A Simple Act of Piety
by Achmed Abdullah
His affair that night was prosy. He was intending
the murder of an old Spanish woman around the
corner, on the Bowery, whom he had known for years,
with whom he had always exchanged courteous greetings,
and whom he neither liked nor disliked.
He did kill her; and she knew that he was going to
the minute he came into her stuffy, smelly shop, looming
tall and bland, and yellow, and unearthly Chinese from
behind the shapeless bundles of second-hand goods that
cluttered the doorway. He wished her good evening in
tones that were silvery, but seemed tainted by something
unnatural. She was uncertain what it was, and this very
uncertainty increased her horror. She felt her hair rise
as if drawn by a shivery wind.
At the very last she caught a glimmer of the truth in his
narrow-lidded, purple-black eyes. But it was too late.
The lean, curved knife was in his hand and across her
scraggy throat—there was a choked gurgle, a crimson
line broadening to a crimson smear, a thudding fall—and
that was the end of the affair as far as she was
A minute later Nag Hong Fah walked over to the
other end of Pell Street and entered a liquor-store which
belonged to the Chin Sor Company, and was known as
the “Place of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment.”
It was the gathering-place for the Chinese-born
members of the Nag family, and there he occupied a seat
of honor because of his wealth and charity and stout
He talked for about half an hour with the other members
of his clan, sipping fragrant, sun-dried Formosa tea
mixed with jessamine-flowers, until he had made for
himself a bullet-proof alibi.
The alibi held.
For he is still at liberty. He is often heard to speak
with regret—nor is it hypocritical regret—about the
murder of Señora Garcia, the old Spanish woman who
kept the shop around the corner. He is a good customer
of her nephew, Carlos, who succeeded to her business.
Nor does he trade there to atone, in a manner, for
the red deed of his hands, but because the goods are
He regrets nothing. To regret, you must find sin in
your heart, while the murder of Señora Garcia meant no
sin to him. It was to him a simple action, respectable,
For he was a Chinaman, and, although it all happened
between the chocolate-brown of the Hudson and the
murky, cloudy gray of the North River, the tale is of
the Orient. There is about it an atmosphere of age-green
bronze; of first-chop chandoo and spicy aloe-wood;
of gilt, carved statues brought out of India when
Confucius was young; of faded embroideries, musty
with the scent of the dead centuries. An atmosphere
which is very sweet, very gentle—and very unhuman.
The Elevated roars above. The bluecoat shuffles his
flat feet on the greasy asphalt below. But still the tale
is of China—and the dramatic climax, in a Chinaman’s
story, from a Chinaman’s slightly twisted angle, differs
from that of an American.
To Nag Hong Fah this climax came not with the
murder of Señora Garcia, but with Fanny Mei Hi’s laugh
as she saw him with the shimmering bauble in his hands
and heard his appraisal thereof.
She was his wife, married to him honorably and truly,
with a narrow gold band and a clergyman and a bouquet
of wired roses bought cheaply from an itinerant Greek
vendor, and handfuls of rice thrown by facetious
and drunken members of both the yellow race and the
Of course, at the time of his marriage, a good many
people around Pell Street whispered and gossiped. They
spoke of the curling black smoke and slavery and other
gorgeously, romantically wicked things. Miss Edith
Rutter, the social settlement investigator, spoke of—and
Whereas Nag Hong Fah, who had both dignity and a
sense of humor, invited them all to his house: gossipers,
whisperers, Miss Edith Rutter, and Detective Bill Devoy
of the Second Branch, and bade them look to their hearts’
content; and whereas they found no opium, no sliding
panels, and hidden cupboards, no dread Mongol mysteries,
but a neat little steam-heated flat, furnished by
Grand Rapids via Fourteenth Street, German porcelain,
a case of blond Milwaukee beer, a five-pound humidor of
shredded Kentucky burlap tobacco, a victrola, and a fine,
big Bible with brass clamp and edges and M. Doré’s
“Call again,” he said as they were trooping down the
narrow stairs. “Call again any time you please. Glad
to have you—aren’t we, kid?” chucking his wife under
“You bet yer life, you fat old yellow sweetness!”
agreed Fanny; and then—as a special barbed shaft
leveled at Miss Rutter’s retreating back: “Say! Any
time yer wanta lamp my wedding certificate—it’s
hangin’ between the fottygraphs of the President and
the Big Boss—all framed up swell!”
He had met her first one evening in a Bowery saloon,
where she was introduced to him by Mr. Brian Neill, the
owner of the saloon, a gentleman from out the County
Armagh, who had spattered and muddied his proverbial
Irish chastity in the slime of the Bowery gutters, and who
called himself her uncle.
