back again to the amenities of upper-class, rural England.
Our first Cao-Daist town was Trang-Bang, where a reception had been arranged. There seemed to be thousands of children. For miles around, the countryside must have been combed for them. They had been washed, dressed in their best and lined up beside the road, clutching in one hand their bunches of flowers of the six symbolical colours and giving the fascist salute with the other. The spontaneous acclamations were tremendous and the children, who all looked like jolly, china dolls, were, I am sure, enjoying themselves enormously, without having the faintest idea what it was all about. Monsieur Beauvais seemed much embarrassed by the fascist salute, from which his friend, however, derived grim pleasure. The notables ofTrang-Bang, dressed in their best formal silks, were on the spot to mix with the visitors. In this country, which owes all its civilisation to China, the best years of one’s life are its concluding decades. The dejection that encroaching age stamps so often in the Western face – the melancholy sense of having outlived one’s usefulness – are replaced here with a complacency of spirit and a prestige that increases automatically with the years. Cao-Dai’sm was founded by retired functionaries and professional men, who see to it that no one who is not a grandfather ever manages to get his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. Going up to one of these happy old men, I complimented him on the appearance of the children, who were still cheering and saluting. The old man’s face crinkled in a smile of ineffable wisdom. He explained that it was the result of a vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism, he explained, was one of the tenets of the Cao-Daist faith.
‘Of course, we don’t insist on our converts making a sudden break with their bad habits. We start them off with a meatless day a week and gradually improve them until a full release is attained.’
‘And have all your people attained a full release?’
‘Almost miraculously, yes,’ said the old man delightedly. ‘They turned their backs on the squalid past, almost overnight. Why, even five- year-old children implored their parents never to let them see meat or fish again. It was a wonderful experience.’
We chatted pleasantly for some time. My friend informed me that he was a fourth-grade official of the Cao-Daist Legislative Corps, a lawyer with the rank of Bishop, and that he expected shortly to be promoted to Inspector-General of the third grade, carrying the dignity of Principal Archbishop. After that the way remained clear to the final attainable splendour, the culmination of all the efforts of his mature years, the rank of Cardinal-Legislator – only five grades removed from the Pope him¬self. There would be many more austerities to be practised before that glittering goal could be reached, but what did it matter? At his age one could do without almost anything. That was the best of it, the old man pointed out, smiling gleefully. All those abstentions – the renunciation of relations with one’s wife, for instance – they came into force only in the higher grades. The turn of the screw was put on gently, so that by the time you had to give things up for the Kingdom of God, you were pretty well ready to give them up anyway. It was all so humane.

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