“This is the first time I have seen such a creature!” I exclaimed as we boarded the giant animal.
“The giant panda is such a rare beast,” Monsieur Fogg agreed. “And making an automation out of one is very clever indeed.”
I looked down at the strange vehicle. Genuine fur was stretched all over its body, large asymmetrical patches of black and white, truly a marvel to behold. It quite resembled the bear – a native animal in my beloved France – and when its engines sprang to life, it was like the beast itself had let out a fearsome roar. Our seats were located next to the spine of the panda. I kept a firm hand on my master’s shoulder as we climbed up to them. It would be most unfortunate if Monsieur Fogg fell down from here.
We were headed towards Yunnan-Fu, a small city in the west of China, after a detour up the newly built Karakorum Highway to Lhasa. The city smelled of yak butter and incense in equal measure. On the eighteenth day, we reached Chengdu with plenty of time for our onward journey.
It was there that we found the panda automaton. I must admit I was skeptical at first, but my fears were somewhat alleviated when I exchanged a few words with the captain about the safety of the vehicle. Soon, we were all aboard, with Monsieur Fogg buried in a newspaper I'd procured from a generous British admiral. I spent my time in deep contemplation – there were many issues that needed to be resolved if we were to finish our journey in time.
I did not know what to make of Yunnan-Fu. The city itself was in poor condition after the latest Du Wenxiu uprisings and people on the streets still exchanged cautious glances in fear of more violence. On the other hand, it was a surprisingly green place and I took great pleasure in wandering around the crowded alleyways. Dignified old men in traditional Chinese garments rested outside their houses, smoking tobacco in long, narrow pipes. A crowd of young ladies hurried around, all carrying dark umbrellas to protect their delicate skin from the midday sun.
I met another young lady standing in front of a large pagoda with a determined look on her face. As we exchanged pleasantries, I noticed that she was carrying an ornamental fan with tiny Chinese characters written all over the reverse. I inquired politely about the unusual object and she told me, with a blush, that she had come to Yunnan-Fu to take the Provincial Imperial Exams.
“I need this fan. The Five Classics. There is no way I can memorize them in time and I do not want to dishonor my family by failing. Few students will earn a passing grade and I need to be amongst them. When I have passed, I will travel to Beijing to take the Palace Exams in front of the Empress Dowager Cixi herself. Of course, I will have to make an even bigger fan by then,” she explained with a sly smile.
Clearly, there were no end to her ambitions.
I wished her luck, and as I look my leave she leaned towards me and said:
“Did you know that Pu’er tea from Jinghong will sell most handsomely in the Amman city of Hue?”
I thanked her for the information and hurried home to my master.
I found Monsieur Fogg deeply entrenched in a game of Solitaire. “So? Where shall we proceed from here?” my master asked without so as much as a glance up from his cards.
“We are running out of funds,” I told him. “But there may be value in visiting the village of Jinghong.”
“Surely, that will be a hideous detour,” Fogg retorted. “We must make haste, or we might lose the wager.”
“But our funds, Monsieur…”
I let the implication hang in the air.
“I leave the decision up to you, then,” he replied curtly, returning his attention to the cards.
We departed early in the morning for Jinghong. The only available transport was a steam bicycle. I feared a most uncomfortable journey as the machine hissed ominously in our direction.
It was a bumpy ride, and the roads were even worse for wear than I had expected. I attended to my master, who stoically weathered the uncomfortable affair. When he closed his eyes for a moment, I stole a quick glance at the surrounding landscape. It was an extraordinary sight – mountains overgrown with thick, green jungle that almost glittered in the afternoon sun.
We arrived late at night the next day. I installed Monsieur Fogg in his room and went to bed.
The next morning, I was up early to prepare for a day at the market. The tea traders were merciless and I deeply regretted that my youthful studies focused on romance languages, not Mandarin. Despite my difficulties, I haggled the price of a box of Pu'er tea down to a respectable one-hundred-ten pounds. Satisfied with my bargain, I took to the streets of Jinghong to explore.
It was there that I saw him, the only westerner in this town apart from me and my master. I had thought Vitti Jokinen long gone, lost in the vast, arctic wilderness of Greenland. My cheeks flushed as I recalled the times we spent together, his breath against mine; his touch, soft and gentle.
