Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Edith Maude Eaton
Mrs. Spring Fragrance
The Gift of Little Me
The schoolroom was decorated with banners and flags wrought in various colors. Chinese lanterns swung overhead. A big, green, porcelain frog with yellow eyes squatted in the centre of the teacher's desk. Tropical and native plants: azaleas, hyacinths, palms, and Chinese lilies, filled the air with their fragrance.
It was the day before the Chinese New Year of 18— and Miss McLeod's little scholars, in the decoration of their schoolroom, had expressed their love of quaint conceits and their appreciation, of the beautiful. They were all in holiday attire. There was Han Wenti in sky-hued raiment and loose, flowing sleeves, upon each of which was embroidered a yellow dragon. Han Wenti's father was the Chief of his clan in America. There was San Kee, the son of the Americanized merchant, stiff and slim in American store clothes. Little Choy, on the girls' side, proudly wore a checked louisine Mother Hubbard gown, while Fei and Sie looked like humming-birds in their native costume of bright-colored silks flowered with gold.
Miss McLeod's eyes wandered over the heap of gifts piled on three chairs before her desk, and over the heads of the young givers, to where on a back seat a little fellow in blue cotton tunic and pantaloons sat swinging a pair of white-soled shoes in a "don't care for anybody" fashion.
Little Me was looked upon almost as a criminal by his schoolfellows. He was the only scholar in all the school who failed to offer at the shrine of the Teacher, and the fact that he was the son of a man who dined on no richer dish than rice and soy gravy did not palliate his offense. There were other scholars who knew not the taste of mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and sucking pigs, yet who were unceasing, in their offerings of paper mats, wild flowers, pebbles, strange insects, and other gifts possessing at least a sentimental value. The truth of the matter, however, was that Little Me was neither unappreciative nor unloving. He was simply afflicted with pride. If he could not give in the princely fashion of Hom Hing and Lee Chu, the sons of the richest merchants in Chinatown, he would not give at all.
Yet if Miss McLeod, in her Scotch heart, allowed herself a favorite amongst her scholars, it was Little Me. Many a time had she incurred the displeasure of the parents of Hom Hing and Lee Chu by rejecting the oft-times valuable presents of their chubby, complacent-faced sons. She had seen Little Me's eyes cloud and his small hands draw up in his sleeves when the pattering footsteps of the braided darlings of the rich led them, with their offerings, to her desk.
"Attention, children!" said Miss McLeod; and she made a little speech in which she thanked her scholars for their tokens of appreciation and affection, but impressed upon them that she prized as much a wooden image of his own carving from a boy who had nothing more to offer, as she did an ivory or jade figure from one whose father could afford to wear gold buttons; that a lichi from the orphan Amoy was as refreshing to her as a basket of oranges from the only daughter of the owner of many fruit ranches. The greatest of all gifts was beyond price. They must remember the story she had told them at Christmas time of the giving of a darling and only Son to a loved people. All the money in the world could not have paid for that dear little boy. He was a free gift.
Little Me stopped swinging his feet in their white-soled shoes. With solemn eyes and puckered brow he meditated over this speech.
The first day of the new year was kept with much rejoicing. There were gay times under the lanterns, quaint ceremonies, and fine feasting. The flutist came out with his flute, the banjo man with his banjo, and the fiddler with his fiddle. No child but had a piece of gold or silver given to him or her, and sweet-meats, loose-skinned oranges, and watermelon seeds were scattered around galore. Strains of music enlivened the dark alleys, and "flowers" or fireworks delighted both old and young. The Literary and Benevolent Societies brought forth those of their number whose imaginations and experiences gave them the power to portray the achievements of heroes, the despair of lovers, the blessings which fall to the lot of the filial son, and the terrible fate of the undutiful, and while the sun went down and long after it had set, groups of fascinated youths sat listening to tales of magic and enchantment.
In the midst of it all Little Me wandered around in his white-soled shoes, and thought of that other story — the, story of the Babe.
On the second day of the Chinese New Year, Miss McLeod, her twine bag full to over-flowing with little red parcels of joy, stopped before the door of the Chee house. As there was no response to her knock, she lifted the latch and entered a darkened room. By a couch in the furthest corner of the room a woman knelt, moaning and tearful. It was Chee A Tae, Little Me's mother. Little Me's proper name was Chee Ping. Miss McLeod touched her shoulder sympathetically. The woman shuddered and the low moans became heartrending cries and sobs. Did the teacher know that her baby was stolen? Some evil spirit had witched him away. Her husband, with some friends, was searching for the child; but she felt sure they would find him — never. She had burnt incense to "Mother" and besought the aid of the goddess of children; but her prayers would not avail, because her husband had neglected that month to send his parents cash for ginseng and broth. He had tried his luck with the Gambling Cash Tiger and failed. Had he been fortunate, his parents would have received twice their usual portion, but as it was, he had lost. And now the baby, the younger brother of Little Me, was lost too.
"How did it happen?" inquired Miss McLeod.
