I STOOD ON BOARD THE L INER HALTED IN MIDSTREAM and looked upon Japan, my native land. But let me say at once that I am not a Japanese. I am very much a European. Yet when I woke that morning, and, looking through the porthole, found the boat had halted in midstream, and Japan, a coral reef, lay glittering in the morning sun before me, I was touched and spellbound, and my thoughts went back to my birth, twenty-one years before, in the land of the cherry blossoms. I dressed quickly and ran up on deck. A faint breeze ruffled my hair and rippled the water. Like a dream, Japan loomed before me.
All last night I had watched for the approach of the enchanted island. Like sea-shells, islets began to bob up to right and left of us as we stood watching, heedless of time, as in a trance, the liner stealing her way on in the warm nocturnal breeze of July. They came and swam by and were like queer apparitions in the charmed light, and the boat, lulled to sleep, seemed to have yielded to dreams. And waking in the morning I looked and saw the cliffs—and gladness filled my heart.
Even as we stood on board at Yokohama, waiting to be taken alongside, we saw two little statuettes standing in the middle of the road, it would seem with no conceivable object in their heads, each holding a parasol and fanning herself gently. The colours of the fans and parasols seemed too marvellous to be real. 2
AND HERE WE LOL LED IN MIDS TREAM. HOW NICE, and for the most part how strange. Barely four weeks ago we had left England, crossed the Atlantic in the Aquitania
, and spending only a day in New York, hurried across the United States to Vancouver. Yes, I had watched for that ‘advent of New York,’ that ‘magnificent crescendo of approach’ of which I had read in one of H. G. Wells’s novels, and true, New York ‘rode out of the sea’. The day was one of the brightest kind; the sky was full of buzzing aircraft; troop-laden transports and warships big and small steamed steadily out of the harbour, passing us as, with ineffable splendor and majesty, in steamed the Aquitania
. The approach of New York indeed had been heralded earlier by a crescendo of amiability on the part of the stewards. For days the Atlantic had been severe, defiant, and the stewards harsh, indifferent. Now they had changed, as if with the weather. We just missed the famous Statue of Liberty, going through an elaborate passport formality in the saloon, pledging on a printed form that we were verily neither anarchists nor atheists nor believers in bigamy nor yet in leading a double life. The War Office agent who was to meet us at the docks and arrange our passage to Vancouver no sooner came on board than he began drinking—prohibition had just then been proclaimed in the United States—and was not seen again.
Then followed a small disappointment. I had expected some sort of super-automobile, seeing that it was New York, to convey us, in a flash, to our hotel. Instead, there was a clumsy ‘growler’ of the oldest pattern with an antique coachman with a red nose and an ancient-looking horse—straight out of Dickens. ‘Well, how are things across the water?’ he enquired in a nasal intonation as a preliminary to discussing the fare. And in a flash the Dickens illusion was shattered to the ground. I drove through the warm, brightly lit streets of New York, wondrous, incurring as I did a curious sensation. ‘Me in America!’ I seemed to be saying to myself. ‘Me in New York!’ For up to the present the United States had been to me an inanimate idea connected with the map of the new hemisphere. Now the towering buildings and the teeming streets were a living reality. And the midsummer aspect of Broadway, in all its newness, juvenility, and brightness, probed to the springs of life.
My companion, who prided himself on knowing New York inside out, determined next morning to show me Fifth Avenue; accordingly we took the subway and found ourselves, upon enquiry, in Brooklyn. As the train steamed out of the lofty precincts of Pennsylvania Station we had our first glimpse of the victorious Alliance. A Japanese gentleman had occupied the lower berth of the sleeper, to the unspeakable wrath and disgust of a citizen of the United States, who prevailed upon him to surrender this privilege to himself, as a member of the superior white race. ‘I’m American,’ he was explaining. ‘You go up—up—up you go, understand? I’m American.’
The Japanese gentleman either knew no English or very wisely pretended that he did not. He bowed politely and sucked his breath in and showed his teeth and wreathed his face in smiles. ‘Ha!—zzz—Iz zas so?’ he kept asking. ‘Ha! Iz zas so?—zzz——?’
‘I’m American, you son of a gun. You—Jap; I—American, understand?’
‘Ha!—zzz—Iz zas so?’ asked the Japanese gentleman, bowing and sucking his breath in. ‘Ha! Iz zas so?—zzz——?’
They seemed destined to go on like this for ever. I took up a book—and fell asleep.
I sprang up in my sleep, for somebody had slapped me hard on the knee as I was sleeping. I opened my eyes and beheld the American citizen who now took his seat beside me, and, inspecting
my British uniform, said:
‘Well, I guess you’ll be glad as hell to feel you’re in a free country at last?’
I rubbed my eyes.
‘No kings and princes here to lock you up in prison. No priests and courtiers intriguing against your liberty. Ah, this is a free country, my friend. We are a pure-minded simple people. Our home life is a clean, simple, healthy and straightforward life! Ah, you’ve got to be an American to understand it!’ He paused. ‘See that bridge?’ he said. ‘Cost 11,000,000 dollars to build; 6,600 feet long, 108 feet wide, 123 feet high, with a distance of 1,464 feet between the pillars; is made entirely of steel; holds 2 elevated railroads, 4 trolly tracks, 2 automobile streets, 2 bicycle tracks, and 2 sidewalks. Yes, God’s country, we call it!’
Imperceptibly, to the lull of his voice, I fell asleep.
I was wakened up by another slap on the knee, as vigorous as the first.
‘Say, how’s the armistice doing? Guess our boys over there are right glad. Ah, our American boys are fine lads. Have you seen General Pershing?’
Then one morning I raised the window-blind and saw the Union Jack flying over the station building. We were in Canada. 3
AND NOW, TO THEIR MUTUAL ASTONI SHMENT, BOT H the American citizen and the Japanese gentleman, who had followed us all the way to Yokohama, had donned uniforms. It transpired accordingly that one was Colonel Ishibaiashi, of the Imperial General Staff, while the other was Lieut. Philip Brown, of the U.S. Naval Intelligence Service, who, with the perennial secrecy of Secret Service men, had hitherto thought it incumbent on himself to masquerade in mufti, but seeing his erewhile enemy in the glamour of his uniform, probably felt he could hold out no longer. He was standing now, a little away from us, whistling through his teeth: ‘Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun; go and kill the Hun, kill the Hun, kill the Hun.’ then, coming up to the Colonel, he slapped him on the shoulder cheerily. ‘Hello, Colonel, glad to see you looking so smart. I thought all along you were a blooming spy, don’t you know!’
Colonel Ishibaiashi showed his teeth and drew his breath in. ‘—Zzz—Ha!’ he said; ‘ha!’ And once again, ‘Ha!’
The reconciliation was complete.
‘We are going alongside,’ said my companion. And indeed we were moving at last. Now we were going alongside. All eyes turned shoreward. On the quay—a red-banded brass hat, some assistant to the British military attaché maybe. A score of red-capped Nippons with tin swords. Now we are going alongside. The dark space of water between us and the pier grew narrower and narrower. Gangway. Coils of rope fly over on to the quay. Gangway! At long last we move: all move to the gangway. The feel of the bars on the gangway as you hang on to them by the heels—it would be merely absurd to slip at this stage—and you’re on firm ground once more. What matter if that ground be Japan?
At first we drove by the side of the quay, then through queer, narrow, evil-smelling Yokohama streets. To sit with hat and stick in the spidery rickshaw, and sniff at the atmosphere of a strange place—oh, what a rare, what an exquisite pleasure! ‘this is Japan,’ I said to myself. And it was. Now if I had been brought up in Japan, schooled there and lived there these twenty-one years, it would be about as interesting to me now as Manchester. The dream is more real than the substance. And thus when I travel in a strange land I get out at the station, sniff at the ‘atmosphere’—and get back into the train. It is enough. So now immediately I felt that I had ‘got’ the atmosphere. Besides, there was one. Leaning back in the rickshaw, first I had a feeling that I was too heavy for these delicate toys, as I watched the little man, who was half my size, run before me, his shirt gradually betraying signs of perspiration as he covered mile after mile in a steady trot. I soon got used to it. Once or twice we lost our way, and when we made enquiries in English some Japanese invariably replied to all our questions, ‘Ha! . . .’ and showed his teeth and sucked his breath in, and bowed politely, and walked away.
