The Grace of Lambs


IN spite of his vice, one could see that he was a man of education and refinement. Of all the people whom I met in China, his scope of vision was the greatest.

It was in a Shanghai hotel that I first saw him, as he passed from the kitchen through the dining-room and eyed me carefully over his bent spectacles. His white coat was badly soiled, one pocket was ripped open, and his eyes seemed to look through you rather than at you. Presently he returned and stood before my table.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but I’d like to talk to you. You look like a scholar and a gentleman. It ‘s hard to find gentlemen in China — all business men and engineers. I would n’t talk to them myself — nothing to say to them.’ Quite evidently he had been drinking.

‘Been in China long?’ I inquired.

‘Not long — only eight years. But that’s long enough. Four years teaching, three years research, and one year doing nothing — just nothing — but drinking. They brought me over from England and then fired me. I drink too much. That’s well and good; but I never missed a class, and not one of them knows my subject. Told me himself — the Chancellor — that the only reason they kept me as long as they did was because my name and titles looked good in their catalogue — not another Doctor of Science in China, and besides that I am a Fellow of the Royal Society, and I have my B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. Looked good on the catalogue, but what good is it to me if I must cat in the kitchen with the coolie help?’

‘Eat in the kitchen?’

‘Yes, that’s it. You see I’ve plenty of money,’ and he drew from the pocket of his white coat a large roll of bills, ‘but what good is money? The hotel manager won’t let me eat here because I’m always full and like to abuse his guests. Only in the mornings, about this time, does he even let me pass through this way — and this is my fourth hotel in Shanghai. They’re all the same. You’re the first gentleman I have seen and I’d like to talk to you. Clark is my name — William Clark; came out here to teach the Chinese boys all about mathematics,’

‘You are not the William Clark who wrote the work on line geometry?’

‘You know it?’ he replied, and his parched face brightened.

I told him that we used it in school and that I had often cursed the very day he was born.

‘Curse it — that’s right! I do it myself. What good is life? If a man spends ten years on a work, as I did on my Mysticism of Numbers, and only six copies are ever sold — ten years — six copies, and my royalties were six shillings. Ten years! But what’s the difference? ft was a beautiful subject; full of mystery. Modern mathematics is saturated with mystery. Ever read the works of Cantor, and Weierstrass? Two great, mathematical detectives — they rid the world of some horrible fallacies. But what thanks do they get? They should have come to China to eat in the kitchen. Ha, ha!’

He came into my room a few days later and invited me to go with him to the native walled city and see a slice of the unknown. We passed through the French settlement, entered the gate of the city, and rode on and on until the streets became too narrow for the rickshaw and we were obliged to continue on foot. Soon we arrived at a small temple and, passing through the yard, reached a low doorway. Dr. Clark struck with his stick on the door, which presently was opened by an old man who seemed quite indifferent to our coming. One side of the room that we entered was entirely open, without a wall, separated from the small garden by only a low carved teakwood railing. In the centre stood a table with a marble top.

Presently two dark-skinned Chinese priests entered.

‘Mango trick — can do?' asked Dr. Clark in pidgin English.

' Can do — can do. ‘ And one of them held out his hand, in which my mathematical friend placed a fifty-cent piece.

They brought an empty flowerpot, that we both examined before placing on the table, also a box of sandy earth that Clark himself helped pour into the pot. The priest then drew from his belt a tiny seed, so small that it looked very much like the head of a match. This he pressed into the sandy earth. Now a pail of water was brought, and we both had our fingers in it before it was poured into the flowerpot. It darkened the earth and nothing more. But the priest already had his fan in hand and started urging a gentle breeze across the surface of the pot. We bent over it and watched closely.

Presently a tiny yellow sprout arose. As it grew higher, it turned green and divided itself into many stems. Leaves unfolded themselves and seemed to grow in sudden jerks. Buds formed and opened. In a full minute the whole thing was a miniature tree about a foot and a half in height. But hardly had we time to admire it when the petals dropped; two green, plum-shaped mangoes sprang out from the stalk and ripened into a liquid yellow.

