But fifteen minutes later nothing happened. Another fifteen minutes passed and Dinh was getting nervous. The assault party would be there, he said, but undoubtedly hidden from us by some unseen dip in the terrain. And then a faint growling could be heard, the distorted ramblings of a radio set badly tuned in, or the unnatural bass of a gramophone running down. ‘The loudspeakers,’ Dinh said, in triumph. The tower was being invited to surrender.
The growling stopped and there was a long silence. It was drama of a high order, its effect heightened by the setting and the strange theatri¬cal lighting. There was the tower, a graceful well-made toy, solid and intact. At this moment the dozen or score of men who defended it would be cowering somewhere in its base, having crawled perhaps for extra protection, as one sometimes does in such emergencies, under quite unsubstantial pieces of furniture. And at any moment this would crumple before our eyes, dissolve or fall apart in the slow-motion that always seems to attend such violent dissolution seen from a distance. It was like the moment in the bull ring when the door of the pen is flung open and one awaits the bull’s on-rushing entry with excitement and a faint trepidation.
There was a slight disturbance in the plain at an enormous distance from the tower, which gathered itself into a silver puff of smoke, and then lost shape again. An explosion thumped in our ears. It seemed impossible that the mortar-bomb had been aimed at the tower. Another insignifi¬cant bubble of smoke formed and floated upward. It was much nearer than the first, but still a long way away. Dinh thought that this might be an inexperienced team who were being given some practice. It was clear from the violence of the explosions that an unusually heavy mortar was being used, but it was also clear that it was hopeless for this task. A quite small gun would have blown the tower off the face of the earth in a few rounds, but unless one of the mortar-bombs could be landed fair and square on the sloping roof of the tower it was clearly useless.
And now there was a faint, distant screeching as of a heavy iron gate turning upon its hinge, and we both ducked slightly. The screeching ended in an explosion that was sharper but less heavy than that of the mortar-bombs, and the puff of smoke was nearer to the tower than the others had been. The attackers were under fire from a French twenty-five pounder. Another whistle seemed to be coming straight at us, and we crouched down behind the low wall of a tomb as black earth fanned out halfway between us and the tower. Dinh said in English, ‘exciting’. At the same moment, almost, smoke spurted at the foot of the tower, and we saw pinpoints of fire, which lasted for a few seconds and then went out. ‘A direct hit,’ Dinh said. ‘They will surrender now.’ And sure enough, we could just make out an insect movement beyond the stockade, soon absorbed in a fold in the earth. The garrison had given in. A few more twenty-five pounder shells came over, and then the silence closed in.
Asiatics could still be content, it seemed, to settle their differences, if left to themselves, with such a mild display of pyrotechnics. A whiff of powder and a face-saving show of resistance lasting half an hour, and it was all over. For the defeated it would be followed by a decent probationary period of indoctrination, and then a change of flag. All this was not so far removed from the old Sino-Annamese conception of warfare which had become so oddly picturesque now, so dilettante even, in its half measures and grotesque chivalries; the opposing generals meeting to agree over a pullet’s entrails the date and place of battle; the warriors carrying lanterns at night to give their enemies a fair chance to see them; the battle sus¬pended while the weather cleared up; the victory conceded to the side showing greater proficiency in the beating of offensive gongs. One is reminded of the military manuals – indispensable to old-style Vietnamese warfare – of those genial fire-eaters, General Dao and Marshal Khe; with their leisurely discussion of the best way to cook rice on horseback, while on the march, and their emphasis on the value of aggressive masks – or, in their absence, of merely pulling faces at the enemy.
Victory, as Pasquier observes, in his study of the Vietnamese army, was usually accorded, avoiding final resorts to arms, to the side recog¬nised as possessing the moral ascendancy. It is all part of the essential pacifism and civilisation – liable to crop out whenever given the opportu¬nity – of a people who possess the proverb: ‘The greatest honour any human being can possibly hope for is to return to his village with the degree of Doctor of Letters awarded at the triennial competitions at Flue. After that it is not a bad thing to come back as Marshal of the Empire, having won a great victory over the enemy’.
In the afternoon of the next day, I saw Saigon again, and for the last time.
I was driving back with the engineer. It had been a quiet night in the city, he said. That was to say, only an average number of grenades had been thrown. But he was afraid that more trouble was expected, because a shipful of Africans had arrived and the streets were full of them.
In fact, as we came into the suburbs we saw them, the Senegalese, wandering like lost children near the posts they had taken over – the black heads of processional giants carried jerkily above the oblivious Asiatic crowd.
The first strangers to arrive here, says Borri, were shipwrecked mari¬ners, who ‘took such an Affection to that Country that not a Man of them would go away, so that the Captain of the Ship was forc’d to drive them aboard with many Blows and Cuts, which he effectually did, loading the Ship with the Rice they had gather’d only by going about, crying, I am hungry’.
This, surely, was the end of the story; the completion of a cycle… these frightened blacks and the sullen natives of the country with their averted faces. The successors of the shipwrecked Europeans had come back in increasing numbers, preaching, trading, worming their way into the organism of the country, changing it, remoulding it, and finally taking it for their own. And now they had withdrawn again into the port of their entry, where behind this African rampart they awaited the findings of Destiny.
I wondered whether it had all been worth it – the brief shotgun marriage with the West, now to be so relentlessly broken off. Had there been, after all, some mysterious historical necessity for all the bloodshed, the years of scorn, the servitude, the contempt? Could some ultimately fructifying process have been at work? And would the free Nations of Indo-China, in their coming renascence, have gained in the long run by the enforced rupture with the old, unchanging way of life, now to be replaced, one presumed, by a materialist philosophy and the all-eclipsing ideal of the raised standard of living?
These were questions, since there is no yardstick for felicity, to which no final answer could ever be given. And even a partial answer would have to be left to an observer of the next generation.