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The Lake. A Short Story - article ; n°1 ; vol.24, pg 247-260

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Archipel - Année 1982 - Volume 24 - Numéro 1 - Pages 247-260
14 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.

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Published 01 January 1982
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Language English
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Queeny Chang
The Lake. A Short Story
In: Archipel. Volume 24, 1982. pp. 247-260.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Chang Queeny. The Lake. A Short Story. In: Archipel. Volume 24, 1982. pp. 247-260.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1982.1782
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arch_0044-8613_1982_num_24_1_1782THE LAKE
by Queeny CHANG
away- - "Partir, from Mamia. c'est mourir She un pressed peu!" his While hand! quoting affectionately, • this, André but revealed looked
no -grief nor tears. André turned around seardhing for Mamia's regard
and continued: "Si jamais je veux tromper ma femme " the rest of
the sentence was lost in the clamour of a departing train. André jumped
in his coach and looked down from the window. Mamia smiled up at
him. The Nanking-Shanghai express started to move, and the space be
tween them became wider and wider. At a curve of the line, just before
the carriage pulled out of sight, André threw a kiss to which Mamia
responded tremblingly. She felt forlorn on the deserted platform. Andre's
parting words were still Tinging in her ears. What did he mean, was it a
joke or a compliment ? The night and distance separated them, André
speeding along to Shanghai and then to his new post in Europe, Mamia
returning slowly to her lonely cedar tree at the International club. Their
mutual companion would henceforth be the pale moon.
Mamia remembered a cold December morning six month before,
when Destiny tossed her on the path of a turbulent and unachieved
affair.
That cold winter morning a few hours after her arrival in Nanking,
the new capital, where she intended to find an occupation, had given her
a new friend. André was a warm-hearted being, unassuming, yet with
the flair of coming from a good house. His manners were foreignised
(he had spent most of his life in foreign countries), his voice deep and 248
persuasive. Hardly knowing the existence of one another when the day
started, it seemed as if they had known each other all their lives at the
and of it.
Sir H who was on the point of leaving Nanking when Mamia
presented herself to him, armed with a letter of introduction from a
friend of his, had recommended her to André.
"I am sorry, my dear," the nice old gentleman bad said with concern,
knowing that Mamia was complete stranger and alone in the big city,
"I am leaving for home today, but I will ask a good friend of mine to
take care of you". And that was how Mamia landed at the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs with a letter for, André.
After handing over the epistle as reference of introduction to the
usher, Mamia had waited in the dusty sitting room, dropping into a big
armchair where onlly part of the springs were supporting. She shivered
from the cold which penetrated through the badly closed doors and
windows. To add to her uneasiness, she saw a sober-looking middle-aged
man in an old fashioned flabby long coat coming to her. Was this the
man, holding several Doctor's degrees and who had alwavs lived abroad
according to sir H ? wondered Mamia, wiho felt somewhat di
sheartened. But when André stretched out his hand to greet her with
spontaneity, she was at once reassured.
"I was already afraid, that I would have to do with an old scholar",
she said. André laughed. "You mean that mv manners don't correspond
with my clothes ? I like these traditional clothes because I have missed
them so long abroad and especially in winter time they are much more
comfortable and warmer thlan European clothing. I would otherwise
have to wear an overcoat all the time because the heating here is so
poor.
"There isn't even a heater", Mamia reminded him.
"Yes indeed, but let's go somewhere where you will be more comf
ortable. I don't want you to feel disappointed with our new capital. How
?" long are you going to stay
"It all depends", answered the sophisticated Mamia.
By the time they reached a picturesque ancient teahouse in the
vicinity of the Temple of Confucius, Mamia had lost all her reserves
and was watching with great interest the passers-by hurrying hither and
thither. People clothed in padded or fur-lined long coats, a woollen scraf arcund~ thrown- nonchalantly the neck protecting them from the icy
wind. Some wore knitted woollen bonnets well drawn over the ears and 249
others the traditional black closefitting round hat trimmed with fur like
the one André was wearing. In the multitude Mamia spotted fashionable
ladies wearing high heels and flimsy stockings tnailing in mink or sable
coats among their conservative sisters, who stuck to their ever so comfor
table baggy tunics and pans, their tiny feet shed in black plush boots.
"You will have to change your Parisian outfit soon for the padded
long dress if you don't want to contract pneumonia I'm afnaid", advised
André throwing a glance at Mamia's elegant woollen dress and matching
coat.
"Yes I've noticed that", laughed Mamia.
