The estates of the Meng family overlooked a wide lake that gleamed in the half-moon evening like a piece of indigo glass. It was that hazy interlude between grey dusk and the crawling ink-breath of nightfall, wherein the wine was just beginning to loosen the lips of the dinner-guests and lighten the feet of the dancers.
But the vast darkness did not care that there was a party in this place; it paid no heed to the tinkling of lyre-music and china bowls, drifting from open, oblong windows like the little scratchy noises of beetles; nor did the tiny miasma of light within which the house sat make more than a spot in the lush, shadowy landscape.
Two young men sat on the balcony above the lake. They had not yet joined the party; instead, they lounged like builders in reprieve, sinking back into their recliners, legs propped up on the balustrade. Leaning and smoking.
One of them was a Hungarian by name and upbringing, but the part-Oriental blood that ran in him lent a fold to his eyes and softness to his features. He was twenty-two years old, and he was to inherit his father’s share in Molnar-Meng Trading Co.: a joint business venture into the transport of goods between Europe and Asia. His father had taken a wife from the Meng family; he too was expected to do the same, to secure the partnership into his generation and beyond.
The other man was twenty-seven, though good genes had given him the fresh-faced appearance of a youth barely out of his adolescent years. His black hair was held in a low ponytail, and he wore the rough clothes of a common man—for, indeed, he was an artist, more familiar with brushes and a blank canvas than the civilities and courtesies of a dinner-party. His name was Chi Ying-Jun.
The cigars they now smoked belonged to the Hungarian, who had produced them from a carved mahogany box—merely one of many items in the extensive luggage with which he had travelled. They conversed like old friends, even though they had in reality only met an hour before, when Jun had run into the dressing-room with his hands in the air.
“I don’t know where I am supposed to be!” he had cried.
The Hungarian had turned from the mirror, waving away his manservant, and examined the Chinese man with an air of frank curiosity. “You speak English!”
Jun, realising that he had entered into the guest quarters, assumed that he was being scolded. “I’m sorry, sir,” he bowed, “I did not realise—”
“No, wait,” said the Hungarian, coming forward. His dressing robe rustled richly with his movements. “Your English, I must say, is remarkably good! Precise grammar; hardly the trace of an accent…and yet your appearance is thoroughly local. Where are you from?”
He hesitated. “I’m from the city.”
“Well, that offers me no clue. Where on earth did you learn your English?”
“I went to art school, in England, for several years. They saw my work, and I was very good, so I was invited to study there. I had to learn English quickly.”
“Art school!” The Hungarian strode in an impulsive circle, his hands on his hips. “There’s a place to go. You are an artist, then? What is your name?”
“I am Chi Ying-Jun. Jun, please.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Jun. I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of you, but that is likely because I live on the other side of the Earth. I am Ferenc Molnar, though if I were a lady, I would no longer be Molnar by the end of tomorrow.” He grinned, widely, waiting to see if the other man understood his joke.
Jun jerked his head up, but barely smiled. “You are to be married?”
“Yes, and in the usual way—to a woman I have never seen, in a place that is not my home, in the presence of guests I do not care for in the least, all in accordance with an agreement made between my father and a family I have only met once when I was a small boy.”
“Perhaps she is very beautiful.”
Ferenc laughed appreciatively. “If not, then at least my secret wives will be. Come, tell me why you were in such a fluster when you burst so unceremoniously into my quarters?”
“This house is too big. I am lost. I am supposed to be in the foyer, because my painting is the centrepiece on the new wall, and I am to stand beneath it—though I don’t think my absence will be much noticed.”
“You expect to stand in the entrance-room of the house in such a state?”
For the first time, a flicker of true emotion crossed Jun’s face. “These are my best clothes,” he said curtly.
“They are linen.”
“They have no paint-spots.”
Ferenc laughed again. He had a resonant, well-rounded, full-bellied laugh of real amusement—the laugh of an older man, perhaps a middle-aged gentleman in a weskit and velvet coat. “Fair enough,” he said, “Anyway, do not be in such a rush. The party will not end for many hours, and neither of us can be expected to put in an appearance until the very end, if at all. Are you really so eager to stand amongst the bright lights and greet the people in their silk suits and sinful dresses?”
