Read The Ginger Tree Online

Authors: Oswald Wynd

The Ginger Tree (6 page)

Letter from Mary Mackenzie to her mother, Mrs Isabel Mackenzie

c/o PO Box 103, Legation Quarter,
Peking, China.
February 17th, 1903

Dearest Mama – This will probably be my address for some time because the house in which Richard and I are to live when we are married isn’t yet available. It is in the native city and still occupied by a German couple so I haven’t even seen the outside as yet. There is no place for us in the Legation Quarter itself which was terribly devastated during the Boxer Troubles, many of the houses completely destroyed by Chinese guns or fires after the bombardments. The most important residence, Sir Robert Hart’s, was burned to the ground with all the records in it of the Chinese Customs which he has been in charge of for many years. However, the new Legation Quarter is to be fortified with a strong wall and in front of this a very wide space that is never to be built on, this to give a clear field of fire if there should ever be any more troubles. Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you all this, but there is no need to be nervous about me, the city is now totally pacified. The Allied troops who stayed a long time to make quite certain of this have left only recently.

As we came alongside the wharf at Tientsin it didn’t seem as though I was arriving in a Chinese city at all, all the buildings seemed European, one with a sign saying Astor House Hotel and another Gaiety Theatre. Except for rickshas waiting on the dock, and some palanquins, there was nothing really strange at all except perhaps that everyone waiting for us
seemed to be wearing furs, men and women alike. I was expecting Richard to stand out from the crowd because he would be wearing uniform, but he wasn’t, also in a fur coat, a long one, which made him look like a Cossack especially since he was wearing a fur hat to match! He was up the gangway as soon as it was lowered and then came striding down the deck to meet me, pulling off that hat and just dropping it in order to take both my hands and welcome me to China with a kiss. I was a little surprised that he did this in front of all those people because he is always correct, as you know, but I was glad, too.

That night I spent at the Astor House Hotel and Richard had a room at another hotel, but we dined together at the Astor, a small table by a window that was hung with rich red curtains. There was an orchestra playing, three instruments. Except for the Chinese waiters, called ‘boys’, that room could have been in Edinburgh. At first we were a little shy together, but soon I was telling him about my journey and the sad death of my chaperone, and Mrs Brinkhill, the typhoon and so on. I suppose I was chattering but Richard didn’t seem to mind and he kept me going with questions. Then, when we had finished the meal, I think he must have tipped the orchestra for suddenly they began playing ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’, a bit squeaky for they are Russians, and Richard took out a little box with my ring that he didn’t think it was safe to send to Scotland. So I put on my engagement ring to Austrian music and I hope that was a good omen, though I know you don’t believe in such things. The stone is a Korean amethyst which Richard says is not to be confused with the ordinary amethysts we see at home, but a much richer colour and more valuable, of course. It is set in seed pearls. He had it specially made in Shanghai to the measurement I sent and the fit is perfect.

The next day we did not meet for breakfast, but at about eleven Richard arrived in a carriage and though it was cold it was sunny, and we drove with the hood down and well wrapped up in a huge bearskin rug that was smelly, but warm. Richard was interested in all the sites where battles had been fought for the control of Tientsin during the Boxer Troubles and we stopped on an iron bridge across a narrow river where the fighting had been very intense. What interested me was the river itself.
I could scarcely see water between the sampans and small junks packed into it on which families were living out their lives. It was really a floating slum cutting across the main shopping street of Tientsin in which there are many fine shops and buildings, these all restored for business again. I wonder where the people in the boats went to during the Boxer fighting, perhaps they just stayed where they were, hoping for no stray bullets. Mrs Brinkhill told me that I would soon get used to the poverty in China, but I haven’t yet. It is not confined to special places as it is with us, you see it everywhere, and have quite horrid reminders sometimes. Right outside the Astor Hotel there was a beggar on the pavement with a greatly disfigured face and stumps for hands. Richard said he was a leper but that I wasn’t to worry about such things because a lot of the beggars become quite rich and return at night to comfortable houses. He also said that in China nothing is what it seems, and I was to remember that. I am not sure I know what he meant.

