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Golden-beak. Chapter 5.

The Summer Serial 2011.

By George Bassett.

5.

WHEN I WAS A LAD at school there were three or four excellent bathing-places indicated by the authorities; one in a shallow back-water for the smaller boys, and other more extensive reaches for those who had proved their ability to take care of themselves. But there were, I remember, not a few among us who used to sneak away to a muddy little bit of river where there were no diving-boards and no conveniences of any sort, because we thought that swimming ceased to be a pastime as soon as it was recognized and organized as a part of our education. And it was not, perhaps, without some trace of our school-boy perversity that Frank Scarlett and I set out for a month’s shooting in the northern part of the main island of Japan. Foreigners are not permitted to shoot over land more than ten miles from a treaty port, and it was only after chivvying the whole staff of the British Legation for a week that we succeeded in obtaining a special permission from the government, and even then we each had to keep a native policeman at our heels to explain to the country people that we were exalted beings, exempt from the customary restrictions. Scarlett, who is a keen sportsman and has excellent shooting of his own in England, would, I knew, be disgusted, but his obstinacy carried everything before it. He wanted to “do” Japan, and it was impossible for him to believe that he could see any new country without having a gun under his arm. We got a few deer, one lean and miserable boar, and very fair bags of duck and green pheasant, but we walked a ri for every head of game we saw. And it is an extraordinary fact that all the geographers and all the makers of dictionaries and guide-books are profoundly incapable of translating any sort of foreign measure into English. These wiseacres tell you that a Japanese ri is two miles and a half in a flat country and three miles and a half in the hills, and expect you to be attended by a surveying expedition in order that you may ascertain with precision whether your morning’s walk lies over country hilly enough to be measured by a long ri or flat enough to be measured by a short ri, Scarlett and I ultimately hit upon the expedient of counting every ri five miles and then dividing each ri into ten whistling distances, for the dogs we had borrowed in Yokohama were always precisely half a mile away from us. It was all very ridiculous as far as the shooting went, but I killed time well enough, for Scarlett had never been in Japan before, and the agonies he suffered in the native inns were to me vastly entertaining.

When we returned to Yokohama I took him to see Mrs. Potwin. It seemed to me that she was the nearest approach to anything genuinely Japanese which he could be expected to appreciate, and before he had known her a week it was plainly to be seen that he did appreciate her. I have laughed at not a few things in my life, but I have never seen anything so ridiculous as the wooing of Mrs. Ysonde Potwin, American divorcée and Japanese fiancée, by Sir Francis Scarlett. At the end of a fortnight he put a stop to my chaffing him, telling me that he meant to marry Mrs. Potwin if Mrs. Potwin would marry him, and that he hoped I would have the good taste if I had any comments to make to make them elsewhere than in his presence. He was old enough to take care of himself, or, at any rate, of such an age that he ought to have been able to take care of himself, but I could not help feeling that if I had not taken him to see her he would never have met her, and that I was in some degree responsible for his preposterous conduct. We came from the same county; his people had always been great friends of my people; and I had known, ever since we had been at school together, that he was a fool. As long as he confined himself to the groove in which his late lamented father had set him running he did very well. He had plenty of money, and did not throw it away. His shooting in Norfolk cost him a good deal, but it was very good shooting. He always had two or three horses in training, and they won him nearly enough to pay for their keep. He was by no means the sort of man whom a cardsharper would have selected as a likely victim. But the moment he lost sight of his customary social landmarks he was as helpless as a child astray on a moor. There was no reason that he should marry for some years to come, and when the time came for him to marry he ought to marry a woman like one of my sisters or any other man’s sisters, not a woman who seemed to have composed herself oqt of jumbled reminiscences of the cheap novels she had read. But there he was, as much in earnest as any man could be, and there was Ysonde Potwin, charmed to have a second string to her bow. He took an infinite amount of trouble to find better runners for his jinrikisha than she had for hers — and hers were uncommonly good — and they used to run mad races every evening out beyond the cricketground, she in her Japanese dress, quite without head-gear, and her short yellow hair flying in the wind. They were like two children. I remembered her having told me on the steamer that she never travelled without a doll, and it seemed to me that Scarlett had set up a doll in his turn, and that she was the doll. They bought each other endless presents— for the most part wooden cooking utensils and Japanese artificers’ tools they didn’t know how to use. He had been a dull boy at school and an idle one, but she made him stick to his Japanese lessons until they could manage to keep up some kind of halting conversation. Then, to my horror, they announced that they were going off to Kioto together. I expostulated. I told Scarlett that she would of course get herself talked about if she went flying around the country with him without any chaperon; whereupon Scarlett told me that I was a low-minded beast, and that Japan was not England, and that American women were not English women, and that in America women were taught to take care of themselves, and that if I didn’t think Mrs. Potwin knew how to take care of herself I had better not say so to him. I didn’t want to come to blows with Scarlett, because I liked him, and because I thought it highly probable that he could punch my head several times before I could punch his once, so I addressed my remonstrances to the lady herself. She didn’t lose her temper. She seemed to think it was a new and delightful sort of joke.

