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Thank You, Mr. Moto
By John P. Marquand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 John P. Marquand, Jr. and Christina M. Welch
All rights reserved.
I often like to think that the entire sequence of events of the afternoon and evening, which I am now trying to set down, tend to prove a theory to which I used to be partial. The theory is that man, even an individual among the pitifully small number of great ones that have risen above the mediocrity of the race, drifts rather helplessly on the current of circumstances. He cannot alter circumstances to suit himself. The Julius Caesars, the Ghenghis Khans, and the Hitlers are types tossed to the surface by half-recognized subterranean forces of history, moving in the turmoil like rice grains in boiling water. I used to believe that no individual ever turned the stream of events from its course. At any rate I never tried that afternoon. Even if I had had a premonition that I could have altered a single detail of circumstances, I should not have exerted myself. I had learned from my years in China, that undue exertion of nearly any form leads to difficult consequences, and at any rate is undignified.
I finished the page I was writing and locked it with the rest of my manuscript in the drawer of my red lacquer desk, comfortably aware that I should probably never complete it, and that it made no great difference either way. The rather battered silver travelling clock on my desk, one of the few objects I had left to remind me that I had a past, indicated that the hour was a quarter past six, which meant that the afternoon had barely started in Peking. My perpetual calendar on the desk showed that the day was mid July.
I was buttoned in a blue Chinese robe of the latest sartorial style, and felt relaxed and comfortable. It annoyed me that it would not be suitable to continue in such a costume where I was going. I leaned back in my chair and raised my voice, but not loudly, being certain a servant was always in easy earshot. My voice mingled with the droning of the cicadas in the trees beyond my courtyard walls.
"Yao," I said. My number one boy pushed back the reed screen of the door quietly, and walked across the grey tiled floor with whiskey and a soda syphon, and we conversed in the telegraphic grammar of China.
"Lay me out a clean white suit," I said. "I am going to a party at Mr. Montgomery's."
There was actually no need to tell him where I was going, because like any other servant in Peking, Yao knew his master's social engagements as accurately as he knew his weaknesses.
"You may have dinner ready at nine o'clock," I added. "I do not know whether I will be back for it or not. I do not know whether I will bring guests back with me or not, but if I do come back I shall want a good dinner."
My vagueness did not upset him. I doubt if there is any place in the world, where one may be as noncommittal and still be confident of perfect service as in Peking. I knew that my white suit and my white shoes would be immaculate, and they were. Yao helped me on with my coat and knelt down to arrange the cuffs of my trousers.
"Get me another handkerchief," I said, "and I have no money in my pocket."
"Last night," said Yao, "you used up all your money."
"Very well," I said, "lend me ten dollars."
Yao was my banker at times, and not any more dishonest than several other financiers I have dealt with. I walked through my courtyard where the yard coolie was watering a border of blue and white flowers, past the spirit screen which guarded the red door of the grey outer wall. The door was opened almost automatically by the door keeper, who I knew would be ready to perform that function at any hour of the day or night that might bring me home. My ricksha with my puller, in clean white clothes, was ready at the gate. A moment later we were out of the narrow residential alley, rolling south along a broad street toward the Legation Quarter. My boy was running smoothly and seemingly tirelessly, as a good ricksha boy should run. The sights and sounds of Peking in summer seemed to move on either side of me, unrolling as a scroll painting might unroll, changing with each street corner but never really changing. I could come near to seeing with my eyes closed, simply from the sounds I heard. A deeper note in the patter of slippered feet told me that we were passing close by the pink stucco wall of the Forbidden City, where the yellow-tiled roof of its pavilions rose above it, shimmering silkily beneath the blue sky that was growing darker with the drooping of the sun. There was a high squeak of a water carrier's barrow, the rumble of a man-drawn cart, a patter of donkeys' hoofs, a whistling of a trained flock of pigeons in the sky, the blare of a radio from the door of an open shop and the noise of a motor horn, but such sounds did not disturb a pervading impression of serenity. I could hear the brass castanets of the sweetmeat vender and the tinkling of the fan venders' bells, and the cry of a melon seller. Those sounds all came together into an endless wave of sound, peaceful, enveloping, the noise of China where men lived and died according to fixed etiquette, where nothing mattered very much, except perhaps tranquillity. I felt tranquil enough at any rate and I was very glad to be so. I was pleased with the thought that nothing would ever change the city very much and that I was a part of it in a way, as much at any rate as a foreigner might be. I took a fan from my pocket, a fan with a poem on it, about cranes and lotus blossoms, which my Manchu friend Prince Tung had given me.