"We were alone — the babe and I," replied the mother".' "My man was visiting and Little Me was playing in the alley. I stepped over with a bowl of boiled rice and a pot of tea for old Sien Tau. "We have not much for our own mouths, but it is well to begin the New Year by being kind to those who may not see another. The babe was sleeping, when I last beheld him. When I returned, whether he was asleep, awake, in the land of the living or in the spirit world, was withheld from me. A wolf — a tiger heart — alone knew."
This was truly a case needing sympathy. Miss McLeod did her best, and after a while Chee A Tae sat up and listened with some hope for her husband's footsteps. He came at last, a tired, gaunt-looking man, wearing in the face of the holiday, the blue cotton blouse and pantaloons of a working Chinaman, and a very dilapidated American slouch hat, around which he had wound his queue. He was followed into the room by several of his countrymen who cast suspicious glances at the white woman present; but, upon recognition came forward, each in turn, and saluted her in American fashion. There were several points of difference between Miss McLeod and the other white teachers of Chinatown which had won for her the special favor of her pupil's parents. One was that though it was plain to all that she loved her work and taught the children committed to her charge with the utmost patience and care, she was not a child-cuddling and caressing woman. Another, that she had taken pains to learn the Chinese language before attempting to teach her own. Thirdly, she lived in Chinatown, and made herself at home amongst its denizens.
Chee A Tae was bitterly disappointed at seeing her husband without the babe. She arose from her couch, and pulling open the door, which the men had closed behind them, pointed them out again, crying: "Go, find my son! Go, find my son!"
Chee Ping the First turned upon her resentfully. "Woman," he cried, "that he is lost is your fault. I have searched with my eyes, ears, tongue, and limbs; but one might as well look for a pin at the bottom of the ocean."
The mother began to weep pitifully. '"Tis the Gambling Cash Tiger," she sobbed. "'Twas he who caused you to forget your parents and ill fortune has followed therefor. A-ya, A-ya, A-ya. My heart is as heavy as the blackest heavens!"
"What nonsense!" exclaimed Miss McLeod, thinking it time to interfere. "The child cannot be far away. Let us all hunt and see who will find him first."
A crowd of men, women, and children had gathered outside the door, most of them in gay holiday attire. At these words of the teacher there was an assenting babel of voices, followed by a darting into passages, up stairways, and behind doors. Lanterns were lit for the exploration of underground cellars, stores, closets, stairways, balconies. Not a hole in the vicinity of the Chee dwelling but was penetrated by keen eyes. Rich and poor alike joined in the search, a yellow-robed priest from the joss house and one of the Chiefs of the Six Companies being conspicuously interested.
The mother, following in the footsteps of Miss McLeod, kept up a plaintive wailing. "A-Ya, my young bud, my jade jewel, my peach bloom. Little hands, veined like young leaves; voice like the breath of a zephyr. Alas, the fates are against me! You are lost to your poor mother who is without resource and bound with fetters. Death would be sweet indeed; but that boon is denied."
The day wore on and evening gradually stole upon them, followed by night. The wind blew in gusts, but the moon had risen and was shining bright so that there was a kind of moonlight even in the dark alleys. The main portion of Chinatown had been thoroughly scoured, and most attention was now being given to the hills which crept up to Powell Street. It was in a top story of a half-way hill tenement that Miss McLeod's room was located; a cozy little place, for all its apparently comfortless environment. When the wind began to blow bleak from the Bay, her thoughts drifted longingly to her easy chair and cheery grate fire; but only for a moment. Until the baby was found she could know no rest. The distress of these Chinese people was hers; their troubles also. Had she not adopted them as her own when kinfolk had failed her? Their grateful appreciation of the smallest service; their undemonstrative but faithful affection had been as balm to a heart wounded by the indifference and bruised by the ingratitude, of those to whom she had devoted her youth, her strength, and her abilities.
Suddenly a cry was heard. Wang Hom Hing, a merchant Chinaman, who had taken command of the search party detailed to explore the upper part of Chinatown, appeared at the door of a rickety tenement — the one in which Miss McLeod had built her nest — and waved, under the lanterns, a Chinese flag, signal that the child was found.
Pell-mell the Chinese rushed towards their country's emblem. With the exception of Miss McLeod, not a single white person, not even a policeman, had been impressed into the search.
Leading the rushing crowd was Chee Ping the First; in the midst panted A Tae and her white woman friend, and in the wake of all calmly and quietly pattered Little Me. Though usually the chief object of his parents' attention, this day, or rather night, he seemed altogether forgotten.
Up several flights of stairs streamed the searchers, while from every door on the landings, men, women, and children peered out, inquiring what it all meant. Hemmed in by numbers, the teacher found herself at last blocked outside her own room.
Someone was talking loudly and excitedly. It was Wang Hom Hing, the father of her pupil of that name, and the uncle of another pupil, Lee Chu. What was he saying? The teacher strained her ears to catch his words. Gracious Heavens! He was declaring that she had stolen the. child; that it lay in her room, hidden under the coverlets of her bed — positive evidence that she who, under the guise of friendship, had ingratiated herself into their hearts and homes, was in reality a secret enemy.
"Trust her no more — this McLeod, Jean," he cried. "Though her smile is as sweet as honey, her heart is like a razor."