“If you knew,” she said, “how much you look like my grandmother when you raise your eyebrows that way, you wouldn’t do it. It’s the simplest thing in the world, my friend. I am going to Kioto because I want to feed the carp at Kinkakuji. You’d go miles and miles to try to catch fish, and I have a mania for feeding fish. When I was three years old I used to take a globe full of goldfish to bed with me always. One’ person likes one kind of amusement, and another person likes another. And Frank is going to Kioto because he wants to shoot the rapids of the Hozu. If he went all the way to Aomori to shoot ducks, why shouldn’t he go to Kioto to shoot rapids? I suppose you think I ought to wait till he comes back to Yokohama before I go, or let him wait till I come back before he goes. That’s your way of looking at it. And you get your eyebrows away over to the back of your head because I call him Frank. If he were a man I had only seen two or three times, you wouldn’t be horrified at my going to Kioto because he happened to be going there, and yet you talk about my going with Frank, who’s quite an old friend of mine now. Why, he’s been to see me every day for a month! Anyhow, if you think it’s so awful, why don’t you go along too ? I’ll tell everybody you are my grandmother dressed up in a man’s clothes.”

“Thank you very much for the invitation,” said I, ” but I think I won’t go. Do try to be serious for five minutes, won’t you ? You know it’s only because I like you and take an interest in you that I speak.”

“I don’t know whether it is or not,” said she. ” I think you’re half afraid Frank and I will get married before we come back. Why shouldn’t I marry him, for that matter ? You are always talking about respectability, and he’s respectable, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” said I.

“And I’m not ? What’s the reason I’m not? I’m divorced, but I divorced my husband, he didn’t divorce me. Is it my being engaged to Temehichi that makes it so dreadful? Because if it is, I’m not engaged to him. He asked me to marry him, and I told him I’d think about it. The Queen of England couldn’t give him a more respectable answer than that, could she ? And as for Temehichi, he belongs to a very old family, and he’s awfully poor, and I hear you and Frank say the same things about lots of your friends in England.”

“It is not your marrying Temehichi that we are talking about,” said I.

“And perhaps Temehichi is good enough for me, but I’m not good enough for Sir Francis Scarlett — I suppose that is what you mean?” said the little woman.

“I mean that you will get yourself talked about if you go off to Kioto with him, after the way you two have been larking about Yokohama. That is what I mean,” said I.

“And, if you please, who is going to talk about us?” asked Mrs. Potwin. “You! There isn’t anybody else here who knows us both. So the worst of it is you’ll have to talk to yourself. I can see you locking yourself up, in a room and wagging your head at yourself and saying: ‘Really, my dear fellow, it’s a most shocking business,’ and then agreeing with yourself that it is.”

