The Summer Serial 2011.
By George Bassett.
THE MORNING AFTER Mrs. Potwin had told me the story of Temehichi, the purser called me into his office as I rose from the breakfast-table and said:
“Well, did you pump Mrs. Potwin last night? You had her in a corner long enough.”
“I did my best,” I replied, “and she talked about all sorts of things, but I failed to learn the mysterious Japanese word. I wish I knew it. It would be as good as a railway pass or a cart-load of money all through Japan.”
“I suppose that is as much as to say that you know all about it, but had to promise to keep your mouth shut,” said the purser. ” Well, we have only got a few more days to Yokohama, and I hope there will be no bedevilments in the meantime.”
Mr. Chamberlain’s prayer was answered, for nothing more tremendous than one or two quarrels among the young men of the smoking-room disturbed the latter days of the passage. Then there began to be a great stirring about, and the steerage passengers were busily engaged in dropping many-colored fragments of paper and little handfuls of rice into the sea, seeking to propitiate the gods, and praying that they might find their friends in safety, and prosper in their undertakings. A noisy gull came out to show us the way to the bar at Yokokama, and early the next morning the chain was rattling from the hawse-hole, and the white dome of Fuji-san loomed vaguely through the clouds.
I HAD MRS. POTWIN somewhat on my conscience. I did not want to bear her ashore with me like a bird of brilliant plumage I had killed at sea, and yet it would be heartless to leave her to the mercy of the boatmen and the hotel runners. And she seemed to me a pitiful little figure, arriving there in a strange country, with her bright blue eyes and her bright yellow hair, to involve herself in I knew not what plots and intrigues. I had made a good many English friends when I had been in Japan before, and there is a pleasant little knot of exiles living on the Bluff beyond the town always very ready to be kind to strangers. But I couldn’t quite see myself asking Mrs. This or Mrs. That to call on a “Mrs. Potwin, an American lady whose acquaintance I had made on board the steamer.” I could have warned them that her gowns were very surprising, and that her manners were very American. But there would be more than that to explain. English people, even if they are living at the world’s end, entertain a belief, and perhaps not an altogether mistaken one, that young ladies whose marriages have miscarried should not travel about the world without the protection of some older woman whose life has been more commonplace. And it never seemed to enter Mrs. Potwin’s head that her drunken Irish maid was not a sufficient chaperon.
I learned long ago that it is always foolish for a man to try to help any woman about her social position, even in the miscellaneous society of a minor colony. A woman who is herself in a good position can, if she becomes interested in an eccentric creature like Mrs. Potwin, do a great deal to set her afloat; but the mere fact that a man is trying to help a woman in that way gives her a black eye at the outset. And, after all, English people who are living in out-of-the-way corners of the world have very good reason to be more suspicious than people at home. Every woman’s first instinct when she finds that she is being talked about is to go somewhere where no one has ever heard of her. A man may do the same thing, but it is infinitely easier to know when a man is wrong. If he has been caught cheating at cards in England, it is a moral certainty that he cannot go to a colonial club more than three or four times without encountering some one who knows all about him. Men travel about more than women, and the gossips of the outlying clubs manage to keep themselves very well posted about the happenings in the clubs at home. An undesirable traveller may sometimes be given the freedom of a colonial club by a too confiding acquaintance, but he never lasts long. With women it is a very different matter. As long as a woman doesn’t pretend to be anybody extraordinarily smart, it is by no means so simple a matter to trace her antecedents, and this tends to make people more cautious. I knew, too, apart from all these general principles, that if I induced any one I knew in Yokohama to give Mrs. Potwin the freedom of the Bluff, she would inevitably flirt with all the men and set all the women by the ears. Plainly enough it was the path of wisdom for me to let her shift for herself from the start.
On the whole I was not a little relieved when a very respectable young Japanese came out to us on the health officer’s launch and told Mrs. Potwin that he had been asked by friends in California to do what he could to be of use to her. Directed by him, she went to the hotel which I had selected for myself, but I did not see her again that night, as I was dining at the club. The next day she told me that she had made up her mind to try the experiment of taking a little Japanese house for a month or two, and living altogether in the Japanese fashion. I told her that she must let me go and ask her for a cup of tea when she had settled herself, and she said that she would make an exception in my favor, although she had resolved to have nothing to do with the European colony. So I no longer had to trouble myself about trying to find some one to be kind to her, and for a fortnight I only saw her once or twice, and then when she was flying through the streets in a very smart jinrikisha, with two excellent runners.
I WAS AMUSING MYSELF very well, but still I was pleased when one day I found a little note from her at the club to tell me that she had made her home in one of the Japanese quarters, half-way up the hill, and asking me to come and eat a Japanese dinner with her that night. I had travelled enough in the interior of Japan to be quite able to eat native food when nothing else was to be had, but I must have liked Mrs. Potwin very much to have been willing to put up with that sort of fare in Yokohama. At any rate, she did it all uncommonly well. She had three or four Japanese maids, much prettier than one usually sees anywhere but in a tea-house, and her little home was furnished in the very best Japanese taste. I had to drink tea and saki, and I had to eat raw fish, and everything was flavored with the inexhaustible soy. Mrs. Potwin herself was exquisitely dressed in the Japanese fashion, and had already learned the rudiments of Japanese etiquette. It was, of course, absurd to see so fair-haired and fair-skinned an American woman masquerading as a Japanese, but she was a little creature, and the dress looked better on her than it ever does on a foreign woman of ordinary stature. After dinner she played her samisen for me, and told me how much in earnest she was about adopting Japanese manners and customs. She was in the first flush of that enthusiasm which Japan always excites in a stranger, and sat cross-legged on her mat with heroic perseverance. I asked her what she had heard from Temehichi, and she told me she had only received one short letter, but that his friends in Yokohama had shown every wish to be of service to her, and had taken a great deal of trouble to install her comfortably in her Japanese abode.