This latter statement had to be taken with a grain of
salt. For Fanny Mei Hi was not Irish. Her hair was
golden, her eyes blue. But otherwise she was Chinese.
Easily nine-tenths of her. Of course she denied it. But
that is neither here nor there.
She was not a lady. Couldn’t be—don’t you see—with
that mixed blood in her veins, Mr. Brian Neill
acting as her uncle, and the standing pools of East Side
vice about her.
But Nag Hong Fah, who was a poet and a philosopher,
besides being the proprietor of the Great Shanghai Chop
Suey Palace, said that she looked like a golden-haired
goddess of evil, familiar with all the seven sins. And he
added—this to the soothsayer of his clan, Nag Hop Fat—that
he did not mind her having seven, nor seventeen,
nor seven times seventeen bundles of sin, as long as she
kept them in the sacred bosom of the Nag family.
“Yes,” said the soothsayer, throwing up a handful of
painted ivory sticks and watching how they fell to see if
the omens were favorable. “Purity is a jewel to the
silly young. And you are old, honorable cousin—”
“Indeed,” chimed in Nag Hong Fah, “I am old and
fat and sluggish and extremely wise. What price is
there in purity higher than there is contained in the happiness
and contentment of a respectable citizen when he
sees men-children playing gently about his knees?”
He smiled when his younger brother, Nag Sen Yat,
the opium merchant, spoke to him of a certain Yung
“Yung Quai is beautiful,” said the opium merchant,
“and young—and of an honorable clan—and—”
“And childless! And in San Francisco! And divorced
“But there is her older brother, Yung Long, the head
of the Yung clan. He is powerful and rich—the richest
man in Pell Street! He would consider this new marriage
of yours a disgrace to his face. Chiefly since the
woman is a foreigner!”
“She is not. Only her hair and her eyes are foreign.”
“Where hair and eyes lead, the call of the blood follows,”
rejoined Nag Sen Yat, and he reiterated his warning
about Yung Long.
But the other shook his head.
“Do not give wings to trouble. It flies swiftly without
them,” he quoted. “Too, the soothsayer read in the
painted sticks that Fanny Mei Hi will bear me sons.
One—perhaps two. Afterward, if indeed it be so that
the drop of barbarian blood has clouded the clear mirror
of her Chinese soul, I can always take back into my
household the beautiful and honorable Yung Quai, whom
I divorced and sent to California because she is childless.
She will then adopt the sons which the other woman
will bear me—and everything will be extremely satisfactory.”
And so he put on his best American suit, called on
Fanny, and proposed to her with a great deal of dignity
and elaborate phrases.
“Sure I’ll marry you,” said Fanny. “Sure! I’d
rather be the wife of the fattest, yellowest Chink in New
York than live the sorta life I’m livin’—see, Chinkie-Toodles?”
“Chinkie-Toodles” smiled. He looked her over approvingly.
He said to himself that doubtless the painted
sticks had spoken the truth, that she would bear him men-children.
His own mother had been a river-girl, purchased
during a drought for a handful of parched grain;
and had died in the odor of sanctity, with nineteen Buddhist
priests following her gaily lacquered coffin, wagging
their shaven polls ceremoniously, and mumbling
flattering and appropriate verses from “Chin-Kong-Ching.”
Fanny, on the other hand, though wickedly and lyingly
insisting on her pure white blood, knew that a Chinaman
is broad-minded and free-handed, that he makes a good
husband, and beats his wife rather less often than a white
man of the corresponding scale of society.
Of course, gutter-bred, she was aggressively insistent
upon her rights.
“Chinkie-Toodles,” she said the day before the wedding,
and the gleam in her eyes gave point to the words, “I’m
square—see? An’ I’m goin’ to travel square. Maybe
I haven’t always been a poifec’ lady, but I ain’t goin’ to
bilk yer, get me? But—” She looked up, and suddenly,
had Nag Hong Fah known it, the arrogance, the
clamorings, and the tragedy of her mixed blood were in
the words that followed: “I gotta have a dose of freedom.
I’m an American—I’m white—say!”—seeing
the smile which he hid rapidly behind his fat hand—“yer
needn’t laugh. I am white, an’ not a painted
Chinese doll. No sittin’ up an’ mopin’ for the retoin of
my fat, yellow lord an’ master in a stuffy, stinky, punky
five-by-four cage for me! In other woids, I resoive for
my little golden-haired self the freedom of asphalt an’
electric lights, see? An’ I’ll play square—as long as
you’ll play square,” she added under her breath.
“Sure,” he said. “You are free. Why not? I am an
American. Have a drink?” And they sealed the bargain
in a tumbler of Chinese rice whisky, cut with Bourbon,
and flavored with aniseed and powdered ginger.
