The priest put down his notes and leaned forward, addressing his audience more personally. "You are all preparing to be ordained." His voice struck a low pitch, and its vibration rumbled in the cavernous hall. "With the conquest of heathen lands all over the world comes an opportunity for the expansion of Christianity. To novices of any order who have strong faith, I offer a chance to serve in a foreign place, along with the guaranteed reward of immortality in heaven. There will be a series of planned voyages and explorations of South-east Asia, a pagan civilization open to conversion to the true faith. We need physicians, scientists, botanists, engineers, and artists to effect and record the dawn of the Christian era..."
The artist paused in the midst of his brushstroke. Those last words seemed to speak directly to him, and he saw that his intuition had served him well when he had decided to come to this place.
The ghostly dawn poured in through rows of stained-glass windows and bathed the statues. Along the walls, the fresco murals absorbed the light, and the figures within their panels seemed to breathe. The artist coughed. The seminarians turned their heads and whispered in one another's ears. A round-faced youth wearing the brown robe of the Benedictine order looked him up and down. The lecturer rapped his knuckles on the dais to regain their attention.
In contrast to his impressive voice, the priest's body was slight. His thin dark hair, combed back from a high forehead, failed to cover his balding crown. From within two gaunt sockets, his eyes captured the sunlight's golden hue yet reflected none of its warmth.
As he spoke, his lower jaw revealed a row of uneven, yellow teeth. Everything about him, from his features to the simplicity of his cassock, reminded the artist of portraits of suffering saints from a bygone era.
A hand from the audience rose. The priest acknowledged a young man in the second pew.
"I pray of you, Monsignor de Béhaine," said the novice. Most of his face was hidden under the hood of his robe. His clear voice suggested that he was in his early twenties, slightly older than the artist. "Please tell us more about the geography of these places that you are talking about. I've never heard of them."
The priest tilted his chin forward and addressed the student. "Very well. Brother João, have you heard of China?" he asked. "Yes, sir. It is a country east of India."
"Excellent. Now, imagine, just below China, along the edge of the South China Sea, which is part of the Pacific Ocean, a land three thousand kilometers in length. We call this land Annam, and the people who live there are the Annamites or Annamese. Theirs is a primitive but ancient society. For the last few hundred years, a civil war has divided this country into two separate kingdoms. The North is called Tonkin, while the South is Cochin China. Both of the kings were anointed when they were mere children, and so the two countries are ruled by high-ranking nobles, who are known as vice-kings."
He paused, allowing the seminarians to digest the information. "It took me some time to understand the many ways in which their culture differs from ours. If you decide to accompany me on my next voyage, I promise that you will gain more knowledge about the world than you could ever read in a book - that is, if you could ever find one that is written about these undiscovered lands. Who among you has the hunger for adventure and the dedication to faith required of a missionary?"
The room fell silent. Even the saints on the walls seemed to avert their eyes.
The monsignor chuckled. "Here in Europe we have been blessed with true religion. A priest must be above reproach because he represents God, and also because others on Earth are so lost in their paths that they need guidance. It is now our obligation to rescue the savages. Nothing must be allowed to stop us from carrying out our mission."
From Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen, pages 3-8 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2004 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
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