“I am supposed to be there.”
“Yes, but do you want to be there?”
“Does it make a difference?”
Ferenc was quietly incredulous.
Jun shrugged. “Perhaps when I go down and stand there, I will realise that I do want to be there, and that I do not want to leave.”
“You are strange.”
“I don’t mind being amongst the sinful dresses, in any case.”
This time, they both laughed.
At this point, Ferenc had told his manservant to bring the box of cigars, and he and Jun had retreated to the balcony where they sat in the frigid air, sipping port to keep their blood simmering and puffing away like chimneys. On the horizon, a tree screeched and shivered; then all at once its leaves took wing: a flock of birds rose into the air, leaving the branches naked.
The two men were deep into their second bottle when Ferenc remarked, “I saw your painting in the foyer, you know. When I arrived in the afternoon. It’s not very good.”
Jun took his legs off the balustrade. “It is good. You are not an artist. You are a businessman’s son. How can you possibly know a good work from a bad one?”
Ferenc recoiled from the stony change in Jun’s voice, but he went on: “How do you know I’m not an artist, Mr. Chi Ying-Jun? Granted, I have never gone to art school in England—but if our dreams could truly shape our lives, Jun, then I believe I would have your life.”
Jun shook his head hard. “You don’t want my life, Mr. Molnar. My life is agonising days in the back room of an urban flat, trying and trying to paint, moving ink across a page endless times to no purpose, making only lines and not art. My life is bread and water and linen clothes.”
“And yet a piece of your soul hangs in the front room of the Meng household. That must surely count for something.”
“My work is not a piece of my soul—”
“Oh,” said Ferenc, and suddenly his eyes were shining. “Oh, but it is! Don’t you see? I thought you of all people, as a fellow artist, would understand. Art is an extension of your mind, your heart, exhaled and made solid through breath and sweat and labour. And because of that, it is a miracle—it enables you to leave parts of yourself in places all around the world, for people everywhere to admire or to despise; and it is how you may remain in this world, a real and enduring thing, even after you are dead. Is not that wonderful? Is not that spectacular? Would you not agree that such is the true meaning of art, and therefore what makes it a higher pursuit than all monies, all beauties, all possessions, all romances, passions, knowledge, doctrines and law?”
Jun sat very still and stared at the exhilarated Hungarian, chewing thoughtfully on the end of his cigar. He smoked his cigar like an Englishman—a habit he had acquired in his years overseas that was startlingly at odds with his appearance. “Forgive me,” he said at last, in a quiet voice. “Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I was too quick to judge, and you are an artist.”
Ferenc seemed satisfied. He took a sip from his glass, and grinned. “At the very least, I can paint better than you.”
“Maybe, but you can never be popular, for you are too arrogant.”
“The humble man never rises to fame,” said Ferenc, but a moment later his shoulders sagged. “I sound like my father. He is not here, you know.”
“My father. He decided not to attend the wedding—actually, no, you cannot even call it a decision. He had pre-resolved not to attend the wedding, because there was no reason for him to. He has business matters to organise at home—he rarely leaves home, even though his contacts are spread across many countries—and he has sent me here to marry into the Meng family, so I can conduct business from the other end of the shipping route and learn the trade before I am to inherit.”
“But you are his son! The wedding-day is one of the most important days in a young man’s life. Surely your other relatives are here. Where is your mother, your brothers and sisters, your grandparents and uncles and aunties and cousins?”
“My mother and grandparents are deceased. I have two uncles, but one is estranged—there was some feud a while back about the division of money or something equally inane—and the other has his own business to run. I do not even know him. My sister, Sarolta, is married to a member of parliament; of course, her husband does not want to leave the country, and she cannot travel alone, naturally.”
“Sarolta,” repeated Jun. “That is a good name. It sounds like the name of a beautiful princess.”
