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I suppose it all began with the garden. Cyrus Barker’s garden, I mean. It was a particularly good year for some reason. Everything came together perfectly. The gardeners were working, hard-pressed to keep the growth from getting out of hand, and anything attempted for the first time grew and flourished. It was too perfect, if you know what I mean. One cannot have the ointment without the fly, the yang without the yin. I should have expected something to happen to balance all that beauty, but I didn’t. Ah, man, the eternal optimist.
The spring had been variable that year, blowing hot and cold, eventually giving way to a long, drowsy summer. My monastic room was too hot and stuffy to read in after breakfast, so I went outside to sit in the shade of the pagodalike gazebo. Barker puttered with his jacket off, raking the stones into swirl patterns. The garden was only ten years old, but it appeared as solid and ancient as Stonehenge, albeit a Chinese one.
“What are you reading so avidly?” Barker called from under a young Japanese maple he was trimming. The sun glinted from the black-lensed spectacles he wore.
“Herman Melville. American sea stories.”
“Is life not exciting enough for you that you must find relief in adventure fiction?”
“It is getting rather dull. No one has tried to cut my throat in nearly a week.”
“Ha!” Barker said.
“Are you ready for the tour?” I asked.
Kew was coming, or rather the director of Kew Gardens, William Thiselton-Dyer, along with a special delegation of envoys from the Japanese government. The latter were interested in establishing an embassy in London. Everything had a Japanese motif that summer in arts and fashion. English roses were doing their best to recast themselves as Asian cherry blossoms.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked, feeling called to say something. “I could help with the penjing trees…”
“No, no, lad, you just go ahead and read.”
Very well, so I’m not an expert gardener. Some wag, probably our butler, Mac, expressed the belief that bonsai (to give them the Japanese name) scream at the mention of my name. England has been called a nation of gardeners, but no one said anything about Wales. The only thing I ever grew in the garden was weary of the long list of names I was forced to set down in a notebook for the Guv, since even he could not read his terrible scribble. My attempts to plant or grow anything had ended in failure, and now just getting near a bushel of plants made our Chinese gardeners shuffle quickly in my direction to head me off.
“So,” I said, “the Japanese have finally left their sequestered isle, and are taking a world tour. I assumed the Americans had the treaties there sewn up. The Foreign Office lads must be champing at the bit.”
“I thought you were reading.”
“I was. I left off in the middle of a sermon.”
“Left off? You generally nod off.”
“It’s not my fault that the Metropolitan Tabernacle can no longer find a preacher the caliber of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.”
“Pastors change, but the Word stays the same.”
“Is that to be the text of the day?”
Barker believes me to be his own personal mission field. Scratch a Welshman and you’ll find a pagan, or something like that. I am a professing Christian, but it wasn’t my fault if some pastors like the sound of their own voices too much.
One of the gardeners passed by with the wheelbarrow, and eyed me critically. This was not a place to read at the moment, yet the purpose of such a garden is to bring peace to those who dwelt there, rather than provide a place where overly industrious men can find more work. My bookmark hovered over Melville’s novel, ready for me to pack it in.
“How much more has to be done before it is perfect?” I asked, but it was a rhetorical question. The gardeners would work until the last second, then hurry out the back gate as our guests came in the front.
I prefer the garden in the fall. The maples turn red and send their seedpods spiraling slowly to the ground like tiny ballerinas. The koi grow sleek and fat, preparing for winter, and squirrels gather acorns for their nest. The willow loses its leaves and looks gaunt and skeletal. In such a garden at such a time a man could think or possibly write great things. That is, as long as he does not have to tend it.
I heard voices in the hall. I dropped the leather strap into the book in the middle of the sermon and stood. I held up Barker’s morning coat and after he had put in his cuff links he slipped into it. He is impressive in a morning coat. He gave a nod and the gardeners began to disperse. It was a magic trick. This garden had suddenly appeared out of nowhere or dropped from the sky, yet it looked as if it had been here since Caesar first camped on the Thames. Cyrus Barker and I crossed the bridge to the back door and entered just as our guests came in the front.
“Konnichi wa,” the Guv began, and went off on some long-winded and polite greeting in their native tongue.
There were half a dozen men in the hall, including the Kew representative and a gentleman from the Foreign Office, if I may be willing to stretch the term that far. The rest were mostly Japanese. I am able now by dress, manner, and feature to tell a Japanese from the Chinese, but then I had never met any of the former before. One wore traditional garb, but the others were in Western clothing. Most had black, European-cut suits and bowler hats, and the last two fellows wore coats and trousers of a military cut. The one in the kimono, the leader, came forward eagerly.