They were sitting at a rustic wooden table sipping hot jasmine tea.
They chatted about their mutual friends, they discussed their education
and ambitions, they exchanged! views and thoughts and finally agreed,
that they had much in common.
"I'm living near the Hsien-Wu Lake, one of the most beautiful spots
in Nanking", André siaid, "I share my house with a colleague. Let's have
supper 'there".
Jacques was astounded when Mamia entered with André.
"What a small world after all" he exclamed, greeting her with
outstretched hands. Mamia and Jacques had met before at the Chinese
Embassy in Paris on the occasion of his sister's wedding. Even then he
was a most serious character, but now it seemed to Mamiia that the years
had furrowed a still deeper frown on Jacques' forehead.
"You haven't changed a bit Mamia. Just as chic as ever" compli
mented Jacques.
"I have Jacques, I'm divorced now".
"I'm sorry to hear it Mamia".
"It's just fate".
Botih friends showed great sympathy for her. As if to evade the
awkward situation that followed then, Jacques told of his illusion and his
endeavour to serve his country when he was still in Europe.
"But since my return here, I have been more and more baffled by
the situation. I can't understand the interminable struggles of the warl
ords, -the disunity among the leaders,- their greed for power and their
egoism. I find no more satisfaction in my woik", he explained".
"You'll get used to it", said André witih a tinge of irony.
Jacques asked André to recommend him to an assignment abroad
as soon as he got married; 250
"And shall we get a job for Mamia too ?" suggested André.
"Pray don't ! You don't want to spoil her illusions yet, do you ?"
protested Jacques.
After a delicious home-cooked meal, the two friends offered to accom
pany Mamîa back to her hotel in Hsia Kwan, which section was separated
from the city iby the city gate. They got into a carriage drawn by a most
pathetic looking old and skinny pony. It had started to snow, so they
had to close all the shutters and sat in complete darkness. They justled
along on -the bumpy roads, knocking right and left against the hard
wooden panels of their conveyance. How could they ever have imagined
that, "blasés" as they were,- they could enjoy foeing shut in1 a pitch-dark
vehicle on iron wheels dated from the past century and leaving their
fate in the hands of a half-asleep coachman ? They could never forget
that ride.
"As long as we've been there, we've never accompanied any ladies
home. This is the first time", said Jacques.
"It's true", asserted André "it takes quite an effort to comply with
social life even in our own country. We're somewhat estranged from the
old customs and1 sometimes don't even know how to behave in front of
ladies: When we show them a. little attention, we're considered too buo
yant and light-hearted. Even my wife refused to be kissed in the presence
of people". His sigh was audible.
With a sudden jerk the carriage had come to a standstill. When
André opened the door, thinking they had arrived at their destination,
he was most surprised to hear the coachman, then fully awake, engaged
in a fierce debate with an armed guard. It seemed, that the order of the
day was that after midnight, no vehicle of any description was allowed
to pass the city gate unless by special (permission. The Bridge House Hotel
where Mamia was staying, happened to be situated just a couple of
hundred yards outside the gate.
André tried to persuade the soldier to let them pass, but to no avail.
He then showed his identity card with "Foreign Affairs" affixed to it,
hoping hereby to intimidate the guard.
"All right", said the one after examining Andre's and Jacques' cards,
"you two gentleman can pass, but not the lady".
"But it isn't us", André cried irritated. "We don't want to go to Hsia
Kwan, but this lady's staying at that hotel, there in front of you. Allow
the carriage to dispose her at the door and come back immediately". 251
"Sorry, I can't let the carriage through the gate", the soldier was
inflexible.
"The lady hasn't got an identity card and therefore she can't walk
through the gate. (The chinese word for going and walking is similar)
"If she can't walk through, let's carry her then", mumbled André.
"That's your business", retorted the guard, who heard Andre's sar
castic remark.
"That's the result of your chivalry for accompanying a lady home",
laughed Mamia. She and Jacques were quite amused in spite of the awk
ward situation, but André was worried and imagined that perhaps there
was a reporter of some mosquito-paper roaming about, who would only
be too delighted to print in fat letters the news that official so-and-so had
been seen smuggling a "foreign woman" through the city gate. (Mamia's
clothes and their fluent french in which they were conversing intrigued
the guard) they lingered: on seeking for a way out and felt defeated by
so much sense of duty in the soldier. They were on the point of beating
retreat, when suddenly the guard turned to more law-offenders. Heated
arguments ensued (between the dutiful soldier and the newcomers who
knew nothing of the order.