The evening following the wedding, husband and wife,
instead of a honeymoon trip, went on an alcoholic spree
amid the newly varnished splendors of their Pell Street
flat. Side by side, in spite of the biting December cold,
they leaned from the open window and brayed an intoxicated
pæan at the Elevated structure which pointed at the
stars like a gigantic icicle stood on end, frozen, austere—desolate,
for all its clank and rattle, amid the fragrant,
warm reek of China which drifted from shutters and
Nag Hong Fah, seeing Yung Long crossing the street,
thought with drunken sentimentality of Yung Long’s
sister whom he had divorced because she had borne him no
children, and extended a boisterous invitation to come up.
“Come! Have a drink!” he hiccuped.
Yung Long stopped, looked, and refused courteously,
but not before he had leveled a slow, appraising glance at
the golden-haired Mei Hi, who was shouting by the side
of her obese lord. Yung Long was not a bad-looking man,
standing there in the flickering light of the street-lamp,
the black shadows cutting the pale-yellow, silky sheen of
his narrow, powerful face as clean as with a knife.
“Swell looker, that Chink!” commented Fanny Mei
Hi as Yung Long walked away; and her husband, the
liquor warming his heart into generosity, agreed:
“Sure! Swell looker! Lots of money! Let’s have
Arrived at the sixth tumbler, Nag Hong Fah, the poet
in his soul released by alcohol, took his blushing bride
upon his knee and improvised a neat Cantonese love-ditty;
but when Fanny awakened the next morning with
the sobering suspicion that she had tied herself for life to
a drunkard, she found out that her suspicion was unfounded.
The whisky spree had only been an appropriate celebration
in honor of the man-child on whom Nag Hong
Fah had set his heart; and it was because of this unborn
son and the unborn son’s future that her husband rose
from his tumbled couch, bland, fat, without headache or
heartache, left the flat, and bargained for an hour with
Yung Long, who was a wholesale grocer, with warehouses
in Canton, Manila, New York, San Francisco,
Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Not a word was said about either Yung Quai or Fanny.
The talk dealt entirely with canned bamboo sprouts and
preserved leeches, and pickled star-fruit, and brittle
almond cakes. It was only after the price had been
decided upon and duly sealed with the right phrases and
palm touching palm—afterwards, though nothing in
writing had passed, neither party could recede from the
bargain without losing face—that Yung Long remarked,
“By the way, the terms are cash—spot cash,” and he
For he knew that the restaurant proprietor was an
audacious merchant who relied on long credits and future
profits, and to whom in the past he had always granted
ninety days’ leeway without question or special agreement.
Nag Hong Fah smiled in his turn; a slow, thin, enigmatic
“I brought the cash with me,” he replied, pulling a
wad of greenbacks from his pocket, and both gentlemen
looked at each other with a great deal of mutual respect.
“Forty-seven dollars and thirty-three cents saved on
the first business of my married life,” Nag Hong Fah
said to his assembled clan that night at the Place of Sweet
Desire and Heavenly Entertainment. “Ah, I shall have
a fine, large business to leave to the man-child which my
wife shall bear me!”
And the man-child came—golden-haired, blue-eyed,
yellow-skinned, and named Brian in honor of Fanny’s
apocryphal uncle who owned the Bowery saloon. For
the christening Nag Hong Fah sent out special invitations—pink
cards lettered with virulent magenta and bordered
with green forget-me-nots and purple roses; with an
advertisement of the Great Shanghai Chop Suey Palace
on the reverse side. He also bestowed upon his wife a
precious bracelet of cloudy white jade, earrings of green
jade cunningly inlaid with blue feathers, a chest of carved
Tibetan soapstone, a bottle of French perfume, a pound of
Mandarin blossom tea for which he paid seventeen dollars
wholesale, a set of red Chinese sables, and a new Caruso
record for the victrola.
Fanny liked the last two best; chiefly the furs, which
she wore through the whirling heat of an August day, as
soon as she was strong enough to leave her couch, on an
expedition to her native pavements. For she held fast
to her proclaimed right that hers was the freedom of
asphalt and electric light—not to mention the back parlor
of her uncle’s saloon, with its dingy, musty walls covered
with advertisements of eminent Kentucky distilleries and
the indelible traces of many generations of flies, with its
gangrened tables, its battered cuspidors, its commingling
atmosphere of poverty and sloth, of dust and stale beer,
of cheese sandwiches, wet weeds, and cold cigars.
