AN AUDIENCE WITH THE EMPRESS
No one informed us the day before that there was to be an audience to receive the Russian Minister's wife on that very day. We told Her Majesty that we must go and change our clothes in order to receive this lady. The dresses we wore that day were very simply made and short. The reason we wore this kind of costume was that there was no carpet and the bare brick floor had ruined our beautiful red velvet gowns, also the clumsy eunuchs had kept stepping on our trains all the time. We had made up our minds that short dresses for general wear every day would be more practical. Her Majesty said: "Why must you change your clothes? I see you look much better without that tail dragging behind you on the floor. I laughed at the idea of having a tail on one's dresses. I noticed that the first day when you came to the Court." Before we had time to explain to her, she said: "I see, dresses with tails behind must be more dignified than short ones, am I right?" We told her it was so. Then she said: "Go and put on your most beautiful gowns at once." We immediately went and changed. My sister and myself wore our pink crepe de chine gowns, trimmed with Brussels lace and transparent yokes of the same color chiffon. My mother wore her gray crepe de chine embroidered with black roses and a little touch of pale blue satin on her collar and belt. We dressed in a great hurry, as Her Majesty had sent eunuchs to see if we were ready. When she saw us she exclaimed: "Here are three fairies with long tails." Then she asked us: "Is it very tiring to hold half of your dress in your hand when you are walking? The costume is pretty, but I do dislike the tail, there is no sense having a thing like that. I wonder what these foreigners will think of me having you dressed in their costume. I am sure they won't like the idea. My reason is this: I want them to see you in foreign clothes in order to let them understand I know something about the way they dress. I must say that no foreign ladies have yet been presented to me dressed in such lovely gowns as you three have. I don't believe foreigners are as wealthy as the Chinese. I also notice they wear very little jewelry. I was told that I have more jewelry than any sovereign in the world and yet I am getting more all the time."
We were very busy getting ready to receive Mdme. Plancon, who arrived about eleven o'clock and was received in the waiting room of the first courtyard by my sister and from there conducted to the audience hall, Ren Shou Dien, where she was received by Her Majesty, who was sitting on her big throne on the raised dais. The Emperor was present, sitting on Her Majesty's left hand and I stood on her right to interpret for her. Her Majesty was dressed in a yellow transparent satin brocade gown, embroidered with hollyhocks and the Chinese character "Shou" (Long Life) and trimmed with gold braid. She wore her big pearl, which is about the size and shape of an egg, suspended from the button of her dress, also numerous bracelets and rings and gold finger nail protectors. Her hair was dressed in the same style as usual.
When Mdme. Plancon entered the hall, my sister brought her to the steps of the dais and she courtesied to Her Majesty. I then went forward and brought her up onto the dais and Her Majesty shook hands with her and she presented the photograph which she had brought to Her Majesty. Her Majesty made a very pretty speech of acceptance, expressing her appreciation of the gift of their Majesties, the Czar and Czarina. I interpreted this speech in French to Mdme. Plancon, as she could not speak English. After this, Her Majesty told me to take Mdme. Plancon to the Emperor, which I did. He stood up when she came near and shook hands with her and asked after their Majesties' health. This over, Her Majesty stepped down from her throne and took Mdme. Plancon to her own Palace, the one with so many bedrooms, and when they arrived, Her Majesty asked her to sit down, and they talked together for about ten minutes, I interpreting for them, after which I took her to see the Young Empress.
The Manchu law is very strict as regards the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, and the Young Empress had been sitting behind the screen at the back of the throne during the audience, and it was there that I found her. From there we went to the banquet hall, where luncheon was served in Manchu style.
Here I must explain the difference between the Chinese way of eating and the Manchu. The Chinese place the bowls of food, one at a time, in the center of the table and everyone eats out of these bowls, sticking their chopsticks in and helping themselves to what they want. The Manchus eat quite differently and are served with individual bowls and dishes, the same as in any other country. Her Majesty was very proud of this and said that it saved time, not to mention being cleaner. The food in the Palace was always very good and clean, especially when we had foreign guests, and of course we had a variety of dishes for such occasions, such as sharkfins, birds' nest pudding, not to mention a great quantity of other things.
Her Majesty had given me the order that morning to have the tables nicely decorated and they did look very nice when we sat down. Besides the usual tableware, we had gold dragon menu holders, little peach-shaped silver saucers filled with almonds and dried watermelon seeds, and knives and forks in addition to chopsticks.
Her Majesty and the Emperor never ate with guests, so Mdme. Plancon was entertained by the Imperial Princess and the Court ladies. When luncheon was half over a eunuch came and told me that Her Majesty wanted to see me at once. The thought flashed through my head that something had gone wrong, or that some of the eunuchs had been making false reports, a bad habit of the Court; and I was much surprised to find her all smiles. She told me what a nice, polite lady Mdme. Plancon was, that she had seen many ladies who had come to the Court, but none with manners like this one, that she was sorry to say that some of the ladies who came did not behave very well. She said: "They seem to think we are only Chinese and do not know anything, and look down upon us. I notice these things very quickly and am surprised to see people who claim to be well educated and civilized acting the way they do. I think we whom they call barbarians are much more civilized and have better manners." She was always very polite to the foreign ladies, no matter how badly they behaved, but after they had gone, she would tell us who was nice and who was not. After she had finished saying this, she gave me a beautiful piece of green jade to give to Madame Plancon. When I gave it to her, she said she wished to thank Her Majesty, and I took her to the Palace again.
When we had finished luncheon, she told me how pleased she was with her reception and the kindness that Her Majesty had shown her, and took her departure, we accompanying her to the courtyard of the Audience Hall, where her chair was waiting.
Her Majesty had made a rule or custom that after all guests had departed, we must go to her and report everything. I suppose she was like all women, a bit of a gossip as well as the rest; it appeared so at any rate. She wanted to know what Mdme. Plancon said, whether she liked the jade and whether she enjoyed her luncheon, etc.
Her Majesty was very well pleased that I had interpreted so well for her and said: "I have never had anyone to interpret for me this way before. Although I don't understand the language, I can see that you speak it fluently. How did you learn? I will never let you go away from me any more. Sometimes the foreign ladies bring their own interpreters, but I can't understand their Chinese and have to guess at what they are saying, especially some of the missionaries Mrs. Conger brings with her. I am very happy to have you and want you to stay with me as long as I live and I will arrange a marriage for you, but won't tell you just now."
I felt very happy at what Her Majesty had said and thought I had made my debut under very favorable auspices, and was very glad that Her Majesty liked me; but this marriage question worried me, for nothing was farther from my mind than this. I afterwards told my mother about it and she told me not to worry, as I could always refuse when the time came.
When we had told Her Majesty all that Mdme. Plancon had said, she told us we could go to our rooms, that as we had risen early that morning and had worked very hard, we must be tired and needed rest, that she would not need us any more that day. We courtesied to her according to the custom when saying good night, and retired.