‘Hi!’ cried my companion.
‘I always understood that the Japanese spoke English,’ I observed.
‘And if they do they are the only ones to understand it,’ he rejoined sardonically.
No, my companion did not like Japan. He called it a tin-kettle nation. He had been annoyed, and with his delicate digestion he could ill-afford to be annoyed in the heat. He tried to ring up Tokyo on the telephone, and was interrupted by an absurd ‘Mashi, mashi
?’ which he did not understand, and so shouted ‘Damn!’into the receiver.
But already we were bound for Tokyo. The train raced on through green fields and pastures that might have been England or anything else. And, behold! a kimonoed gentleman reading an impossible newspaper. The whole thing was like a dream, and my impending meeting with relatives I had never seen—that too seemed like meeting unseen relations in dreamland, a place so utterly foreign and strange it might have been Mars. I sat very still, my eyes fixed on the whirling landscape—the engine whistled, the train went fast—while my thoughts went faster still, sending forth incalculable impulses of torment and delight. I thought of my aunt, of my lovely girl cousin whom I was to meet for the first time. In Tokyo I would get out, and then—what strange—what unthought-of things might begin! 4
I WONDERED WHAT MY AUNT WAS REAL LY L IKE. I HAD heard so much about her life that I was strangely curious to see her in the flesh. I chortled at the thought of her puny consort with a waxed moustache, whose faded photograph in Belgian uniform with a row of medals on his military chest I well remembered. They had always lived at Dixmude, uncle being a Belgian Commandant. In the so-called Great War, however, in the year of grace 1914, my aunt decreed that Belgium—indeed, Europe—was no fit abode for her, and together with her husband and her daughter set out in flight for the Far East. The Far East, I think, was chosen on the ground that it was far—as far at least as my aunt conceivably could get without coming back across the other side of our round globe. I shall be told, of course, that it is against all military precedent for officers to be allowed to leave their country in the midst of a great war. To that, in the light of after-knowledge, I have but one reply to make: you do not know my aunt. And let me say at once that I would not have you think my uncle other than an honourable and gallant officer. He had even been at the siege of Liège; but deciding, I suppose, that he had tempted Providence enough, he left the front of battle and acquiesced in his wife’s arrangement that he should leave the country, as she was far too weak and ill to go alone, their daughter at that time being still a child. But if they all left Dixmude at the sound of the first gun, don’t blame my uncle for it, rather blame my aunt who, to say the least of it, was a woman with a will. At the age of twelve she had been adopted, while in Russia, by an old Princess who brought her up with her own daughter, and no doubt because of her marvellous beauty Aunt Teresa was spoiled and treasured by them out of all proportion. They married her off to a young good-for-nothing, born in circumstances of romance. Her husband, to be sure, was the son of a young heir (of the highest in the land) and his erewhile governess, Mlle Fifi, and his arrival—the flower of spontaneous exultation—caused both parents at the time profound astonishment. Whether he took more after his father or his mother, it is hard for me to say. Nicholas (for this was his name) seemed to combine a grand-ducal recklessness with a truly Parisian gaiety. There was no end to his antics. He flourished loaded pistols into people’s faces, firing at random. He took up with wild gipsy girls and drove about with them madly in troikas. He was at home in every kind of orgy, and thoroughly neglected my aunt. He played practical jokes on policemen, and on one occasion tied a constable to a tame bear and threw them both in the canal and held them floating on a rope. Another time, returning in the small hours of the morning, he encountered on the bridge a young giraffe which was being led from the railway station to the zoo, bought it on the spot and brought it up to Aunt Teresa’s bedroom. And, in the circumstances of the case, my aunt suffered.
Excerpted from The Polyglots by William Gerhardie. Copyright © 2013 by William Gerhardie. Excerpted by permission of Melville House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.