“Getta hell outa here!” she admonished a red-powdered
bricklayer who came staggering across the
threshold of the back parlor and was trying to encircle
her waist with amatory intent. “I’m a respectable
married woman—see?” And then to Miss Ryan, the
side-kick of her former riotous spinster days, who was
sitting at a corner table dipping her pretty little up-turned
nose into a foaming schooner: “Take my tip,
Mamie, an’ marry a Chink! That’s the life, believe me!”
Mamie shrugged her shoulders.
“All right for you, Fan, I guess,” she replied. “But
not for me. Y’see—ye’re mostly Chink yerself—”
“I ain’t! I ain’t! I’m white—wottya mean callin’
me a Chink?” And then, seeing signs of contrition on
her friend’s face: “Never mind. Chinkie-Toodles is
good enough for me. He treats me white, all right, all
Nor was this an overstatement of the actual facts.
Nag Hong Fah was good to her. He was happy in
the realization of his fatherhood, advertised every night
by lusty cries which reverberated through the narrow,
rickety Pell Street house to find an echo across the street
in the liquor-store of the Chin Sor Company, where the
members of his clan predicted a shining future for father
The former was prospering. The responsibilities of
fatherhood had brought an added zest and tang to his
keen, bartering Mongol brain. Where before he had
squeezed the dollar, he was now squeezing the cent. He
had many a hard tussle with the rich Yung Long over
the price of tea and rice and other staples, and never did
either one of them mention the name of Yung Quai, nor
that of the woman who had supplanted Yung Quai in
the restaurant-keeper’s affections.
Fanny was honest. She traveled the straight and narrow,
as she put it to herself. “Nor ain’t it any strain on
my feet,” she confided to Miss Ryan. For she was happy
and contented. Life, after all, had been good to her,
had brought her prosperity and satisfaction at the hands
of a fat Chinaman, at the end of her fantastic, twisted,
unclean youth; and there were moments when, in spite of
herself, she felt herself drawn into the surge of that
Mongol race which had given her nine-tenths of her
blood—a fact which formerly she had been in the habit
of denying vigorously.
She laughed her happiness through the spiced, warm
mazes of Chinatown, her first-born cuddled to her breast,
ready to be friends with everybody.
It was thus that Yung Long would see her walking
down Pell Street as he sat in the carved window-seat of
his store, smoking his crimson-tassled pipe, a wandering
ray of sun dancing through the window, breaking into
prismatic colors, and wreathing his pale, serene face with
He never failed to wave his hand in courtly greeting.
She never failed to return the civility.
Some swell looker, that Chink. But—Gawd!—she
was square, all right, all right!
A year later, after Nag Hong Fah, in expectation of
the happy event, had acquired an option on a restaurant
farther up-town, so that the second son might not be
slighted in favor of Brian, who was to inherit the Great
Shanghai Chop Suey Palace, Fanny sent another little
cross-breed into the reek and riot of the Pell Street
world. But when Nag Hong Fah came home that night,
the nurse told him that the second-born was a girl—something
to be entered on the debit, not the credit, side
of the family ledger.
It was then that a change came into the marital relations
of Mr. and Mrs. Nag Hong Fah.
Not that the former disliked the baby daughter, called
Fanny, after the mother. Far from it. He loved her
with a sort of slow, passive love, and he could be seen on
an afternoon rocking the wee bundle in his stout arms
and whispering to her crooning Cantonese fairy-lilts: all
about the god of small children whose face is a candied
plum, so that the babes like to hug and kiss him and, of
course, lick his face with their little pink tongues.
But this time there was no christening, no gorgeous
magenta-lettered invitations sent to the chosen, no happy
prophecies about the future.
This time there were no precious presents of green
jade and white jade heaped on the couch of the young
She noticed it. But she did not complain. She said
to herself that her husband’s new enterprise was swallowing
all his cash; and one night she asked him how the new
restaurant was progressing.
“What new restaurant?” he asked blandly.
“The one up-town, Toodles—for the baby—”
Nag Hong Fah laughed carelessly.
“Oh—I gave up that option. Didn’t lose much.”
Fanny sat up straight, clutching little Fanny to her.
“You—you gave it up?” she asked. “Wottya
mean—gave it up?”
Then suddenly inspired by some whisper of suspicion,
her voice leaping up extraordinarily strong: “You mean
you gave it up—because—because little Fanny is—a
He agreed with a smiling nod.
“To be sure! A girl is fit only to bear children and
clean the household pots.”
