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The Hesperian

by Willa Cather

From The Hesperian, 22 (January 15, 1893):  7-10.



Ah lie me dead in the sunrise land, Where the sky is blue and the hills are gray, Where the camels doze in the desert sun, And the sea gulls scream o'er the big blue bay. Where the Hwang-Ho glides through the golden sand, And the herons play in the rushes tall, Where pagodas rise upon every hill And the peach trees bloom by the Chinese wall. Where the great grim gods sit still in the dark, And lamps burn dim at their carven feet, And their eyes like the eyes of the serpent king Flash green through the dusk of the incense sweet. Though deep under ground I shall see the sun, And shall feel the stretch of the blue overhead, And the gems that gleam on the breast of the god. And shall smell the scent of the peach—though dead.

Most of the world knew him only as Yung Le Ho, one of the few white haired Chinamen who were to be seen about the streets of San Francisco. His cue was as long as that of any other John, and with the exception of wearing spectacles, he adhered strictly to his national costume. He sat all day long in an open bazar where he worked in silk and ivory and sandal wood. Americans who had lived there long said he must be worth a vast deal of money, for Yung was the best workman in the city. All the ladies who were enthusiastic over Chinese art bought his painted silken birds, and beautiful lacquered boxes, his bronze vases, his little ivory gods and his carved sandal wood, and paid him whatsoever he demanded for them. Had he possessed a dozen hands he might have sold the work of all of them, as it was, he was very skillful with two. Yung was like Michel Angelo, he allowed no one to touch his work but himself; he did it all, rough work and delicate. When the ship brought him strange black boxes with a sweet spicy odor about them, he opened them with his own hands and took out the yellow ivory tusks, and the bales of silk, and the blocks of shining ebony. And no hands but his touched them until they were fashioned into the beautiful things with which the ladies of San Francisco loved to adorn their drawing rooms.

Day after day he sat in his stall, cross-legged and silent like the gods of his country, carving his ivory into strange images and his sandal wood into shapes of foliage and birds. Sometimes he cut it into the shapes of foliage of his own land; the mulberry and apricot and chestnut and juniper that grew about the sacred mountain; the bamboo and camphor tree, and the rich Indian bean, and the odorous camelias and jagonicas that grew far to the south on the low banks of the Yang-Tse-Kiang. Sometimes he cut shapes and leaves that were not of earth, but were things he had seen in his dreams when the Smoke was on him.

There were some people beside the artistic public who knew Yung; they were the linguistic scholars of the city—there are a few of these, even so far west as San Francisco. The two or three men who knew a little Sanskrit and attacked an extract from the Vedas now and then, used often to go to Yung to get help. For the little white haired Chinaman knew Sanskrit as thoroughly as his own tongue. The professors had a good deal of respect for Yung, though they never told anyone of it, and kept him completely obscured in the background as professors and doctors of philosophy always do persons whom they consider "doubtful" acquaintances. Yung never pushed himself forward, nor courted the learned gentlemen. He always gave them what they wanted, then shut up like a clam and no more could be gotten out of him. Perhaps Yung did not have quite as much respect for the gentlemen as they had for him. He had seen a good many countries and a good many people, and he knew knowledge from pedantry. He found American schoolman distasteful. "Too muchee good to know muchee," he once sarcastically remarked. Of course Yung was only a heathen Chinese who bowed down to wood and stone, his judgment in this and other matters does not count for much.

There was one American whom Yung took to his heart and loved, if a Chinaman can love, and that was old Ponter. Ponter was one of the most learned men who ever drifted into 'Frisco, but his best days were over before he came. He had held the chair of Sanskrit in a western university for years, but he could drink too much beer and was too good a shot at billiards to keep that place forever, so the college had requested his resignation. He went from place to place until at last he drifted into San Francisco, where he stayed. He went clear down to the mud sills there. How he lived no one knew. He did some copying for the lawyers, and he waited on the table in a third-rate boarding house, and he smoked a great deal of opium. Yung, too, loved the Smoke; perhaps it was that as much as Sanskrit that drew the two men together. At any rate, as soon as Yung's bazar was closed, they went together down to his dark little den in the Chinese quarters, and there they talked Buddah and Confucius and Lau-tsz till midnight. Then they went across the hall to the Seven Portals of Paradise. There they each took a mat and each his own sweet pipe with bowls of jade and mouthpieces of amber—Yung had given Ponter one—and pulled a few steady puffs and were in bliss till morning.

To Ponter, Yung told a good deal of his history. Not in regular narrative form, for he never talked about himself long, but he let it out bit by bit. When he was a boy he lived in Nanking, the oldest city of the oldest empire, where the great schools are and the tallest pagoda in the world rears its height of shining porcelain. There he had been educated, and had learned all the wisdom of the Chinese. He became tired of all that after awhile; tired of the rice paper books and of the masters in their black gowns, of the blue mountains and of the shadows of the great tower that fell sharp upon the yellow pavement in the glare of the sun. He went south; down the great canal in a red barge with big sails like dragon's wings. He came to Soutcheofou that is built upon the water ways among the hills of Lake Taihoo. There the air smelt always of flowers, and the bamboo woods were green, and the rice fields shook in the wind. There the actors and jugglers gather the year around, and the Mandrins come to find brides for their harems. For once a god had loved a woman of that city, and he gave to her the charms of heaven, and since then the maidens of Soutcheofou have been the most beautiful in the Middle Kingdom, and have lived but to love and be loved. There Yung dwelt until he tired of pleasure. Then he went on foot across the barren plains of Thibet and the snow-capped Himalyas into India. He spent ten years in a temple there among the Brahamin priests, learning the sacred books. Then he fell in with some high caste Indian magicians and went with them. Of the next five years of his life Yung never spoke. Once, when Ponter questioned him about them, he laughed an ugly laugh which showed his broken yellow teeth and said:

"I not know what I did then. The devil he know, he and the fiends."