There were a great many rickshas already near the willow tree by the Montgomerys' front gate. The ricksha coolies were squatting beneath the tree, discussing the eccentricities and peccadillos of their masters and their mistresses. They would be glad to wait there until two o'clock in the morning, if necessary, without complaint. A band was playing on the terrace of the Montgomery house, which was a two-story European structure, but the strange cosmopolitan life of Peking moved easily around it. Nearly everyone knew everyone else down to the last detail of scandalous gossip, and the knowledge that there was nothing hidden except by the scant mercies of convention was rather reassuring. The British, Russian, German, Italian, Japanese and the Chinese officials were there. Everyone was there. White-robed servants were passing cocktails and appetizers. Mr. Montgomery, fat and perspiring, in his white silk suit, shook hands with me.
"Glad to see you aboard, Tom," he said. There was something buoyantly reminiscent of old days in America about Joe Montgomery, which frequently made me restless. My hostess, Elsa Montgomery, drew me aside.
"Tom," she said. "Don't you feel nervous?"
"Why?" I asked.
"Because the army has been drawn out of the city," she said. "It has been a definite fact since yesterday. There are only the police. Anything might happen." A boy passed with a tray of cocktails. I took one.
"Elsa," I said. "You know that nothing ever happens."
"But aren't you interested?" she asked.
"Not in Chinese politics," I said. "It doesn't pay to be, because they change too fast."
"You must know a great deal about them though," she said. "You play around with the Chinese so much, but you never say anything."
"Meaning you don't approve of my native friends?" I answered. "Well, there's nothing really to say. Everything goes on. I'm writing a book about that."
"Why Tom!" she said. "I didn't know you were writing a book. I didn't know you were doing anything."
"As a matter of fact," I answered, "I didn't know I was writing a book myself until a week ago. It's better to say you're doing something than nothing out here, isn't it? Otherwise one might be misunderstood."
Then she turned away from me and said: "Why, how do you do, Mr. Moto. You know Mr. Moto, don't you, Tom?"
Mr. Moto and I had met on several occasions. He was a small rather chunky Japanese; in well-fitting European clothes, who appeared occasionally — perhaps three times a year — in Peking and stayed at his Consulate and disappeared without warning. Mr. Moto shook hands effusively and drew in his breath politely.
"Oh yes," he said. "Oh yes. Mr. Nelson and I are very good friends. Oh yes." His eyes which were rather protruding moved toward me searchingly. His smile was nervous and determined. "So you are writing a book!" he said. "I did not know."
I looked back at him and we both stood smiling, determinedly and heartily, seemingly waiting for the other to grow tired.
"It would be interesting if you wrote one too," I said. "Let me read yours, and you can read mine."
Mr. Moto laughed artificially. "Ha! Ha!" he said. "That would be very funny. You are such a clever man, and I am so very stupid."
Though it was true he laughed, I have a tolerable faculty for sensing moods. In Mr. Moto's manner toward me there was a new empressment. He was no longer lightly casual; his narrow eyes were analyzing me as he smiled. I was aware that he was trying to place me in the order of recognized personages and I guessed the reason for his interest. It lay in the feebly jocular remark that I was writing a book.
"Your book," said Mr. Moto, "what is it about?"
"The manuscript is in the drawer of the red lacquer desk in my sitting room," I said. "Drop in any time and read it, when I am out, Mr. Moto, but I am afraid it isn't the sort of thing you're interested in."
"Thank you," said Mr. Moto and he bowed, "thank you very much. Good bye."
It seemed to me that it would be hard to find a place in the world where so many types and interests mingled in apparent friendliness, as there in the Montgomerys' garden. There were the Chinese and the Japanese and Russians, for instance, instinctively each of them suspicious of the other, but all affable and smiling; bound together temporarily by an American jazz tune, that cultural gift of our nation to every outpost of the world.
"Elsa," I said to Mrs. Montgomery. "I'll tell you something, and remember I told you, when it happens. There is going to be some new sort of political trouble here. I have found it out just now."
"Just now?" said Mrs. Montgomery. "Just now, this minute?"
"Has it ever occurred to you," I asked her, "that every time in the last year when there as been any sort of crisis or tension in North China — and believe me, there has been a lot of it — that Mr. Moto has always appeared? Not that it really matters. None of these things really matter."
"I've heard other people say that it is a Mr. Takahara who makes the trouble," she remarked. "Do you know him?"
"No," I said. "It doesn't matter, does it?"
"Nothing does matter to you, does it?"
"Elsa," I said, "when you get as old as I am —"
"You're not so old," she interrupted.
"When you get as old as I am intellectually," I said. "If you ever do, you'll find there's only one thing that matters — keeping out of trouble."
She may have been aware of some implication in what I said. At any rate she did not seem altogether happy, and I no longer interested her.