At that precarious moment, Mamia squeezed between André and
Jacques, slipped through the gate unnoticed and sauntered to the hotel as
if nothing was happening
André had arranged an appointment for Mamia» to meet the Minister
of Railways, at the time a powerful figure in the government. The minis
try was of a palatial grandeur, constructed in ancient architecture with
green-tiled roofs, carved stone pillars and painted walls. It had large
offices, hostels for the staff, a spatious dining hall, library, lounges and a
vast recreation ground for outdoor sports. The staff was well housed and
found enough entertainment in their own compound than elsewhere.
When Mamia arrived at the Minister's residence, she was ushered
into his private sitting room laid with a thick Peking carpet. The big
sofa and armchairs were luxuriously covered with brocaded satin. On
the wall hung a calligraphic scroll by an ancient master. Beneath it was
a long shelf of oak where stood a white jade bowl and a 'sang-de-boeuf
vase filled with a spray of plum-blossoms. Against the opposite wall
were two ebony cabinets containing the finest Ming porcelain. 252
Minister Fu joined Mamia in a while. He was most gracious and
inquired among other things into the developments of a tiny railway in
South-China which was founded by Mamia's uncle just before the fall
of the Manchus; He seemed to be much interested in this private enter
prise, but Mamia could not give informatron because she knew
little about tihe subject and was inwardly cursing André for having
exposed her to such an awkward plight. Finally Minister Fu asked
Mamia whether she cared to accept a job in one of his departments, but
to his suprise she declined politely. It seemed that as a rule people did
come to him for a job.
More guest's arrived and Mamia thought the moment had come for
her to take leave. However Minister Fu would not hear of it and insisted
that she should stay for his snake dinner.
"Have you ever eaten a Snake Dinner before ?" he asked.
"Oh no !" Mamia answered with awe.
"Then you must taste it", he urged, thinking that he was offering his
inexperienced guest a rare treat. He led Mamia to the dining room and
introduced her to his distinguished guests.
A long table to sit more than 20 people was extravagantly laid with
fine Kiangsi porcelain bowls, plates and spoons. Ivory chopsticks with
silver tops and ends and tiny silver engraved wine cups added to its
luxury. Some of the guests persuaded Mamda to stay to please the mi
nister, but the more they talked about snakes and their delicious taste,
the more appalled she grew. At last she sought advice from Sarina,
Minister Fu's private secretary, a beautiful girl, a college graduate.
Mamia whispered to her : "Sarina, I don't want to displease your
boss, but I won't be able to swallow a thing. What must I do V*
"Say you've already a previous appointment. Come, let me tell him".
"It's true, I've a dinner engagement, but is it polite to refuse the
Minister ?"
"What else can you do ? This is the most convenient thing to say
when one wants to find an excuse. In social circles, you've to be very
diplomatic". Mamia accepted Sarina's advice. Minister Fu nodded under-
standiingly and allowed Mamia to take leave, but not after extracting a
promise from her to come to his next snake dinner "soon".
"We can only eat these snakes in winter time, you know, so< we
must take advantage of the season", he explained. 253
According. to arrangement André was waiting for Mamia at his
home. He was anxious to know about the result of her visit. He was
all smiles and started to interrogate Mamia to the smallest details. He
wanted to know above all whether the Minister had offered her a job.
(Minister had accorded the job when André made the appointment, but
without Mamia's knowledge) .
"Yes, he did, was it your recommendation, André ?" asked Mamia
suspiciously.
"Did you accept it ?'
"Of couse not"
!" "You're crazy
too." "Thank you. And he asked me to eat snakes
"Then why didn't you stay ?"
"Why should I ? I told him I had a dinner arrangement with you".
"So you declined his invitation ?"
"Sure I did. What harm is in that ?"
"But that's most compromising. First you refused a job and then
his famous Snake Dinner of which he's so proud and where he usually
invites the big bosses. You declined a minister's invitation to come here,
to a humble department chief ? This is outrageously tactless, young lady.
Minister Fu will feel terribly offended. Any other girl would have grasped
the chance and you turned it down. What's the matter with you ?" André
was exasperated. But Mamia was not familiar with the intrigues and
ways in the capital yet, so she said apologetically: "But André, I don't
know anything about working and I don't want to eat snakes. I can't
pretend, because I don't want to make a fool of my self. If I told you
that I was contemplating an occupation here, I meant some work in an
orphanage or the like".
"She's right", interrupted Jacques, who had been listening to their
argument. "Why should she pretend ? I think she's most remarkable to
show so much courage as to upset our 'Crown Prince' and face romplete
exit from a possible political career before even having started".