I didn’t dare approach him, but I watched his silhouette from afar. I wondered what he was doing here. I had come to associate him with the cold, and this was a great departure from the sparse landscapes of the North. I observed his collected demeanor until I couldn’t bear to look at him any longer. Then I quietly slipped away.
Now that I had the Pu’er tea, I just needed to find a way out of this town. Unfortunately, my search for information provided fruitless. The only vehicle leaving Jinghong in the next week was the unfortunate steam bicycle, returning tomorrow to Yunnan-Fu. Since the wager barred us from retracing our steps, we were quite stuck. Monsieur Fogg sighed as I relayed him the unfortunate news.
“You have got us here, Passepartout,” he said calmly. “You must get us out.”
The next day I made my way to the river banks in search of a vessel that might be able to transport us further on. The Mekong was a muddy affair, rather less striking than I had thought it would be. Plenty of steam-powered sampans dotted the river. Perhaps I could hail a boatman to carry us to the next port.
As I stood, considering, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. I turned around and looked straight into a familiar set of pale, grey eyes. There it was – the face that still haunted my dreams and my heart.
“Vitti,” I said and grasped his outstretched hand. “I thought you were lost to me.”
“Maybe I was,” he answered. “And yet I am here.”
“But why?” I asked, dumbfounded. “What brings you to this place?”
“Have you forgotten that I am an Artificer by trade? I have to go where the Guild sends me. Besides, there were some things I wanted to leave behind.”
I didn’t dare pry. Instead I took his hand and we walked by the river.
“You are still travelling around the world, I gather?” he asked.
“Oh yes, Monsieur Fogg is as adventurous as ever. I think we’re on our 17th circumnavigation.”
“Surely, you must have seen most of the world by now?”
“We have been all around the world, but there are plenty of things left for us to do.”
“Where are you heading next?”
“We have to find a way out of this city, first. Then, we’ll see.”
A short silence followed and I could hear a trace of hesitation in Vitti’s voice when he finally spoke.
“I … have a vehicle for you. A boat. We are leaving late this afternoon, down the Mekong towards the ancient city of Chiang Saen.”“I see,” I said. My heart was jubilant. “I will have to fetch my master then.”
“I’ll see you at the pier down there,” Vitti said and turned away.
I left him to his own devices.
As much as I looked forward to a slow, romantic journey down the Mekong river, I feared that the ride would deteriorate my master’s condition further. We had not brought any medication against sea-sickness and Monsieur Fogg was rather frail. I spent the first leg of our journey gently dabbing my master’s pale forehead with a cold, damp cloth, as we watched our vessel power through the cloudy water. Vitti was standing in the bow of the ship impatiently watching the jungle. When the opportunity presented itself, I quietly slipped away from Monsieur Fogg and went to stand beside him. I gathered some courage and spoke:
“I would have never dreamed that we might meet again in a place like this. Now, you must tell me what you are doing here!”
“I’m working,” Vitti answered plainly and there was some reluctance in his voice. “I do the work the Guild requires of me.”
There were so many questions whirling around in my mind. What kind of work would bring him here, to a slow-moving river in the middle of nowhere? Did he feel like I had abandoned him back then in Nanortalik? Did he care for me still?
I didn’t want to ask.
We stood there, rather awkwardly, and looked upon the scenery. The jungle was vast and repetitive, yet tantalizing. The waters were still murky, and I couldn’t help but wonder what secrets lurked below that impenetrable surface.
We finally arrived in Chiang Saen and I was mightily surprised by the sight that met us there. It was no more than a mere ghost town, long abandoned ruins overgrown by thick vegetation. There was nothing there apart from a group of automata, decked out in wide-brimmed steel hats and tiny brushes in their claws. Apparently, they were excavating the ruins in hopes of some forgotten treasure. I felt as if we had reached the last outpost on earth. Where would we sleep tonight? I was no stranger to sleeping rough, but my master was far too refined for this sort of rusticity.
Fortunately, Vitti had another card up his sleeve. He produced a large truck, big enough to seat an entire rugby side and half the archeologists’ automata to boot. The vehicle was fashioned out of steel, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the smooth, even surface. As we took our leave of the ancient ruins, I said a silent prayer to the wonders of modernity.
Vitti drove the steel truck himself. I asked him where we were headed. He responded rather curtly that we were going to Chiang Mai, the capital of the Kingdom that went by the same name.
