Arm in arm, they entered the theater. The walls were washed to a pale shade and pleasantly lit with candles in sconces. The theater seemed about half full; Maillart let him know it would hold fifteen hundred spectators. He pointed out Governor Blancheland in his box, and the other box reserved for the Intendant, the latter empty this evening. Maillart himself had taken seats in the amphitheatre along with several other young officers of the Regiment du Cap. The doctor passed through several rapid introductions, not quite catching the names. He was pressed for news of Paris, but he'd been long enough at Ennery that most of the officers were more current than he.
As soon as the colored women began to enter their boxes, the political talk died off. Of course the mulatresses didn't come directly in with the officers; their boxes were in the rank above, and reached by a separate stairway. But once they were in place, they were no more than a hand's reach away. A rotund young captain whose name the doctor thought was Baudin tore the cockade from his hat and tossed it upward as a favor, addressing the woman who reached across her rail to catch it by her first name of Fleur.
Fleur, Jasmine, Chloe and Claire, these were the four women in the box immediately overhead. They knew the officers by their first names too. All four were slim and lovely, close to white whatever mix of blood they carried, and dressed and coiffed to rival ladies of the court. To the officers' banter they responded not with the minced coquetry of French demimondaines, but with a slow and balanced languor, a rich dark energy like waves of ocean moving through molasses.
All this while the officers chattered to them loudly, an excruciatingly circumstantial discourse couched in language that would have embarrassed a barnyard animal. A raw blush struck the doctor at the roots of his hair and stained him halfway down to his navel, so it felt; he was relieved to think that in this light it probably would not show. He turned to the stage, where the blue curtain was slowly lifting from behind two gargantuan busts of satyrs.
So the play began, a comedy. To the doctor it seemed poorly written, worse performed, the actors often faltering, requiring prompts, and yet he did his best to bend his mind upon the stage. The officers' raillery with the girls continued apace, though sotto voce now. The room seemed close, even underfilled as it was, and the doctor was in an uncomfortable sweat. Mosquitos plagued him too; a cloud of them hung over the whole amphitheater. Maillart and the others seemed insensible of the bites, though now and again one of them would automatically slap himself.
Finally the play lurched to its intermission and the curtain lowered for the entr'acte. The doctor got up and followed Maillart into the bustling corridors. A cluster formed around the Governer, men of affairs taking this opportunity to catch Blanchelande's ear in an idle moment. Lt. Maillart cut efficiently through the crowd, the doctor washing along in his wake.
"What do you think of our players?" Maillart said over his shoulder.
"Abominable," the doctor said, with no pause for reflection.
Maillart chuckled. "Ah well. There was an actor here who told the committee, `You'd be in poor shape to pay me if I did know my parts.'"
The doctor smiled, turned his head in owlish circles, looking at the people. There were many of the merchants and the planters there, some with their wives or daughters, white women in fair numbers too and in their full regalia. He was thinking that Monsieur or Madame Cigny might well be in the company, if he could find someone who knew them and would make the introduction, but Lt. Maillart seemed to have another course in mind. Quickly, he drew the doctor out of the building.
Outside it was certainly cooler, the night air almost chill. They overtook the other officers of their party in the promenade du gouvernement. A tall young rake with great mustachios, whose name the doctor had not caught, had drawn Chloe into a niche and was kissing her and pinching her haunches with great freedom, while she giggled and feigned to push his hands away. All along the promenade were other couples similarly engaged, but the doctor and Maillart came face to face with Claire and Jasmine, who were for the moment unattached.
"Oh Claire," Captain Maillart pronounced in an artificially lisping tone, "Je te presente mon beau ami Antoine."
The woman smiled, revealing a top row of small white perfect teeth. Her lips were heavy, blade-shaped and blood-red. The doctor bowed slightly from the waist, keeping his eyes on hers, which were large and almond-shaped and looked black to him in the indistinct light, which turned her skin the color of old ivory. Her dress was tightly fitted and clung to her thighs, with the bodice cut low, almost to the nipple, a star of multicolored orchids resting on her mostly naked bosom. She offered her hand to the doctor; it floated toward him along a graceful liquid arc. Her palm was cool and dry when it met his, long yellowy fingers creeping round his wrist, a nail turned in to catch his pulse between the tendons.
"Oh, isn't she lovely," Maillart breathed into his ear, but audibly enough to carry. "She's made for love-- and yours for the asking."
The doctor's heart slammed rubbery against his ribs. The chafed swaths along his inner thighs began to blaze. To hold a woman's hand and look her in the eye and hear a proposition such as this-- he did not know what his feeling was, but it was strong enough, for an instant, to paralyze him. Claire breathed; the orchids lifted on her breast, lifting a cloud of their drunken scent which sealed him in its sphere. She stroked her top lip with the tip of her tongue, a cat's gesture; her whole head had the catlike beauty he knew he must have seen somewhere before.
"I beg your pardon," Doctor Hébert said in his most formal manner. "Je vous en prie- - may our next meeting be in more agreeable circumstances."
He pressed her hand between his two, once firmly, and released it. With her fingertips she caught her skirt and gave him a half-curtsy, an opaque movement, uninterpretable. She was gone; both women had retreated.
Captain Maillart seemed a little glum, going back into the theater. They took their seats in silence. The hall looked empty, quieter than before; about half their party had not returned when the curtain rose on the second act. The doctor crushed a mosquito on the back of his neck and brushed away the broken bits of it. Grimly he concentrated on the sluggish movement of the play. Maillart sighed and draped a hand across the doctor's shoulder and began to rearrange and fondle his lapel.
"You mustn't be shocked," he said in a tender voice. "It's what they're good for. After all, they're not white women."
The doctor looked around the seats. Only Jasmine and Fleur had returned to the box above them. But Captain Baudin had corkscrewed around in his chair and was blowing kissed and talking moonily enough for a dozen.
"Ah, tes fesses, Jasmine," he rhapsodized. "Tes jolies fesses, comme j'aimerais les baiser encore une seule fois."
"Never mind," Maillart went on meanwhile, still whispering to the doctor. "You've only got to learn our ways."
"Perhaps you're right," the doctor said, and snorted out a sort of laugh. "After all, it seems there's a better comedy in the back rows than there is on the stage."