“I begin to believe,” said I, ” that you are taking all this wild talk of his very seriously, and I am afraid you are going to find yourself in a scrape before it is over.”
“I found myself in a scrape before it began,” she replied, “for I call it a good deal of a scrape to have a man standing ready to chop off your head.”
“Oh, you were no doubt right to say anything the boy wanted you to, in order to get him out of your room that night,” said I; “but I can’t make out why you encouraged him afterwards. It isn’t possible that you mean to marry him!”
“I don’t know what I mean,” she said. “If he succeeds in all his wonderful schemes I don’t know why I shouldn’t. It would be nicer in a good many ways to marry an American, but then an American couldn’t make me a queen.”
“Nor can Temehichi, for that matter,” I replied. “If he is not altogether out of his mind, he has been trying to impose on you; but I incline to believe that he is a lunatic. It all sounds to me like a wild dream. There is a lot of opium-smoking in San Francisco, people say, and the Europeans learn it from the Chinese. Perhaps your friend the Japanese boy took to the habit, and it has affected his head. I won’t say positively that I know he can’t be of the great Tokugawa clan, because the Europeans to whom I have talked take no interest at all in the descendants of a fallen dynasty, and the Japanese themselves are very shy of talking about the Tokugawa people. You see the affair of ‘sixty-eight isn’t a mere episode in the history of Japan. It is still so recent an event that the Japanese don’t like to talk about it. But I have my doubts all the same. And I can’t understand all that stuff about his using the two swords. So far as I can make out, the daimio and the somurai used to wear two swords, partly for show, and partly to have a spare weapon in reserve, but I don’t believe they ever used them both.”
“I don’t call that any argument,” said Mrs. Potwin. “Poor Temehichi might very easily have got muddled about a little detail like that. According to his own story, he wasn’t born until the old customs were all done away with, and he may have mixed up what his father taught him.”
“It’s a queer business altogether,” said I, “and the queerest part of it all is that I can’t quite make up my own mind what to believe and what not to believe. I have asked one or two very well-informed men here about the political situation of the country, of course without saying a word about this extraordinary story of yours, and from what they tell me there is nothing less likely than even an unsuccessful insurrection, let alone an accomplished revolution. There have been one or two little disturbances since the establishment of the mikado’s government, but there is no serious political party in Japan which wants to restore the old order of things. I asked one of these men whether he believed there were any revolutionary or reactionary societies at work, and he told me that, although there might be some small associations of ambitious and hare-brained young men, there was certainly no organization of any importance.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Potwin, “if you believe that, I don’t see how you are to explain what I have seen with my own eyes, and what you have seen too, for that matter. How could a poor Japanese servant-boy like Temehichi get the stewards on board the steamer to take so much trouble about me, and how could he have friends here to do all sorts of things for me unless they all belonged to some secret society ?”
“I know,” said I, “that I can’t account for what happened on board the steamer, but it is easy enough to explain what you have seen here in Yokohama, He writes to some man here he knows, saying you are going to hire a house and buy a lot of Japanese things, and of course the shopkeepers, and the people who get a commission from the shopkeepers for bringing customers to them, are all very glad to help you find what you want”
“But there is more than that to be explained,” said Mrs. Potwin. “It isn’t only in the way of helping me to buy things that these people have been kind to me. They pay me all sorts of little attentions, and everything is made as easy as can be for me. I don’t say that I really believe there will ever be another shogun in Japan, and they may have to wait for years and years before they even try to get up a revolution, but I am quite sure that Temehichi is more than an ordinary boy, and that there are a lot of people here ready to do anything he asks them to.”
“If that is the case,” said I, “it is quite clear to me that you are very unwise to have anything to do with them. You may be sure that the police in Japan, like the police in any other country, know pretty well everything there is going on in the way of agitation against the government, and that if these people are attempting anything of the sort they will all be brought up with a round turn one of these days, and if you mix yourself up with them it will be made uncommonly disagreeable for you at the same time.”
“But the police can’t do anything to me,” said Mrs. Potwin. “No one here has said a word to me about any secret society or anything else of the kind. They come here to see me, and ask if they can be of any use. One of them is a Japanese lawyer, and another is a clerk in one of the government offices at Tokio, who came all the way down here expressly to see me. They don’t even mention Temehichi’s name to me. They come and call on me, just so, and drink a great deal of tea out of very small cups, like anybody else, and want to know if they can do anything to make my stay in Yokohama more agreeable. There isn’t anything out of the way about it. It is just as if I had come here with a lot of letters of introduction. Perhaps Temehichi hasn’t anything at all to do with it; perhaps every stranger who comes and hires a little native house here is treated in the same way — how do I know? I never was in Japan before.”
“As for other strangers being treated as you are,” said I, ” no one ever heard of an American lady, or a lady of any other country, coming here and making her home in the Japanese quarter, and living in Japanese fashion. However, it will be very good fun for you for a while, and you have certainly got a charming little house here and the prettiest maids I ever saw. I am going up-country, shooting for a month with a man, and I hope I will find you all right when I come back. In the meantime, if you should get yourself into any sort of trouble here, go to the American consul and tell him the whole story.”
“All right,” said she, “I will. But you needn’t be anxious about me. And by the time you get back I shall be able to speak Japanese beautifully.”
| Chapter index |