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2. The Metamorphosis Of Basse

The legations at Peking had been relieved, the Boxer uprising quelled, and the Empress Dowager had taken refuge some three hundred miles away up the valley of the Yellow river. Military operations were now of a punitive character only, ranging, according to the nationality concerned, from the meting out of just punishment to mere sacking, general ravaging, and the senseless destruction or defacing of ancient monuments.

It was during this state of affairs that my friend Basse, the Superintending Engineer of the Chinese fleet, had occasion to travel from the coast to Peking on some official business of the Admiral. There was no going by train, now in purely military hands, so he rode the hundred-odd miles accompanied by a mafoo and a spare mount. The countryside through which he rode, doing his forty miles or so a day, was being ravaged at the time by Cossacks, the innocent and the harmless killed and worse for the guilt of others. There was no road.

The way was across country over a plain for the whole distance.

Basse gave a wide berth to the scenes of burning and pillaging but suddenly he came across a party of Cossacks and a young peasant girl. His description of how he rescued that girl was inadequate, but this much I gathered. The dozen or so of Cossacks were dismounted; their ponies near by, reins trailing.

They showed no alarm on the approach of Basse, for they must have heard and seen the single traveller and his mafoo for some time. Rather, as he approached the scene, was there a leering invitation to watch the entertainment.

A few low words passed between Basse and his mafoo; then he approached the ring within which lay the whimpering girl, shriekless as from a nightmare terror but as yet not materially harmed. He approached — still mounted — the circle at the side farthest from the Cossacks' ponies and pushed through, as if in eager response to the implied invitation. Basse was travel-stained; he grew at that time a short untidy beard of two diverging tufts; his appearance was rough and uncouth; his lanky six-foot body on a small Mongolian pony — he rode with very long stirrups — gave him the appearance of a Don Quixote; the general impression he would give was one of harmlessness, and this doubtless was a factor in his reception.

Suddenly came a yell from the mafoo, who was slashing and stampeding the Russians' ponies. In the moment of the Cossacks turning to see what was up Basse had his chance.

Picking up the slip of a girl by the handful of her clothes, he slung her across his saddle and galloped off, a crop of high-growing kaoliang protecting him and the mafoo from being aimed at for the first few moments. They were chased for miles by and under fire from the enraged and baffled Cossacks; but got away untouched.

The girl was taken all the way to Peking, because, as Basse said, to leave her elsewhere would be to expose her to a similar danger, and he did not like a half-finished job. At Peking he found her a safe refuge, and then doubtless, for a time, he thought little about it except as one satisfactory incident in a gruesome journey.

The affair, judged by any standard, was remarkable enough — the sudden confrontation, the instant weighing of risks and the vision of a plan, the brief instruction to his groom, and then the execution; but it was infinitely more remarkable when one considers the man as he had been — quiet and shy, good-natured to the point of apparent weakness, peaceful and giving way in any dispute, slow in his movements and hesitating in his decisions — and now this. What happened was, of course, a prompting from a hitherto unknown latency; and with the inspiration automatic action.

The life of Ludwig Basse was to some extent interwoven with my own. He was a Prussian. As far as I knew, he was of comparatively humble birth and had performed his service in the German navy as an engine-room warrant officer; his education was that of his class and he showed no sign of any special abilities. He was a tall lanky man, with a trim torpedo beard, very humorous blue eyes, an awkward and intensely shy manner with strangers, and a stubborn taste in collars, very low stand-up ones, from which, with far too much spare space, a long thin neck protruded.

I had no liking for things German, a feeling originating in my experiences as a small boy in a German school; (1) it was not usual for a deck officer and an engineer officer to be close friends, and his social outlook differed greatly from mine; but, for whatever reason, that close friendship grew — perhaps there was the unconscious recognition of kindred spirits for adventure. It was not until later that I was to learn the full extent of my friend's qualities, his utter fearlessness, his enterprise, his honesty in word and deed, his generosity and his modesty.
1 — When I was eight my father took a two years' chaplaincy at Freiburg in Baden to ease the sudden change from affluence to poverty.

Basse — a Prussian — was one of nature's gentlemen and a gallant one at that.

I have already told of how he joined the fleet at Weihaiwei, was damaged by a torpedo boat's propeller and was sent away.

Thus the war served him no useful purpose except that it resulted, later, in his obtaining the appointment of Superintending Engineer to the fleet. His age at the time of the episode with the girl was about thirty-five.

After the war — as already told — some millions of taels were collected from the maritime provinces to form the nucleus of a naval fund for the purchase of a new fleet. It was my aim to prepare myself for developments in this connection. But it was for Basse, not for me, to be concerned in a minor way in the spending of that fund. The Empress Dowager misappropriated it for the purpose of renovating her palaces, and Basse's services were used in the installation of electric light there and in the provision of weird dragon motor craft for the palace lakes.

