Léon-Georges Morel arrived at the Governor-General’s mansion, wearing a white uniform, freshly washed, starched, and pressed. His white shoes glistened. His pith helmet rested on his hip, held there by his right arm. For the occasion he had carefully brushed his main facial feature, a light brown handlebar mustache that stretched across his upper lip.
Although he was a mere district officer in the Cataracts-Sud district of the Belgian Congo, hardly a year in the colony, Governor-General Count Lippens had met him in Boma, the capital, liked him, and invited him to lunch with him and the Countess.
As his hosts greeted him, Morel tried to mask his nervousness. He apologized to the Countess for failing to bring either a bouquet of flowers or a box of candies. “I couldn’t find either one in Boma,” he said. Morel’s apology pleased the Count. It suggested that he had a background from which an effective officer could be molded. Indeed, molding young men of the colonial service into effective officers was one of the Count’s prime goals.
Over soufflé the Count encouraged Morel to talk about his life in the bush, his daily activities, his interaction with Africans, his being called upon to settle disputes. “I’m realizing more and more,” the Count observed, “that if we have the right men in the field, things go well. If we have the wrong men, things go badly. So we must help our officers to become the right sort of men.”
“Tell us more about your domestic life,” suggested the Countess as they ate dessert. “Do you actually have one? Is there a social life?”
“I don’t really have a domestic life,” admitted Morel. “I live in the back of the building that’s my office. Sometimes I play cards with a missionary nearby.”
“Did you leave a girl at home?” asked the Count.
Morel very openly drew into himself.
“Please excuse us,” said the Countess. “Is that a delicate subject?”
Morel sighed, realizing he better make a clean breast of it. “There was a girl. I asked her to marry me. But when I went into the colonial service, she refused me.”
“I’m so sorry,” said the Countess.
“For the first months out here I missed her very much,” Morel admitted. He looked at his hands, annoyed with himself for confessing so much.
Adjourning to the small parlor for coffee, they moved to other subjects. While the Countess filled their demitasses, the Count recalled something he had mentioned when he had earlier met Morel. “I believe I suggested to you at our earlier meeting that you find a young woman to take care of you.”
“Yes, sir, you did.” The young man blushed embarrassedly.
“And have you found one?”
“I’m going to excuse myself for a few moments,” declared the Countess. “I need to thank Cook for our lunch.”
As she rose from her chair, Morel rose, too, very conscious of his manners. Once she was gone, he sat down again. While he was on his feet the Count watched him, both benevolently and amused.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” said the Count. “Our women are very aware that the right companion settles a man. It helps him become a better officer.”
“I wish I knew how to go about it,” Morel confessed.
Neither man spoke for a moment for the Count himself did not really know how a young officer might go about finding a suitable Congolese to live with.
“A few years ago there was a trial across the river in the French Congo,” said Morel. “A young officer came out from France without the savoir faire being French is supposed bestow. When he needed companionship, he required the wives of his soldiers to sleep with him.”
The Count nodded. “I’ve heard of the man,” he acknowledged. “Bad things happened.”
“He went on trial,” said Morel. “His soldiers testified against him. He spent a year in prison.” Morel laughed. “I wouldn’t want to be a colonial officer doing time in a colonial prison.”
“Surely,” observed the Count, “the choice is not celibacy or prison.”
Morel noted quietly, “Unfortunately there are no matchmakers for colonial officers at my station.”
The Count asked, “Would you want a settler’s daughter? We could make some introductions.”
“Please don’t!” Morel laughed. “A settler’s daughter would see where I live and complain around the clock. I might be forced to kill her. Then I’d be put on trial.”
“So we must find you a Congolese– A maiden.” The Count smiled as he said the archaic word. Morel smiled, too. “You’d have to treat her decently, you know,” warned the Count. “I’m told native men beat their women.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I don’t hit women.”
“If you didn’t beat her, she would think she’d landed very well.” After a thoughtful pause the Count noted, “You wouldn’t want a girl who put on airs, being Morel’s woman.”
Morel shook his head.
“Probably from the dominant tribe in your area. Girl from a lesser tribe might have difficulties.”
Morel laughed again. “Should I be making a list?”
“What kind of a girl would you want?”
Morel considered this for a moment. “Pretty. I’d be looking at her a lot. Slim. Not skinny, but not—“ He gestured with his hands.
“What qualities besides how she looks?”