That afternoon we took the train to Peking, sitting opposite each other on rattan seats that were cold and slippery. There was nothing much to see, just flat fields with clusters of mounds in odd places in nearly all of them. These are graves. The Chinese country people bury their dead in the family fields and then plough all around them. I saw one or two fields that seemed more graves than ploughed land, and couldn’t help thinking that it was wasteful agriculture.

What we talked about on the train was Mannington. I have found already that a way to make Richard happy is to talk about his home, which he loves above all things. In a way it is a pity he is a third son so cannot hope to inherit. I think he would have made a better ‘laird’ of the Collingsworth estates than his brother. Sir John seemed to me, though quite nice, a slow man who was really only doing his duty about his inheritance, and I don’t think he really cares much for hunting which in Norfolk makes you odd, I believe. The English families are run in such set ways, the eldest son inheriting all the property while the others must go into the Church or the Army. It is all laid down before you are born and no one ever thinks of varying the pattern by leaving everything to a second son, or a third, as a father might well do in Scotland if he was
displeased with his eldest. I didn’t say this to you at home but at Mannington I felt that there are so many differences between the Scotch and the English that we might be French and Spaniards in our separate ways. A Scotch wife to an Englishman must expect that her husband is going to seem a foreigner.

Our wedding is the first in Peking since the Boxer Troubles so there is going to be quite a fuss. An English Bishop will be up from Shanghai on tour at the time and will perform the ceremony. I do not much care for the Anglican Church way of doing things, but I suppose I will just have to put up with it, though after we are married I shall attend a
service as often as possible.

I must give you my first impression of Peking. It was dusk when we went in rickshas from the station towards the walls and a huge gate in them. My ricksha and the ones behind carrying Richard and my luggage, had to slow down to make way for a
. The camel had a big load on side packs and bells on its neck and it almost pushed past me in the ricksha as though to show that in China camels have priority over Europeans. I said to the camel: ‘By all means go first,’ and Richard called out that he hadn’t heard what I said. I couldn’t very well tell him that his fiancée had started talking to camels.

I asked whether the gate was the Hatamen, but it wasn’t. The Captain of the
Ching Wha
told me that the Empress Dowager, returning to Peking after her exile as a result of the Boxer Troubles, had entered the city by the Hatamen Gate with all the foreigners she had tried to put to death up on a parapet watching her return. From her palanquin she noticed them up there and the Old Lady bowed very deeply to the people she had meant to kill.

I must not tell you these stories or you will be worried again, but such tales do not make me nervous. I am staying until the wedding, the final date depending on the Bishop, with the British Second Secretary and his wife, a Mr and Mrs Harding. This house, like most, had some serious damage during the siege, a shell through the roof for one thing, but this has now been repaired. Damage to a once-beautiful garden will take much longer to heal, burning timbers scorched the trees and shrubs and
only a few survived, as is the case with most Quarter gardens. It is such a pity because they must have been very beautiful. I climbed yesterday with Richard up on to the wall behind us here, and the view showed Peking as a city of gardens. I have yet to visit the outer precincts of the Winter Palace where the public are permitted.

I am thinking of being extravagant and buying a fur coat since everyone has at least one, some eight or ten, particularly rich Chinese ladies. Mrs Harding took me to the one shop where it is safe to try on these furs, elsewhere is a real risk of catching smallpox. I liked very much an almost black Manchurian wildcat, very long and sleek. It cost fifteen pounds but Mrs Harding says she thinks she can get it for twelve if we bargain cleverly. I shall leave that to her.