“Mr. Barker, thank you for inviting us to your lovely home,” he said.
Barker bowed. “I do not expect my humble garden to reach your exacting standards, sir, but I am glad you thought coming worth your while.”
Our guest bowed as well. He was a small man with gray hair cut in a Western fashion. I liked the ambassador right away. For one thing, he was probably under five feet tall, so even I towered over him. He wore an outer kimono of gray gulls in a white sky. His inner kimono, which just peeked through at his collar, was white, with some sort of embroidered pattern across it. By contrast, his obi sash was a deep red. On his feet, he wore wooden geta clogs, which clicked as he walked in our hall.
It wasn’t just his appearance I liked, but his manner. As good as Barker’s garden was, and really, it was excellent, he had probably seen every one in Japan, and yet he appeared to be awestruck by the work done here, and questioned the Guv closely on every decision he had made. Who would have thought to put the willow by the Japanese maple? How stark the standing rocks are against the red brick wall. The koi fish seemed to be peering up at us from under the lily pads.
Later, I heard that he had been a Shinto monk. That must have been it. He seemed more like a holy man than a politician or envoy. But then, who could resist such a man when he asked something of you or your country?
The military men were of a piece. One wore jodhpur trousers and tall boots, with only gold braid on his peaked cap to highlight the unrelieved black. He had a gray mustache. The other wore a long military coat decorated in gold scrollwork, with red collar and cuffs. He, too, appeared to be in his sixties, though his hair was black. Both frowned, as if coming here were a kind of punishment. Perhaps it was.
The director from Kew Gardens came forward, looking rather put out. William Thiselton-Dyer had a bulbous bald head as if overpacked with gray matter, and a soft beard that grew down over his tie. His nostrils were arched. Obviously he had hoped to be the one to give a proper introduction to all parties present, but he had been confounded by the eagerness of the envoy.
“Mr. Barker, may I present His Excellency Toda Ichigo, General Mononobe, and Admiral Edami of the Japanese delegation. These gentlemen are their bodyguards. I understand you are already acquainted with Mr. Campbell-Ffinch of the Foreign Office.”
Just then, I saw Barker stiffen. Standing behind him I could see the muscles of his back tighten beneath his long coat. I noticed it, but no one else did. The Foreign Office man, Trelawney Campbell-Ffinch, was too busy stepping forward to greet my employer. Campbell-Ffinch was a noted boxer and had a reputation for getting results and not caring how he got them. By the time he shook the Guv’s hand there was no sign that anything had occurred. One could in fact say that nothing had occurred, but if one knew Barker as well as I did, he would know better.
“Barker,” Trelawney Campbell-Ffinch said with oil in his voice. “Good to see you, as always. These gentlemen are impressed with your daisies.”
In fact, the Guv had no daisies, nor any other flower. An Asian garden is known for its austerity. Ours held standing rocks and a brook and lily pads, a bathhouse and garden shed and a gazebo. Campbell-Ffinch was baiting him, somehow under the impression that the two of them were equals, anxious someday to get in the ring with him. To my employer he was no more than a gadfly, a midge, of not even enough importance to swat.
“Shall we see this corner of the garden, gentlemen?”
As they moved through his garden, Mr. Toda went first, followed by the general, Campbell-Ffinch, the admiral, Thiselton-Dyer, and the two bodyguards. The envoy was unarmed. The general carried a Western sword in his belt. Campbell-Ffinch had a bulge in his pocket from some sort of revolver.
“Ah!” the ambassador cried. “Wonderful!”
I forget what it is like to see this garden for the first time. It is magnificent; not large, perhaps, for this was a private residence in London, but very nearly perfect. The ambassador looked like a child stepping into a sweetshop. The Kew director hurried forward and led him to the left, skirting the koi pond. The other guests stood and took in the view.
General Mononobe, the one in the long coat, was an impressive sight, a stern man with a square jaw, black hair, and strong features. Campbell-Ffinch, in contrast, was younger, taller, blond-haired, and red-faced, with a light mustache. The admiral had gray hair under his cap and lesions from a bout with smallpox.
The bodyguards were a contrast as well. One was barely five feet six, with a large mustache, carefully waxed. He moved from side to side, rolling his shoulders as if he imagined himself much larger than he was. The other was well over six feet and close to eighteen stone, an elephant in a suit jacket. He was clean-shaven and his nose had been badly broken once and was still pushed to the side. When he lifted his bowler I noticed that he still wore the traditional Japanese topknot.
