Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Edith Maude Eaton
Tales of Chinese Children
A Chinese Boy-Girl
The warmth was deep and all-pervading. The dust lay on the leaves of the palms and the other tropical plants that tried to flourish in the Plaza. The persons of mixed nationalities lounging on the benches within and without the square appeared to be even more listless and unambitious than usual. The Italians who ran the peanut and fruit stands at the corners were doing no business to speak of. The Chinese merchants' stores in front of the Plaza looked as quiet and respectable and drowsy as such stores always do. Even the bowling alleys, billiard halls, and saloons seemed under the influence of the heat, and only a subdued clinking of glasses and roll of balls could be heard from behind the half-open doors. It was almost as hot as an August day in New York City, and that is unusually sultry for Southern California.
A little Chinese girl, with bright eyes and round cheeks, attired in blue cotton garments, and wearing her long, shining hair in a braid interwoven with silks of many colors, paused beside a woman tourist who was making a sketch of the old Spanish church. The tourist and the little Chinese girl were the only, persons visible who did not seem to be affected by the heat. They might have been friends; but the lady, fearing for her sketch, bade the child run off. Whereupon the little thing shuffled across the Plaza, and in less than five minutes was at the door of the Los Angeles Chinatown school for children.
"Come in, little girl, and tell me what they call you," said the young American teacher, who was new to the place.
"Ku Yum be my name," was the unhesitating reply; and, said Ku Yum walked into the room, seated herself complacently on an empty bench in the first row, and informed the teacher that she, lived on Apablaza street, that her parents were well, but her mother was dead, and her father, whose name was Ten Suie, had a wicked and tormenting spirit in his foot.
The teacher gave her a slate and pencil, and resumed the interrupted lesson by indicating with her rule ten lichis (called "Chinese nuts" by people in America) and counting them aloud.
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten," the baby class repeated.
After having satisfied herself by dividing the lichis unequally among the babies, that they might understand the difference between a singular and a plural number, Miss Mason began a catechism on the features of the face. Nose, eyes, lips, and cheeks were properly named, but the class was mute when it came to the forehead.
"What is this?" Miss Mason repeated, posing her finger on the fore part of her head.
"Me say, me say," piped a shrill voice, and the new pupil stepped to the front, and touching the forehead of the nearest child with the tips of her fingers, christened it "one," named the next in like fashion "two," a third "three," then solemnly pronounced the fourth a "four head."
Thus Ku Yum made her debut in school, and thus began the trials and tribulations of her teacher.
Ku Yum was bright and learned easily, but she seemed to be possessed with the very spirit of mischief; to obey orders was to her an impossibility, and though she entered the school a voluntary pupil, one day at least out of every week found her a truant.
"Where is Ku Yum?" Miss Mason would ask on some particularly alluring morning, and a little girl with the air of one testifying to having seen a murder committed, would reply: "She is running around with the boys." Then the rest of the class would settle themselves back in their seats like a jury that has found a prisoner guilty of some heinous offense, and, judging by the expression on their faces, were repeating a silent prayer somewhat in the strain of "O Lord, I thank thee that I am not as Ku Yum is!" For the other pupils were demure little maidens who, after once being gathered into the fold, were very willing to remain.
But if ever the teacher broke her heart over any one it was over Ku Yum. When she first came, she took an almost unchildlike interest in the rules and regulations, even at times asking to have them repeated to her; but her study of such rules seemed only for the purpose of finding a means to break them, and that means she never failed to discover and put into effect.
After a disappearance of a day or so she would reappear, bearing a gorgeous bunch of flowers. These she would deposit on Miss Mason's desk with a little bow; and though one would have thought that the sweetness of the gift and the apparent sweetness of the giver needed but a gracious acknowledgment, something like the following conversation would ensue:
"Teacher, I plucked these flowers for you from the Garden of Heaven." (They were stolen from some park.)
"Oh, Ku Yum, whatever shall I do with you?"
"Maybe you better see my father."
"You are a naughty girl. You shall be punished. Take those flowers away."
"Teacher, the eyebrow over your little eye is very pretty."
But the child was most exasperating when visitors were present. As she was one of the brightest scholars, Miss Mason naturally expected her to reflect credit on the school at the examinations. On one occasion she requested her to say some verses which the little Chinese girl could repeat as well as any young American, and with more expression than most. Great was the teacher's chagrin when Ku Yum hung her head and said only: "Me .'shamed, me 'shamed!"
"Poor little thing," murmured the bishop's wife. "She is too shy to recite in public."
But Miss Mason, knowing that of all children Ku Yum was the least troubled with shyness, was exceedingly annoyed.