“Chiang Mai should open up several possibilities of where to go next,” he said. “You could travel down to Siam and then further south. Or you could take an airship eastward to Hanoi.”
“There is a small city called Hue where we need to go. We have trade goods for Hue and we are in urgent needs of funds. I don’t want to resort to begging.”
“Hue lies in the Vietnamese province of Amman, on the road from Hanoi to Saigon. I would take the airship to Hanoi and go south from there.”
“But where are you going?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“I’m going on a mission,” he said, and with that the conversation ended abruptly.
We arrived in Chiang Mai late at night. I found us a pleasant hotel in the city center and spent the remainder of the evening polishing shoes in the lobby. A valet’s lot can be harsh indeed.
And just like that, Vitti was gone again, like he’d never appeared in the first place. I couldn’t help but wonder about this curious mission of his and whether we would ever see each other again. Maybe gazing into those pale, grey eyes would be too much to ask for, but the thought of him being lost forever was a discomfiting one.
We were eager to leave Chiang Mai as soon as possible. The city itself was beautiful, with a small river snaking through its center and Buddhist temples littered throughout. But our finances were in dire straits, and our schedule did not permit us to linger. I visited the marketplace and sold a magnifying glass for some coin. Hopefully, that would be enough to carry us forward.
We found the airship in the outskirts of town. It was a fine vessel, fit for transporting both foreign dignitaries and ordinary gentlemen. Most unfortunately, it was also very expensive. After suffering Monsieur Fogg’s disapproving stare as I desperately dug through the luggage, I managed to come up with the required sum. There was very little coin left. We needed to get to Hue as soon as possible to sell our belongings.
The captain of this ship was a rather disheveled Chinese man. “Welcome to SS Daai Gat Lar Si,” he said with a quick smile as we installed ourselves in our cabin. Monsieur Fogg looked a little worse for wear, and it troubled me greatly, so I spent a couple of hours feeding him tiny pieces of stilton and combing his moustache. When my master settled in for his afternoon nap, I seized the opportunity and went for a quick stroll.
I met the captain on the upper deck.
“Greetings,” he smiled. “It is always a pleasure to have real life adventurers on board. Mostly, it’s just government officials and timber.”
“Timber?,” I asked.
“Chiang Mai is one of the world’s leading exporters of teak,” he explained. “And I have taken it upon myself to transport it. So when the Empire demands teak, the Empire gets teak. And it is usually my ship that delivers it to her. But it is not only the Brits who demand timber. Lately, I have been transporting a lot of logs to various places. The French in Cochinchina, the Dutch in the East Indies and the Vietnamese in Tongkin – they all demand my teak. This new world is basically built out of steel and iron, but there is something about wood that us humans can’t get enough of. Maybe we all long for a piece of nature in the midst of all this modernity.”
“Maybe so,” I said.
“I digress,” the captain said and flashed another infectious smile. “My name is Leung Kwok-hung and I am originally from Hong Kong. And you’re Passepartout.”
“How do you know my name?”
“News travel fast these days. I have heard plenty of tales of your exploits. Nothing excites me more than a good adventure.”
I regaled him with a few of our most enticing tales and I am proud to say I kept my embellishments to a bare minimum. When I had reached the tale of the Bengal tigers, I felt like I should steer the conversation into safer waters, however.
“So, what can you tell me about Hong Kong?” I asked.
“It’s all exhausts and opium these days,” he answered. “I love the place, but I can’t stand to actually be there.”
I asked the captain some further questions about Hanoi and about the passage into Amman, but I only got mystifying answers. I took my leave, and we disembarked the ship without further ado.
Hanoi was a bustling place, filled with merchants and workers and the occasional French diplomat. The city was buzzing with rumors of a French takeover. The French had seized Saigon just a couple of years before, and there were plenty of reasons to believe that they were looking to expand their colonialist venture into South East Asia.
However, I couldn’t muster up any interest in the political climate of Hanoi, because my mind was preoccupied with more pressing matters.
We had no money.
Carefully emptying the pockets of Monsieur Fogg’s finest suit yielded a mere total of four pounds. This was not nearly enough for a hotel, let alone for any further travels. I wondered if my master could weather a night out on a noisy street in Hanoi. I was sincerely doubtful.