“Do you want to marry Scarlett ?” said I.

“One question deserves another,” said Mrs. Potwin. ” Do you think it would be a very hard thing for me to do if I did want to?”

“I think, if you ask me,” I replied, “that it would be easy enough for you to get married. I fancy that the consuls or the missionaries or some of those people are in the habit of marrying foreigners here. But as for the future, I am not sure that you wouldn’t find it harder to turn yourself into an English woman and lead the life you would have to lead as Lady Scarlett, than to turn yourself into a Japanese woman and be the consort of a shogun.”

“I don’t know how that would be,” she replied, “for I’ve never been to England; but I’ll promise you one thing, if it will make your mind any easier: that if I do marry Frank, it won’t be until after I have been over to his country and see how I like it.”

“It is an original way of acquainting yourself with the various countries of the world,” said I, ” to engage yourself to men of one nationality after another, and make trial trips to their respective homes. Only you will have to draw the line somewhere, or you will be experimenting with a cannibal tribe one of these days, and have your pursuit of knowledge brought to an untimely end.”

“You needn’t worry about that,” said she. ” But, as you seem to be so worked up about it, I don’t mind telling you one thing : that the man I marry will be either an Englishman or a Japanese.”

“And you haven’t made up your mind whether it is to be Scarlett or Temehichi ?” I asked.

“If I have, I haven’t told you,” said Mrs. Potwin.

“And I walked down the hill again to my hotel with no more definite information than that.

I SAW THEM START on their journey, these two extraordinary young people. Their suite consisted of Scarlett’s man, a native courier, and two of Mrs. Potwin’s little Japanese maids. I saw the procession passing along the Bund on its way to the railway station, and Mrs. Potwin was kind enough to arrest the wild flight of her jinrikisha to bid me good-bye. I asked her why she was not taking a third maid with her, and also the little white donkey which I had bought for her one day, and which she sometimes used to drive in a cart. They might as well have a good big caravan while they are about it, I remarked. She told me that she hoped the two maids would chaperon one another, and that if she had taken the third maid she would also have needed a fourth to chaperon the third; as for the donkey, she didn’t know what English manners and customs might be, but that American ladies considered it highly indecorous to travel about with a donkey. And with this parting jeer, off she went.

I heard of the party’s movements from time to time, and I did not by any means find it necessary to talk to myself about them, as she had prophesied I should, for within a few days every man in the club knew about Scarlett’s journey. An American woman whom nobody knows can do all sorts of eccentric things without arousing any one’s interest or attention, but a man with a position in the world such as Scarlett enjoyed does not possess the same immunity. Every one seemed to know that Mrs. Potwin was a friend of mine, and I was heartily weary of being questioned about them before they came back to Yokohama — and they certainly did not hurry themselves. From Kioto they went all the way to Nikko, and from there both of them wrote to me. Scarlett said he was having a very good time, but that he still thought the inns abominable, and that was about all he had to say.

Mrs. Potwin was more communicative. She said she had greatly enjoyed feeding the fish at Kinkakuji, and that she had gone to Nikko because she had heard that the Japanese government was feeding the fish with which Lake Chuzenji had been stocked ; and, as feeding fish was her great object in life, she wanted to see how it was being done. And Scarlett, she said, had gone on to Nikko because, after shooting the rapids of the Hozu, he wanted to see the Daiyagawa. She hoped, she said, that I would clearly understand that no affairs of lesser moment would have induced them to disturb my equanimity by travelling over the same roads at the same time. And in the meantime she was engaged to be married to Scarlett! It was not, she said, a regular engagement: it was the species of engagement called in America an “understanding” — a modified form of betrothal which she considered exceedingly convenient. She had told Scarlett that she was ” sort of half engaged ” to somebody else, and that, such being the case, she couldn’t accept him outright, but that if this other conditional engagement should not result in a permanent and binding engagement, she would consider herself conditionally engaged to Scarlett. She didn’t say what the conditions of this doubly conditional engagement were, but it seemed, as far as I could make it out, to be a solemn agreement that they would marry one another if they wanted to, and wouldn’t marry one another if they didn’t want to. And in the meanwhile, she said, she did not want to have it “announced.” This remarkable letter ended with the statement that they expected to be in Yokohama again at the end of the month.