Morel mulled qualities. “Quiet, I guess. Maybe I mean self-possessed. Not flighty. A sense of humor, though I don’t imagine we’d be telling each other jokes. Clean. A good housekeeper.” He shrugged. “Responsive in bed, of course.” The Count nodded. “Though not given to too much of that.”
Morel and the Count regarded one another, Morel trying to think of other necessary qualities. “A good cook although maybe the man who cooks for me would stay on. She should speak some French,” Morel added. “She could teach me Lingala.”
The Count smiled. “Now all we have to do is find her.” He folded his arms across his chest and gazed at the ceiling, trying to think where such a maiden could be found.
The Countess rejoined the men to find them apparently deep in thought. “Am I interrupting?” she asked.
The Count explained, “We were wondering where Morel could find a Congolese companion. He doesn’t want a settler’s daughter.”
As if it were the most obvious strategy, the Countess said, “Go where the girls are. To a convent school.”
This was a new idea to Morel.
“Go to the Mother Superior,” the Countess went on. “Explain your problem. That you need a companion. That the Governor-General himself” – the Count looked surprised at this – “suggested that you try this very school. Emphasize that your companion will benefit not only herself and you, but also the region where you serve, even the colony as a whole.” The Countess’ advice continued. “Remind the Mother Superior that a colonial official with a companion is better than one who is lonely, irritable and short-tempered. I’m sure she’ll find you the right girl.”
“And with that good advice,” said the Count, looking at Morel. “will you walk with me back to the office?”
Léon-Georges Morel stood before the mirror in the guesthouse in which he spent the night. He beheld apprehension in the face that stared back at him. He was about to make his first call at a convent school. It trained sixty girls. He hoped the Mother Superior would be kindly, motherly, sympathetic. He had heard that she frightened the girls. Would she frighten him? No! She would not! He stood erect, threw back his shoulders, and smoothed his mustache. Now in the mirror he saw a fine specimen of a colonial officer. Bravely he set forth.
Arriving at the convent, Morel watched companion candidates move across the courtyard before their classes began. He examined faces and what he could imagine of breasts, thighs and derrieres covered with school uniforms. There were not many girls of suitable age, fourteen or older. But there were enough and some were very fine! They made his mouth water; they caused a stirring in his groin. With satisfaction he brushed his mustache. The Lord be praised! He would not sleep alone this night.
Outside the office of the Mother Superior, he straightened to his full height and noticed that his manliness energized the bashful girl who escorted him to his appointment. But when he entered the office and stood before the woman who would determine his fate, his heart sank. The Mother Superior was a crone. She sat behind her desk, swathed in her habit, her ogre face protruding from a wimple wrinkled from wear. She did not smile or rise in greeting to offer her hand. She sat, immobile. She studied him with narrowed eyes as if some witch’s magic had informed her of the reason for his visit.
“Your convent is so attractive, Mother Superior,” Morel said. “Your girls are fortunate to be here.” The hag said nothing. He introduced himself, explained that he served as the government officer at Cataracts-Sud and observed that her convent was extremely well-regarded in the area. Mother Superior continued to study him; she made no reply. He said, “The Governor-General suggested that I call on you.”
“Did he, indeed?” she replied. Clearly she did not believe he had ever met the Governor-General. “And when did you see the him?”
Morel explained. He had been to Boma on official business.
“And why should he suggest you call on me?”
Standing before this creature, Morel felt in greater danger than when he entered a hostile village. He was unable to mask his nervousness. He hesitated. “He recommended that I find a companion – the right kind of companion, of course, a girl with some education – and thought I might find her here.”
The Mother Superior examined Morel unforgivingly. “You have come to take off one of our best girls to keep you happy in the bush. Is that it?”
Morel felt tongue-tied. He wondered whatever had made him suppose he could succeed in the colonial service.
“Does the Governor-General suppose that our work is to provide courtesans for colonial officers?”
Morel stared at the floor. He closed his eyes, unable to behold this Christian fiend who frightened him more than a dozen demons.
Finally he managed, “I believe he feels that a gentle, docile girl with a sense of humor, rather pretty, would improve my ability to– You know, deal with—uh—challenges of the service.” Morel felt relieved that he’d gotten out “challenges.”
“You’d be less likely,” said the Mother Superior, “to fly off the handle at natives. Is that it? To scream at them and beat them?”
This was not going well. “Reverend Mother, it’s a hard and lonely job. The right girl could—“ Morel ran out of words.
“Will you marry her?”
Morel had not considered marriage. He made no reply.
The Mother Superior studied him. “Hmm,” she murmured at last. “We do have a girl, a complainer, rebellious, difficult to get along with. Rather plain. We are sending her back to her village, but I suppose we could give her to you.”
Morel watched the woman, terrified.
“Do you want to take her now?”
Morel shook his head. He could not speak.
“As for gentle, docile girls with a sense of humor, we hope to keep them for ourselves. To help us with our work.” The ogre watched him. “You understand, of course.”
Morel stood, withering under the creature’s scrutiny. He did not know how to extricate himself from the situation.
The ogre rose from her chair and came around her desk. “I’ll call the difficult girl. Perhaps you’d like a look.”
“No, thank you,” said Morel. He fled from the room as if his feet were on fire, stepped outside the building, exhausted and relieved that he had escaped. He thought sleeping with soldiers’ wives might be an easier way than this to find companionship.
Morel girded his loins and made a second try, this time at a Protestant mission. Perhaps a man would be more sympathetic. He was taken to a starchy prig. When he heard Morel’s request, the man said, “Never before have I been mistaken for a pimp.” Morel withdrew.
After two failures Morel’s self-esteem hit bottom. His loneliness grew. His shattered self-confidence revived slowly. He felt a hunger for a woman, not only sexual, but also spiritual. He yearned for a companion to share his life, for someone to converse with at dinner.
One night, drinking with a trader spending the night at Cataracts-Sud, he recounted his interview with the ogreish Mother Superior. He spoke of her as a dog-faced hag who growled at him and needed a shave. “She had a mustache,” he said.
“As thick as yours?” asked the trader, his words slurred with drink.
“My mustache becomes me!” insisted Morel. “Hers was—“ He concentrated, then shouted, “Repugnant.” At the moment that was the severest insult he could concoct. “I arrived feeling like a man. She made me feel like a boy.”
The two men chortled drunkenly at how awkward and – worse! – impotent Morel had felt under the Reverend Mother’s scrutiny.
The next morning the trader recalled enough of their laughter to remember that soon he would be visiting a convent school. He quite liked the Mother Superior, a worldly woman, overcome by the world’s sins, who had taken refuge from them in a religious calling.
“Let me sound her out for you,” offered the trader. If she sympathized with a young man’s bush loneliness, he would let Morel know.
In due course another trader passing through Cataracts-Sud stopped by Morel’s office and handed him a letter. “You’re the chap who’s a-questing, right?” said the man. “I think there’s good news here for you.”
Indeed there was. The Mother Superior with experience of the world understood the pain of loneliness and the calls of the flesh. She invited Morel to visit her school.
He immediately made arrangements to journey to that part of the region. When he appeared before this woman, he found an entirely different person from the first Mother Superior he had confronted. Like her sister nun, she peered at him from out of a wimple, but in her former life she had had experience with men. The pleasure of beholding a fine-looking young fellow made her smile. Her eyes sparkled. “The colonial service has a number of handsome officers in it,” she enthused. “I think any number of our young ladies would be happy to be a companion to you.”
“What good news,” said Morel. “Thank you!”
The Mother Superior had, in fact, identified five candidates, fifteen or sixteen years old. They were all rather pretty. “Some African girls are really stunning, you know,” confided this gentlewoman. They also had pleasing personalities.
She suggested that Morel have tea with each candidate. She would introduce them, make sure some rapport was established, then discreetly depart. She suggested that Morel see one girl in the morning and another in the afternoon. When he had seen them all, he could make his choice. At that point the Mother Superior would undertake negotiations with the family of the chosen girl. Morel knew that he would have to pay her father bridewealth. He told his new friend what he could afford.
“The girl and her family will understand that this is not a marriage,” the Mother Superior explained, laying out the details. “But the girl will be pleased to be a white man’s woman. That means she will be prized. When the time comes for you to leave her, she will have no trouble finding a husband, particularly if she gives you a child.”
Morel’s eyes grew large at this remark. He had not thought of him and the companion producing children.