The priest continued fanning. ‘All lite!’ he said. ‘Can eat.’

We plucked the fruit from the plant and tasted one. It was rich, ripe, and juicy.

From that moment on neither of us spoke until we reached the bar of our hotel. We ordered whiskey-and-sodas and just sat and looked at each other. Before us on the table lay the other mango, which we had brought with us. It remained full and ripe.

I ventured to break the silence. ‘So that’s the mango trick I have heard so much about. ‘

‘Call it a trick if you like,’ said Dr. Clark, ‘but it’s more than that. It contains the essence of all things. It contains the germ of our two worlds, the world of life and death that we know, and the world of the unknown. Ever read the works of the two great English mathematicians — Bertrand Russell and Whitehead? I can’t say that they mention this particular problem, but they touch very near to it. Mathematics is not quite so exact a science as our little teachers would have us believe. Its fundamentals are based upon absurdities. Myths! Sometimes by some irony of chance we have reached correct results in problems founded upon absurdities — illogically reasoned. It is only by error that any conclusions at all have ever been reached.

‘It is only through vision that any progress can be made,’ he continued, gazing into the distance. ‘But what are men doing? They come to China for trade, for business, for money, for greater power. And what is power? Power is bad. Has one of them come here to gain that magical strength, that spirit t hat lies close to the gate of wisdom, found only in China, that simple essence of life that grows-up the mango tree and gives off light? Do they come to China for this? And what do they say when they see it? They call it a trick or an hypnotic vision, and to-morrow they forget it. They forget it because they want to forget it. They must forget it or give up their ugly materialism, their quest for sham power; for without the ugly and the sordid they would perish. They call it a trick and at the same time they forget that the same trick lurks after them; follows them to the ends of the earth; tracks them into their very homes. The same trick is the trick of death. That is why I drink, and remain content to cat in t he kitchen with the coolie help.'

‘Do you think life and death the same thing?’ I ventured to ask.

‘That I don’t say; but what I do feel is this: that there is a world that we know — it is small and petty — and there is a world that we don’t know, a world that is touched only in moments of fancy, in gestures of madness. Most people are tied to the one; but as for me, I am no longer interested in existing from meal to meal. I am absorbed by the great unknown.’

About two weeks later he knocked at my door to return a borrowed book. ‘Yes, I am leaving, or rather I am asked by the hotel to. I must have raised another scene last night, but it is just as well — I am going to live with the natives. I think I am beginning to understand them and they will understand me. As for the white men, I understand them less and less every day, and that is why I abuse them when — It is just as well. And when my money runs out, then perhaps I shall know the secret, the great secret of immaterialism — the secret of the great unknown. Good-bye.'


Six months later, to escape the heat of the city, I took one of the large river steamers up the famous Yangtzekiang River as far as Hankow. This is as far as large steamers go, but it is possible to hire a junk and a crew, as some missionaries must, for further navigation. It is through the waters of the Yangtze-kiang that one may hope to reach the lofty steppes of Tibet. The journey is slow and expensive, so we had to content ourselves with the tales told by those who came from this distant, land of mystery. But how many have ever returned?

At Hankow we saw the old university, the seat of learning of ancient China, and its marvelous library.

‘If I ever get the chance,’ I promised my host, ‘I am coming back to make extracts and translations, with native help, from several of your Chinese classics which deal with the theory and philosophy of art.’

‘Art?’ he asked in amazement. ‘ Why art ?'

‘ Because I feel that the Chinese have touched life’s essence more deeply and truly in their art — at least to Western eyes,’ I quickly added.

‘Do you think that Chinese philosophy could embrace our Western problems?’

‘No; but I do think that two thousand years of Chinese culture would not have produced a Europe such as we had in 1914.’

In this channel our discussion ran for days, and I am indebted to my host for much valuable information that the many years in China had gained for him.

One morning, as I was looking at a Chinese picture that I had bought, and trying with the aid of Professor Giles’s book to estimate its age, the servant came into the room and announced : —

‘China boy stand yard-side. Mango tree can do.’

‘There you have it,’ I said to my host. ‘Explain that if you can.’

