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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

De Ciz and his wife, Ysé, are chatting one morning with their fellow passengers Almaric and Mesa on the forward deck of a liner on the Indian Ocean bound for the Far East from France. The married couple and their two children only recently embarked at Aden, and De Ciz, like Almaric, is traveling to China to seek new business opportunities. Mesa, a former seminarian, is returning to China where he previously achieved success as an influential customs official.

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Ysé flirts with Mesa, teasing him about his gold rocking chair and extracting a promise that she might use it whenever she wishes. De Ciz and Ysé go below to attend to their luggage, and Almaric suggests to Mesa that Ysé has a romantic interest in him. Though Mesa protests that she is too vulgar and a brazen flirt, Almaric implies that the romantic interest might very well be mutual.

When De Ciz and Ysé return, De Ciz and Mesa go for a stroll. Ysé and Almaric reminisce about old times. By coincidence, they were lovers ten years earlier. They recall their affair with a regretful wistfulness. However, although Ysé does not particularly appreciate the life her husband provides for her, she insists that she loves him.

Almaric goes for a solitary smoke just as Mesa returns from his stroll. He finds Ysé alone, reclining in the rocking chair and reading a love story. Mesa tells Ysé that he knows she is attracted to him. She forces him to swear that he will not love her, thereby arousing his ardor. When Almaric and then De Ciz return with drinks for all, the four discuss their various prospects for making their fortunes in the Far East. In the glaring noon heat in the middle of the ocean they enjoy their drinks.

In Hong Kong, Mesa and Ysé arrange a rendezvous in an obscure corner of an old Chinese cemetery. Mesa, arriving early enough to get cold feet, leaves. Shortly afterward, Ysé and De Ciz arrive. They are arguing over his latest business deal, which requires that he leave her for a time. Despite her pleas that he take her with him, he leaves without her.

Mesa returns, unable to keep away from the rendezvous. Ysé tells him that De Ciz will be gone for one month but that Mesa should not come to see her during that time. Mesa finds her irresistible, even with her husband nearby. Ysé makes Mesa swear before a cross that she is no less desirable as a married woman, even though she is forbidden to him. She also tells him that he must help her become free of De Ciz, even if it means his death. Mesa balks at that, just as De Ciz unexpectedly returns. Ysé remains cool and leaves the two men discussing De Ciz’s plans to undertake some shady dealings in Manila. Mesa encourages De Ciz to take a desk job in a customs house, which would require that De Ciz remain away from Ysé for several years. De Ciz, apparently unaware that Mesa is cuckolding him, agrees to accept the offer.

Some time later, Ysé and Almaric are hiding out in a ruined Confucian temple in a Chinese port where a bloody rebellion is raging. Almaric once again becomes Ysé’s lover. Ysé left Mesa to save him from her, and she does not know where De Ciz or their children are. She and Almaric have with them the child she had with Mesa, a sickly child who dies shortly after.

Almaric sets a time bomb that will take their lives as well as the lives of the rampaging mob slaughtering any Europeans left in the city. As the sun begins to set, he and Ysé are philosophical at the thought that they will not survive the coming night. Almaric leaves Ysé to make the rounds of their hideaway when Mesa shows up at the door. She says nothing when he protests that he still loves her and that, because De Ciz is dead, they can now marry. When Almaric returns, Mesa announces that he comes to take Ysé and their child away. Almaric laughs in his face, but Mesa pulls a revolver, and, in the ensuing struggle, Mesa is knocked unconscious and his shoulder is dislocated.

Almaric finds a safe passage marker on Mesa’s person. Thrilled that they will now be able to escape with their lives, Almaric goes off with Ysé. Soon, Mesa regains consciousness. Ysé, who accidentally misses the boat that would have meant her salvation, returns to comfort the injured Mesa. Knowing that they are soon going to die together, she apologizes to him for the pain she caused him, but she declares that none of it is her fault.

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Themes