A light shone from the window of a little frame laundry on Eleventh street. Within one could see a Chinaman burning incense before a big red god that hung over the ironing board. The only light in the room came from a smoking oil lamp and the little brown sticks which the little yellow man held up before the god. His queue hung down his back, and his wrinkled face was lifted toward the painted image, and his narrow eyes glittered bright and brown as beads of opium. There was a weirdness about him and his red deity that made one shudder. They are an unearthly people, these Chinamen who steal quietly about in our great cities, dressing and living as men did in the days of Noah . All other peoples at least affect the ways of civilization, but the son of the celestial land goes his own way among his own people. He is never benefited by modern civilization; it cannot reach him; it is as impossible to graft into him the life and energy of this generation as it is to transfuse living blood into the dried veins of the mummies who have slept in their mummy pits these 2,000 years. He is out place in the nineteenth century. He has memories that go back further than centuries can number and traditions that were old before the nations of Europe were born.
He was a public official, and he was standing before the people talking of the virtue and honor of the citizen. He was a little fleshier than the ideal man and his face was very red, his mustache was white and his hair, what there was of it, was white and smoothly brushed. There was not a gleam of intelligence in his heavy eyes, and in his face plebeian instincts plainly asserted themselves, along with several other qualities that are not pleasant to name. Yet, on the whole, he was not a bad looking man, for he was well dressed and well kept and had about him the cordial air of a man who is well satisfied with himself and the world. He mouthed his words and spoke rather thickly, but his delivery could be pardoned for the sake of what he said, for he spoke of the virtue of manhood and the honor of citizenship. Of course every one knew his secretary had written the speech; but that was pardonable, for a man who had made as much money as he had had not time to write speeches. As he pointed heavenward in some solemn affirmation of man's greatness, a slight disfigurement of his hand showed. There were some people in the audience who remembered that he had got that when, years ago, even the semi-barbarous society of a new state had revolted against his utter want of character and had tried to tar and feather him for general indecency of conduct. But even those who knew all this forgot it today under the heat of political enthusiasm and the flutter of flags. Everyone seemed pleased with his talk, except his secretary who sat in the back of the room groaning to hear his speech made such jargon of. When the great man finished and took his seat everyone applauded loudly, and every eye was fixed upon him as he sat wiping his forehead with a white silk handkerchief. Not every eye, either. There was one woman in the crowd who from the beginning of his speech to the end had not raised her eyes in his direction, but who sat wondering why it was that the people always clamor for Barabas . She was his wife.
He was standing on a high platform telling the people of their wrongs, things of which "the people" are always glad to hear. He told them they were the bone and sinew of the land, all kings by blood, all princes by birth. He told them they were God's people in bondage, and that he had come to lead them into the land of promise. He cursed wealth and monopoly, he cursed money makers and money hoarders. His large thin features worked nervously as he spoke. His mouth and law had a sunken look like that of a very old woman, and his voice was thin and cracked. Upon the finger he shook at the crowd there glittered a diamond that represented more money than any man there would ever make or spend in all his life time. Behind him sat his wife who wore a diamond cross that had been the price of an election. When the speaker had told the crowd enough about their starving families and desolate homes, he brought forward his wife and introduced her amid the cheer of the populace, and she daintily descended the platform steps and advanced to shake hands with the men. The laborers wiped their hands on their breeches and glanced anxiously at their finger nails as they stumbled toward her and stammered out their boundless admiration of her graciousness and went away to spend all their sustenance drinking her health.
If the great capitalists really feared the "people" very much they could easily secure their safety. If they would have their wives put on all their diamonds and make a formal call at the homes of their employes and would once invite their ironworkers to a five course dinner the labor question might be peacefully settled.
He was a little shriveled old man whom I used often to see leaning over the railing in the gallery. Often when it has been my ill luck to be seated on the right side of the dress circle I have seen him above on the right, clear up in the top gallery where very old men are not often seen. When the acting was particularly good I have seen him stretch his body over the railing until I feared for the people beneath him. Old men are not usually such faithful devotees of the theatre and this man looked older than any man I have ever seen, he was broken and shriveled and faded as though he had lived a dozen lives and they had worn him out completely, used up all the vitality there was in his frame. It became a regular thing to see him and I always looked for him. If I did not see him in the theatre I saw him coming down the gallery step pulling up the collar of his old frock-coat with his well hand while his other hung helpless at his side.