He said it without any brutality, without any conscious
male superiority; simply as a statement of fact. A
melancholy fact, doubtless. But a fact, unchangeable,
“But—but—” Fanny’s gutter flow of words floundered
in the eddy of her amazement, her hurt pride and
vanity. “I’m a woman myself—an’ I—”
“Assuredly you are a woman and you have done your
duty. You have borne me a son. Perhaps, if the omens
be favorable you will bear me yet another. But this—this
girl—” He dismissed little Fanny with a wave of
his pudgy, dimpled hand as a regrettable accident, and
continued, soothingly: “She will be taken care of. Already
I have written to friends of our clan in San
Francisco to arrange for a suitable disposal when the
baby has reached the right age.” He said it in his mellow,
precise English. He had learned it at a night-school,
where he had been the pride and honor of his class.
Fanny had risen. She left her couch. With a swish-swish
of knitted bed-slippers she loomed up on the ring
of faint light shed by the swinging petroleum lamp in
the center of the room. She approached her husband, the
baby held close to her heart with her left hand, her right
hand aimed at Nag Hong Fah’s solid chest like a pistol.
Her deep-set, violet-blue eyes seemed to pierce through
But the Chinese blood in her veins—shrewd, patient—scotched
the violence of her American passion, her
American sense of loudly clamoring for right and justice
and fairness. She controlled herself. The accusing
hand relaxed and fell gently on the man’s shoulder. She
was fighting for her daughter, fighting for the drop of
white blood in her veins, and it would not do to lose her
“Looka here, Chinkie-Toodles,” she said. “You call
yerself a Christian, don’t yer? A Christian an’ an American.
Well, have a heart. An’ some sense! This ain’t
China, Toodles. Lil Fanny ain’t goin’ to be weighed an’
sold to some rich brother Chink at so many seeds per
pound. Not much! She’s gonna be eddycated. She’s
gonna have her chance, see? She’s gonna be independent
of the male beast an’ the sorta life wot the male beast
likes to hand to a skoit. Believe me, Toodles, I know
what I’m talkin’ about!”
But he shook his stubborn head. “All has been settled,”
he replied. “Most satisfactorily settled!”
He turned to go. But she rushed up to him. She
clutched his sleeve.
“Yer—yer don’t mean it? Yer can’t mean it!” she
“I do, fool!” He made a slight, weary gesture as if
brushing away the incomprehensible. “You are a woman—you
do not understand—”
“Don’t I, though!”
She spoke through her teeth. Her words clicked and
broke like dropping icicles. Swiftly her passion turned
into stone, and as swiftly back again, leaping out in a
great, spattering stream of abuse.
“Yer damned, yellow, stinkin’ Chink! Yer—yer—Wottya
mean—makin’ me bear children—yer own children—an’
then—” Little Fanny was beginning to
howl lustily and she covered her face with kisses. “Say,
kiddie, it’s a helluva dad you’ve drawn! A helluva
dad! Look at him—standin’ there! Greasy an’ yellow
an’— Say—he’s willin’ to sell yer into slavery to
some other beast of a Chink! Say—”
“You are a—ah—a Chink yourself, fool!”
“I ain’t! I’m white—an’ square—an’ decent—an’—”
He lit a cigarette and smiled placidly, and suddenly
she knew that it would be impossible to argue, to plead
with him. Might as well plead with some sardonic,
deaf immensity, without nerves, without heart. And
then, womanlike, the greater wrong disappeared in the
“Ye’re right. I’m part Chink myself—an’ damned
sorry for myself because of it! An’ that’s why I know
why yer gave me no presents when lil Fanny was born.
Because she’s a girl! As if that was my fault, yer fat,
sneerin’ slob, yer! Yah! That’s why yer gave me no
presents—I know! I know what it means when a
Chink don’t give no presents to his wife when she gives
boith to a child! Make me lose face—that’s wottya call
it, ain’t it? An’ I thought fer a while yer was savin’ up
the ducats to give lil Fanny a start in life!
“Well, yer got another guess comin’! Yer gonna do
wot I tell yer, see? Yer gonna open up that there new
restaurant up-town, an’ yer gonna give me presents!
A bracelet, that’s what I want! None o’ yer measly
Chink jade, either; but the real thing, get me? Gold an’
diamonds, see?” and she was still talking as he, unmoved,
silent, smiling, left the room and went down the creaking
stairs to find solace in the spiced cups of the Palace of
Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment.
She rushed up to the window and threw it wide. She
leaned far out, her hair framing her face like a glorious,
disordered aureole, her loose robe slipping from her
gleaming shoulders, her violet eyes blazing fire and
She shouted at his fat, receding back:
“A bracelet, that’s what I want! That’s what I’m
gonna get, see? Gold an’ diamonds! Gold an’ diamonds,
yer yellow pig, yer!”