I pondered our dire circumstances in silence at a small, dusty coffee house on a backstreet of the city. Fogg took small sips of his iced coffee while intently reading his newspaper. I closed my eyes for a moment, and said a little prayer to some unknown deity.
When I opened my eyes again, Monsieur Fogg was gone.
A profound sense of dread shook my whole being. How could I have failed my duty as a valet so? I hurriedly left the café and took to the streets. My troubled foreign visage stirred up some attention from the onlookers, as I tried to make inquiries into the matter of Fogg’s disappearance. I got a few looks of compassion from some locals and a couple of unsympathetic snickers behind my back, but my painful lack of Vietnamese hindered my efforts to properly communicate my distress.
I searched the streets for hours, but I couldn’t find any trace of my master. When I returned to the coffee shop, I was nearly in tears. The sight that greeted me was a balm to my distressed soul. Monsieur Fogg was sitting in the back, deeply engrossed in conversation with the shopkeeper. He gave me a brief smile and said:
“Where have you been, my dear Passepartout? For a moment, I thought we’d lost you.”
I didn’t answer.
“I believe I have found a solution to our financial worries,” he continued. “I have secured two seats on a passenger train down to Hue. Free of charge. Isn’t it splendid?”
Monsieur Fogg had indeed secured a way out of Hanoi and onward south. A surly Vietnamese guard smuggled us onboard a small freight train. We shared a compartment with two cows and a handful of chickens. It was an uncomfortable but uneventful journey. We arrived in Hue just when the dawn broke and the chickens bid us farewell by breaking into song. It had been a long journey.
My first stop in Hue was the market. We were in desperate need of money, and if the information I had gotten was correct, the Pu’er tea from Jinghong would be extremely valuable here. To my great relief the Vietnamese merchants really respected Yunnanese tea, and I left the market with 7214 pounds and a bottle of fish sauce in my pocket. Monsieur Fogg was in dire need of rest, so I left him to his tea and paper at the hotel.
Hue was hot in a way that I only experienced in the desert. I took refuge by walking along the Perfume River in hope of something that at least resembled a sea breeze. I contemplated the last time I walked beside a river; that leisurely stroll hand in hand with Vitti next to the Mekong. I wondered what he was doing. Had he left Siam in pursuit of something? What strange mission could the Artificer’s Guild be demanding of him next time? Would I ever see him again?
My thoughts drifted further away. I thought of the times we spent together and the adventures we have had, and then I found myself preoccupied with those kind of thoughts that are not befitting for a gentleman of my standing. My cheeks flushed bright red and I stopped in my tracks. A Vietnamese couple stopped to watch me, and I could feel their curious gaze on my back.
I slowly regained my composure and I went to procure some sustenance. A small street stall commanded my attention. It was manned by a tiny automaton in a cone-shaped hat entirely made out of tin, and he served up the most delicious stuffed pancakes. I bought two of them, and went back to the hotel.
“We are leaving tomorrow,” I said as I set the food down on the table. “There should be a passenger train leaving for Saigon at ten o’clock.”
Saigon was slightly more pleasant than Hue. The sun was still scorching, but the humidity lent a certain freshness to the air. Monsieur Fogg was still uncomfortable in this unforgiving climate, but he perked up when I provided him with a stack of finely pressed and newly starched shirts. I left him with a newspaper, a cup of coffee and plenty of shade in the garden next to our new hotel as I went to explore the city.
Although Saigon had not been under French rule for long, my compatriots had already put their marks on the city. Colonial villas dotted the narrow street and I could even get a whiff of the scent of pastries here and there. It felt almost like home, albeit in a curious, tropical way.
I wanted to know what kind of options we had to continue our journey, so I searched the streets for information. To my great relief, some of the locals were able to speak a little French and I was finally able to communicate properly. A gentle, old lady told me about a hazardous boat trip down the Mekong Delta that would probably take around ten days. A burly French officer spoke of the newly built airship Bonne Marie that would soon depart for Yokohama. And then there were a group of young men, deeply engrossed in a violent cockfight, who informed me of a steamship that would be able to take us as far as Semarang in the East Indies.
The boat trip didn’t sound tempting, and we had already been to Yokohama far too many times. Semarang sounded interesting. From there we could surely travel south-east, down to Australia and then onwards to the Americas. The only downside to that plan was that the steamship wouldn’t leave until Thursday, which would mean three more days of sizzling heat in Saigon. However, Monsieur Fogg seemed comfortable enough, and I was quite content to spend a couple of days in a city that belonged to my dear motherland.