“Ah! I was beginning to doubt that you were an artist at all, Jun, but I see there is some romantic streak in you.”
“Even though you hated my painting?”
“I did not hate it. It was merely very…methodical. As though it were drawn by an accountant.”
Jun laughed for the first time. He rubbed his cheek with one rough hand. “You aren’t the first one to have said that. My mother used to say it of my paintings all the time, before she lost her eyesight. I suppose one could say I am as precise and careful in my art as I am in my English—I do not want to make any mistake, to be misunderstood. That is, I think, one of my greatest fears. Also, my father was an accountant, so maybe he gave me a head for patience and mathematics.”
Ferenc was silent and attentive. He had leaned forward in his recliner, elbow resting on his knee, fingers stroking his chin. Jun understood that he should go on.
“Anyway, I don’t think the division of money is such an inane matter,” continued Jun. “Money is very important, for all areas of life. You need money for food. You need money to feed your loved ones, to put clothes on their backs and to pay for a doctor when they get sick. It is vital to make sure that you handle your money well, or else you commit not only yourself but your loved ones to a sad fate.”
“Hm,” said Ferenc.
“Art,” said Jun, “is a selfish and beautiful pursuit. But money is a selfless and difficult career.”
“Hardly selfless,” said Ferenc, taking a large sip of port.
“If you are not greedy. If you make money for others, not yourself.”
“You can’t change the world with money. You can only plunge it into a state of greater depravity.”
“You can’t change the world with art.”
“You can change people, and therefore change the world.” Ferenc smiled. “Look at us, each arguing for the other and against ourselves. It is ridiculous. You wish that you had been born to have a career in business, and I wish that I could leave all this and make art. Fate may be cruel, but she is not without an exquisite sense of irony.”
“No, fate is certainly cruel. We are destined to constantly war against its hand, to struggle in vain for the empty length of our lives.”
Ferenc winced. “Do not be a poet, Jun. You might make your listeners wiser, but not wittier.”
“I would never be a poet. My English is too terrible. If I could choose a new life, I would be an accountant for a large company, or even a businessman, like your father.”
“Or like me,” said Ferenc, suddenly.
Jun was startled by the unexpected gravity of the other’s tone. “Yes, like you.”
“Yes,” said Ferenc, lunging forward and peering eagerly into Jun’s face. “Then why not be me? You should become me: Chi Ying-Jun turn into Gáspár Ferenc Molnar—it is glorious! Why didn’t the idea occur to me earlier? It must be this damn port. My lungs are full of Cuban smoke and my veins are thick with alcohol, but mine eyes—mine eyes! They do see the solution to all that is wrong and loathsome in our lives. I see a path, a road, a way! We shall never struggle again, Chi-Jun! You and I, we will live the way we have always dreamed!”
“Sir,” said Jun. “I’m afraid I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“And I’m afraid that’s because I’m drunk—oh, no, that’s not right: I’m not afraid of drunkenness, no. But I am certainly afraid—of what, I wonder?”
“Of marriage! Indeed, you are astute, Jun-Ying. I am glad to have met you. Yes, I am afraid of marrying this faceless woman, who cannot even speak my language.”
“Or, you cannot even speak her language.”
“Yes—sorry. I will be an alien son in a family I do not know, and for the rest of my life I will count money and write reports and lists and manage this shipment or that trade, and coordinate a transaction with this gentleman and forge a business deal with that fellow, until boredom or the sicknesses of rich men take me to the grave. Unless, of course—” and here his eyes began again to glow “—unless you will agree to this plan, this course of action. Will you do it, Jun-Chi? Do you not think it is perfect?”
“I don’t want to understand what you are saying.”
“Oh, but you do, you do! I can see it. You want my life. There is a hunger in your every fibre and movement that betrays you. You envy me for being born into a position of such apparent ease, where money and clothes and wives flow like a river to my doorstep.”
“I want your life,” said Jun, slowly.
A smile spread over Ferenc’s face. “Then, by all means, you may have it.”