It was at that moment that Yung Long passed her
house. He heard, looked up, and greeted her courteously,
as was his wont. But this time he did not go straight on
his way. He looked at her for several seconds, taking in
the soft lines of her neck and shoulders, the small, pale
oval of her face with the crimson of her broad, generous
mouth, the white flash of her small, even teeth, and the
blue, sombre orbit of her eyes. With the light of the
lamp shining in back, a breeze rushing in front past the
open window, the wide sleeves of her dressing-gown
fluttered like immense, rosy butterfly-wings.
Instinctively she returned his gaze. Instinctively,
straight through her rage and heartache, the old thought
came to her mind:
Swell looker—that Chink!
And then, without realizing what she was doing, her
lips had formed the thought into words:
She said it in a headlong and vehement whisper that
drifted down, through the whirling reek of Pell Street—sharp,
sibilant, like a message.
Yung Long smiled, raised his neat bowler hat, and
went on his way.
Night after night Fanny returned to the attack, cajoling,
caressing, threatening, cursing.
“Listen here, Chinkie-Toodles—”
But she might as well have tried to argue with the
sphinx for all the impression she made on her eternally
smiling lord. He would drop his amorphous body into
a comfortable rocker, moving it up and down with the tips
of his felt-slippered feet, a cigarette hanging loosely
from the right corner of his coarse, sagging lips, a cup
of lukewarm rice whisky convenient to his elbow, and
watch her as he might the gyrations of an exotic beetle
whose wings had been burned off. She amused him.
But after a while continuous repetition palled the amusement
into monotony, and, correctly Chinese, he decided
to make a formal complaint to Brian O’Neill, the Bowery
saloon-keeper, who called himself her uncle.
Life, to that prodigal of Erin, was a rather sunny
arrangement of small conveniences and small, pleasant
vices. He laughed in his throat and called his “nephew”
a damned, sentimental fool.
“Beat her up!” was his calm, matter-of-fact advice.
“Give her a good old hiding, an’ she’ll feed outa yer
hand, me lad!”
“I have—ah—your official permission, as head of
“Sure. Wait. I’ll lend ye me blackthorn. She
knows the taste of it.”
Nag Hong Fah took both advice and blackthorn.
That night he gave Fanny a severe beating and repeated
the performance every night for a week until she subsided.
Once more she became the model wife, and happiness
returned to the stout bosom of her husband. Even Miss
Rutter, the social settlement investigator, commented
upon it. “Real love is a shelter of inexpugnable peace,”
she said when she saw the Nag Hong Fah family walking
down Pell Street, little Brian toddling on ahead, the
baby cuddled in her mother’s arms.
Generously Nag Hong Fah overlooked his wife’s petty
womanish vanities; and when she came home one afternoon,
flushed, excited, exhibiting a shimmering bracelet
that was encircling her wrist, “just imitation gold an’
diamonds, Chinkie-Toodles!” she explained. “Bought
it outa my savings—thought yer wouldn’t mind, see?
Thought it wouldn’t hurt yer none if them Chinks hereabouts
think it was the real dope an’ yer gave it to me”—he
smiled and took her upon his knee as of old.
“Yes, yes,” he said, his pudgy hand fondling the intense
golden gleam of her tresses. “It is all right. Perhaps—if
you bear me another son—I shall give you a
real bracelet, real gold, real diamonds. Meanwhile you
may wear this bauble.”
As before she hugged jealously her proclaimed freedom
of asphalt and electric lights. Nor did he raise the
slightest objections. He had agreed to it at the time of
their marriage and, being a righteous man, he kept to his
part of the bargain with serene punctiliousness.
Brian Neill, whom he chanced to meet one afternoon in
Señora Garcia’s second-hand emporium, told him it was
“That beatin’ ye gave her didn’t do her any harm, me
beloved nephew,” he said. “She’s square. God help
the lad who tries to pass a bit o’ blarney to her.” He
chuckled in remembrance of a Finnish sailor who had
beaten a sudden and undignified retreat from the back
parlor into the saloon, with a ragged scratch crimsoning
his face and bitter words about the female of the species
crowding his lips. “Faith, she’s square! Sits there with
her little glass o’ gin an’ her auld chum, Mamie Ryan—an’
them two chews the rag by the hour—talkin’ about
frocks an’ frills, I doubt not—”
Of course, once in a while she would return home a
little the worse for liquor. But Nag Hong Fah, being a
Chinaman, would mantle such small shortcomings with
the wide charity of his personal laxity.
“Better a drunken wife who cooks well and washes
the children and keeps her tongue between her teeth,
than a sober wife who reeks with virtue and breaks the
household pots,” he said to Nag Hop Fat, the soothsayer.
“Better an honorable pig than a cracked rose
“Indeed! Better a fleet mule than a hamstrung horse,”
the other wound up the pleasant round of Oriental metaphors,
and he reënforced his opinion with a chosen and
appropriate quotation from the “Fo-Sho-Hing-Tsan-King.”
