The Vanishing Tribes 3

Since it was an odd day of the month, and therefore lucky, my neighbour, a French soldier, following the example of several other patrons, decided to play for his dinner. The system favoured was Tai- Xiu, in which three dice are used and the house wins when the score is under ten, besides taking as its percentage any bet when triple threes come up. None of the players seemed to realise that the luck of odd days is universal and not one-sided. Chanting most dolefully, the waiter shook the dice in the bowl and threw them on the table. My neighbour lost and paid double his bill. The house soothsayer now arrived and took his hand, informing him after a brief study of its lines and for a small payment, that he had offended a minor demon and that the time was unpropitious for him to travel by elephant, to build a house or begin clearing a rice field.
For the further diversion of its patrons this restaurant had fixed to its wall a large, glass-fronted box, housing white rats. A brain sharpened by a study of the problem of perpetual motion had devised a system of miniature treadmills which kept the rats continually on the move. Only rarely was one allowed to perch for a few seconds on a narrow ledge before being dislodged and plunged into hectic activity again by the arrival of one of its companions. It was an hypnotic spectacle and one felt sure, especially in the throes of digestion of one’s ass-steak, that some¬where arising out of this was to be drawn a cruelly Buddhist moral.
I strolled back to the Residence in the failing light, hoping that it was not too dark to see a tiger before it saw me. Green fireflies were pulsating in the shrubberies. Owls had taken up positions on garden gateposts, not so much as budging as I passed them, and occasionally as a breeze stirred I caught the fine-drawn wailing of a distant gramophone or the brief spate of notes of some strong-throated Eastern nightingale. As I turned into the garden of the Residence a Moi guard materialised, like Herne the Hunter, against a tree-trunk, pushed a bayonet towards me and shouted a challenge; a whiplash of monosyllables in some unknown language. This was a recurrent embarrassment. There was nothing to be done but to stand there, with occasional blossoms drifting between us, and say anything in English that came into my head. After a few moments, embarrassment touched the Moi, too, the bayonet drooped, there was a slurred-over drill movement and he sank back; his face screened in aerial roots.
Within a few minutes of my return Doustin was tapping at my door, smiling his controlled smile, and mildly triumphant. It appeared that an important politician, a French Deputy, had just arrived and would be leaving at three o’clock in the morning for Pleiku, which was about two hundred miles to the north. Did I want to go? I did.
The Deputy, who was an ex-Governor of Cochin-China, was travelling with his secretary and a chauffeur, and the whole party, as usual, was armed to the teeth. Outside the towns in the central plateaux of Annam it is really no man’s land, and Viet-Minh patrols probably use the roads as much as isolated French cars. It was always assumed that the Viet-Minh were regular in their habits and did not travel at night. The Deputy was going to make the best of this night journey by shooting game, if he saw any. He had a splendid new gun, a five-shot repeater, and both the Deputy and his secretary said that they would be very surprised if they didn’t get at least one leopard.
We were held up for some time on the outskirts of Ban Methuot through taking the wrong track. The big, soft American car nosed its way through the bamboo thickets, its headlight beams trapped, as if in a thick fog, a few yards ahead of the car. At night the sameness of the forest was immeasurably intensified. In the end the driver found the right track and we plunged forward confidently into the tunnel of bleached vegetation. The Deputy and his secretary, wrapped as if for grouse-shooting on the moors, sat with tense gun-barrels poking through the windows on each side. There was a single moment of excitement when we saw, swinging before us, a cluster of pale lamps. The driver braked and doors were half-opened but it was only the tossing eyes of a herd of domestic buffalo, which now, fully revealed in the headlights, turned their hindquarters to charge from us, plunging noisily through the solid walls of bamboo.
In the early dawn we had still shot nothing and the Deputy with failing eyesight, but unimpaired enthusiasm, had to be restrained from opening fire on more buffaloes, a group of Mois on the horizon, and finally upon piles of elephant droppings in the road. Our final and profitless exploit was a great advance through thorny bush after the will- o’-the-wisp sound of screaming peacocks, which could always be heard in the trees fifty yards ahead. After this rifles were put aside and the shooting members of the party relapsed into a gloomy coma as we climbed out of the hunting country into the pleasant, sunlit plateau of Pleiku.
It was a wide, Mexican-looking landscape, a great, rolling panorama of whitened elephant grass with the worn-down and partly wooded craters of ancient volcanoes in the middle distance, and a blue ribbon of peaks curled along the horizon. Elegant white hawks with black wing- tips circled above us. Occasionally we saw a few Mot’s of the handsome Jarai tribe, marching in single file and in correct family order; the young men first, carrying their lances, then the women and finally an old man – the head of the family. Before reaching a village this little procession would halt to allow the old man to take his ceremonial place at its head. The Jarais carried their household goods in wicker baskets of excellent workmanship, slung on their backs. They smoked silver-ornamented churchwarden pipes and wore necklaces of linked silver spirals.

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