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“There is something of the Bushido in it, too,” said Ken, but his mouth was full and, in any case, he couldn’t remember what it was.
“Wait a minute!” said Kyuzo, staring at the priest’s widow. “You’re surely not saying that there are no real differences between peoples, are you? That this tension between Japan and America boils down to some misunderstanding, like between us and the people from Edo?”
Though it was her brother who had said the “Edo” part, Michi said, “That’s what she seems to be saying,” while Ken bowed deeply to Kyuzo, seeing his mentor’s point. “Sometimes when things are perfectly clear we still hate each other,” he said.
Gorobei got to his knees to pour more saké for those at the far end of the table.
“I’m only saying that after our suspicions are defeated we will end up trading anyway,” he said. “So why not do it now, get the jump on everyone?”
“After our suspicions are defeated we will discover that men are men and women are women, you mean,” the priest’s widow said. “That everywhere in the world, even though we might look different, we all want the same things.”
She had tears in her eyes, but only because she had finally been forced to swallow the sausage.
“Really?” asked Kyuzo. “What do you think it is, then, that everyone wants?”
“Children,” said Wilhelm, greatly surprising himself. “A man wants his name to continue.”
He looked around, then peered sharply at his cuckoo clock, as if maybe those words had come from it.
“When you’re right you’re right!” said Ken, but the others, all of whom were childless, ignored him.
“Well, I think everyone wants success,” said Gorobei. “To be respected in his community, to be looked up to while at the same time having a large pool of others to look down upon.”
“You’re all talking nonsense!” said his sister. “The unfortunate truth is that people want things to stay the same. They fear nothing so much as change. They want to wake up tomorrow like they woke up today!”
“Hmm,” said Kyuzo. “Did I not read a line on that very subject back in your study, Sir? ‘If ever I something something… ’ Change was in it, am I right?”
He was determined to tell Wilhelm that the change he would face, right after dinner, was that he was under arrest. Without using the term “arrest,” of course.
“Ah, the immortal Goethe,” cried Wilhelm. “In the master’s work there are gems on every subject. But I think you mean the part that warns against the common wish to leave things alone.”
He knew precisely which lines Kyuzo was referring to and was sorry for his own disingenuousness. This was what he had waited for, what he had wanted from Manjiro upon his return, and he spoke the lines now in as clear a voice as he could muster:
If ever to the moment I shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
Then I will put my life behind me,
Then let them hear my death-knell toll,
Then from your labors you’ll be free,
The clock may stop, the clock-hands fall,
And time come to an end for me!
Kyuzo was deeply, even profoundly, impressed. The Japanese was excellent, the meaning as clear as any haiku. He repeated the first line quickly, lest someone else pipe up and change the subject. ‘“If ever to the moment I shall say, beautiful moment, do not pass away!’ Now that is something that does speak to everyone. And Germans believe it too, you say?”
He didn’t want to diminish his appreciation of the line, but he also saw in it a way to finally tell this man that his own “beautiful moment” was about to come to an end. “Do you think…” he began, but the priest’s widow once more started talking.
“It is certainly correct to let a fine moment pass away naturally,” she said, “for to do otherwise will turn the moment artificial and sour, sending its beauty fleeing. But what if a person’s moments aren’t fine to begin with? What if they are dull and repetitive, with unending work and precious little acknowledgement from men? What is she supposed to do then?”
“But that’s how everything got started in the first place!” said Wilhelm. “I mean for Faust in my translation. He was a man of great accomplishment yet was as unfulfilled as he might have been had he never accomplished anything. Listen to what he says the first time we hear him speak.”
He couldn’t help himself, he’d kept his work private for far too long. He leaned toward the priest’s widow, his eyes on his robe where it parted to show him her breasts:
Well, that’s Philosophy I’ve read,
And Law and Medicine, and I fear
Theology too, from A to Zed;
Hard studies all, that have cost me dear.
And so I sit, poor silly man,
No wiser now than when I began.
Oh how easily he could have gone on! The next lines, in fact, were urging themselves up, strumming at his vocal chords like the chorus of a song. But he knew enough to stop now. “So you see,” he said, “Faust was a success, most men are failures, and there’s really very little difference. A sense of futility is not in the special providence of anyone.”
