Always eager for a glimpse of the eunuch, I was rewarded that day when the gatekeeper summoned the evil-looking old man instead of Varley. The eunuch came at a half-run. He greeted me politely, addressing me as “Missy,” and asked after my father and mother.
Trying to restrain my impatience, I replied as politely, and then burst out, “Are there visitors here?” I hardly dared breathe until the old eunuch nodded.
“Yes, yes,” he said, and motioned me to come inside. I scurried through the gate.
“Is Han here?” I asked.
“He is here.”
“Ah, good.” I relaxed and breathed in the fragrant air of Varley’s courtyard. My mad dash through the streets had been worth it. I followed Chen to the main court, where wooden beams, darkened by time, held up the sloping tiled roof. An ancient pine cast its shadow across the door, blocking most of the light from the dim recesses of the inner hall. Inside, a pair of oversized cabinets stood on either side of the room, and carved chairs and several tables were pushed back to its edges. I knew from past visits that some of the tables were used for meals, some for playing Chinese games. Scrolls hung on the walls, and several pieces of porcelain gleamed from the fretwork cabinet in the corner.
The eunuch waited while I stepped over the high threshold into the room. I stole glances at him. It was difficult to tell his age, though I knew he had arrived at the palace during the time of the next to last emperor, the one most people had thought had been
poisoned by the dowager empress in 1908. Perhaps because Chen had been castrated as a boy, he seemed curiously unfinished, his face unlined, his body soft looking, his voice high-pitched. Han told Will and I that the eunuch’s father had castrated the boy himself, as sometimes happened in those days, to assure his service to the emperor and consequently to improve the family’s fortunes. Every time I saw him, I couldn’t help thinking about what had been done to him so long ago.
“I will tell the master you are here,” Chen said.
“Can’t you just slip in and tell Li Han I’m here? I don’t need to disturb Mr. Varley.”
The eunuch bowed and disappeared. I lowered myself down on one of the massive carved chairs and waited. I shifted my weight on the broad, hard, wooden seat, propped my feet upon the wooden footstool, and scanned the room. It was very still, the silence seeming to press against my ears. I concentrated on the characters on the scroll across the room, trying to decipher their meaning. I finally gave up. The unknown scholar’s calligraphy was remarkable, even to my untutored eyes, but impossible for me to read, as I had never been taught to decipher this kind of classical Chinese.
A white-robed servant with black felt shoes brought me fragrant jasmine tea in a translucent cup with no handle. I sniffed at the steaming liquid; its scent was strong.
I remember Varley once telling my mother that he prepared his tea by tossing fresh, not dried, jasmine buds into the tea leaves.
After about five minutes I heard soft footsteps on the wooden floorboards. I jumped up out of my chair, ready to greet Han, but it was Ambrose Varley who stepped into the room. “Jane?” he said. “I was surprised when Chen told me you were here.”
As always, the sight of Varley warmed and reassured me. I had known him since I was small and had always liked him. I knew my parents disapproved of his lifestyle, but they seemed to like him anyway, in spite of themselves. He was particularly partial to my mother, Della, and he once told me that my mother represented all that was good about the United States: simplicity, forthrightness, and idealism. His words made me squirm – his tones were always ironic, as if he meant much more than he said – but I nodded in agreement that my mother was admirable.
I then said to Varley, “I asked to see Li Han. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I came out to see you for myself. You’ve given me a surprise.”
I looked up at the tall American. In spite of his brown hair and light eyes, Varley never looked out of place in a Chinese setting. As usual, he wore Chinese dress, and ankle-length robe with narrow sleeves, and Chinese cloth shoes. “Please, Mr. Varley. I need to speak to Li Han,” I said.
“He’s here. Is something wrong?”
“People are upset at home. Someone caught Little Gao stealing, and Pa fired him.” I made up my mind to be frank with Varley.
He gestured for me to sit, then settled himself in the chair next to me, and, in his unhurried way, turned to face me. “How does Li Wutang feel about that?” He folded his large, shapely, and beautifully groomed hands in his lap and kept them still. He was one of the few Americans I knew who did not gesture when he talked.
I wasn’t surprised that Varley went straight to the heart of the problem. Since I could remember, he had been interested in the minutiae of my household and Han’s. He seemed to like gossip and had a good memory for names and relationships.
I said, “I’m afraid Li Wutang must be very upset. Pa should have consulted him first.”
Varley sighed. “Li Wutang might think this an affront to his whole family.” He peered at me more closely. “Why do you have to talk to Han about this now? Why not wait until later?”
I lowered my eyes. “I’m afraid to have him hear it from anyone except me. It’s between our two families, you see.”