At last Yung came to California. There he took to carving and the Smoke.

Yung was rich; he might have dwelt in a fine house, but he preferred to live among his own people in a little room across from the Seven Portals. He celebrated all the feasts and festivals with the other Chinamen, and bowed down to the gods in the joss house. He explained this to Ponter one day by saying:

"It is to keep us together, keep us Chinamen."

Wise Yung! It was not because of the cheapness of Chinese labor that the Chinese bill was enacted. It was because church and state feared this people who went about unproselyting and unproselyted. Who had printed centuries before Guttenberg was born, who had used anesthetics before chloroform was ever dreamed of. Who, in the new west, settled down and ate and drank and dressed as men had done in the days of the flood. Their terrible antiquity weighed upon us like a dead hand upon a living heart.

Yung did not know much about English literature. He liked the Bible, and he had picked up a copy of Hiawatha and was very fond of it. I suppose the artificialness of the poem appealed to his natural instinct and his training. Ponter was much disgusted with his taste, and one night he read the whole of Hamlet aloud to him, translating the archaic-phrases into doggerel Chinese as he read. When he finished, Yung stared at him with a troubled look and said in Chinese:

"Yes, it is a great book, but I do not understand. If I were a young man I might try, but it is different. We cut our trees into shape, we bind our women into shape, we make our books into shape by rule. Your trees and women and books just grow, and yet they have shape. I do not understand. Come, let us smoke, the Smoke is good."

Ponter threw the book on the floor and arose and paced the floor shouting angrily:

"O yes, d—n you! You are a terrible people! I have come as near losing all human feeling and all human kinship as ever a white man did, but you make me shudder, every one of you. You live right under the sun's face, but you cannot feel his fire. The breast of God heaves just over you, but you never know it. You ought to be a feeling, passionate people, but you are as heartless and devilish as your accursed stone gods that leer at you in your Pagodas. Your sages learn rites, rites, rites, like so many parrots. They have forgotten how to think so long ago that they have forgotten they ever forgot. Your drama has outlived pathos, your science has outlived investigation, your poetry has outlived passion. Your very roses do not smell, they have forgotten how to give odor ages and ages ago. Your devilish gods have cursed you with immortality and you have outlived your souls. You are so old that you are born yellow and wrinkled and blind. You ought to have been buried centuries before Europe was civilized. You ought to have been wrapped in your mort cloth ages before our swaddling clothes were made. You are dead things that move!"

Yung answered never a word, but smiled his hideous smile and went across to the Portals of Paradise, and lay down upon his mat, and drew long whiffs from his mouthpiece, slowly, solemnly, as though he were doing sacrifice to some god. He dreams of his own country, dreams of the sea and the mountains and forests and the slopes of sunny land. When he awakes there is not much of his dream left, only masses and masses of color that haunt him all day.

"Ponter," said Yung one day as he sat cutting a little three-faced Vishnu in ivory, "when I die do not even bury me here. Let them go through the rites and then send me home. I must lie there while the flesh is yet on my bones. Let the funeral be grand. Let there be many mourners, and roast pigs, and rice and gin. Let the gin bowls be of real China, and let the coffin be a costly one like the coffins of Liauchau, there is money enough. Let my pipe stay in my hand, and put me on the first ship that sails."

Not long after that, Ponter arose from his mat one morning, and went over to waken Yung. But Yung would not waken any more. He had tasted his last ounce of the Smoke, and he lay with the mouthpiece in his mouth, and his fingers clutched about the bowl. Pouter sat down by him and said slowly:

"A white man has got pretty low down, Yung, when he takes to the Smoke and runs with a heathen. But I liked you, Yung, as much as a man can like a stone thing. You weren't a bad fellow, sir. You knew more Sanskrit than Muller dreamed of knowing, and more ethics than Plato, a long sight, and more black art than the devil himself. You knew more than any man I ever saw, more good and more evil. You could do a neater job with a knife and a piece of bone than any man in civilization, and you got away with more Smoke than any yaller man I ever saw. You were not a bad fellow Yung, but your heart has been dead these last six thousand years, and it was better for your carcass to follow suit."

He went out and got the finest lacqured coffin in 'Frisco and he put old Yung inside with a pound of rice and his pipe and a pound of the best opium in the market. Then he nailed him up singing: " Ibimus, Ibimus, Utcumque praecedes, supernum, Carpere iter comites parati ," softly as he hammered away.

He took the body to the graveyard where the Chinamen went through the rites. Then they loaded Yung on an outbound steamer. Next day Ponter stood on the docks and watched her plowing her way toward the Celestial shore.