I spent the first day diligently unpacking and packing our luggage. I sold some unwanted items at the local market, and reassembled the rest. Monsieur Fogg’s facial hair desperately needed some tending to, and he seemed much more content when he was back to his usual impeccable self. Nightfall arrived, and I grew restless and took to the streets again. I wandered around in the dusk in search of some adventure.
Saigon was a surprisingly quiet town after dark. I had expected something more bustling and vibrant. The tropical night was delightful, and if I concentrated enough I could hear cicadas chirping in the background. I noticed a group of Artificers having some kind of disagreement in hushed voices on a street corner. I moved closer to eavesdrop on the conversation, and there I saw him again, the man who had occupied my thoughts during these past weeks. This time I called out his name, and he turned around to look at me with a slightly apprehensive look on his face.
“Passepartout,” Vitti said, “I thought you would be further along your journey by now.”
“We have had some misfortunes, but we are still right on schedule,” I answered.
Vitti turned to the group of Artificers, and told them to adjourn this meeting since he had more pressing concerns to attend to. He then turned to me, smiled and asked if I was hungry. He led me through the city to a small restaurant in a rather unkempt alley. I must admit that I was doubtful about the whole experience, but the food turned out to be delightful if rather simple.
When our desserts arrived, I cleared my throat and looked at Vitti and asked the question that had been foremost on my mind:
“What in the world are you doing here in Indochina? I thought you preferred colder climates.”
“I already told you,” he answered with a terse smile. “I am an Artificer. I must go wherever the Guild calls me.”
“But surely the Guild does not have such a firm hold on their members? I’ve met many Artficers during my travels and none of them seemed to be traveling like this.”
“I have my reasons,” he answered, and his eyes narrowed a bit. “I’m a principled man, loyal to those I’ve sworn my allegiance to. Besides, I see myself as a bit of a traveler. Surely, you can understand that.”
I nodded, uncertain of what to say next. We fell into an uncomfortable silence.
“Tell me,” Vitti said after a while. “Why did you leave me that time in Nanortalik?”
I felt as if a chilly wind had arrived from the North and suddenly descended upon us, and I froze. I tried to reach for the right thing to say, but I was stumped.
“Fair enough,” I stuttered out. “I’ll tell you why I left, if you tell me what you are doing here in Saigon. Tell me what the Artificer’s Guild demands of you.”
“That’s a deal, then,” Vitti said and looked highly uncomfortable. “But I doubt either of us will be pleased with the answers.”
A brief silence followed, during which I collected my thoughts and thought about the right way to phrase things. I was not good with matters of the heart, and spending all of my time tending to a reserved English gentleman had not helped my social graces on that front.
“I am a valet,” I said. “As a valet, I have but one purpose. That purpose is to follow my master. I stand beside him as we travel around the world. As a valet, I starch his shirts and comb his hair and make his tea. I manage our finances, I come up with solutions to all of our problems and I can throw a punch or two when needed. I honestly don’t think he could manage without me. It is hard work, but it is oddly satisfying. And I cannot abandon him, because this is what I am and what I’m supposed to do. I take pride in my work. I could not have stayed with you even if I wanted to.”
I looked into his pale, grey eyes and hoped that my words had not stung too harshly. I was surprised when I was met with a faint smile.
“So, it is a question of loyalty for you, then?” he said, and touched my hand slightly.
“Something like that,” I answered.
“It’s getting late,” Vitti said. “I’ll walk you home and we’ll talk more tomorrow.”
We didn’t speak much on the way back home, but I was content just walking beside him. Vitti had a calming effect on my soul, and even if I didn’t want to admit it, I had missed him a lot.
I woke up to a symphony conducted by chirping birds. Our ship would leave in two days, which would give me at least another day to spend with Vitti. I spent the first half of the day making arrangements and tending to my master’s most urgent needs. Monsieur Fogg was in roaring health and eager to leave for some more adventure. I bid Monsieur farewell a couple of hours before sunset, and took to the streets to rendezvous with Vitti. I was hoping for a bit of romance, or at least a conclusion to our affair.
Vitti was looking more melancholy than I had expected. There was a certain hesitancy to his whole demeanor that startled me. Was something wrong?
I had planned for a romantic dinner at the finest French restaurant in town. I was longing for a taste of home. Although the Orient provided plenty of culinary delights, nothing could compare to the foremost cuisine in the world.
We had a couple of hours to spare before dinner, which seemed like a perfect opportunity for a slow walk through the city center of Saigon. I took great pleasure in watching the quiet temples and the extraordinary arrays of steam-powered bicycles that rolled through the streets. No matter how much I had traveled, I would always be amazed by this combination of rusticity and modernity.
Vitti had always been a quiet man, but this day he was unusually so. I thoughtfully selected different topics of conversation, but his responses were sparse and rather curt. As we approached the restaurant, I wondered how the evening would proceed. At this rate, this would be an awkward meeting.
The restaurant proved to be an utter delight. It was a marvel of starched tablecloths, silverware and a plethora of attentive automata that tended to your every need as they wheeled around. The food was spectacular and I could not have chosen a better gentleman to spend time with.
Still, there was something missing from our interactions. I remembered our bargain from the night before, and turned to him to ask about the reason that he was stationed here. His face grew another shade of pale and he looked downcast as he cleared his throat to speak.
“I was hoping that you wouldn’t ask,” he said, and there was a hint of resignation in his voice. “I came here on a mission for the Guild to build something. My skill set was appropriate for the task, so they called on me.”
“What are you building?” I asked, rather impatiently. I had a feeling I wanted to hear this story.
“I am building water buffalos. Automated water buffalos. A great number of them in fact.”
I had come across a lot of strange things during my journeys, but this still sounded utterly bizarre to my ears.
“Water buffalo automata?” I asked, and tried to hide the incredulity in my voice.
“I might sound strange, but there is a reason for that.”
Vitti cleared his throat again and continued:
“The Artificer’s Guild is a vast organization with different interests. Some of them are quite unsavory to say the least, and this is one of them. You know about the opium trade, right?”
I didn’t like where this conversation was going, but I nodded along. Vitti continued:
“The British Empire has monopolized the opium trade for a long time, since they control the parts of the world where poppies grow. And they are exporting most of it to China, where opium is in great demand. It is a profitable trade, and a great source of income to the empire.”
He paused to take a bite out of his apricot.
“However, other countries are just as interested in making a profit as the Brits are. Right now, the French are expanding their territories in Indochina and they are looking for a way to make a quick profit. The French have no doubt that they will be able to take the Northern provinces of Vietnam in a couple of years or so, and they are looking towards Siam as another possible conquest. The Northern parts of Siam and Vietnam are excellent places for poppy growth; it is rural, sparse and the population is very poor. But they need a way to smuggle the opium into China in the most discreet way possible.”
He stopped briefly to take a sip of water and lowered his gaze to his plate. It seemed like his eyes did not dare to meet mine.
“This is where the water buffalos come in. There is nothing unnatural about water buffalos crossing the borders and most people would view water buffalo automata as a sign of progress. And water buffalos are sufficiently large and can store a lot of supplies within their bodies. So, the French authorities contacted the Artificer’s Guild with a request, and the Guild was happy to oblige them. And the Guild contacted me, to stake out the territories and build the beasts.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. Water buffaloes? Partaking in the opium trade?
“You are building opium-filled water buffalo automata for the Artificer’s Guild?” I asked.
“I am only doing the construction work. I’ll leave the opium parts for other people.”
“But you are still aiding the opium smugglers. You are making a profit out of other people’s misery. That is unacceptable.”
“It is just work,” Vitti shrugged. “I have to make a living just like any other man.”
“Have you no sense of conscience? No honor? How can you sink so low?” I asked and my voice trembled slightly.
“I have a sense of obligation. I owe the Guild a lot. They took me in and trained me. Made me into the man I am today. It is not like I appreciate this mission. I am not proud of it. But I cannot refuse to do what they are asking me to.”
Vitti fell silent. I looked at him, and I wanted to understand him but I couldn’t.
“This is unworthy of you,” I said and slammed down my napkin on the table. Without a single word I left the restaurant and walked away from him, yet again.
I ran blindly through the streets of Saigon. In the corner of my eyes I saw streets stalls, piles of fruit and people passing by, but I did not pay them any attention. My heart was still pounding and I could feel a residue of anger jutting through my body. I did not know why this was affecting me so profoundly. My travels had taught me that there clearly is no shortage of unscrupulous people in the world, so why was I even surprised by Vitti’s confession? And why had his admission left me so affected? He is not the man I thought he was, I thought to myself and felt overcome by a profound sadness. I usually perceived myself as a good judge of character, but maybe my fondness for him had overshadowed my usual judgement.