There was an ominous silence after this speech.
Wang Hom Hing was a pompous man whose conceit had been inflated by the flattery of wily white people, who, unlike the undiplomatic Scotch woman, did discriminate between the gifts of the rich and poor. Nevertheless, as President of the Water Lily Club and Secretary of the Society of Celestial Reason, he was a man of influence in Chinatown, and this was painfully impressed upon the teacher when Chee A Tae cast upon her a shuddering glance and fell swooning into the arms of a stout countrywoman behind her.
Now, the blood of Scottish chieftains throbbed in Miss McLeod's veins; and it was this brave blood which, when all the ships in which she had stored her early hopes and dreams had one by one been lost, had borne up her soul above the stormy flood, and helped her to launch another ship in a sea both wild and strange. That ship had weathered many a gale. Should she, after steering it safely into port, allow it to founder — in harbor? Never! That ship was the safe-deposit bank for all her womanly affection and energy. It carried her Chinese work — the work in which she had found consolation, peace, and happiness. Hom Hing should not wreck it without some effort on her part to save.
The intrepid woman, nerved by these thoughts, pushed through the human wall before her and reached the speaker's side. Sleeping in the midst of the tumult lay the babe, its little hand under its cheek. So pretty a picture that even in her stress and excitement she paused for a moment to wonder and admire.
Then she faced the big Chinaman in his gorgeous holiday robes, her small, slight form drawn to its fullest height, her light blue eyes ablaze.
"Wang Hom Hing," she cried. "You know you are trying to make my friends believe what you do not believe yourself! I know no more than its mother does about how the dear baby came here."
The Chinese merchant shrugged his shoulders insolently, and addressing the people again, asked them to judge for themselves. The child had been stolen. The teacher had pretended to aid in a search, yet it had been he and not she who had led the way to her room where it had been found.
Low mutterings were heard throughout the place; but after they had subsided, the white woman, looking around for a friendly face, was surprised and cheered to find many. Her spirits rose.
"How was I to know the child lay in my room?" she indignantly inquired. "I left the place in the early morning. It has been brought there since by someone unknown to me.
Wang Hom Hing laughed scornfully as he moved away, his revenge, as he thought, complete.
The father of the babe raised his son in his arms and passed him on to the mother who stood with arms outstretched. Clutching the child convulsively, she gazed with horror-struck eyes at the teacher.
"Friends," cried the white woman, raising her voice in a last effort, "will you allow that man to turn from me your hearts? Have you not known me long enough to believe that though I cannot explain to you how the baby came to be in my room, yet I am innocent of having brought it there. A Tae" — addressing the mother — "can you believe that I would harm one hair of your baby's head?"
A Tae hesitated, her eyes full of tears. She had loved the teacher, but Wang Hom Hing had sown a poisonous seed in her superstitious mind. Miss McLeod noted her hesitation with a sinking of the heart that was almost despair.
Up hobbled a very old and very tiny woman.
"McLeod, Jean," she cried, "your gracious and noble qualities of mind and soul merit a happier New Year's Day than this. Wang Hom Hing's words cannot deceive old Sien Tau."
Ah! The Scotch woman grasped gratefully the old Chinese woman's hand. She could not speak for the tickle in her throat.
Then spake A Tae: "Teacher, forgive me," besought she
And the teacher smiled her answer.
A number of men and women came forward, looked into the teacher's face, thanked her for past kindnesses, and expressed their confidence in her.
"McLeod, Jean,'' declared an old man, "you are a hundred women good."
Which was the highest compliment that Jean McLeod had ever received.
"You are wrong, mother!" said she, turning with a beaming face to old Sien Tau. "This is the happiest day I have known."
Explained the father of the babe: "The gods, seeing my unworthiness, took from me to give to you."
And Little Me, straggling to the teacher's side, piped in the language she herself had taught him:
"I have one brother. I love him all over. You say baby boy best gift? so I give him to you when my father and mother not see. Little Me give better than Lee Chu and Horn King."
It was some time before the tumult occasioned by Little Me's boastful but sweet confession subsided. It had been heard by all, but was understood wholly by none save the teacher.
That when no watchful eye was there to see, the baby had been carried in Little Me's sturdy arms from under the home roof to the teacher's tenement room, was made plain to everyone by the child himself. But it devolved upon Miss McLeod, in order to save her little scholar from obviously justifiable paternal wrath, to explain his reason for the kidnapping, and this she did so clearly and eloquently that the father, raising his first born to his knee, declared in English: "I proud of him. He Number One scholar," while the mother fondly smiled.
Little Me looked at the baby in his mother's lap, and then at the teacher. His eyes filled with tears.
"You not like what I give you well enough to keep him," he sobbed.
"Yes, yes," consoled Miss McLeod. "I like him so well that I put him away in my heart where I keep the baby of my story. Don't you remember? That was what the Father of the story gave the baby for. To be kept in the people's hearts after he had gone back to Him!"
"Ah, yes," responded the child, his face brightening. "You keep my brother in your heart and I keep him in the house with me and my father and mother. That best of all!"