“Do you think he’d want to see you here?”
I hunched in the chair, feeling dangerously close to tears. “I don’t know.”
“I hope you’re not in love with him. That wouldn’t do at all, you know.”
I swallowed and kept my eyes to the floor. “I’m not in love with him,” I said defensively. I couldn’t possibly tell him that I did indeed loved Han. Even an eccentric, forward thinking man like Mr. Varley would never condone that. Varley narrowed his eyes. “I take it your mother doesn’t know you are here.”
I knew this comment required no answer. I raised my eyes to Varley’s face. “May I see Han? I won’t look at the others. I don’t need to know who’s here.”
A line appeared between Varley’s dark, well-shaped brows. “What do you know about who’s here in my house?”
“Someone told me you were having one of your meetings today, and that the students would talk with a communist.”
His eyes glinted. “Someone’s been talking? That’s dangerous. Who told you?”
I bit my lip. “Please…I don’t think-“
“All right, you don’t have to tell. I assume it was Han.”
“It wasn’t!” I lied.
He flicked me a sharp look. “I hope it was someone who can be trusted. Aside from the very real danger to the students, I certainly don’t want to be kicked out of China, which I suppose is what would happened to me should this little indiscretion be found out.”
Varley raised his head and called out softly for Chen. The servant must have been waiting just outside the door, because he appeared immediately. “What does my master require?” he asked, somewhat breathless.
“Fetch Li Han from the meeting.”
Chen padded out of the room and I said, “Mr. Varley?”He looked up and waited for me to speak. “Mr. Varley, may I ask a question?”
He watched me from beneath his heavy lidded eyes. “What do you want to know?”
“Why do you help the communists with these meetings? Do you believe the communists are right?”
Varley said, “I let the students meet here because they’re very young and sincere and they need a place to vent their frustrations.”
“But do you believe they’re right?”
Varley stared down at his hands for a second, and then, raising his eyes to look at me, said, “I don’t know. Do you understand anything about Marxist theory?”
“Not much.” I tried to remember Han’s excited, often incoherent, descriptions of what the communists stood for.
“The communists want to change this country from the bottom up,” Varley said.
“Is that good?”
“I don’t know. The problems seem so deep-seated, there may not be any other way.”
“How can we know for sure?”
“We can’t. Of course, you hear the things your father has to say about the communists, don’t you?” It wasn’t really a question. Everyone knew that my father was feverishly anticommunist. “Marxist theory is the basis for the kinds of changes the students and others want to make” Mr. Varley said. “People like your parents see the same problems in China that the communists do, but they don’t approve of the Marxist solution.”
“Many people don’t approve it. I – I think I’m afraid of it.”
“You should be. It would require a clean break with the past. That’s what’s so hard to accept.” He stared across the room. “Do you see that table over there, directly under the scroll?”
I looked. “Yes.” The table was of a reddish wood, polished to a warm glow. Its lines were simple, almost austere.
“Look at the shape, the lines from top to bottom. Do you see the resemblance to the Qian Gate near the Forbidden City?” The Qian Gate was one of the main gates of the city of Peking.
I nodded and raised my hand following the lines of the table with my finger sketching a shape that was wider at the bottom than at the top. “They’re Ming, aren’t they, the table and the gate?” I paused. “Like the Ming bowl you gave my mother!”
“Good girl. Yes, they’re Ming. The Ming dynasty ended in 1644, yet no one since has come up with anything more perfect than the shape of that table. This is the past that the communists are denying. They must be very sure of what they want to do.” He stood up with a sudden graceful movement. “Han must be reluctant to leave the meeting.”
But then we heard the plopping sound of Western leather shoes on the polished boards, and in a few seconds Han stepped into the room. Like his classmates, he wore a traditional Chinese robe – to show that he was patriotic, he once explained – and Western shoes. Han did not have a distinguished face; his features were rounded and his smile brought out a dimple, but in my eyes the robe gave him height and distinction. Now, he looked at me and paled. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
I slid off the chair and stood to face him. “Please don’t be angry.” I stole a look at Ambrose Varley, and then turned back to Han. “There is trouble in both our households. Do you know about this?”
Han shook his head. “No. What is it?”
Varley walked over to the doorway. “I’ll leave you to speak in private. I’m going back to my study.” He turned at the doorway and smiled. “You two aren’t nearly as dangerous as those others.” He stepped over the threshold and padded away in his soft Chinese shoes, barely making a sound.
Han turned to me. “Tell me.”
I told him about Little Gao. “And my father didn’t say anything to your father first.” I said. “Everyone is very upset.”