I came back to a quiet and dark hotel room. Monsieur Fogg had clearly retired to bed early, and I was left alone in the darkness, fruitlessly brooding over my past experiences and the nature of man.
We left for the docks at dawn. Monsieur Fogg was in a good mood, humming to himself while I was carrying our luggage. I was still quite shaken from the yesterday’s events, but I quickly forced myself into my usual composure. The ability to keep up appearances under all circumstances is one of the more important traits a valet can have, after all.
The first leg of the journey proved uneventful. I chatted with the captain, a burly, bearded man with a lot of seafaring experience under his belt, and carefully enquired about a way to proceed forward across the globe. We would have to go to Bali, according to him, and take an airship to Darwin, Australia, from there.
Unfortunately, the engine broke down just outside of the Riau Islands, which made the whole crew fully preoccupied for several days. Monsieur Fogg was worried about the inevitable delay in our journey, but I couldn’t muster up my usual concern. The events in Saigon were still on my mind, and Monsieur Fogg even remarked that I didn’t seem like my usual self. There was certainly a lack of enthusiasm in the way I performed my duties, despite all of my efforts to keep my spirits up.
Monsieur Fogg was getting quite seasick from the heavy waves of the South China Sea, so I made sure to tend to his every need during the remainder of the journey. We were both quite relieved when we finally got a glimpse of land and the port city of Semarang shifted into focus.
I had expected the East Indies to be backwater place, but Semarang was a fresh sight, bustling with modernity and expansion. Factories had sprung into place where rice paddies used to be, tall buildings adorned the skyline, and the city itself was crowded and vibrant. Some parts of the place were decidedly Chinese, with small shops selling everything from shark fins to curious medical mixtures. Other parts were more Javanese in character, minarets blasting out calls to prayer over crowded streets. Dutch officials were everywhere, trying to bring order to a city that did not want to be orderly. There was a certain tension in the air, with uprisings against the colonial powers looming on the horizon. I did not have time to fully partake in the ambience of the city, for Monsieur Fogg had clearly hinted that we must make haste or else we would miss our deadline.
I procured two tickets to a passenger train that was rumored to go all the way to the island of Bali. We would have to go under the sea again, which was something I was very much looking forward to. The seascapes would be impressive, and the ocean always had a calming effect on my frazzled nerves. Monsieur Fogg was not as delighted as I was, but I knew he would grin and bear the journey as the stoic man he always was.
The train set out from the train station at noon. As soon as Monsieur Fogg fell prey to his afternoon nap, I relaxed and watched the scenery. Beautiful views passed by. I saw rice paddies stacked upon each other like sturdy plates, and everything was surrounded by rich foliage in contrasting shades of green. It was breathtaking in a way I’ve never really experienced before.
The train made a quick stop in the transport hub of Surabaya, and then we set course for Bali. As the hours passed, Monsieur Fogg grew restless. I suggested that we should take a quick break the next time the train stopped at a station to stretch our legs. My master was hesitant at first, fearing another delay in our travels, but with the underwater passage looming on the horizon, a quick breather seemed like an increasingly good idea to him.
We got off in a small town called Banyuwangi, a port town on the Eastern part of Java. Monsieur Fogg was delighted to breathe some fresh air, and I was pleased with something to break up the monotonous journey for a while. We took a short walk on the platform, and Monsieur Fogg entertained me with a discussion on the finer points of Javanese architecture. Unfortunately, it proved to be quite a long, winding affair, and when I finally got the chance to turn my head from the roof-ridge, I saw our train depart from the platform in the corner of my eye.
Disaster had struck! We would be delayed yet again, and all of our luggage was travelling away from us on an underwater journey to Bali. The thought of losing Monsieur Fogg’s newly starched shirts made my stomach sick with worry. Monsieur Fogg took the news graciously, however, and just remarked quietly that we could take the next train to Bali instead.
It was too late to do anything productive, so I quickly installed my master at the town’s finest hotel and went out on the streets in search of something to calm my nerves. It turned out that the Dutch had started a fine brewery here, and I partook of their wares in a small road-side joint filled with Australian sailors. The malty brew did wonders for my mood, and I had all but regained my usual composure when my eyes landed on the last person I ever thought I would see.
