In commemoration of the 308th anniversary of the founding of Yuan Ming Yuan, 1709-2017

French chivalry in Peking?

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I had lit upon the harem, or at least a portion of the harem, of His Majesty. Oriental people are accustomed to construct the apartments of the women on islands; and here I was with twenty-seven women on my hands, and so beside themselves that when one emitted a sigh or a groan all the rest fell to the ground, supposing that another barbarian had arrived, and wishing to show him the same marks of respect, of fear, and of submission.

I had a great deal of trouble to soothe them, and to prevent them from suffocating themselves. They had had, I may venture to say, the good luck to fall into the hands of a gentleman, but it was not to be supposed that during the night and the day following they could escape the investigations of our soldiers who were still occupied in the interior of the palace, but who would not fail to emerge and rob in every direction as soon as the principal buildings had been sacked. The island would have been a mouse trap for them. I decided to ask them if they would leave and seek safety in flight, no matter where.

"Yes, yes, yes," they all cried.

And then down they went again, foreheads on the ground, as if they wished to salute the matting.

I took nine of them and made them sit down in the imperial gondola, which would carry no more, for the water trickled over its sides. I begged them to keep still, and I pushed my boat into the lake, not in the direction of the landing place, but straight for the stable containing the carriages already described, the roof of which hid us from the summer palace, and consequently prevented those who filled it, and were otherwise much occupied, from troubling themselves about us.

I led the women into the stable, and I piled them on the dusty cushions of King George's carriages, which for the first time were rendering some service to the Emperor of China. I cautioned them to keep still, and returned for a second load of nine women, and afterwards for a third. On this last trip, while steadily sculling, I commenced to ask myself what I should do with them all, and if I should not have better left them to their chances rather than to bring them out perhaps into imminent danger, for I did not know how far the French, the English, the Hindus, and the Arabs could be trusted.

Just as I landed and drove the last convoy into the stable, I saw quietly installed in one of the immense carriages, filled with the women, a trooper, a sergeant of the line, before whom all their terrors had returned.

"What are you doing there, comrade!" said I.

"What are you doing yourself!"

Continued The Beginning


From the Gardener, Louis Chor. Canada, June 2000. Updated September 2016