Mrs. Spring Fragrance
The Three Souls of Ah So Nan
 

I

The sun was conquering the morning fog, dappling with gold the gray waters of San Francisco's bay, and throwing an emerald radiance over the islands around.

Close to the long line of wharves lay motionless brigs and schooners, while farther off in the harbor were ships of many nations riding at anchor.

A fishing fleet was steering in from the open sea, scudding before the wind like a flock of seabirds. All night long had the fishers toiled in the deep. Now they were returning with the results of their labor.

A young Chinese girl, watching the fleet from the beach of Fisherman's Cove, shivered in the morning air. Over her blue cotton blouse she wore no wrap; on her head, no covering. All her interest was centred in one lone boat which lagged behind the rest, being heavier freighted. The fisherman was of her own race. When his boat was beached he sprang to her side.

"O'Yam, what brings you here?" he questioned low, for the curious eyes of his fellow fishermen were on her.

"Your mother is dying," she answered.

The young man spake a few words in English to a Greek whose boat lay alongside his. The Greek answered in, the same tongue. Then Fou Wang threw down his nets and, with the girl following, walked quickly along the waterfront, past the wharves, the warehouses, and the grogshops, up a zigzag hill and into the heart of Chinatown. Neither spoke until they reached their destination, a dingy three-storied building.

The young man began to ascend the stairs, the girl to follow. Fou Wang looked back and shook his head. The girl paused on the lowest step.

"May I not come?" she pleaded.

"Today is for sorrow," returned Fou Wang. "I would, for a time, forget all that belongs to the joy of life."

The girl threw her sleeve over her head and backed out of the open door.

"What is the matter?" inquired a kind voice, and a woman laid her hand upon her shoulder.

O'Yam's bosom heaved.

"Oh, Liuchi," she cried, "the mother of Fou Wang is dying, and you know what that means to me."

The woman eyed her compassionately.

"Your father, I know," said she, as she unlocked a door and led her companion into a room opening on to the- street, "has long wished for an excuse to set at naught your betrothal to Fou Wang; but I am sure the lad to whom you are both sun and moon will never give him one."

She offered O'Yam some tea, but the girl pushed it aside. "You know not Fou Wang," she replied, sadly yet proudly. "He will follow his conscience, though he lose the sun, the moon, and the whole world."

A young woman thrust her head through the door.

"The mother of Fou Wang is dead," cried she.

"She was a good woman — a kind and loving mother," said Liuchi, as she gazed down upon the still features of her friend.

"The young daughter of Ah So Nan burst into fresh weeping. Her pretty face was much swollen. Ah So Nan had been well loved by her children, and the falling tears were not merely waters of ceremony.

At the foot of the couch upon which the dead was laid, stood Fou Wang, his face stern and immovable, his eye solemn, yet luminous with a steadfast fire. Over his head was thrown a white cloth. From morn till eve had he stood thus, contemplating the serene countenance of his mother and vowing that nothing should be left undone which could be done to prove his filial affection and desire to comfort her spirit in the land to which it had flown. "Three years, mother, will I give to thee and grief. Three years will I minister to thy three souls," he vowed within himself, remembering how sacred to the dead woman were the customs and observances of her own country. They were also sacred to him. Living in America, in the midst of Americans and Americanized Chinese, the family of Fou Wang, with the exception of one, had clung tenaciously to the beliefs of their forefathers.

"All the living must die, and dying, return to the ground. The limbs and the flesh moulder away below, and hidden away, become the earth of the fields; but the spirit issues forth and is displayed on high in a condition of glorious brightness," quoted a yellow-robed priest, swinging an incense burner before a small candle-lighted altar.

It was midnight when the mourning friends of the family of Fou Wang left the chief mourner alone with his dead mother.

His sister, Fin Fan, and the girl who was his betrothed wife brushed his garments as they passed him by. The latter timidly touched his hand — an involuntary act of sympathy — but if he were conscious of that sympathy, he paid no heed to it, and his gaze never wavered from the face of the dead.

II

My girl, Moy Ding Fong is ready if Fou Wang is not, and you must marry this year. I have sworn you shall."

Kien Lung walked out of the room with a determined step. He was an Americanized Chinese and had little regard for what he derided as "the antiquated customs of China," save when it was to his interest to follow them. He was also a widower desirous of marrying again, but undesirous of having two women of like years, one his wife, the other his daughter, under the same roof-tree.

Left alone, O'Yam's thoughts became sorrowful, almost despairing. Six moons had gone by since Ah So Nan had passed away yet the son of Ah So Nan had not once, during that time, spoken one word to his betrothed wife. Occasionally she had passed him on the street; but always he had gone by with uplifted countenance, and in his eyes the beauty of piety and peace. At least, so it seemed to the girl, and the thought of marriage with him had seemed almost sacrilegious. But now it had come to this. If Fou Wang adhered to his resolve to mourn three years for his mother, what would become of her? She thought of old Moy Ding Fong and shuddered. It was bitter, bitter.

There was a rapping at the door. A young girl lifted the latch and stepped in. It was Fin Fan, the sister of her betrothed.

"I have brought my embroidery work," said she, "I thought we could have a little talk before sundown when I must away to prepare the evening meal."

O'Yam, who was glad to see her visitor, brewed some fresh tea and settled down for an exchange of confidences.

"I am not going to abide by it," said Fin Fan at last. "Hom Hing is obliged to return to China two weeks hence, and with or without Fou Wang's consent I go with the man to whom my mother betrothed me."

"Without Fou Wang's consent!" echoed O'Yam.

"Yes," returned Fin Fan, snapping off a thread. "Without my honorable brother's consent."

"And your mother gone but six moons!"

O'Yam's face wore a shocked expression.

"Does the fallen leaf grieve because the green one remains on the tree?" queried Fin Fan.

"You must love Hom Hing well," murmured O'Yam — "more than Fou Wang loves me.

"Nay," returned her companion, "Fou Wang's love for you is as big as mine for Hom Hing. It is my brother's conscience alone that stands between him and you. You know that."

"He loves not me," sighed O'Yam.

"If he does not love you," returned Fin Fan, "why, when we heard that you were unwell, did he sleeplessly pace his room night after night until the news came that you were restored to health? Why does he treasure a broken fan you have cast aside?"

"Ah, well!" smiled O'Yam.

Fin Fan laughed softly.

"Fou Wang is not as other men," said she. "His conscience is an inheritance from his great-great-grandfather." Her face became pensive as she added: "It is sad to go across the sea without an elder brother's blessing."

She repeated this to Liuchi and Mai Gwi Far, the widow, whom she met on her way home.

"Why should you," inquired the latter, "when there is a way by which to obtain it?"

"How?"

"Did Ah So Nan leave no garments behind her — such garments as would well fit her three souls — and is it not always easy to delude the serious and the wise?"

"Ah!"

III

O'Yam climbed the stairs to the joss house. The desire for solitude brought her there; but when she had closed the door upon herself, she found that she was not alone. Fou Wang was there. Before the images of the Three Wise Ones he stood, silent, motionless.

"He is communing with his mother's spirit," thought O'Yam. She beheld him through a mist of tears. Love filled her whole being. She dared not move, because she was afraid he would turn and see her, and then, of course, he would go away. She would stay near him for a few moments and then retire.

The dim light of the place, the quietness in the midst of noise, the fragrance of some burning incense, soothed and calmed her. It was as if all the sorrow and despair that had overwhelmed her when her father had told her to prepare for her wedding with Moy Ding Fong had passed away.

After a few moments she stepped back softly towards the door. But she was too late. Fou Wang turned and beheld her.

She fluttered like a bird until she saw that, surprised by her presence, he had forgotten death and thought only of life — of life and love. A glad, eager light shone in his eyes. He made a swift step towards her. Then — he covered his face with his hands.

"Fou Wang!" cried O'Yam, love at last overcoming superstition, "must I become the wife of Moy Ding Fong?"

"No, ah no!" he moaned.

"Then," said the girl in desperation, "take me to yourself."

Fou Wang's hands fell to his side. For a moment he looked into that pleading face — and wavered.

A little bird flew in through an open window, and perching itself upon an altar, began twittering.

Fou Wang started back, the expression on his face changing.?

"A warning from the dead," he muttered, "a warning from the dead!"

An iron hand gripped O'Yam's heart. Life itself seemed to have closed upon her.

IV

It was afternoon before evening, and the fog was rolling in from the sea. Quietness reigned in the plot of ground sacred to San Francisco's Chinese dead when Fou Wang deposited a bundle at the foot of his mother's grave and prepared for the ceremony of ministering to her three souls.

The fragrance from a wall of fir trees near by stole to his nostrils as he cleared the weeds and withered leaves from his parent's resting place. As he placed the bowls of rice and chicken and the vase of incense where he was accustomed to place it, he became dimly conscious of a presence or presences behind the fir wall.

He sighed deeply. No doubt the shade of his parent was restless, because —

"Fou Wang," spake a voice, low but distinct.

The young man fell upon his knees.

"Honored Mother!" he cried.

"Fou Wang, "repeated the voice, "though my name is on thy lips, O'Yam's is in thy heart."

Conscience-stricken, Fou Wang yet retained spirit enough to gasp:

"Have I not been a dutiful son? Have I not sacrificed all for thee, Mother! Why, then, dost thou reproach me?"

"I do not reproach thee," chanted three voices, and Fou Wang, lifting his head, saw three figures emerge from behind the fir wall. "I do not reproach thee. Thou hast been a most dutiful son7 and thy offerings at my grave and in the temple have been fully appreciated. Far from reproaching thee, I am here to say to thee that the dead have regard for the living who faithfully mourn and minister to them, and to bid thee sacrifice no more until thou hast satisfied thine own heart by taking to wife the daughter of Kien Lung and given to thy sister and thy sister's husband an elder brother's blessing. Thy departed mother requires not the sacrifice of a broken heart. The fallen leaf grieves not because the green leaf still clings to the bough."

Saying this, the three figures flapped the loose sleeves of the well-known garments of Ah So Nan and faded from his vision.

For a moment Fou Wang gazed after them as if spellbound. Then he arose and rushed towards the fir wall, behind which they seemed to have vanished.

"Mother, honored parent! Come back and tell me of the new birth!" he cried.

But there was no response.

Fou Wang returned to the grave and lighted the incense. But he did not wait to see its smoke ascend. Instead he hastened to the house of Kien Lung and said to the girl who met him at the door:

"No more shall my longing for thee take the fragrance from the flowers and the light from the sun and moon."