-From Silhouettes of Peking
D. de Martel & L. de Hoyer
The dust has cleared from the 1911 revolution and the capital of China has moved south to Nanking. Peking’s diplomatic set – now all but irrelevant – languish in an exotic world suspended somewhere between East and West, between propriety and decadence. Against this backdrop, Jean Maugrais finds himself the target of two married women’s affections.
But he longs for something more than the endless frivolities of the “smart set” and yearns to be more than a silhouette, an outsider skimming on the surface of a great civilization he doesn’t fully understand.
“Wait a bit,” said Maugrai, “I have an idea. The third conclusion is rather troublesome. I see one remedy. Do you know Chatours?”
“Who is Chatours?”
“A young man you ought to know, old man. Besides, he is a friend of mine. I can recommend him unreservedly. Each year, by means that would prove expensive to your or me, he manages to save ten or twelve thousand francs which he immediately spends in Egypt, India or wherever his fancy takes him.
This time it is China upon which his choice has fallen. He has been in Peking nearly four months, now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears already thoroughly at home.
He is really very original. He cannot understand living abroad without adopting the customs of the natives and becoming absolutely familiarized with their ways. He thinks European society here only makes the outlook ugly and serves to introduce the ideas that are to be deplored.”
“Yes, I have heard people speak of him. He has even managed to get himself a bad reputation in Peking. He has seen, it seems, in a box at the new theater at Qianmen with some Chinese actors. I think it was he, too, who having tried to rape the daughter of the Chinese ex-Minister to Paname, was very indignant at her resistance and declared that it was in direct contradiction with the characteristic docility and the traditional passiveness of the Eastern woman.
I wonder what makes you think such an extraordinary person would condescend to accept the invitation of a humble Occidental like myself!”
Maugrais got up without answering and left the room. Telephoning to Chatours, he asked him to come round at once and share his lunch.
“You will see,” he said when he returned to the smoking room, “the fellow is neither quite wild nor quite civilized. He is shy like all original people, the sight of a stranger of your color will put him out of countenance at first. I will begin by asking if he is free tomorrow. Most likely he is; then he will not dare refuse.
Ten minutes afterwards, Chatours arrived. His head was completely shaved, but in spite of that, he was rather nice looking, even elegant.
“How handsome you look like that,” said Maugrais after the usual introductions.
“It is comfortable,” answered Chatours in a tired voice, “and it saves several minutes of absurd labor every day. I have also discovered a temple which, according to some of my Chinese friends, possesses a priest with Tibetan secrets of the greatest importance. I can talk enough Chinese to make myself understood by this sage, and I mean to wring form his some of his knowledge which has been handed down century by century, from the Brahmins to the Lamas, and finally from a Lama to this priest. A lengthy stay in his temple will help me to win his confidence. Perhaps I may return with treasures of untold worth.”
“Is that why your mane has fallen under the scissors?”
“Yes, at least, that is one of the reasons.”
“When do you leave?”
“In a few days, I hope.”
“I suppose, after this, then, you will only pay flying visits to Peking?”
“Probably, Peking tires me, everything here is just a bit rotten. There are no real Chinese and the sight of all the round heads to which modern ideas have fitted that great invention of this century, the bowler, makes me sick.”
“But there are not only Chinese in Peking,” said Beaurelois, who thought the moment had come to speak. ‘The Europeans, as a community, are quite interesting and you will see the like nowhere else. You would have to search very thoroughly before discovering, in our midst, the ideas that are killing the old world.”
“Perhaps, but I mistrust that legend about broad mindedness across the seas. Does no one talk scandal in Peking? Don’t you take any interest in the doings of your neighbors?”
“Well, seldom, and anyhow not maliciously,” corrected Maugrais.
“Don’t you people in Peking ostentatiously extend a very welcoming hand to rich scamps? Are not unknown genius and virtue as we understand them, obliged to give way to mediocrity ‘en place’ as we used to say?”
“You always must exaggerate,” said Maugrais. “Probably we have neither great genius nor great virtues here. There are witty, well behaved and even amiable people and also people we like and others we don’t…”
“And, also, there are no scamps, not even millionaire ones,” said Beaurelois laughing.
“And if there were,” continued Maugrais, “we have not come across them, we don’t even know if they exist, or where they live if they do. Peking is a city of officials, slightly formal and perhaps a trifle snobbish, but, anyhow, clean minded and agreeable to frequent.
It is a casual and temporary agglomeration of people who have seen the world, have stayed in Paris and London; passed through Florence and Athens, played with politics in Petrograd or with finance in America; people who have crossed all the seas, made collections in the East and made love in Venice…but it is above everything else, a city that has given birth to a special type of human being…the Peking silhouette.”