Authors: Pearl S. Buck
He could say nothing more, feeling sick at the sight of the raw swollen flesh. That first day he went home having done nothing. When he entered his home he thought, “There is one smell worse than the opium in this house—it is the smell of the silk mill.”
And that night he had said to Peony, “Let me smell that scent of yours.”
She brushed her scented palm across his cheeks and his eyes.
“It is sweet, after all,” he murmured.
She put her palm upon his lips, and for a moment he did not move. Her small clean fragrant hand was grateful to him.
“It’s like a flower—your hand—” he murmured.
He did not love Peony at all. He knew now he did not love her, and would never love her, but hers was a girl’s hand, delicate and sweet, and its fragrance and softness stood to him for a moment for some delicacy and sweetness to come sometime to him, as to all young men, though from another hand than Peony’s. He longed for it a moment vaguely, then put the thought away from him. There was no place for any girl even in his mind. He must use his mind only for the people.
But how could Peony know this, and how could he tell her?
She leaned against him delicately and he allowed it, and he felt her heart beat against his shoulder as he sat at his desk with his books. And in a moment he was not thinking of her, nor of anything except again the people he had seen for the first time that afternoon. They were more real to him than any girl’s hand, even than Peony’s.
“You are not going to bed yet?” Peony asked him. Since the night when he had locked her out of his room she had come in early with his tea, and gone away again. He shook his head.
“Don’t sit up,” she coaxed him. “You work so hard—and you don’t need to work. You aren’t a poor man’s son.”
“I can’t sleep,” he said. He thought, “That is why I can’t sleep—because I am a rich man’s son.” He wished it were tomorrow, so that he could go again and somehow help those people.
“Go away,” he told Peony, “I must work.”
She went away then, sighing, not teasing him as she usually did. At the door she waited. But he did not look at her, and so she left him. When she was gone, he pushed his books aside and went to the window and stood a long time staring out into the night-filled garden. He knew every foot of the garden. It was a place famous for its beauty. His grandfather and his father had put much money into its making. Huge rocks from the far north beyond Peking had been brought to it, strange and fantastic, and colored pebbles from the hill of the Blue Porcelain Pagoda near Nanking were scattered over winding paths between them. There were streams and bridges and a lake, summerhouses and small boats. And around it all was a wall so high that even from his window he could not see over it. There was no gate from the garden except a small postern gate for the gardener, who lived just outside. He kept it locked and he only carried the key.
“That’s the way I’ve lived,” I-wan thought, “in the garden with the wall around.”
And gazing into that silent darkness he determined that he would put away all thought of anything for himself and learn only of the people in the mill.
Soon there was nothing he did not know about the life of these mill workers. From all over China they had drained down to Shanghai. Out of famine and poverty and civil war, they had come here. Their lot was no better except that now they barely escaped starvation and there were at least no soldiers to maraud them. They lived, somehow, in their huts.
How to help these people now became I-wan’s chief life. At school he studied barely enough to escape reproof, and at home he took care to do quickly what he must in order to escape without notice. Everything was becoming a dream except these people.
He could do very little for them, and when he discovered this they possessed him more than ever. For they were at once so grateful to him and yet so hopeless. He crouched under their miserable matsheds with them in the cold late autumn rain. They looked at each other and at him and shook their heads, and a man said, “You speak out of your heart’s goodness, and yet it is no use. No one can help us. The truth is, there is no other way for us to get even our poor food. Who wants us? No one, anywhere. Who cares whether we live or die, or has ever cared?”
“Then you yourselves must care,” he told them.
“What can we do?” they said. “We can do nothing—and we know it.”
Little by little he began to try to teach them they were of some worth.
“You must be strong enough to hope,” he told them. “To have no hope is to give up tomorrow as well as today.”
But it was a long time before he could persuade them there was any reason even for hope that there would ever be anything better. Bit by bit, over weeks, he persuaded a few men to come to an open place beyond the huts, where not many people passed, and there he began to teach them the military drill which he had himself been taught. They shuffled their heavy feet and hung their heads shamefaced, but he compelled them and scolded them.
“Hold up your heads!” he commanded them. “Some day you will have to fight for yourselves.”
By now he had explained to them often the whole plan of the days to come, how the revolutionary army would sweep down the river, how there would be a general strike declared in all the mills—everywhere they were working for that strike—and in each place there must be a workers’ brigade, men who could march and shoot and be ready to attack from within while the revolutionary army attacked from without. They listened, doubting everything.
“We are like men who flee from a dragon to find a tiger in the path,” one said.
In the end I-wan had cried, “Let only the men who believe what I say, stay to learn!”
Instantly the older men had gone back to their huts, choosing the miseries they knew. But seventeen young men remained and with these I-wan began his brigade. But even they were doubtful until one day I-wan gave them each a gun. For plans were growing quickly real, as autumn grew into winter. To a certain shop whose master had been bribed, a certain number of guns was sent for their band, not all at once, but ten by ten. And I-wan had claimed eighteen, one for himself and one for each of his seventeen young men. He gave them by night one by one, here into a hut and there into a hut, and they were hidden in the piles of straw upon which the people slept and under the rags of their garments. One by one he taught his men how to shoot, meeting them far outside the city in the fields. If anyone asked them what they did, they said they were hunters.
On the piece of open ground they had marched without their guns. But it was different now when they marched. They had new strength because each thought of the weapon he now had been given. And I-wan came and went secretly at night through the gate in the garden. He had bribed the gardener, and the gardener laughed and gave him another key.
“You are like I-ko, too!” he said. “Ah-ha, young sir!”
I-wan smiled. Let the old man think he was going out to pretty girls and flower-houses as I-ko did!