When late one night that winter, a high wind booming
from the north and washing the snow-dusted Pell Street
houses with its cutting blast, Fanny came home with
a jag, a chill, and a hacking cough, and went down
with pneumonia seven hours later, Nag Hong Fah was
genuinely sorry. He turned the management of his
restaurant over to his brother, Nag Sen Yat, and sat by
his wife’s bed, whispering words of encouragement,
bathing her feverish forehead, changing her sheets, administering
medicine, doing everything with fingers as
soft and deft as a woman’s.
Even after the doctor had told him three nights later
that the case was hopeless and that Fanny would die—even
after, as a man of constructive and practical brain,
he had excused himself for a few minutes and had sat
down in the back room to write a line to Yung Quai, his
divorced wife in San Francisco, bidding her hold herself
in readiness and including a hundred dollars for transportation—he
continued to treat Fanny Mei Hi with the
utmost gentleness and patience.
Tossing on her hot pillows, she could hear him in the
long watches of the night breathing faintly, clearing his
throat cautiously so as not to disturb her; and on Monday
morning—he had lifted her up and was holding her
close to help her resist the frightful, hacking cough that
was shaking her wasted frame—he told her that he had
reconsidered about little Fanny.
“You are going to die,” he said placidly, in a way,
apologetically, “and it is fitting that your daughter should
make proper obeisance to your departed spirit. A child’s
devotion is best stimulated by gratitude. And little Fanny
shall be grateful to you. For she will go to a good
American school and, to pay for it, I shall sell your possessions
after you are dead. The white jade bracelet,
the earrings of green jade, the red sables—they will
bring over four thousand dollars. Even this little
bauble”—he slipped the glittering bracelet from her thin
wrist—“this, too, will bring a few dollars. Ten, perhaps
twelve; I know a dealer of such trifles in Mott
Her voice cut in, raucous, challenging. She had
wriggled out of his arms. An opaque glaze had come
over her violet-blue eyes. Her whole body trembled.
But she pulled herself on her elbows with a terrible,
straining effort, refusing the support of his ready hands.
“Say! How much did yer say this here bracelet’s
He smiled gently. He did not want to hurt her
woman’s vanity. So he increased his first appraisal.
“Twenty dollars,” he suggested. “Perhaps twenty-one.
Do not worry. It shall be sold to the best advantage—for
your little daughter—”
And then, quite suddenly, Fanny burst into laughter—gurgling
laughter that shook her body, choked her throat,
and leaped out in a stream of blood from her tortured
“Twenty dollars!” she cried, “Twenty-one! Say,
you poor cheese, that bracelet alone’ll pay for lil Fanny’s
eddycation. It’s worth three thousand! It’s real, real—gold
an’ diamonds! Gold an’ diamonds! Yung Long
gave it to me, yer poor fool!” And she fell back and
died, a smile upon her face, which made her look like a
sleeping child, wistful and perverse.
A day after his wife’s funeral Nag Hong Fah, having
sent a ceremonious letter, called on Yung Long in the
latter’s store. In the motley, twisted annals of Pell Street
the meeting, in the course of time, has assumed the character
of something epic, something Homeric, something
almost religious. It is mentioned with pride by both
the Nag and the Yung clans; the tale of it has drifted
to the Pacific Coast; and even in far China wise men
speak of it with a hush of reverence as they drift down
the river on their painted house-boats in peach-blossom
Yung Long received his caller at the open door of his
“Deign to enter first,” he said, bowing.
Nag Hong Fah bowed still lower.
“How could I dare to?” he retorted, quoting a line
from the “Book of Ceremonies and Exterior Demonstrations,”
which proved that the manner is the heart’s inner
“Please deign to enter first,” Yung Long emphasized,
and again the other gave the correct reply: “How should
Then, after a final request, still protesting, he entered
as he was bidden. The grocer followed, walked to the
east side of the store and indicated the west side to his
visitor as Chinese courtesy demands.
“Deign to choose your mat,” he went on and, after
several coy refusals, Nag Hong Fah obeyed again, sat
down, and smiled gently at his host.
“A pipe?” suggested the latter.
“Thanks! A simple pipe of bamboo, please, with a
plain bamboo mouthpiece and no ornaments!”
“No, no!” protested Yung Long. “You will smoke
a precious pipe of jade with a carved amber mouthpiece
and crimson tassels!”
He clapped his hands, whereupon one of his young
cousins entered with a tray of nacre, supporting an opium-lamp,
pipes and needles and bowls, and horn and ivory
boxes neatly arranged. A minute later the brown opium
cube was sizzling over the open flame, the jade pipe was
filled and passed to Nag Hong Fah, who inhaled the gray,
acrid smoke with all the strength of his lungs, then returned
the pipe to the boy, who refilled it and passed it
to Yung Long.