Your loving daughter,


Legation Quarter, Peking
February 22nd, 1903

I am back to the notebooks I never thought I would write in again after I was with Richard. For the last four days it has been nothing but parties, first an evening here for me to meet some of the diplomats of all nations, though mostly of the lesser ranks in the legations. Then we went to a reception at the home of the British Minister, Sir Claude Macdonald, who organised the defence against the Boxers and is expected to be moved shortly to another post. Lady Macdonald is in England but Sir Claude was most charming to me, saying he is looking forward to a splendid wedding which will do them all good. He asked me if I was related to the Mackenzies of Achtarn who are distant connections of his but I had to say that my family had lived on the East Coast for some time and so had lost contact with Highland relations. At that his eyebrows shot up as though I had surprised him. He is a big man who dresses in fancy waistcoats as if formal occasions bother him a little, though I expect that in diplomatic uniform he will be most splendid. Against him all Chinese must appear very small physically. He is really like a Highland Chieftain
and though very friendly is also grand. I think Richard feels it a little that he was not here during the Boxer Troubles which makes a division between him and all those who were. I have noticed that he does not like too much Boxer talk, though interested enough in the
battles were fought.

Mr and Mrs Harding are being very kind to me, though I do not see much of him. When we meet at meals they both talk to me but don’t seem to talk much to each other, as though they are no longer finding things to talk about. I suppose this must happen, but it is rather sad. It is not easy for a husband and wife to have interests together in Peking. Tennis is played here in the Quarter during the summer, but there are no winter activities such as there used to be, like skating outside the city walls and sometimes race meetings, because that area is still unsafe for Europeans. One can’t go riding out there, either. What everyone complains about most is not being able to go to temples in the Western Hills because of bandits and some Boxers still wandering about. Those temples used to be hired for weekends or longer stays and the priests just moved out temporarily. I am not sure I would care for a holiday in a Buddhist church but when I said this to the wife of the First Secretary she told me that their temples are not nearly so sacred as our churches and that they adapt quite easily for picnics or as holiday houses. When I asked about the consecration of these buildings I learned that the Chinese do not bother about such things, though I am beginning to wonder a little whether the foreigners in this country pay enough attention to native customs and practices? Christians seem very sure of themselves when surrounded by other religions. This is right, of course, but somehow it makes me a little uncomfortable.

Legation Quarter
February 24th, 1903

Last night Richard and I went, with the Hardings, to dinner with the First Secretary of the French Legation, a Monsieur and Madame de Chamonpierre. According to Mrs Harding he is really Le Vicomte de
Chamonpierre but does not use the title since his country is now a republic, and he is not in favour of inherited rank. Mrs Harding suggested that this was an affectation, but now that I have met Monsieur and Madame I do not think so. Though we were introduced at Sir Claude’s reception I did not really get a chance to talk to them, but I noticed Madame’s dress, which was of stiff silk, very plain, only striking in cut and colour, a deep cerise which made her stand out in the room. She is very dark, not beautiful, rather a big nose, but it is her eyes you notice which on first meeting seem to be searching at once to see what you are made of. I cannot guess what she discovered I was made of, but it is flattering to find her giving me the kind of attention which she does not give Mrs Harding. Perhaps there is something still in the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland? It may, of course, be only kindness because she sees me as young and helpless in a new place, but I think not. Towards Richard she is slightly teasing in a way I’m surprised he accepts so easily. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed when Madame said she hoped I realised what a responsibility I was taking on, marrying the most beautiful man in Peking. I cannot imagine Richard allowing an Englishwoman to call him
, but perhaps he excuses such expressions from her because that is the way she speaks English, as though every word was directly
from the French.

The important guest at dinner was Sir Robert Hart, whom Richard says is the most respected Englishman in China and who could have received Sir Claude’s position as British Minister if he had wanted it, but did not, for he regards being Controller of Chinese Customs as much more important. It would seem he does not often go to dinner-parties at the level of Legation Secretaries, but makes an exception in the case of the de Chamonpierres, something that I can see irritates Mrs Harding very much. I did not exchange a word with Sir Robert all evening, partly because I was at the other end of the table at dinner, but later in the drawing-room he never came near my chair, as though military attachés’ fiancées did not exist for him. I had been warned by Mrs Harding that for this evening I would probably be seated next to our host, but that I must not regard this as anything more than an exception to the usual rules of
entertaining in which a Second Secretary’s wife takes precedence over the wife of the military attaché. I do not think that Mrs Harding much cares for the de Chamonpierres’ informality and she said afterwards that she did not enjoy the spectacle of the hostess totally controlling the
at dinner and after.

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