Each worked blindly in his own place through that autumn and the winter. En-lan knew what every one in the band did, but beyond that he, too, knew nothing, except that all through the city there were bands like theirs, each doing its allotted work. Somewhere there were those who knew the whole, but where they were or who they were, no one knew. I-wan felt himself part of a great secret body, through which the life blood flowed, whose heart they could all feel beating, whose brain directed, and yet they knew no more.
All that had seemed real in his life before now became of no importance. His family he scarcely thought about, knowing the day now inevitable when he must renounce them all and say nothing when their names were called for death. Much of the time he felt strong enough for this. When he was working, when he was caught up into that secret life force and felt himself a part of the great specific energy which was to heal all the troubles of the people, he thought, “Why should I save alive even my father when I know that he would condemn men like En-lan to death if he knew them? Even me—he would condemn me.” For this was now a time when a deeper unity than blood united. Blood could divide now, when men were dividing themselves into these two parts between which there is no bridge, those who stay in the ways they know and those who must go on to other ways. And coming and going, with every day he felt this deeper cleavage. Sometimes in the winter night, in the silence of his bed, with the curtains drawn, he lay imagining. And then he felt as though the great ocean were beginning to divide slowly and inevitably, from the bottom. Though the surface was still unmoved, in the deeps, among hidden caves and watery foundations, a bottomless fissure was growing which would one day be a bridgeless chasm between these two kinds of people. It would not be race against race. No, it would be something else. For Mr. Ranald and Miss Maitland would not be with white people on one side. Mr. Ranald and his father and his grandfather would be on one side, and he and En-lan and Miss Maitland on the other. I-ko would be with his father, because he would feel safer there, and his mother and his grandmother. And little creatures like Peony—it was only chance where they would be when the moment struck, whether with him on his side or with another. East and west, they would all be mingled together on the two sides of the chasm.
He would be with En-lan, and with them would be all these others, the ones in his band and the ones he did not know in other bands. And with them would be all the poor, the peasants and the workers in mills and apprentices in trades and shops—from all over the world other young men, too, and young women, whose language they could not understand, but whose hearts and purposes were one with his and En-lan’s. When there was to be such brotherhood as this, why should he cling to a few whose blood he shared by chance? The old ways were gone. And from such meditation I-wan rose to every day like a sword drawn from its scabbard and he compelled the young men in his brigade to his own spirit.
Through the winter, in spite of cold winds and frequent rain, this brigade had now grown to thirty-seven men. He knew them each by name and he knew where their huts were in the mass of huts which lay like scales of huge fish around the mills. At first they had all looked alike to him. All were so pale and fleshless, and their faces so same with their black hollow eyes and haggard mouths. Even the stories they told him seemed the same. For though they were born in many parts of the country, still the same causes had driven them here—the wars and famines, the many taxes of greedy and unjust rulers—there was nothing new. When one man said, “I was the youngest son of a farmer with less than two acres of land, so how could I be fed? The others could not stop eating because I was born—” it was in essence the story they all told. They drifted seaward, following the river, and at its mouth Shanghai was spread like a net. When they reached Shanghai there was the sea, and one could go no further. So they came into the mills.
When I-wan heard what their wage was and how they worked from before dawn until long after the winter dark had fallen, so that until summer they could not see the sun, he cursed in anger. “We will change that!” he shouted.
Then one of them said, “Why should they pay us more when there are so many clamoring even for what we have? It is not reasonable.”
This also was what he had to fight, this gentleness they all had in them. They were rough in speech and not one of them could read or write and their ways were as simple as the beasts’, so that when nature needed, a man turned where he stood and took relief. But they would have been abashed and humble before any rich man, not from fear so much as from their own timidness because they thought the gods had not made them equal to him. I-wan struggled to break down this gentleness.
“You are as good as any man!” he shouted at them. “You have the right to all that any man has!”
To this they laughed amiably and replied so peaceably that I-wan gnashed his teeth at them.
“It is your kindness to say so,” they said courteously, “because we know we are nothing.”
Yet he could not keep from loving them because they were so faithful in their trying to learn from him. They had to steal the time to come to learn from him, two or three coming at a time, and the others filling in their places for an hour or two in the mill. They tried hard, and by the end of the winter they could march together and each one could shoot well enough. With his own money I-wan had bought cartridges for them to practice with, and they were fair marksmen. Then, though they were proud of this, like children they longed for uniforms to wear. They fingered the rough stuff of his uniform and asked, “Shall we some day wear warm cloth like this?”
“Yes,” he said, “that I promise you. You shall all wear warm clothes and eat all you want.”
They clustered about him that night in the cold winter’s moonlight. He was ashamed that he had put on his greatcoat. He wished he had not, so that he might have been cold, too. He stood there, warm and well clad, his belly full of food such as they had never seen and which he ate every day, and he felt tears hot in his eyes. Their eyes were a little hopeful now, sometimes, when he spoke. But their wistful faces broke his heart, and the wind fluttered their cotton rags and pierced to his own bones. He cried in himself, “If my father’s house were mine, I would open the doors and take them in!” Then he thought, “It would be no use. They would come in and come in until there was no room to stand, and still they would be coming, millions of them.” No, if all the houses of the rich were opened it would not be enough, he thought, for all these poor. The poor filled the earth.
“When shall it be?” a man asked. I-wan knew him well, a poor coughing young fellow who had not long to live. It would not be soon enough for him, however soon it was.
“Soon,” he said, “very soon. Perhaps in the spring.”
No, the only thing that could save them was the world made new for them, a world made for the poor and not the rich—a world whose laws were for the little man, whose houses were for him, whose whole thought and shape was for him, so that there could be no rich and strong to prey upon him.