How Basse's exploit in saving the peasant girl came to the ears of Yuan Shih-kai was not told me; but what he said was repeated. Yuan was then Governor of Shantung at his capital of Chinanfu. It was in his province that the Boxers originated and were supported by his predecessor Yii-hsien. He had done what was possible to suppress them; he had done what he could to prevent the Empress Dowager from supporting them. This was not due to any regard for the foreigner but owing to the certain knowledge of disaster to his country which must result from that support. At the time of hearing of Basse's deed his feeling against the foreigners must have been bitter indeed. That they should make war to relieve the legations; that they should punish those guilty, however severely, for an unprecedented outrage, he would understand.

Had it been the Japanese who had ravaged, he would have understood it also, for in similar circumstances would he not have ordered the same? But that the Westerners, or some of them, with their vaunted Christianity, should prove to be actually the barbarians they had always been named, had come as a disgusting shock to him; and now this story of a foreigner, and not only of a foreigner but of a German, one of the nationality that had been among the worst offenders in barbarity.

I can imagine, from my later knowledge of Yuan Shih-kai, that for a considerable pause after the tale he would remain silent, his eyes with their curious inward-looking appearance of concentrated thought, and then he would rap out his decision: — If I had heard of a foreigner risking his life for the sake of a Chinese lady of position, I should have thought nothing about it. I should have believed he did it for what he could make out of it; but, when I hear of one who seriously risks his life to save the honour of a peasant girl, I know that there must be much good in him, and, if he will allow me to do so, I will make his fortune for him. Send him a message that I wish to see him.'

Yuan Shih-kai, who at that time was transferred to Tientsin as Viceroy of Chihli, the metropolitan province, wished Basse to give up his naval appointment and attach himself to his Yamen on a handsome salary. Now happened the extraordinary metamorphosis of my friend. It seems as if from the moment of his exploit with the girl he had been re-made in character; from the chrysalis of his former super-modest self he emerged and spread wings of vast self-reliance and ambition; he acquired quite suddenly, as if by inspiration, a remarkable judgment, a breadth of vision, a confidence in himself, and an uncanny knowledge of the Chinese official mind that was phenomenal. That he had hitherto no ambition, that he had taken no care to prepare himself for possible eventualities is quite certain; he did not even take the trouble to learn the language, when for some five years he lived at close quarters with English-speaking Chinese officers. But what he must have unconsciously acquired during those years was a deep insight into the Chinese mind. So remarkably did he afterwards show that gift that it is not a wild hypothesis to imagine it a manifestation of far-fetched atavism due to an ancestress on the eastern plain of Europe giving birth in the thirteenth century to a half-caste child after the horde of Batu Khan had passed.

In spite of the Viceroy being the most powerful satrap in China, with a greater future confidently foretold for him, Basse refused his apparently tempting offer on the grounds, as he told me, that it would too much restrict his freedom and not give him sufficient scope. He reminded the Viceroy that, as an officer in the fleet, his services were anyhow at His Excellency's disposal, and that, while he would gladly accept a monthly retaining fee of two hundred taels, he declined to take more.

Whether Basse at that time consciously foresaw the result of his decision, or to what extent it may have been due to the risk of becoming, in effect, an A.D.C. with social duties which he would hate, cannot be stated. The easiest explanation is that it resulted from another inspiration. The justification of his policy came rapidly. On a visit, on behalf of Yuan Shih-kai, to old Chou-fu, the Governor of Shantung, Basse found himself offered a similar retainer for similar occasional services; and shortly afterwards Tuan Fang, the Manchu Viceroy at Nanking, did the same. It may be assumed that these appointments were made at Yuan Shih-kai's suggestion. So here was Basse launched on his new life.

It was not long before he found his hands full of affairs placed in them by one or the other of those officials. I knew but little of them apart from those in which, through Basse, I myself took part. Such, for example, was an attempt to attain a co-ordinated and efficient organization for the control of the Yellow river, in place of the independent triple control existing another was the reorganizing of the Chinese navy; a third — on behalf of Viceroy Tuan Fang — was the little problem of bimetallism for China. There were others, but these suffice for examples.

Now how was it possible that Basse, with his general lack of any special knowledge, could have served usefully in such matters? The answer to that apparently difficult question is, in reality, quite simple. In recent years, advisers to the Chinese Government have been specialists strictly confined to their own technicalities; but formerly there existed here and there foreigners attached to provincial Yamens, who would advise on any subject under the sun. They were not necessarily frauds; Viceroys and Governors were always learned men in their own Chinese field, but on some matters they — of the old school — were colossally ignorant, and the temptation to give advice to them on a modicum of knowledge was not inconsiderable. The influence that these advisers exercised, however great they believed it, was usually negligible. Those old officials were great judges of character; they would listen patiently and apparently attentively, for they had certain uses for these men, and it was through their sense of self-importance that the best of those services could be obtained. It was in this respect that Basse stood out as an exception. His attitude was that he himself had no technical knowledge, but that he had friends who either could give the information needed or could put him on to some one else who would serve. And thus, unlikely as it at first appeared, this marine engineer became a valued adviser on certain affairs of State to a number of high officials. He became, too, as far as that was possible, their personal friend. With these satraps he had an ease of manners contrasting curiously with his shy awkwardness elsewhere.