"Here comes Major Best," she said in a tone which indicated plainly enough that Major Best was more interesting. He was walking toward us, easily and competently, across the courtyard, holding a highball glass in his hand, as he had walked a hundred times before. I only know now that there was a tragic fatality in his seemingly casual appearance that afternoon. I only know now that that whole afternoon was a part of a drama where all the characters mingled, utterly unconscious of what was to happen. When I think of it in that manner, the Montgomerys' garden, with its green bushy trees against a sky that was dustless and clear, assumes the proportions of a stage. All the people there in my memory seem now to have been walking in a hard bright light ... the Chinese in their silk robes the only persons clinging to a national costume, the rest of us in European clothes, but nearly all of us with the mark of the Orient on our faces. Some made weary by it, some sodden and some violent.
Major Jameson Best was a recognizable type, just as, I suppose, we all were. His white clothes were perfect like the clothes of most Englishmen, surrounding a body which steady exercise kept perpetually fit. The cut of his hair, growing grey at the temples, was perfect. His face had all the sharp angles and lines of a British face, those singularly determined, conventional lines, not to be changed by any experience; but somehow one knew very well that Jameson Best had seen plenty. The things he had seen were written in the corners of a tight, even mouth, and in the wrinkles around his eyes. There was a reflection in his eyes such as occasionally appears in the eyes of a jaded traveller. Though there were mysterious suspicious gaps which no one could fill, everyone knew parts of his history. He had been to Tibet and Turkestan. He had been captured by the bandits in Manchuria. It was said he could speak a dozen dialects but he never displayed the knowledge. All of that was reflected in his eyes. They were a pale washed-out grey, level and mirthless even when he laughed.
He came toward us, walking softly.
"Well," he said to Mrs. Montgomery. "Everybody's here, what? And now Nelson's here it's perfect, what? Nelson, how about a spot of dinner with me tête-à-tête? We haven't settled the affairs of the nation for a long while, have we young fellow? You and I will cut off together when Mrs.' Montgomery throws us out, eh what?"
"Thanks," I said, "I'd like to, Best."
He smiled; there was a flicker in his eyes which was not humorous. "That's topping," he said. "Join me when you're ready, eh?" He took a sip from his highball, bowed and moved away. I looked at Elsa whose increasing restlessness indicated that she wished me to move on also.
"The war was won," I said, "on the playing fields of Eton."
"What's got into Jamy?" said Elsa. "I didn't know you two were such friends. I thought —"
"You thought he had other interests," I remarked. "Which girl is it now?"
"The new one," said Elsa. "Don't say you haven't heard? The one who came out here last spring and keeps staying and staying. Miss Joyce, of course. She's dancing on the terrace now." I glanced toward the terrace long enough to see that Major Best was not moving in that direction.
"I didn't know that you and Jameson Best were such friends," Elsa said again.
"Neither did I," I answered. "Don't you see what's happening?"
"No," she said, "do you?" The boy passed with a tray of cocktails and I took another, my third.
"Another affair," I said. "The Major wants to be seen leaving here with me. He wants everyone to know just how he is spending his evening. He knows that I generally go home early. Well, it doesn't matter."
She began to laugh. "Tom," she said, "that's too clever to be right."
"No," I told her, "it's too easy not to be. The human mind is almost always the same, Elsa. If you'll excuse me, I think I might dance now."
"With Miss Joyce?" she asked.
"Perhaps," I said. "It doesn't matter, does it?"
"Probably not," said Elsa, "but I am a little sorry for Miss Joyce."
"You're probably right," I told her. "But it doesn't matter, does it?"CHAPTER 2
I drank a fourth cocktail and moved toward the terrace. I had seen Eleanor Joyce, this girl of whom Mrs. Montgomery had spoken, often enough during the last few months. In a community as small as the foreign community of Peking everybody meets, and a stranger is always welcome. I had not suspected until that afternoon that Eleanor Joyce might be that kind of girl, as one delicately puts it: The idea interested me and a sort of mental upset occurred which had happened often enough before in the lives of casual males. Eleanor Joyce ceased to be an abstraction, and became a person. I stood on the edge of the terrace, waiting with a new interest until I saw her.
The dancers were moving on the terrace, idiotically, aimlessly, when one comes to think of it. I found myself watching them, with an odd sense of embarrassment for their behavior, contrasting their movements with tribal dance rhythms. When I did this the whole affair of the dance descended to a primitive sort of plane, that had to do with biology and taboos and natural selection. The dancing was not really as good as most unsophisticated folk dancing. The slow steps and the polite turnings were stylized and vapid. As I stood there I had an impression of the whole world I knew falling into a drowsy dance, moving to an inhibited syncopation. I could imagine all the foreigners in Peking turning to that impulsive beat. Something was moving us along ridiculous lines, something that none of us recognized and that none of us understood. Behind the deepening blue of the North China sky an orchestra of the gods that made us all ridiculous was playing, enormous and timeless.
Excerpted from Thank You, Mr. Moto by John P. Marquand. Copyright © 1964 John P. Marquand, Jr. and Christina M. Welch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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