Invisible Censor

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21. Okura Sees Newport



Okura was sent to me by Jack Owen, a friend of mine in Japan. Jack said that Okura was taking two years off to study democracy, and would I steer him around. I was delighted. I offered Okura his choice of the great democratic scene, with myself as obedient personal conductor. He was very nice about it in his perfect silver-and-gray manner, and he asked if we could begin with Newport. I suspected a joke, but his eye never twinkled, and so to Newport we went.

The dirty little Newport railway station interested Okura. So did the choked throat of Thames Street, with its mad crush of motors and delivery wagons and foot passengers, and the riotous journey from the meat market to the book shop and from the chemist's to the Boston Store. I explained to Okura that this was not really Newport, only a small sample of the ordinary shopping country town, with the real exquisiteness of Newport tucked away behind. Okura clucked an acceptance of this remark, and our car wove its difficult way through the narrow lane till we returned to Bellevue Avenue.

The name Bellevue Avenue had to be expounded to Okura. He expected a belle vue, not a good plain plutocratic American street. When I told him what to expect, however, he was intensely occupied with its exhibition of assorted architecture, and he broke into open comment. "So very charming!" he cried politely. "So like postcards of Milwaukee by the lake!" I enjoyed his naïve enthusiasm and let it go.

He wanted to know who lived on the avenue, and I told him all the names I could think of. He had heard many of them, the samurai of America being known to him as a matter of course, and he picked up new crumbs of information with obvious gratitude.

"Vanderbilt? Oh, yes." That was old. So were Astor and Belmont.

After a while Okura wrinkled his brow. "I do not see the McAlpin mansion."

"The McAlpins? I have never heard of them," I murmured indulgently.

"But that is one name I think I remember correctly," Okura answered with visible anxiety. "The Bellevue-Astors, the Bellevue-Belmonts, the Bellevue-Stratfords? Please forgive me, I do not understand. Are not the McAlpins also Bellevue-McAlpins?"

It was hard to convince Okura that this was not a Valhalla of hotel proprietors, but at last he got it straight. We went back again as far as the Casino, and I took him in to see the tennis tournament.

Unknown to Okura, I was forced to take seats up rather far-well, to be frank, among the Jamestown and Saunderstown people. But happily we had Newport in the boxes right below us. Some of the ladies sat facing the tennis, some sat with their backs to it, and a great buzz of conversation reverberated under the roof of the stand and billowed on to the court. On the court two young men strove against each other with a skill hardly to be matched in any other game, and occasionally, when something eccentric or sensational happened, a ripple passed through the crowd. But the applause was irregular. People had to be watched and pointed out. It was important to note which human oyster bore the largest pearl. The method of entry and exit was significant, and significant the whole ritual of being politely superior to the game.

Okura was fascinated by the game, unfortunately, and there was so much conversation he was rather distracted.

"I hope it does not annoy you?" I asked him.

"Oh, not at all, thank you very much. It is so democratic!"

At this point the umpire got off his perch, and came forward to entreat the fine ladies.

"I have asked you before to keep quiet," he wailed. "For God's sake, will you stop talking?"

"How very interesting," murmured Okura.

"Yes," I said, "the religious motif."

"Ah, yes!" he nodded, very gravely.

Later on his compatriot Kumagae was to play, and we decided to return to the tournament; but first we took ourselves to Bailey's Beach.

Bailey's Beach is a small section of the Atlantic littoral famous for its seaweed. The seaweed is of a lovely dark red color. It is swept in in large quantities, together with stray pieces of melon-rind and other picnic remnants, and it forms a thick, juicy carpet through which one wades out to the more fluid sea. By this attractive marge sit the ladies in their wide hats and dresses of filmy lace, watching the more adventurous sex pick his way out of the vegetable matter. In the pavilion of the bathhouses sit still less adventurous groups.

It took some time to explain to Okura why this beach, once devoted to the collection of seaweed for manure, should now be dedicated to bathing. But he grasped the main point, that it was a private beach.

"Forgive me," he said, "I see no Jews."

"That's all right," I answered. "You are studying democracy. There are no Jews here. None allowed."

"Oh!" he digested the fact. Then his eye brightened. "Ah, you have your geisha girls at the swim-beach. How very charming!"

"No," I corrected him. "Those are not our geisha girls. That is the 'shimmy set.' You know: people who are opposed to the daylight saving act and the prohibition amendment."

"Oh, I understand. Republicans," he nodded happily.

As the Servants' Hour was approaching at Bailey's Beach, and as I had no good explanation to give of it to Okura, I thought we might walk along by the ocean before lunch. Okura was entranced by the walk, and by the fact that it ran in front of these private houses, free to the public as to the wind. Once or twice we went down below stone walls, with everything above hidden from us, but this was exceptional. Okura thought the walk a fine example of essential democracy.

"And what are those long tubes?" he asked, as we gazed out toward Portugal.

"Sewer pipes," I said bluntly, looking at the great series of excretory organs that these handsome democratic mansions pushed into the sea.

"Are they considered beautiful?" asked Okura.

"Quite," I told him. "They are one of the features provided strictly for the public."

"So kind!" said the acquiescent Japanese.

We went to lunch with a friend of mine whose plutocracy was not entirely intact, and but for one instructive incident it was an ordinary civilized meal. That incident, however, shall live long in my memory because of my inability to interpret it to Okura.

We had just finished melon, the six of us who sat down, when the third man was called to the telephone.

He came back, napkin in hand, and said to his hostess, "I'm awfully sorry, I've got to leave."

His hostess looked apprehensive. "I hope it's nothing serious?"

"Oh, not at all; please don't worry," he responded, plumping down his napkin, "but I've just had a message from Mrs. Jinks. She's a man short and she wants me to come over to luncheon. So long. Awfully sorry!"

"What did that mean, please?" Okura inquired, as we hurried back to see Kumagae play.

"Do you mean, democratically?"

"Yes."

"I give it up," I retorted.

"But Mr. Owen said you would want to interpret everything democratic to me," Okura ventured on, "and is there not some secret here hidden from me? I fear I am very stupid."

Democratically, I repeated dully, I could not explain.

"But," pressed Okura, "'the world has been made safe for democracy.' I want so much to understand it. I fear I do not yet understand Newport."

And he looked at me with his innocent eyes.