Doubtless this was a reflex of their own regard for him; and in that regard the quality of his laugh and his humorous twinkling eyes may quite well have been a factor, for the Chinese are peculiarly susceptible to such things; but above all, it was his uncanny understanding of Chinese mentality, his ability to see their point of view, that was the foundation of his influence.

It must not be thought that his activities were confined to the obtaining of the advice or services of others. As his knowledge of Chinese affairs grew, he initiated policies of his own, and was entrusted with delicate inter-provincial political missions in turbulent times, in the performance of which he ran many risks. Basse operated from behind the screen — as the Chinese say. He never came into the foreign limelight, and even his existence was little known in the concessions.

The central feature of this story is, of course, Basse's exploit of saving the peasant girl and the resulting curious metamorphosis of the man. As a background to the picture, a short account of his previous life has been given. As a foreground, as it were, are now added some disconnected fragments.

Basse had received some high decorations; it was now decided that he should be given rank. There was more than one precedent for appointing a soldier to be Admiral, but apparently to make an Admiral of a ship's engineer would stretch a point too far, so they made him a full-blown General.

Then came the impending audience of Basse with the Empress Dowager. He was to be presented, not as a valued foreigner but as a Chinese official whose rank entitled him to it, an event unprecedented, perhaps, since the fifteenth century, when the highly ranked Jesuit Fathers were personae gratae at the Court.

At such an audience the occasion entitled him to hand in a memorial on affairs of State. On this point Basse came down to Shanghai to consult me. At that time the disintegrating forces against China were steadily accumulating. The defeat of China by Japan; the tragedy of the Boxer rising; foreign annexations; the threat of partition; and the continuance, if not the increase, in official corruption: these loomed over the situation as portents of coming disaster. Already one heard young officials of foreign and especially American education talk of revolution, of the virtues of Republicanism, and one heard glib views of representative Government and the advantages of this and that country's constitution. These young officials shut their minds to arguments that China's existing form of Government was not merely the only one suited to her, but was perhaps, in principle, the best the world had produced, and that all that was necessary and safe was to purge it of the corruption with which it was infected.

In my little house, facing the racecourse at Shanghai, Basse and I sat discussing this matter. We were not taking ourselves very seriously; we laughed at our occasional Gilbertian earnestness, but there seemed to be sporting chances which deserved consideration. It was obvious that none of the socalled reforms already effected or discussed could avoid the coming disaster. The main source of China's evil was in the Imperial palace itself. As in Russia at that time, reform, if possible at all, could only be effected from the top downwards.

That this was so no one realized more than the Viceroys, though it was a subject that barely admitted whispering about between friends. Memorials to the throne by censors were occasionally of a drastically critical nature with bold condemnation of evils and petition for redress. It was part of the traditional constitution to allow such, and only very rarely was a memorialist punished for his outspokenness; but there was a limit, and that limit was anything which could be construed into a criticism of the Throne itself. To one who had any regard for the safety of his head, any suggestion that reform in the palace was needed was impossible. Thus the only possible road to a remedy was blocked.

But — discussed Basse and myself — was there not a conceivable way through that impasse? What about the opportunity he was about to have? He need not fear for his head, though doubtless there would be no small risk to his life in other ways.

Would it not be worth it? Might it not be possible to put an appeal in such a manner that, coming from a foreigner who gave the strongest evidence of his love for the country, the Empress Dowager might read it through before destroying it in her inevitable rage; and then the matter would lie in the lap of the gods.

So I concocted for Basse the weird memorial which is given in Appendix B. Let it be said at once that it was not presented.

On consulting his Chinese friends he was told that it would not be his head that would be lost but theirs. It is recorded as an example of Basse's extraordinary activities. The anti-foreign expressions in it should be considered by the light of affairs existing at the time, by the light of what might impress the Empress Dowager, and by the light of the magnitude of what was aimed at.

Nothing has been said of Basse as a German. So far as national characteristics were concerned it was hard to believe that he was one. He loathed Prussian ways, perhaps because coming from the Junker's country he was no Junker himself.

His avoidance of German consulates and the German Legation at Peking was marked.

Whenever possible he exerted himself to draw me into purely Chinese official affairs. In general it was through his introduction that I got into some degree of touch with high Chinese officials, without which one side of my later life would not have developed. It is in that sense that Basse, more than any other person, influenced my doings; but later he became disappointed in me because I did not imitate him in his way of dealing with the satraps. He thought I could have done so had I wished, but that was not the case. Basse was a genius at it, and my one attempt to copy him ended in the ignominious failure of my Naval Secretaryship — as will be told later. And so our co-operation ended, and I lost touch with his affairs; though when we met we continued to be the best of friends.

He died of typhus fever at Peking; he died before Yuan Shih-kai, and so did not see the destruction of all he had taken part in; and he did not see Germany bringing disaster on the world. It was the crowning mercy to his strange career.