The Din And Ci Vigor Of The Crowded Street Seem Far Removed From The Quiet Garden Within The Courtyard Of The Chinese.
Chang Dah Mali helped out a little by doing sewing; indeed, it was* in this way that she had first met the foreigners. She had gone to them against her family's will, fori there was no telling what disaster she might bring upon her precious relatives by associating with "foreign devils," and she had persisted, not from any particular bravery, but had been driven on by the pangs of hunger. The strangers had noticed the state of her poor eyes and had finally prevailed on her to have an operation.
Very few such kindnesses had Chang Dah Mali known since she had come, a child of eight, to live in the house of her father-in-law, and this one had impressed her greatly. Her life had been one round of sordid toil because she was the quietest and most industrious among the women. The only break in the monotony had been her husband's death many years before, which had been quite a pleasurable excitement with its hired mourners, feasting, and confusion; and she could not feel any depth of sorrow for him, as he had been one of the worst of her* tyrants. The marriages of her younger brothers-in-law had indeed been momentous too, but as she had to do the greater part of the work on these occasions, she did not look back upon them with any particular joy. Now, however, the foreign lady had smiled upon her and life had taken on another hue; she had not yet given over all misgivings, but something drew her irresistibly toward the newcomer's home.
It can easily be seen that it was with no rose-coloured dreams of anticipation that Chang Dah Mah turned her face towards her dwelling. On reaching the threshold she drove away a lean pariah dog that had followed her closely; her imagination was too deadened by toil to see in it a likeness to the proverbial wolf whose shadow ever fell across that doorway. As she entered she was greeted by a torrent of curses for the lateness of the hour. "When you know your brothers-in-law need their evening meal, that is the hour you choose for idling with your gossip." The only reason Chang Dah Mah was permitted to pay such visits was the knowledge that she usually got a cup of tea, which left more food for the hungry mouths at home.
The house was almost dark and the flickering oil lamp accentuated the blackness all around. Chang Dah Mah did not need to remove her hat and coat, for she wore the same clothing out of doors as in the house. There was no heat, and the air in the damp rooms was even more clammy than that in the open. With a quick glance around her to see that no one was watching, she went to the corner of the room where she kept her bedding to assure herself that it had remained untouched, in her absence, then she turned and started her preparation for the evening meal.
Now Chang Dah Mah had a secret, and around it centred the greatest joy and the greatest fear of her poor thwarted life. Thirty years before as her dissolute husband lay dying he spoke to her in a low whisper when for a brief minute they happened to be alone. Beckoning her to lean over him, so that no one could see what he was doing, from beneath his bedding he slipped a little brass bowl into her hand. Bidding her turn it over, he pointed out on the bottom of it the seal of a dynasty long since passed away. It was one in which many of the most valuable Chinese works of art were made.
The dying man told her that this piece of brass had belonged to the Changs ever since that period, and that there was a legend that if the incense-burner were sold, a great disaster would fall, not only on the living members of the family, but on the spirits of their ancestors. The only way it could ever be parted with was as a gift of charity, but he warned her against this as a foolish waste; no Chang could ever be brought to give anything away.
"I give it to you, foolish woman," he said, "because I know that my brothers would sell anything to get money for gambling; I can hardly trust you not to sell it fori food, but you are the most trustworthy." And with these kindly words he breathed his last.
Chang Dah Mah quickly slipped her new responsibility up her ample sleeve and called the family. Not for many hours did she have a chance in quiet to examine her new possession, as the mourning of her brothers-in-law made up in noise what it lacked in sincerity. At last, one night when the household was deep in slumber, Chang Dah Mah was able to inspect her incense-burner by the dim light of the moon. She longed to see the brass in the daytime, as she had done at first, and when the polished sides had shone like gold to her who never before in her life had owned anything of value.
Chang; Dah Mah passed her finger lovingly over her treasure, tracing the seal on the bottom with great care, though she was too ignorant to know a single character, and for nearly an hour she held it and fondled it. Very secretly she dug a hole in the mud floor under the place where she had always kept her bedding; there she hid it by wrapping it in a handkerchief, and by packing the earth carefully over the hole. Daylight had almost come before she (had satisfied herself that there was no chance of discovery.
From that time forward Chang Dah Mah's life centred around the bowl; all the affection that had previously been denied expression was lavished on this small object. Before this, she had tried to satisfy her yearning for love by kindnesses to her nephews and nieces, but their parents had been jealous, and they had forced her to desist. Then she had adopted a scrawny kitten, but the family had exclaimed in horror at giving scraps to her pet that she should eat herself, so the animal was taken away. No one could interfere with her affection for the incense-burner as no one knew of its existence.
Very seldom did she have a chance to look at it, for only occasionally did she dare to take it from the hiding place, and then only at night. Once a year when the family attended the idol procession she would steal away in the crowd and go home to gloat over the brass incense-burner. To keep it as brightly polished as on the day when she received it was ever her ambition, but that, too, had to be done at night. She never went away from the house without the fear tugging at her heart that some one might discover it in her absence, and so it was with a deep sigh of relief that she would return and find it safe. This treasure had never had a rival, and the slight dawning interest Chang Dah Mali had in the foreigners could not be compared to the all-absorbing feeling for it which had crept into the very fibre of her being.