AS A MATTER OF FACT, they didn’t come back at the end of the month, nor until half-way through the next month. And when they did come back, Scarlett told me in all seriousness that Mrs. Potwin was going to marry him, and that he thought she was the sweetest, brightest, prettiest little woman he had ever seen, and that he was as happy as could be, and that perhaps his people at home wouldn’t like it, but that he didn’t care whether they liked it or not.

I offered him a cigar.

To ask him to smoke seemed a good, safe, conservative sort of thing to say, and I could not think of anything more definite that I thought it would be well to put into words.

He went on to tell me that he knew that in a great many respects Mrs. Potwin’s ideas of life were different from the ideas of life entertained by our women at home ; but that she was so sweet and so kind and so bright that he was sure she would get on with any sort of people anywhere in the world.

I gave him a match.

He next recited to me a long list of the names of Englishmen who had married Americans, and remarked that all of these American women had shown themselves pretty well able to hold their own in England, and that many of them had, for that matter, acquired no small degree of popularity in society.

I asked him to have a drink.

If he wanted any expression of opinion from me, he was disappointed. I was determined that, if he crowded me into a corner and I had to say what I thought about his projected marriage, that I would tell him I thought him altogether out of his mind; but I preferred not to say so as long as I could hold my peace.

But I talked to Mrs. Potwin. I told her it was not a thing to be joked about; that Scarlett was a very honest fellow, and a very kind fellow, and a very good fellow, and a fellow I liked very much, and that he seemed to have put it into her hands to make him very unhappy if she saw Hi so to do. I told her frankly enough that I was by no means sure that it lay equally in her power to make him happy, and that, as for her own chances of happiness, I thought that England would be about the last place in the world in which she would like to live. Then I asked her what she had heard from Temehichi. She showed me the last letter she had received from him. It was quite respectful and quite well expressed. It did not allude to the Reactionary Society, and it occupied itself chiefly with suggestions for the furtherance of her health and comfort in Japan. Apparently Temehichi had, as yet, heard nothing about her flying about with Scarlett, and he seemed to be quite at peace with himself and with her.

ONLY A FEW DAYS LATER, on Mrs. Potwin’s birthday, she received a strange sort of present, which Temehichi must have had made for her in Japan. It was a little bronze helmet, and was clamped upon the head of a large French -wax doll, which came with it. It entirely covered the head of the doll, but was furnished with hinges at one side ; and, when a spring was touched and the joint opened, the little helmet could be removed. The helmet itself was in the form of a bird’s head, the feathers being simulated in white enamel. The eyes were two small garnets, and the bill, which was shaped like that of a hawk, was made of gold. Mrs. Potwin was delighted with this new toy, which was indeed most ingeniously constructed and most exquisitely finished; and it was a droll sight to see the doll, with its pink cheeks and staring blue eyes, suddenly transformed into a mythic monster, like the sun-god of the Nile, when its head was covered by the casque. I didn’t see how Temehichi could have found the money to pay for so elaborate a toy, but I was tired of speculating about his mysteries. So far as I knew she hadn’t told Scarlett anything about Temehichi, and I didn’t think it was my business to enlighten him. But she used, when I found her alone, to put the helmet on the doll, and, solemnly shaking her finger at its golden beak, upbraid it after the manner of Temehichi, calling it “Gold Beak” and “Bad Woman,” a performance in which she delighted.

Take it altogether, the little woman’s Japanese home was a pleasant place to go for an hour or two, and I was sorry when it was time for me to say good-bye to her.

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