For a while the two men smoked in silence—men of
Pell Street, men of lowly trade, yet men at whose back
three thousand years of unbroken racial history, racial
pride, racial achievements, and racial calm, were sitting
in a solemn, graven row—thus dignified men.
Yung Long was caressing his cheek with his right
hand. The dying, crimson sunlight danced and glittered
on his well-polished finger-nails.
Finally he broke the silence.
“Your wife is dead,” he said with a little mournful
cadence at the end of the sentence.
“Yes.” Nag Hong Fah inclined his head sadly; and
after a short pause: “My friend, it is indeed reasonable
to think that young men are fools, their brains hot and
crimson with the blinding mists of passion, while wisdom
and calm are the splendid attributes of older men—”
“Such as—you and I?”
Yung Long raised himself on his elbows. His oblique
eyes flashed a scrutinizing look and the other winked a
slow wink and remarked casually that a wise and old man
must first peer into the nature of things, then widen his
knowledge, then harden his will, then control the impulses
of his heart, then entirely correct himself—then establish
good order in his family.
“Truly spoken,” agreed Yung Long. “Truly spoken,
O wise and older brother! A family! A family needs
the strength of a man and the soft obedience of a woman.”
“Mine is dead,” sighed Nag Hong Fah. “My household
is upset. My children cry.”
Yung Long slipped a little fan from his wide silken
sleeves and opened it slowly.
“I have a sister,” he said gently, “Yung Quai, a childless
woman who once was your wife, O wise and older
“A most honorable woman!” Nag Hong Fah shut his
eyes and went on: “I wrote to her five days ago, sending
her money for her railway fare to New York.”
“Ah!” softly breathed the grocer; and there followed
Yung Long’s young cousin was kneading, against the
pipe, the dark opium cubes which the flame gradually
changed into gold and amber.
“Please smoke,” advised the grocer.
Nag Hong Fah had shut his eyes completely, and his
fat face, yellow as old parchment, seemed to have grown
indifferent, dull, almost sleepy.
Presently he spoke:
“Your honorable sister, Yung Quai, will make a most
excellent mother for the children of my late wife.”
There was another silence, again broken by Nag Hong
Fah. His voice held a great calmness, a gentle singsong,
a bronze quality which was like the soft rubbing of an
ancient temple gong, green with the patina of the swinging
“My friend,” he said, “there is the matter of a
shimmering bracelet given by you to my late wife—”
Yung Long looked up quickly; then down again as he
saw the peaceful expression on the other’s bland features
and heard him continue:
“For a while I misunderstood. My heart was blinded.
My soul was seared with rage. I—I am ashamed to
own up to it—I harbored harsh feelings against you.
Then I considered that you were the older brother of
Yung Quai and a most honorable man. I considered that
in giving the bracelet to my wife you doubtless meant to
show your appreciation for me, your friend, her husband.
Am I not right?”
Yung Long had filled his lungs with another bowlful
of opium smoke. He was leaning back, both shoulders
on the mat so as the better to dilate his chest and to keep
his lungs filled all the longer with the fumes of the kindly
“Yes,” he replied after a minute or two. “Your indulgent
lips have pronounced words full of harmony and
reason. Only—there is yet another trifling matter.”
“Name it. It shall be honorably solved.”
Yung Long sat up and fanned himself slowly.
“At the time when I arranged a meeting with the
mother of your children,” he said, “so as to speak to her
of my respectful friendship for you and to bestow upon
her a shimmering bracelet in proof of it, I was afraid of
the wagging, leaky tongues of Pell Street. I was afraid
of scandal and gossip. I therefore met your wife in the
back room of Señora Garcia’s store, on the Bowery.
Since then I have come to the conclusion that perhaps
I acted foolishly. For the foreign woman may have misinterpreted
my motives. She may talk, thus causing you
as well as me to lose face, and besmirching the departed
spirit of your wife. What sayeth the ‘Li-Ki’? ‘What is
whispered in the private apartments must not be shouted
outside.’ Do you not think that this foreign woman
Nag Hong Fah smiled affectionately upon the other.
“You have spoken true words, O wise and older
brother,” he said rising. “It is necessary for your and
my honor, as well as for the honor of my wife’s departed
spirit, that the foreign woman should not wag her
tongue. I shall see to it to-night.” He waved a fat,
deprecating hand. “Yes—yes. I shall see to it. It is a
simple act of family piety—but otherwise without much
And he bowed, left the store, and returned to his house
to get his lean knife.