Ku Yum had been with Miss Mason about a year when she became convinced that some steps would have to be taken to discipline the child, for after school hours she simply ran wild on the streets of Chinatown, with boys for companions. She felt that she had a duty to perform towards the motherless little girl; and as the father, when apprised of the fact that his daughter was growing up in ignorance of all home duties, and, worse than that, shared the sports of boy children on the street, only shrugged his shoulders and drawled: "Too bad! Too bad!" she determined to act.
She interested in Ku Turn's case the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the matron of the Rescue Home, and the most influential ministers, and the result, after a month's work, was that an order went forth from the Superior Court of the State decreeing that Ku Yum, the child of Ten Suie, should be removed from the custody of her father, and, under the auspices of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, be put into a home for Chinese girls in San Francisco.
Her object being accomplished, strange to say, Miss Mason did not experience that peaceful consent which usually follows a benevolent action. Instead, the question as to whether, after all, it was right, under the circumstances, to deprive a father of the society of his child, and a child of the love and care of a parent, disturbed her mind, morning, noon, and night. What had previously seemed her distinct duty no longer appeared so, and she began to wish with all her heart that she had not interfered in the matter.
Ku Yum had not been seen for weeks, and those who were deputed to brings her into the sheltering home were unable to find her. It was suspected that the little thing purposely kept out of the way — no difficult matter, all Chinatown being in sympathy with her and arrayed against Miss Mason. Where formerly the teacher had met with smiles and pleased greetings, she now beheld averted faces and downcast eyes, and her school had within a week dwindled from twenty-four scholars to four. Verily, though acting with the best of intentions, she had shown a lack of diplomacy.
It was about nine o'clock in the evening. She had been visiting little Lae Choo, who was lying low with typhoid fever. As she wended her way home through Chinatown, she did not feel at all easy in mind; indeed, as she passed one of the most unsavory corners and observed some men frown and mutter among themselves as they recognized her, she lost her dignity in a little run. As she stopped to take breath, she felt her skirt pulled from behind and heard a familiar little voice say:
"Teacher, be you afraid?"
"Oh, Ku Yum," she exclaimed, "is that you?" Then she added reprovingly: "Do you think it is right for a little Chinese girl to be out alone at this time of the night?"
"I be not alone," replied the little creature, and in the gloom Miss Mason could distinguish behind her two boyish figures.
She shook her head.
"Ku Yum, will you promise me that you will try to be a good little girl? " she asked.
Ku Yum answered solemnly:
"Ku Yum never be a good girl."
Her heart hardened. After all, it was best that the child should be placed where she would be compelled to behave herself.
"Come, see my father," said Ku Yum pleadingly.
Her voice was soft, and her expression was so subdued that the teacher could hardly believe that the moment before she had defiantly stated that she would never be a good girl. She paused irresolutely. Should she make one more appeal to the parent to make her a promise which would be a good excuse for restraining the order of the Court? Ah, if he only would, and she only could prevent the carrying out of that order!
They found Ten Suie among his curiosities, smoking a very long pipe with a very small, ivory bowl. He calmly surveyed the teacher through a pair of gold-rimmed goggles, and under such scrutiny it was hard indeed for her to broach the subject that was on her mind. However, after admiring the little carved animals, jars, vases, bronzes, dishes, pendants, charms, and snuff-boxes displayed in his handsome showcase, she took courage.
"Mr. Ten Suie," she began, "I have come to speak to you about Ku Yum."
Ten Suie laid down his pipe and leaned over the counter. Under his calm exterior some strong excitement was working, for his eyes glittered exceedingly.
"Perhaps you speak too much about Ku Yum alleady," he said; "Ku Yum be my child. I bling him up as I please. Now, teacher, I tell you something. One, two, three, four, five, seven, eight, nine years go by, I have five boy. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven years go, I have four boy. One, two, three, four, five, six years go by, I have one boy. Every year for three year evil spirit come, look at my boy, and take him. Well, one, two, three, four, five, six years go by, I see but one boy, he four year old. I say to me: Ten Suie, evil spirit be jealous. I be 'flaid he want my one boy. I dless him like one girl. Evil Spirit think him one girl, and go away; no want girl."
Ten Suie ceased speaking, and settled back into his seat.
For some moments Miss Mason stood uncomprehending. Then the full meaning of Ten Suie's words dawned upon her, and she turned to Ku Yum, and taking the child's little hand in hers, said:
"Goodbye, Ku Yum. Your father, by passing you off as a girl, thought to keep all evil spirit away from you; but just by that means he brought another, and one which nearly took you from him too."
"Goodbye, teacher," said Ku Yum, smiling wistfully. "I never be good girl, but perhaps I be good boy."