"But she had an excellent chance to launch herself. You know very
well that most of the prominent people were invited there and she could
have obtained a job from either one of them", André put in again.
"Well, the Barm can't be undone. Am I going to be punished for bad
conduct and sent to bed without food or do you really want me to return
to the snakes ?" said Mamia, picking up her coat. André could not sup
press a smile. "You're a nice girl after all, Mamitdhka". 254
"I won't abandon you for any minister, André", Mamia's eyes were
wet. André reconciled with this idea, put his arm protectingly around
Mamia's shoulder and patted her affectionately.
"We'll dance at Jacques' wedding next week", he said.
** *
The International Club was an old wooden building with a vast
garden. Hie ground floor was occupied by the office and spacious dining
hall, which was on occasions used for dancing, enclosed by a wide
veranda. The reading room, lounge and bedrooms were on the first floor
shadowed by tall chestnut trees and elms.
Mamia was the sole lady member at that time and enjoyed also the
privilege of staying at the club house as a permanent guest. She had
furnished her small room neatly and attractively and thought that in this
seclusion she would be able to concentrate more on her literary studies.
But what a disillusion ! She was moving along with the stream of men
and women of all classes, officials, businessmen, literary people, news
paper editors, ambassadors, swanky students returned from America,
the more most English and French academicians, fashionable ladies,
uneducated countrywomen and working girls like herself. (At the in
sistence of André, Mamia had acepited the job at the ministry of Rail
ways.) She met as regular guests at the Club members of the embassies,
officials of the ministry of Finance and some prominent bankers and
businessmen from Shanghai, who came- on and off for a brief stay to
attend important conferences or to close a bulky transaction with the
government.
Mamia was well-educated, had charming manners and had always
lived in the best circles. Her family and her husband's were friends of
long standing and it was only, natural, that the parents had pre-arranged
a marriage between their children when they were still very young.
Though Mamia's parents had allowed her a modern education, about
the question of marriage she had to submit to their will.
When in a finishing school in Switzerland, she had met a young
compatriot studying at the University of Geneva, for whom she had a
great liking, but notihing could induce her parents to revoke the promise
already given to their old-time friends. Mamia's marriage was socially
perfect, but the young couple felt, that they had been brought together
by convenience and not by love. They liked each other sufficiently to be
comfortabtte. They remained childless, except for a miscarriage, that she ,
255
had suffered briefly after their marriage. There was not much to bind
her at home and the inactiveness of well-to-do old-fashioned households
filed her with awe. Thus, when she understood, that she was unable to
bear him any children, while her husband as well as her in-laws wanted
an heir, she decided to leave the house. In this way, she made it easier
for him to take another wife, since she would never have been able to
tolerate another woman besides her, a second wife or a concubine, like in
most of the wealthy families. She knew, that they could live together
harmoniously, for her father-in-law had more than one concubines. But
she was educated with modern ideas, and just the thought of having to
share her husband with another appalled her.
In search for an useful! purpose to fill her lonely days, she had come
to Nanking. For the first time in her life completely detached from aU
family ties with not even a distant relatives within hundreds of miles,
Mamia felt an absolute liberty and independence. To act as she wished
without having to ask someone's permission first, rendered her existence
very pleasant and unobstructed.
André was a frequent visitor to the Club. He was an indispensable
partner for billard games with, his chief, the minister of Foreign Affairs
and the Jatter's inseparable friends, the vice-minister and the minister of
Justice. They always made a foursome. When the gentlemen arrived at
partner for billiards games with his chief, the minister of Foreign Affairs
the Clulb, they would send for Mamia to take tea with them and watch
their games. Once, the minister of Justice asked Mamia as if at an
examination : "Mamia, of all the languages you speak, which one do
you master the best ?" In a wave of distraction, Mamia blundered : "The
language of love"
"Do you hear that, colleague, the language of love. How do you
speak that ?" cried the minister with merriment to the Foreign Office's
chief. Mamia blushed and felt uneasy that she might have offended the
highly placed person witih her careless answer, but when she noticed
the good humour of the elderly gentlemen, she was relieved. After all,
they have sense of humour ! thought Mamia.
"That's a very good answer Mamia. You better come over to my
ministry where we need people of such prompt repartee".
"I thought diplomats always go round-about", said Mamia timidly.
"That's one for you, my friend", laughed the man of Justice, per
forming a beautiful shot, but Mamia did not know whether he meant the
ball or iher. André regarded with amusement and played his
game better than ever and was proud of his protegee.