Vitti Jokinen. What in the whole world was he doing here? I looked at him and I slowly shook my head in disbelief. He looked at me and shook his head, and then he laughed and his eyes gleamed invitingly in the dim lights. I was still angry and a part of me wanted to reject him, but at the same time I was really glad to see him. After a moment of deliberation, I invited him to sit beside me at the small, rickety table where my beer was placed.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “I thought you were in Indochina.”
“Well, I left,” he said and I detected a hint of pride in his voice. “You were right. I am not cut out for that kind of work.”
“I’m glad,” I said and I genuinely meant that. My anger had abated by the sight of him, but this decision made me respect him again. “But what about your profession? How will you earn a living now?” I asked.
“I found something new to do. A project of sorts. You might be aware of the new telegraph cable between the East Indies and Australia. It goes under the sea, all the way from here to Darwin. And, well, it broke down. I’m the one elected to fix that.”
“Go on,” I prodded, genuinely intrigued. “How are you going to do that? Are you going to dig it up again from the bottom of the sea?”
“No. I will have to go down to it. I will travel along the telegraph cable in a submarine, locating the problems as I go, and then repairing them. It will be a journey of sorts. I think it will prove to be exciting.”
“It sounds wonderful,” I said in awe. “I have always dreamed of living under the sea. I have seen most parts of the world during my travels, but I’ve never truly experienced the marvels of the ocean.”
“I am looking forward to it. I think I will enjoy the silence and the stillness of it all.”
“Are you going alone?”
“I have no one to accompany me. Unless…”
His voice trailed off and I wondered if that was an invitation. I did not dare to think about it. Instead, I did something utterly out of character for me. I leaned in and kissed him.
The night passed by in a bit of a dim blur. We held hands under the table. The sailors regarded us with some skepticism at first, but after a while they bought us some beer. We talked about trivial, inconsequential things, most of which I cannot recall. Mostly I just remember the smile on his face and the light in his eyes.
We kissed on the way home, and I could feel his beard tickling my face. We stood still for some time outside his door, and then he invited me up to his room. I fear that words cannot fully encapsulate the events that followed.
As we lay next to each other on the narrow bed, he asked if I would come with him. I had never wanted to say the word “yes” more in my life, but my duty to Monsieur Fogg prevented me. I told him that I would consider it and that I wanted to see him again. He replied that his boat would leave tomorrow, and I could see a hint of sorrow in his eyes.
I returned home to my hotel room with a mixture of grief and elation in my heart. Dawn had broken. I could hear a cacophony of birds in the background as I contemplated the strange twists of fate that life provided. To my outmost horror, Monsieur Fogg was already up when I arrived.
“I take it that you profoundly enjoyed yourself last night,” he said calmly.
“I did,” I said, and mustered a weak smile. “But all good things must come to an end. I’ll make you some tea and then I’ll see what I can do about new train tickets.”
My effort to change the subject provided to be in vain. Monsieur Fogg looked at me with a pensive look on his face as if he wanted to figure something out.
“All good things must come to an end, huh?” he said. “That is a truism, if any. Even our journey together will end someday.”
I kept my mouth shut and focused on the tea.
“We have had some good times together,” he continued. “I could not have asked for a better valet.”
“I did not say I wanted to leave, did I?” I blurted out.
“Well, do you?” Fogg asked without a trace of anger in his voice.
“A valet’s place is beside his master,” I replied.
“There comes a time in a valet’s life when he must leave his master behind. Times change and so do priorities. A gentleman’s duty is absolute, but it is not eternal. And I do think you have somewhere else you’d rather be.”
“I do,” I said.
“Then I absolve you of your duty,” Fogg said, and smiled gently.
“I need to leave today,” I said. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. I have a good valet-substitute lined up in Ubud. You have served me well, my dear Passepartout, but our journey together will end here.”
I packed a few belongings in a small paper bag and made some final touches on Monsieur Fogg’s appearance. I served him his tea, and shook his hand. We said our goodbyes.
As I walked down towards the pier, feeling a mixture of wistfulness and profound hope, he shouted his final words to me:
“Passepartout, could you locate and return the missing luggage before you leave? I am in acute need of my pomade.”