Barker had joined Thiselton-Dyer and the ambassador and was discussing the garden with them. I couldn’t exactly say whether the tour was intended to be in English or Japanese, but they careened haphazardly from one language to the other.
“How’s Barker’s terrier these days?” Campbell-Ffinch asked in my ear.
“Woof,” I replied. I didn’t hate him, exactly, but we wouldn’t be going out for a pint anytime soon. The Foreign Office had a reputation for doing whatever the government told them to without scruple.
Campbell-Ffinch looked bored. The garden couldn’t even grow daisies. The general seemed to approve of the garden, but he kept a keen eye on everything in front of him. He had an intensity that was alarming. Once he flashed it upon me, but I pretended to be interested in the penjing tree at my side. Looking harmless is what I do best. Only reluctantly will I show the skills I have learned from my employer in six years of training.
Ambassador Toda seemed delighted with everything, but it could have been as much show as good manners. He was a diplomat, after all. If he found fault, he would not reveal it. What were they in England for? I wondered. Was it to start an embassy, or was there some other reason?
I am naturally inclined to take impressions. Luckily, that is also my duty. I noticed that the taller bodyguard was left-handed. The smaller one was well muscled under his topcoat, but the taller one was sleek and fat. The general watched the wind blow through the maple leaves as if he wanted to slash them with his sword. The admiral looked as stern a man as I have ever seen. I suspected Campbell-Ffinch considered himself in every way superior to these foreigners by the way he was behaving.
Our butler, Jacob Maccabee, came out then with a tray of tea, an iron teapot, and small cups. He carried it as if it weighed nothing, gliding along the narrow walkway that led to the gazebo. He cuts an elegant figure, our Mac, and would do his level best to try to impress our guests even if I wouldn’t.
We all knelt and took tea in the pagoda-roofed gazebo. The Japanese delegation was sitting on the floor, legs folded. Thistelton-Dyer and Campbell-Ffinch found the position awkward. The tea tasted like little more than water. I’d have preferred strong coffee. The general looked as though he would agree. He kept looking at the Guv, either out of curiosity or something else. The ambassador and Thiselton-Dyer were the only talkative ones among us, though I filled the gap in conversation once or twice. Barker seemed preoccupied. I wanted to know what he was thinking, but understood that I could question him later. I have a problem with patience, or so the Guv tells me. The problem is, I haven’t any.
Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves and I didn’t believe any of them. This was a political event. Everyone was politely following a ritual or protocol that was half English and half Japanese. It was possible that the ambassador had no interest in gardens at all and it was merely assumed by Thiselton-Dyer that a Japanese delegation must like Asian gardens. After this, perhaps they might visit the British Museum or even go to Buckingham Palace. We had worked for three weeks for a half-hour tour that seemed to have little or no meaning. Mr. Toda spoke enthusiastically about the garden afterward, but that was no doubt expected of him. Had there been any criticism, he would have kept it to himself.
“I fear we must keep to our schedule,” Thistelton-Dyer said, rising from his seat. Western suits are not designed for kneeling.
The ambassador seemed reluctant to leave, but I assumed even that was expected. Politeness might be mistaken for enthusiasm. I’m not slighting the garden or our guests, but really, given limited time in London, wouldn’t a Japanese envoy want to see something different? Take him to a pub for a few pints of good English ale, or to one of London’s best coffeehouses, of which there are several. Better still, take him to Hampstead Heath and let him see a natural English garden. That might actually impress him.
We all stood and the protocol for leaving began. It was even more drawn out than the arrival, which had been cut short by the ambassador. One would have declared us the best of friends instead of total strangers. We hoped to meet again. We wished each other a good journey and a fine summer. We kept bowing until my back began to hurt.
Our guests passed through the house again to the front door and through it. In Lion Street, the cortège climbed into official-looking broughams and soon they bowled off into Newington Causeway.
I waited to see what Barker would say afterward, but he turned and went back out to the garden and sat in the gazebo.
That was our morning, the sort for which one prepares for weeks, and then it is over and one forgets it. The delegation went on to their next destination, and the one after that. Barker and I soon went to our offices and there was an end on it. Everyone forgot about the event. Everyone except for me. I couldn’t forget the way that Barker froze when the envoys arrived.
Copyright © 2017 by Will Thomas