Central Annum 7

Although thick-set for a Vietnamese, Bao-Dai was not, as American newspapers have described him, ‘pudgy’. In contrast to the experience of some newspaper correspondents who told me that he always seemed bored when interviewed, I found him cheerful enough, possibly at the prospect of a hunting trip. He asked me if I hunted and I said that I did not. (I had been warned that it was not a good thing to be invited to join a Bao-Dai hunting party.) The reply surprised the Emperor and the well- arched Imperial eyebrows were raised slightly higher. I explained that I lived in England where game was neither plentiful, varied nor spectacu¬lar. The Emperor said that I should try elephant shooting and that there was no better place to make a start than Ban Methuot. Doustin then asked the Emperor if he would be returning to Dalat or Saigon, as if so I would like a lift, and the Emperor told him that he was going hunting for a few days, but that I was welcome to fly back with him after that. In fact he might decide to send the plane back the next day, in which case the pilot could take me.
But not two hours later I was disturbed once again in the contemplation of my peach tree and the strolling Vietnamese beauties. Doustin came to report that two officials from Dalat who had been staying in the town had just been given permission by Bao-Dai to return by way of the Emperor’s private hunting road, and I could go with them if I liked. They were leaving immediately and would stay at the Poste du Lac in readiness to make the usual small-hours start in the morning.
We were received with the exuberant melancholy of the true existen¬tialist. While the two hunters got out their various weapons, fussed happily with them and deluded themselves with a mirage of false hopes for the morrow, I retired to the veranda and thumbed over the latest selection to arrive from Le Club Francais du Livre. Whenever I raised my eyes it was over an impeccable landscape. Eagles were shattering the ice-blue mirror of the lake and a flight of white birds, far off against the dim mountains, were no more than particles of glittering metallic dust.
Thus night descended. At dusk we heard the motor of the electric generator start up and my host smiled with cautious satisfaction. Light pulsated in the filaments of the electric bulbs for perhaps thirty seconds before failing. As on every previous evening the engine had immediately broken down. We lit the lamps and settled down to an evening’s reading. But there was a sudden alarm. Somewhere below us in the forest, we heard a car accelerating uphill, and peering through the window we could see headlights shining through the trees. The car was coming in our direction. There could be only one explanation of this extraordinary event – the approach of the Imperial hunting party. It seems that taken thus by surprise, our host felt himself ill-prepared to receive a visit from the most august personage in the land. At all events the lights were quickly extinguished – a cautionary measure which was quite successful, for we heard the car stop and depart.
Those who follow the mystery of the hunter know not the lassitudes affecting ordinary mortals. The Emperor’s hunting trips, which last all night, are said by those who have taken part in them to involve the most appalling risks and exertions. Fortunately the Vice-Mayor and the Chief Justice’s wish to make a start before dawn was frustrated by our host’s civilised horror of such excesses. As a compromise, breakfast was served to the howling of monkeys at daybreak. Ten minutes later we were out on Bao-Dai’s hunting track. On all occasions when the Emperor travels by road between Dalat and Ban Méthuot, this is the way he comes and I think that there may be some significance in the strange fact that no escort is required, although the track is far nearer the territory continu¬ously occupied by the Viet-Minh than the main road where attacks are so frequent. This ties up perhaps with the fact that there had never been an attempt on the Viet-Minh’s part to assassinate the Emperor, and it is not an original hypothesis that the Emperor’s role in relation to the French may be similar to that now claimed for Marshal Petain, vis-a-vis the Germans. Some secret understanding may in fact exist between the Emperor and the extreme nationalists.
The road, narrow and winding, affords many a sickening glimpse of a fern-clad precipice through the screen of lianas and bamboos. On this morning it was bitterly cold and only the heights were free from a thick, clammy mist. Suddenly, without warning, we would emerge from this, while climbing, into the brilliant sunshine, so that the mist lay spread out below us like the surface of a steaming lake, with islands of rock and vegetation. Once a silver pheasant came winging up through the surface like a gorgeous flying-fish, and flew on to settle in one of the tree-top islands. The Vice-Mayor and the Judge shot several wild-cocks that, however maimed, clung to their lives with the frightful tenacity of their kind. Five peacocks, surprised in the deserted Moi rice-field, flew verti¬cally to the topmost branches of a tree, and there were slaughtered – perfect targets sitting silhouetted against the sky. But this was the total bag, and a mighty wild boar absorbed at close range a charge of ball-shot and departed with no sign of inconvenience.

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