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But these barbaric vestiges in John Chinaman's habits did not
affect his relations with the San Franciscans. He was singularly
peaceful, docile, and harmless as a servant, and, with rare
exceptions, honest and temperate. If he sometimes matched cunning
with cunning, it was the flattery of imitation. He did most of the
menial work of San Francisco, and did it cleanly. Except that he
exhaled a peculiar druglike odor, he was not personally offensive
in domestic contact, and by virtue of being the recognized
laundryman of the whole community his own blouses were always
freshly washed and ironed. His conversational reserve arose, not
from his having to deal with an unfamiliar language,--for he had
picked up a picturesque and varied vocabulary with ease,--but from
his natural temperament. He was devoid of curiosity, and utterly
unimpressed by anything but the purely business concerns of those
he served. Domestic secrets were safe with him; his indifference
to your thoughts, actions, and feelings had all the contempt which
his three thousand years of history and his innate belief in your
inferiority seemed to justify. He was blind and deaf in your
household because you didn't interest him in the least. It was
said that a gentleman, who wished to test his impassiveness,
arranged with his wife to come home one day and, in the hearing of
his Chinese waiter who was more than usually intelligent--to
disclose with well-simulated emotion the details of a murder he had
just committed. He did so. The Chinaman heard it without a sign
of horror or attention even to the lifting of an eyelid, but
continued his duties unconcerned. Unfortunately, the gentleman, in
order to increase the horror of the situation, added that now there
was nothing left for him but to cut his throat. At this John
quietly left the room. The gentleman was delighted at the success
of his ruse until the door reopened and John reappeared with his
master's razor, which he quietly slipped--as if it had been a
forgotten fork--beside his master's plate, and calmly resumed his
serving. I have always considered this story to be quite as
improbable as it was inartistic, from its tacit admission of a
certain interest on the part of the Chinaman. I never knew one who
would have been sufficiently concerned to go for the razor.

His taciturnity and reticence may have been confounded with
rudeness of address, although he was always civil enough. "I see
you have listened to me and done exactly what I told you," said a
lady, commending some performance of her servant after a previous
lengthy lecture; "that's very nice." "Yes," said John calmly, "you
talkee allee time; talkee allee too much." "I always find Ling
very polite," said another lady, speaking of her cook, "but I wish
he did not always say to me, 'Goodnight, John,' in a high falsetto
voice." She had not recognized the fact that he was simply
repeating her own salutation with his marvelous instinct of
relentless imitation, even as to voice. I hesitate to record the
endless stories of his misapplication of that faculty which were
then current, from the one of the laundryman who removed the
buttons from the shirts that were sent to him to wash that they
might agree with the condition of the one offered him as a pattern
for "doing up," to that of the unfortunate employer who, while
showing John how to handle valuable china carefully, had the
misfortune to drop a plate himself--an accident which was followed
by the prompt breaking of another by the neophyte, with the
addition of "Oh, hellee!" in humble imitation of his master.

I have spoken of his general cleanliness; I am reminded of one or
two exceptions, which I think, however, were errors of zeal. His
manner of sprinkling clothes in preparing them for ironing was
peculiar. He would fill his mouth with perfectly pure water from a
glass beside him, and then, by one dexterous movement of his lips
in a prolonged expiration, squirt the water in an almost invisible
misty shower on the article before him. Shocking as this was at
first to the sensibilities of many American employers, it was
finally accepted, and even commended. It was some time after this
that the mistress of a household, admiring the deft way in which
her cook had spread a white sauce on certain dishes, was cheerfully
informed that the method was "allee same."

His recreations at that time were chiefly gambling, for the Chinese
theatre wherein the latter produced his plays (which lasted for
several months and comprised the events of a whole dynasty) was not
yet built. But he had one or two companies of jugglers who
occasionally performed also at American theatres. I remember a
singular incident which attended the debut of a newly arrived
company. It seemed that the company had been taken on their
Chinese reputation solely, and there had been no previous rehearsal
before the American stage manager. The theatre was filled with an
audience of decorous and respectable San Franciscans of both sexes.
It was suddenly emptied in the middle of the performance; the
curtain came down with an alarmed and blushing manager apologizing
to deserted benches, and the show abruptly terminated. Exactly
WHAT had happened never appeared in the public papers, nor in the
published apology of the manager. It afforded a few days' mirth
for wicked San Francisco, and it was epigrammatically summed up in
the remark that "no woman could be found in San Francisco who was
at that performance, and no man who was not." Yet it was alleged
even by John's worst detractors that he was innocent of any
intended offense. Equally innocent, but perhaps more morally
instructive, was an incident that brought his career as a
singularly successful physician to a disastrous close. An ordinary
native Chinese doctor, practicing entirely among his own
countrymen, was reputed to have made extraordinary cures with two
or three American patients. With no other advertising than this,
and apparently no other inducement offered to the public than what
their curiosity suggested, he was presently besieged by hopeful and
eager sufferers. Hundreds of patients were turned away from his
crowded doors. Two interpreters sat, day and night, translating
the ills of ailing San Francisco to this medical oracle, and
dispensing his prescriptions--usually small powders--in exchange
for current coin. In vain the regular practitioners pointed out
that the Chinese possessed no superior medical knowledge, and that
their religion, which proscribed dissection and autopsies,
naturally limited their understanding of the body into which they
put their drugs. Finally they prevailed upon an eminent Chinese
authority to give them a list of the remedies generally used in the
Chinese pharmacopoeia, and this was privately circulated. For
obvious reasons I may not repeat it here. But it was summed up--
again after the usual Californian epigrammatic style--by the remark
that "whatever were the comparative merits of Chinese and American
practice, a simple perusal of the list would prove that the Chinese
were capable of producing the most powerful emetic known." The
craze subsided in a single day; the interpreters and their oracle
vanished; the Chinese doctors' signs, which had multiplied,
disappeared, and San Francisco awoke cured of its madness, at the
cost of some thousand dollars.