“In the old days before we civilizers came out here,” said the nun, “there was a kind of rental relationship between a man and a woman. Fortunately, those are almost unheard of now, but this is somewhat like those. You must understand that if the girl has a child, that child belongs to her lineage. You’ll have no rights to it.” The nun looked at Morel sympathetically. He nodded his agreement to this stipulation. “A man can become very attached to his children,” noted the Mother Superior. “But if you wanted to leave her, you would have to give up the child. To keep the child you would have to marry her.”
“I understand,” said Morel. He was eager to begin the round of teas.
“If you want, you may ask the girls to shed their clothes,” continued the Mother Superior. “Africans are more modest than we generally are,” noted the nun. “Some will be very reluctant to remove their clothes. But they will oblige you. Some may have scarification designs on their backs. You might want to check on that.” The woman hesitated, then counseled. “During these teas it would not be appropriate for you to be intimate with any of the girls.” She smiled apologetically. “While they are at our school, we encourage them not to sleep with men.”
“I understand,” Morel said again.
The teas began. Morel felt enthusiastic about the process. Young girls were paraded before him to audition for the role of his companion. The ceremony of tea allowed him to assess their manners, their training, their ease or lack of it in being with him. All of the girls were both friendly and pretty; one was striking, a beauty. Morel was pleased at the idea of beholding beauty every day.
Some girls were shy about conversing; his friend helped bolster their confidence. Morel tried humor, teasing, flirtation with all of them. Some remained relaxed when his sponsor left them alone; others let shyness return. Morel did not check for scarification designs on the backs of any of the girls – except the beauty who had none. When the girl stood before him naked, Morel’s throat went dry. He felt breathless, dizzy.
He chose the beautiful girl who had stood before him unclothed. The nun was not surprised. Men were men, after all. She would not announce the choice to the girl until she had negotiated with her family. As it turned out, the beautiful girl’s father would not agree to the arrangement. He expected to make a marriage for her within the next year and anticipated receiving more bridewealth than Morel could afford.
Morel once again felt discouraged. He had pinned all his hopes on winning the beauty. “I suspected you would make that choice,” the Mother Superior told him. “But personally I think it was the wrong one. Living with a woman who is conscious of her beauty is not an easy road. Her father may have done you a good turn.”
“Which one would you have chosen?” asked Morel.
“You and Titi had the most rapport. I thought it was a match.”
So Morel chose Titi. She was fifteen, pretty, with a lively personality, gentle but not docile, with dark skin and laughing eyes. Her family was agreeable to the arrangement. Morel had tea with her again – they were alone – and told her he had chosen her. She seemed pleased. With little urging she took her clothes off and strutted about the room, waving her arms, pleased with both herself and him. Watching her, Morel’s mouth watered.
Titi had only a little French. Their conversations would progress slowly. However, she touched his mustache with delight, this special secret of white men. They had another mystery about them: their skin. Titi communicated that she expected Morel to show her his body.
“What?” Morel asked, surprised.
“Off!” she said, laughing at him. “Tout nu.” Teasing, Titi began to tug at his clothes. When she opened his tunic, she reacted with surprise. His chest was covered with hair. European men were hirsute; African men were not. Titi reached out to touch the nest of hair. She pulled at it. Morel gently pushed her away, offended. They stared at one another.
Titi took hold of his arm. She pinched him. She spit into her hand and rubbed his skin. The white did not come off; it was not ashes as whiteness was in Titi’s village.
“Tout nu,” she repeated, signaling him to continue removing his clothes. He meant to have her and complied. Soon he was totally naked. To overcome his self-consciousness at being stared at, he walked around the room as she had, waving his arms and strutting. They laughed at each other. He felt himself growing erect and covered his groin.
Titi had seen men naked, but never a white man. She inspected Morel, making a circle around him. So completely white! Every part of him! At last she shrugged her shoulders and laughed, willing to give their arrangement a try. As a gesture of acceptance, she reached out to his face, touched his mustache and ruffled her fingers through it.
The next day Morel met Titi’s parents. He transferred the bridewealth to her father. Titi left the convent school that afternoon and went with Morel to the guesthouse.
It did not bother Morel that she seemed to have had some experience with men. After first being together, they sat on their bed, she on his knees, tout nu, laughing and kissing, shaking their heads in bafflement as they exchanged incomprehensible words. Morel rested his hands on her hips; Titi flicked the long points of his mustache back and forth, laughing heartily and whispering, “Si beau! Si beau!”
When he lay beside her that night, his arms about her, his body sated, a grin on his face, Morel felt a satisfaction he had not known for many months.