Han shut his eyes with exasperation. “Always family. Why do they have so many problems?”
“So you don’t blame my father?”
“I blame all our fathers. They’re all clinging to the past, to the old ways.” He ran his hand through his hair, making it stand on end. “I feel desperate sometimes.”
I took his hand as I had when we were children. He stiffened but didn’t pull away. His palms were smooth like a man who had never seen hard labor. “Come and sit down,” I said. “I hurried over here because I was afraid that if you heard about Little Gao from your family, you would hate both me and my father.”
He shook his head. “Oh, little sister.” He always called me that. “That is so silly. We are a different generation from our parents.”
“Don’t you feel sorry for Little Gao? Or for your father?”
“Of course I feel sorry for them, especially for Little Gao, but he did steal the money, didn’t he?”
“Your grandfather is going to fuss about this, isn’t he? Won’t that make things difficult for you?”
The Li family was already being tugged in two directions. Recently, Han’s old grandfather had decreed that Han must marry the granddaughter of an old friend, the forth daughter of the Ding family. Han had complained privately about this to me and Will, and told us he feared that the family meant to force him to go through with the marriage. He said he knew his modern thinking and interest in politics were driving his grandfather’s determination to marry him off at only eighteen. Also, he told us that his father, Wutang, didn’t object to the grandfather’s plans. Han expressed sympathy with the communists. This was not only dangerous, but it went against the Li family beliefs.
Like other Chinese of his generation, Han’s father, Li Wutang, was a confused mixture of modern and traditional thought – in his case, Christian and Confucian. Han said he suspected that his father partially sympathized with his desire to be up to date, but part of Wutang understood and agreed with the grandfather’s conservatism. Han’s grandfather was a frail but stubborn old man who clung to Confucian tradition. Although his son and one of his brothers had converted to Christianity, the elder had refused to follow suit. He despised most things Western, and made no secret of his dislike and distrust of foreigners.
In turn, I loathed and feared Han’s grandfather, whom I privately called “the old spider.” Everyone knew that things were changing in China, and that the old customs were slipping away. How could Han’s old grandfather, who stuck stubbornly to tradition, make his forward thinking, modern grandson marry a girl he didn’t want to marry? Han was a good student and far too young to think of marriage. In my eyes, the old man had been selfish in sealing an agreement with old Mr. Ding when Han was born. The girl had been two years older, and the two men had agreed their families should unite. In the world in which they had grown up, this was not only the preferable way to chose mates for the young people in their families, it was the only way.
“What more can Grandfather do?” Han said. “He’s already convinced father to go ahead with my marriage. He thinks that if I’m married I won’t have time for politics. Huh! What does he know?”
We sat side by side on the carved chairs and remained silent for a moment. Marry me, I thought, and I won’t care if you talk about politics or even become a communist. Han, who was taller than me, was able to plant his feet squarely on the floor. Now, he looked down and tugged up the edge of his robe so he could admire his leather shoes. “They’re so shiny,” I said. Han and I had discussed his proposed marriage so many times that it seemed pointless to talk about it anymore.
“I polished them this morning,” Han said. “I like to polish them.”
“Old-style scholars would have made their servants polish their shoes.”
“Old-style scholars wouldn’t have worn leather shoes. We’re different now. We stride around a lot. We exercise body and mind. We don’t just sit in our studies. That’s what was wrong with the old China, you know. Scholars refused to labor. Laborers could not read or write.”
“They still can’t.”
“That’s what they’re talking about in there.” Han jerked his head in the direction of Varley’s study.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
He looked away and bit his lip. “I don’t know, but whatever I do, I’ll follow my own convictions.”
“Are you a communist?”
He threw me a stern look. “We shouldn’t be talking about these things.” His eyes softened. “I’m trying to protect you, little sister. It’s better you don’t know.”
Footsteps sounded outside, and a round face with an unruly shock of hair peered around the edge of the door. “Han? We wondered where you were.”
Han flushed. “Liang Chu, please come in. This is Jane McPherson, whose father works at the mission where my father works.”
Liang Chu stiffened. “How do you do,” he said in English. I replied in Chinese. He gave me a stiff little bow and turned to Han. “I must talk to you.” He glanced at his wristwatch that looked too big for his thin wrist. “I haven’t much time.”
“Will you excuse us Jane?” Han’s eyes pleaded for understanding.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. In Liang Chu’s presence, Han seemed almost a stranger.
“Don’t worry about Little Gao,” Han said. “That problem will sort itself out.”
As it turned out, he couldn’t have been more wrong, but of course I didn’t know that then. I stood there in Varley’s Chinese room and watched the two young men disappear through the doorway.