My Bohemian wanderings were confined to the limits of the city, for
the very good reason that there was little elsewhere to go. San
Francisco was then bounded on one side by the monotonously restless
waters of the bay, and on the other by a stretch of equally
restless and monotonously shifting sand dunes as far as the Pacific
shore. Two roads penetrated this waste: one to Lone Mountain--the
cemetery; the other to the Cliff House--happily described as "an
eight-mile drive with a cocktail at the end of it." Nor was the
humor entirely confined to this felicitous description. The Cliff
House itself, half restaurant, half drinking saloon, fronting the
ocean and the Seal Rock, where disporting seals were the chief
object of interest, had its own peculiar symbol. The decanters,
wine-glasses, and tumblers at the bar were all engraved in old
English script with the legal initials "L. S." (Locus Sigilli),--
"the place of the seal."

On the other hand, Lone Mountain, a dreary promontory giving upon
the Golden Gate and its striking sunsets, had little to soften its
weird suggestiveness. As the common goal of the successful and
unsuccessful, the carved and lettered shaft of the man who had made
a name, and the staring blank headboard of the man who had none,
climbed the sandy slopes together. I have seen the funerals of the
respectable citizen who had died peacefully in his bed, and the
notorious desperado who had died "with his boots on," followed by
an equally impressive cortege of sorrowing friends, and often the
self-same priest. But more awful than its barren loneliness was
the utter absence of peacefulness and rest in this dismal
promontory. By some wicked irony of its situation and climate it
was the personification of unrest and change. The incessant trade
winds carried its loose sands hither and thither, uncovering the
decaying coffins of early pioneers, to bury the wreaths and
flowers, laid on a grave of to-day, under their obliterating waves.
No tree to shade them from the glaring sky above could live in
those winds, no turf would lie there to resist the encroaching sand
below. The dead were harried and hustled even in their graves by
the persistent sun, the unremitting wind, and the unceasing sea.
The departing mourner saw the contour of the very mountain itself
change with the shifting dunes as he passed, and his last look
beyond rested on the hurrying, eager waves forever hastening to the
Golden Gate.

If I were asked to say what one thing impressed me as the dominant
and characteristic note of San Francisco, I should say it was this
untiring presence of sun and wind and sea. They typified, even if
they were not, as I sometimes fancied, the actual incentive to the
fierce, restless life of the city. I could not think of San
Francisco without the trade winds; I could not imagine its strange,
incongruous, multigenerous procession marching to any other music.
They were always there in my youthful recollections; they were
there in my more youthful dreams of the past as the mysterious
vientes generales that blew the Philippine galleons home.

For six months they blew from the northwest, for six months from
the southwest, with unvarying persistency. They were there every
morning, glittering in the equally persistent sunlight, to chase
the San Franciscan from his slumber; they were there at midday, to
stir his pulses with their beat; they were there again at night, to
hurry him through the bleak and flaring gas-lit streets to bed.
They left their mark on every windward street or fence or gable, on
the outlying sand dunes; they lashed the slow coasters home, and
hurried them to sea again; they whipped the bay into turbulence on
their way to Contra Costa, whose level shoreland oaks they had
trimmed to windward as cleanly and sharply as with a pruning-
shears. Untiring themselves, they allowed no laggards; they drove
the San Franciscan from the wall against which he would have
leaned, from the scant shade in which at noontide he might have
rested. They turned his smallest fires into conflagrations, and
kept him ever alert, watchful, and eager. In return, they
scavenged his city and held it clean and wholesome; in summer they
brought him the soft sea-fog for a few hours to soothe his abraded
surfaces; in winter they brought the rains and dashed the whole
coast-line with flowers, and the staring sky above it with soft,
unwonted clouds. They were always there--strong, vigilant,
relentless, material, unyielding, triumphant.



The End





Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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