It was a moment of great poignancy for Wilhelm and for the priest’s widow, too, but for Kyuzo it was extraordinary, making him remember the poems he had exchanged years earlier with the only woman he had ever loved, poems from the Basho collection, Empty Chestnut. Until this moment he had believed that only Japanese could know futility so well. “After all it is true!” he cried. “We are closer than I suspected, the Western world and Japan, for all men in both places die alone!”
Gorobei agreed and was ready to seal the agreement with more drink, but Michi glared at him, making him stay his hand.
“Well, I suppose if nonsense is a value shared by everyone it’s a good thing to know,” she said. “But you’re all talking like a pack of scholars at a speech-giving contest. I agree that philosophy has its place, but we’re embarking on an entirely new phase of history here, and we’ve got our trading policies to think about!”
Ken’s eyes were as bright as two candles. His father had told him there would come a time when he might have to forgo the samurai life in order to engage in business, and when he heard this woman’s speech he felt sure that time was now. Samurai and merchants would blend into the future like… well, he was too full of drink himself to think of a proper comparison, but blend they would!
“Harrumph,” said Kyuzo, “To say philosophy has its place and in the same breath deny it, is nothing more than sophistry.”
“No,” said Michi. “It does have its place, but you don’t wage war during a tea ceremony, and look out at that harbor! Open your eyes! You don’t sit around talking philosophy when the American fleet is in town!”
Ken’s smile grew wider—my, how he liked this woman!—but Kyuzo’s eyebrows bunched together like two slugs marching across his face. “Maybe not,” he barked, “But when strangers knock on your door you don’t start right off with a tea ceremony, either! First you get to know their way of thinking. And what else is that but philosophy? Let’s leave sophistry for the sophists!”
Wayward as they might have been toward the end, those words made Wilhelm remember that four of the five people sitting before him now were strangers at his door, and that serving them this meal was as close as he could get to a tea ceremony.
“Well, I have taken to thinking of it this way,” he said. “During the daylight hours, whether at my desk in back or in my garden, I’m always very practical, always lending my energies to some productive activity. But at night, when the curtain of darkness falls, my mind tends to turn philosophical. Basically I guess I think we’re all pawns, pulled this way and that, first by the sun, then by the moon and the stars.”
“Oh, me too!” cried the priest’s widow. “My days are full, but how I hate those unending hours of dark!”
That had not been Wilhelm’s point but everyone nodded anyway, and with the momentary quiet came the realization that the rain had ceased. Gorobei looked at his sister and said, “We’d better take this chance to get going.”
When he went to put on his kimono Michi stood, too, then bent and ran a finger over the fine thick weave of the old German sweater Wilhelm had put on.
“So what do you think?” she asked. “Are we right to push for trade, my brother and me, or should we wait until we have a clear idea of the American character?”
Wilhelm finally understood the crux of the matter, for these two, at least, and was surprised, for he knew more about the character of that deranged cuckoo in his clock than he did about Americans. But she was waiting for an answer so he said something influenced by drink, telling her summarily to follow her heart. She was disappointed by such a vapid response but her brother was back by then, looking as splendid as he if had he been dressed by an attendant, as was his custom every morning, so she sighed and went to find their umbrellas. They had stayed far longer than intended, and this lull in the rain might not last.
Kyuzo, meanwhile, was still in his loincloth, trapped in his own inability to act. Ken, who had also gone off to dress, seemed fine with the fact that though they had come to arrest Wilhelm no arresting had even been mentioned yet, but Kyuzo was of the old school enough to believe that duty trumped willfulness, every time but one. That his one time might soon be upon him made him nod. Unlike Ken, he could never be a businessman.
The night had grown calm, everyone felt it when the twins stepped outside.
“This is not good news,” said Gorobei. “Our storm is merely hiding behind those mountains.”
He pointed at the peaks where Wilhelm trudged daily to collect his soil. In the other direction the bay was bright with lanterns, as busy as it had been during the day. Drunks warbled unintelligibly while geisha sang bawdy refrains.
“Those people!” Michi said. “When the Americans come ashore those same men will disappear and if the geisha sing at all it will be from the farthest corner of the room.”
She took her brother’s arm before he slipped on the leafy ground, falling and ruining his kimono. She walked him past the cemetery and soon they disappeared down the road.