PART III — IN THE SHADOW
CHAPTER I—THE SKIRMISH
Hark! a bullet hurtles through the air!
Sylvestre stops short to listen!
He is upon an infinite meadow, green with the soft velvet carpet of spring. The sky is gray, lowering, as if to weigh upon one’s very shoulders.
They are six sailors reconnoitring among the fresh rice-fields, in a muddy pathway.
Hist! again the whizz, breaking the silence of the air—a shrill, continuous sound, a kind of prolonged zing, giving one a strong impression that the pellets buzzing by might have stung fatally.
For the first time in his life Sylvestre hears that music. The bullets coming towards a man have a different sound from those fired by himself: the far-off report is attenuated, or not heard at all, so it is easier to distinguish the sharp rush of metal as it swiftly passes by, almost grazing one’s ears.
Crack! whizz! ping! again and yet again! The balls fall in regular showers now. Close by the sailors they stop short, and are buried in the flooded soil of the rice-fields, accompanied by a faint splash, like hail falling sharp and swift in a puddle of water.
The marines looked at one another as if it was all a piece of odd fun, and said:
“Only John Chinaman! pish!”
To the sailors, Annamites, Tonquinese, or “Black Flags” are all of the same Chinese family. It is difficult to show their contempt and mocking rancour, as well as eagerness for “bowling over the beggars,” when they speak of “the Chinese.”
Two or three bullets are still flying about, more closely grazing; they can be seen bouncing like grasshoppers in the green. The slight shower of lead did not last long.
Perfect silence returns to the broad verdant plain, and nowhere can anything be seen moving. The same six are still there, standing on the watch, scenting the breeze, and trying to discover whence the volley came. Surely from over yonder, by that clump of bamboos, which looks like an island of feathers in the plain; behind it several pointed roofs appear half hidden. So they all made for it, their feet slipping or sinking into the soaked soil. Sylvestre runs foremost, on his longer, more nimble legs.
No more buzz of bullets; they might have thought they were dreaming.
As in all the countries of the world, some features are the same; the cloudy gray skies and the fresh tints of fields in spring-time, for example; one could imagine this upon French meadows, and these young fellows, running merrily over them, playing a very different sport from this game of death.
But as they approach, the bamboos show the exotic delicacy of their foliage, and the village roofs grow sharper in the singularity of their curves, and yellow men hidden behind advance to reconnoitre; their flat faces are contracted by fear and spitefulness. Then suddenly they rush out screaming, and deploy into a long line, trembling, but decided and dangerous.