‘Well, let’s see what the fakers can do,’ he replied.

In the yard we found two poorlooking coolies in rags. One had a swollen knee, around which was bound what appeared to be a silk necktie. I looked closer and discovered a label bearing the words: ‘Liberty, London.'

‘Where did you get this?’ I inquired.

‘Master — he give.'

‘Where is your master?'

‘Master wait street-side. Mango tree can do.’

We announced that we were ready to be entertained, and in a minute they returned with their master. Our servant had already placed an old tomatocan and a jug of water on the steps.

The master appeared, no better dressed than his aids, only his hair was lighter, as if it were burned brown by the sun. He carefully avoided looking at us, and immediately began his performance by scraping up the gravel of the path with the tomato-can.

‘Just a minute,’ I interrupted. ‘Don’t you speak English? Are you not Dr. Clark?’

He dropped the can and looked up over his glasses.

‘What have you done!' I cried. ‘You have thrown away your life for a trick.’

He shook his head.

‘You have become a begging conjurer! You have traded your science for — ‘ Words failed me.

He still shook his head.

‘You will not understand,’ he said finally. ‘Not because you can’t understand, but because you don’t want to. And why should I explain — I am not here to explain; I am here to do my little act. If you will pay us we will continue. If not, then well and good. I know very well that you have seen this before, but you have not seen it done as I can do it. I have completed it with an addition that has turned it from a trick into a miracle — yes, a miracle. There is a miracle in every man, and every man can in his life perform at least one miracle — but few do; that is their tragedy. Shall I continue? ‘

He performed the act with marvelous skill but in the same manner in which I had seen it done before, only instead of fanning the surface of the pot he blew across it with his warm breath.

One large mango ripened before my eyes.

‘Now,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye, ‘now pluck it, and eat it if you can!'

I took the mango from the tree, but before I had time to bring it to my mouth I felt a strange creeping movement in my hand. The mango was already decayed! I let the putrid thing fall to the ground. My fingers were stained with its rot.

‘That ‘s my addition,’ the master exclaimed, ‘the addition of death! When a man plucks the fruit of life, it rots in his hand. The forces of Nature are greater than the powers of man. The bony hands of death are stronger than the fickleness of life. Time in man is petty to the time of the eternal, but the space of man — What is space? His space is only his capacity. Have you a capacity for the meagre or for the eternal? Do you acquire things that are everlasting, or do you scratch from the world’s slimy surface a few petty odds and ends which you call property? Will you carry an ounce of it with you beyond your grave?’

Had I not known him so well, I might have been offended at his schoolroom voice. But I quickly replied, ‘You still demand to be paid for your services.’

‘Well, yes,’ he admitted, ‘but that is because I cannot yet do without food. Some day I may be able to cast it away as I have thrown worldly goods into the rubbish heap where they belong. We are on our way to Tibet. My two boys are natives of Tibet and are as anxious to return as I am to get there. Only the other day we met four more who were going the same way and we have already, with the help of the Buddhist priests, secured our boat. We are now stocking it with provisions for the journey and, anxious to do my share, I am showing one of the feats. But it is only a means to an end.’

‘Could you teach us the mango trick?’ inquired my host.

He shook his head sadly.

‘One hundred dollars,’ pressed my business friend, ‘if you show us your secret.’

‘There is no secret that can be passed from one man to another. It can be acquired only through suffering and pain. Wisdom cannot be sold or bought. It is a merchandise that has no traffic.

‘In the past six months,’ continued the master of the mango, ‘I have learned more than during all my previous years. I think I have reached the first step to wisdom. But I am still an infant compared to the sages of Tibet who are able to raise themselves bodily from the ground. I am still an infant; but I am absorbed by the mystery of existence and the first step I have already reached. We have no secrets. We are not fakers — I will gladly tell anyone the philosophy that grows and rots a mango. It is so simple and yet difficult to accomplish. It can be summed up in a few words — the words of the ancient Chinese: “Lambs have the grace to suckle kneeling."'

His manner was filled with contempt. He turned for the gate and as he passed through repeated the words, as if talking to himself: ‘Lambs have the grace — ‘