MY shop is in a ramshackle building on one of the main avenues of a small college town. Street cars go clanging noisily by. They are out of keeping with the landscape, like the houses opposite, yet the houses are quietly ugly. When the shop door is shut you turn to the joy of inanimate things of beauty — to look at jades or porcelains, linens and pottery.
Someone calls my shop the town salon. My daily callers are many, my daily customers are few. I should n’t have a shop; I know that. But the ways of trying to make a living are few.
This is the first of the month. How I hate the first of the month! My letters are a mixture of humor and otherwise. They come from friends scattered over the world. A reminder from the bank that a note is due. An envelope with Rolls-Royce printed in the corner. I’ve been in a Rolls-Royce twice in my life, once in London, once in New York. My friend in New York was bored with life. We looked at rugs worth thousands.
Yes, they actually want to sell me a car. They enclose a photograph of a young millionaire and his new ‘ model.’ Above they say, ‘A good business proposition.’ I cannot think in these terms.
Li has come to wash the window. He’s a delightful old creature. He looks as if he had stepped out of the Ming Dynasty and had forgotten to go back again. You feel they are waiting for him with fine brocades and rich embroideries. He is distressed because I have an inflamed eye: —
‘Me come back to-mollah; you no touchee — makem bad.'
He notices each new thing I buy. To-day it is a vase. The other day he admired a Chinese painting. He knew the name of the artist. But then, that’s nothing: the scavenger prefers Masefield to Galsworthy and Dumas to both; the postman has been telling me about the No drama of Japan, and the man moving the telephone pole before my door wonders if I am fond of Javanese marionettes; while the professor’s wife has been speaking of her struggles with the family washing, and the girl student, looking round, asks, ‘Say, what is this — a shop?’
To-day Li brought his remedy — an egg. He rolled it about on my cheek and the gentle massage is soothing.
‘You allee same bettah to-mollah — tear no fallee.’ Then he laughed. ‘You rubum you face, you makee plenty pletty colah.’ He went on rolling the egg round and round. ‘Makee nightee time morning time you bettah.’ Li doesn’t speak pidgin English, but a jargon all his own. Sometimes he lapses into Chinese; then you wait for the volley to end.
Walking behind him this morning I watched him swing gracefully along, his hands clasped behind his back, a pail dangling from one arm. His clothes are very shabby, but he does n’t know a young artist has sent a large bundle of old clothes for him. At last he will have a cap that will hide his queue. Two boys pass and look at the little knot of hair sticking out beneath the ragged lining. They nudge each other and giggle. They don’t know that Li belongs to yesterday.
Li has looked at the bundle of clothing. There are three suits, an overcoat, and a good hat. But he seems distressed.
‘What is it, Li?’
‘You no breakee egg, no eatem — bling plenty bad luck.’
‘Oh no, Li. I would n’t think of it. I’ve had quite enough bad luck.'
He chose a jacket and put it on over his own.
‘When will you come for the other things?'
‘ But the hat? Your hat is so old.’
‘ Got hat — no wantee two hat. You eye allee same bettah. Velly good — goo’bye.’
As he left, a customer came in. She examined everything in the shop, bought nothing, and looked at me pityingly. ‘I’m off to a luncheon and then a bridge. You poor thing, how dull it must be staying in this little shop, where nothing interesting happens.’
The scavenger has been telling me about the South Sea Islands. He thinks recent writers have not ‘caught the spirit of it all,’ and — well, if Gauguin had seen the natives with his eyes his paintings would have been different. ‘Now, there was Loti — ‘ But he was interrupted by the man moving the telephone pole, who asked for a drink of water.
The workman went to the tap in the back shop, and paused to listen to someone playing next door. The Russian shoemaker, I explain, takes violin lessons twice a week. We listen, and agree the neighbor has the touch of an artist.
He goes on: ‘It reminds me — I can hear it now, the clear note of that reed. It’s a beautiful memory.’
‘ Where did you hear a reed?’
‘In the mountains. In India, twenty years ago. A native — Thanks. Oh, will you be open when we knock off? I ‘d like to speak to you about a nautch dance. . . .’
I’ve had Beatrice to lunch to-day. She’s newly back from Paris, and looks it. Li came in. He always stutters when he’s pleased. His parchment face lighted up. ‘V-v-v-velly good. You v-v-velly pletty.’ Li knows how to be personal without being familiar. He should have been a diplomat.
‘You look very smart yourself, Li,’she told him.
He’s actually got a new pair of bluelinen trousers, and a clean shirt. I imagine he did n’t like the episode of the old clothes. He’s an Oriental Tory.
‘What you read?' Li has come in without my hearing the door open.
‘I’m reading about a raid on an opium den. Li, where do you live?’ He explained the direction. ‘Then this place was near you?’
He laughed. ‘Catchee Chinaman. Catchee hop. Policeman him catchee plenty muchee hop — no catchee me.’ He went on washing the window and chattering to himself in Chinese. ‘ Velly bad, catchee hop; Li no catchee. You eye bettah?’ Which was his way of changing the subject.
He walked up the street, turned, and came back; waited at the door a few minutes, and then shook his linger at me. ‘Policeman catchee man speakee “opiom.” You no speakee that word — velly dangelous. Policeman him speakee “hop joint.’”
‘Washee?’ Li shouted.
‘Now what’s the good of washing the window when it’s raining, and you’ve washed it twice this week already?’ We watched the student making patterns on the glass with his finger.
‘No pletty. Washee?’
‘Li, I’ve got no money.’ I opened my purse to show him it was empty.
‘You sick? You allee same yellah.’
‘Yes, Li, I’m pretty miserable.’
He helped himself to a cigarette. ‘Washee window allee same. You go your house. Li come catchee goo’ soupee, goo’ pie — makee bettah.’
‘Thanks, Li; you are very kind.’
He laid down twenty-five cents on the table. ‘You say you no money. I give.’
I laughed, handing him back his quarter. He looked very hurt. ‘I give, you no take.'
‘Thanks, Li; all I meant was that it was wasting money to wash the window when it was raining.’
He looked at the twenty-five cents in his hand. ‘Allee same you no take. Li catchee Iottely ticket — '
I dined out last night and heard poor Li had walked about in front of my house for hours, ringing the bell and shaking the door by turns, talking to himself in a loud voice.
He sent a friend to ask for me to-day.
‘Li say you chair inside fall out.’
‘Thanks, but I don’t think I want the chair mended.’
He looked at me, surprised. ‘Li say go mend chair. I mend.’
‘And who are you?’ I asked him.
‘Li stays my house’; and picking up the chair he left the shop.
Li walked up the other side of the street. Very evidently his feelings are badly hurt, or he’s lost the twenty-five cents in the lottery.
The chair is standing at my door this morning, beautifully mended.
It is a horrid dark foggy day. The scavenger has bad news. His brother had sailed out of this harbor for thirty years in all weathers without mishap. Last night, going ashore in the fog, he slipped, fell into a few feet of water, and was drowned.
‘Yes, my brother was a good skipper. It’s good we don’t know what our end is to be. Thank you for your sympathy. I thought you ‘d like to know — ‘
When he’s not mending boots the Russian shoemaker next door is studying. He means to go to college later. He goes to a night school, and says nothing may interfere with his lessons.
I sometimes correct him, and the other day when he took a handful of bills out of his pocket to give me change I said, ‘ You are a very rich person.’ He answered me in the slang of the day and was very much surprised when I told him ‘Where do you get that stuff? ‘ was not English.
Perhaps the immigrant is learning English and I’m early-Victorian, because a charming girl has been talking to me. In speaking of the man who took her in to dinner last night she said: ‘He had a good line. Some party, I’ll say. Rotten life you lead here, but there’s always lots of highbrows hanging round at tea time. I’ve got to beat it to a class. Gee, is that the time? Going to college is the limit.’
This is Good Friday.
I’ve a habit of keeping the festivals of the Church, and decorate my window to suit the day. I’ve emptied it to-day and put a crucifix in the stark vacant space, hanging a black-and-gold gauze behind. Passers-by stop to look.
The three-hours service is over, but the shop is not open to customers. Someone is knocking. I go to answer. It is Li, gazing at the crucifix.
He comes in. ‘You bettah?’ Then he points to the crucifix. ‘Him velly good, velly good, your Chlist.’