One night when a great emotional actress was to play, I saw him timidly slip up to the ticket box and take a piece of pasteboard the ticket man handed him, and climb slowly up the gallery stairs without taking out any money. I was on the right side of the house that night and to escape the torture of the orchestra I sat watching the old man in the gallery. He seemed restless and anxious for the curtain to rise. He started sharply every now and then when there was a noise and seemed to be trembling all over. When the actress came on the stage from the fly, he leaned forward as usual, I fancied a trifle more eagerly. I did not look at him again until when one of the strong situations in the third act was on, I heard a noise in the gallery and glancing up I saw them carrying him out. As I left the theatre I spoke to the man in the ticket office and asked him who had fainted in the gallery. "O, he is an old fellow we let in every night for the sake of the cause. I guess the play tonight was a little too much for him. He hasn't seen her for years; he used to be her leading man before he was paralyzed.'
Eleventh street: 11th Street was the most important north-south street of the downtown area, with many commercial establishments along it as it neared O Street, which was and is the main street of Lincoln. Cather would have walked along 11th Street nearly every day from her boarding house between 10th and 11th on L Street to the main gate of the university campus, which terminated at 11th street on the north.
big red god: In Chinese symbolism, red is the color of good luck and is used for decoration and wedding attire. The image may represent Kuan Ti, the Chinese god of war. Known as the Great Judge, Kuan Ti is a red faced god, dressed in green, who protects people from injustice and evil spirits. An actual historical figure, he was an oracle and general of the Han dynasty acclaimed for his life as an evenhanded ruler and expert warrior.
Bead of opium: The milky latex extracted from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) hardens and turns brown when exposed to air. It is then ground into a powder or formed into lumps (beads) or cakes or bricks for sale. In China, smoking opium led to widespread addiction, an addiction fostered by the Western nations who sold the opium to the Chinese.
days of Noah: I.e., ancient times. This biblical phrase refers to the period prior to Noah's building the ark: "For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark," (Gen. 6-7). The phrase is echoed later in the New Testament when Jesus says, "As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of Man" (Luke 17:26).
son of the celestial land: The Celestial Empire (or land) is the English translation of a Chinese name for China itself. One of Cather's earliest stories was "A Son of the Celestial," published in the student paper, The Hesperian, on 15 January 1893.
Barabas: When Pontius Pilate gave the crowd a choice of which prisoner to release at Passover, Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas, the crowd demanded Barabbas. His name is mentioned in all four gospels (Matthew 27.15; Mark 15.7, Luke 23.9, John 18.40), but nothing else is known of his life but that he was a prisoner, possibly for rebelling against the Romans. Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Great Tragedy, the first great success of the immensely popular English novelist Marie Corelli (pseudonym of Mary Mackay, 1855-1924) had been published in 1893.
telling people of their "wrongs": The economic inequities and political corruption of the robber baron era of American history caused politicians and political philosophers to try to bring ordinary Americans to a consciousness of the wrongs done them. The Populist party was one of the most important and successful of those trying to wrest power from the control of the wealthy.
God's people in bondage: According to the Bible, God's chosen people, the Jews, were held in slavery in Egypt for many years. Exodus 1.13-14 says, "And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage." At last God enabled Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Land of promise: In Exodus 3.8, God tells Moses, "I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, . . . ." The land is generally called Canaan; by extension, any promised place or time of freedom and abundance.
wealth and monopoly: The economic expansion of the post Civil War period led to the amassing of great wealth by individuals and families, such as the Gould, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers, and to the pooling of corporations into trusts and combinations that were popularly considered monopolies. Popular discontent led to the passing of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890, which declared that combinations aimed at restraining trade between states was illegal.
labor question: The question was what rights laboring men should have; conservatives felt that a workingman's right to take his labor elsewhere gave him all the power he needed. However, blacklists and lockouts tended to negate that power. Key issues were the eight-hour day and the right to organize.
Great emotional actress: Probably Clara Morris, who would be appearing in Lincoln in a few days. Born Clara Morrison, Morris (1848-1925) made her New York debut in 1870 and was a great success playing passionate, suffering heroines in roles such plays as Jezebel, Camille (1874), Miss Multon, a version of East Lynne (1876), Jane Eyre (1877), and The New Magdalen (1882). She formed her own company about 1878 and toured the country. She was never famous for her beauty, and her voice was flawed, but the emotional power of her acting overcame these defects. Morris retired in the 1890s as the new kinds of realistic plays of Ibsen and Shaw and Pinero made the older dramas seem old-fashioned and histrionic. In retirement she wrote articles and column on acting, as well as volumes of reminiscences that show her acting was not so instinctive and unpracticed as Cather supposed.Morris appears, although not named, in Cather's My Ántonia (1918).
Image available at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
Image available at the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections.