The Story of Pen-se
DEAR children, have you ever watched the sun set? If you live in the
country, I am almost sure you have many times delighted yourselves
with the gold and rosy clouds. But those of you who live in the city
do not often have the opportunity: the high houses and narrow streets
shut out so much of the sky.
I am so happy as to live in the country; and let me tell you where I
go to see the sun set.
The house in which I live has some dark, narrow garret stairs leading
from the third story into a small garret under the roof, and many
and many a time do I go up these narrow stairs, and again up to the
scuttle-window in the roof, open it, and seat myself on the top step
or on the roof itself. Here I can look over the house-tops, and even
over the tree-tops, seeing many things of which I
may perhaps tell you
at some time; but to-night we are to look at the sunset.
Can you play that you are up here with me, looking past the houses,
past the elm-trees and the low hills that seem so far away, to where
the sun hangs low, like a great red ball, so bright that we can hardly
look at it? Watch it with me. Now a little part has disappeared; now
it is half gone, and in a minute more we see nothing but the train of
bright clouds it has left behind.
Where did it go?
It seemed to slip down over the edge of the world. To-morrow morning,
if you are up early, you will see it come back again on the other
side. As it goes away from us to-night, it is coming to somebody who
lives far away, round the other side of the world. While we had the
sunshine, she had night; and now, when night is coming to us, it is
morning for her.
I think men have always felt like following the sun to the unknown
West, beyond its golden gate of setting day, and perhaps that has led
many a wanderer on his path of discovery. Let us follow the sun over
the rolling earth.
The sun has gone; shall we go, too, and take a peep round there to see
who is having morning now?
The long, bright sunbeams are sliding over the tossing ocean, and
sparkling on the blue water of a river upon which are hundreds of
boats. The boats are not like those which we see here, with white
sails or long oars. They are clumsy, square-looking things, without
sails, and they have little sheds or houses built upon them. We will
look into one, and see what is to be seen.
There is something like a little yard built all around this boat;
in it are ducks—more ducks than you can well count. This is their
bedroom, where they sleep at night; but now it is morning, and they
are all stirring,—waddling about as well as they can in the crowd,
and quacking with most noisy voices. They are waking up Kang-hy, their
master, who lives in the middle of the boat; and out he comes from the
door of his odd house, and out comes little Pen-se, his daughter, who
likes to see the ducks go for their breakfast.
The father opens a gate or door in the basket-work fence of the ducks'
house, and they all crowd
and hurry to reach the water again, after
staying all night shut up in this cage. There they go, tumbling and
diving. Each must have a thorough bath first of all; then the old
drake leads the way, and they swim off in the bright water along the
shore for a hundred yards, and then among the marshes, where they will
feed all day, and come back at night when they hear the shrill whistle
of Kang-hy calling them to come home and go to bed.
Pen-se and her father will go in to breakfast now, under the bamboo
roof which slides over the middle part of the boat, or can be pushed
back if they desire. As Kang-hy turns to go in, and takes off his
bamboo hat, the sun shines on his bare, shaved head, where only one
lock of hair is left; that is braided into a long, thick tail, and
hangs far down his back. He is very proud of it, and nothing would
induce him to have it cut off. Now it hangs down over his loose blue
nankeen jacket; but when he goes to work he will twist it round upon
the crown of his head, and tuck the end under the coil to keep it out
of the way. Isn't this a funny way for a man to wear his hair? Pen-se
has hers still in little soft curls, but by and
by it will be braided,
and at last fastened up into a high knot on the top of her head, as
her mother's is. Her little brother Lin already has his head shaved
almost bare, and waits impatiently for the time when his single lock
of hair will be long enough to braid.
When I was a child it was a very rare thing to see people such as
these in our own land; but now we are quite familiar with these odd
ways of dressing, and our streets have many of these funny names on
Shall we look in to see them at breakfast? Tea for the children as
well as for the father and mother. They have no milk, and do not like
to drink water, so they take many cups of tea every day. And here,
too, are their bowls of rice upon the table, but no spoons or forks
with which to eat it. Pen-se, however, does not need spoon or fork:
she takes two small, smooth sticks, and, lifting the bowl to her
mouth, uses the sticks like a little shovel. You would spill the rice
and soil your dress if you should try to do so; but these children
know no other way, and they have learned to do it quite carefully.
The sticks are called chop-sticks; and up in the great house on the
hill, where Pen-se went to carry fish, lives a little lady who has
beautiful pearl chop-sticks, and wears roses in her hair. Pen-se often
thinks of her, and wishes she might go again to carry the fish, and
see some of the beautiful things in that garden with the high walls.
Perhaps you have in your own house, or in your schoolroom pictures of
some of the pretty things that may have been there,—little children
and ladies dressed in flowery gowns, with fans in their hands,
tea-tables and pretty dishes, a great many lovely flowers and
But now she must not stop to think. Breakfast is over, and the father
must go on shore to his work,—carrying tea-boxes to the store of a
great merchant. Lin, too, goes to his work, of which I will by and by
tell you; and even Pen-se and her little sister, young as they are,
must go with their mother, who has a tanka-boat in which she carries
fresh fruit and vegetables, to the big ships which are lying off
shore. The two little girls can help at the oars, while the mother
steers to guide the boat.
I wish I could tell you how pleasant it is out on the river this
bright morning. A hundred boats are moving; the ducks and geese
have all gone up the stream; the people who live in the boats have
breakfasted, and the fishermen have come out to their work. This
is Lin's work. He works with his uncle Chow, and already his blue
trousers are stripped above his knees, and he stands on the wet
fishing-raft watching some brown birds: suddenly one of them plunges
into the water and brings up a fish in its yellow bill. Lin takes it
out and sends the bird for another; and such industrious fishermen
are the brown cormorants that they keep Lin and his uncle busy all the
morning, until the two large baskets are filled with fish, and then
the cormorants may catch for themselves.
Lin brings his bamboo pole,
rests it across his shoulders, hangs one basket on each end, and goes
up into the town to sell his fish. Here it was that Pen-se went on
that happy day when she saw the little lady in the house on the hill,
and she has not forgotten the wonders of that day in the streets.
The gay sign-posts in front of the shops, with colors flying; the busy
workmen,—tinkers mending or making their wares; blacksmiths with all
their tools set up at the corners of the streets; barbers with
grave faces, intently braiding the long hair of their customers;
water-carriers with deep water-buckets hung from a bamboo pole like
Lin's fish-baskets; the soldiers in their paper helmets, wadded gowns,
and quilted petticoats, with long, clumsy guns over their shoulders;
and learned scholars in brown gowns, blue bordered, and golden birds
on their caps. The high officers, cousins to the emperor, have the
sacred yellow girdle round their waists, and very long braided tails
hanging below their small caps. Here and there you may see a high,
narrow box, resting on poles, carried by two men. It is the only kind
of carriage which you will see in these streets, and in it is a lady
going out to take the air; although I am sadly afraid she gets but
little, shut up there in her box. I would rather be like Pen-se, a
poor, hard-working little girl, with a fresh life on the river, and a
hard mat spread for her bed in the boat at night. How would you like
to live in a
boat on a pleasant river with the ducks and geese? I
think you would have a very jolly time, rocked to sleep by the tide,
and watched over by the dancing boat-lights. But this poor lady
couldn't walk, or enjoy much, if she were allowed. Shall I tell you
why? When she was a very little girl, smaller than you are, smaller
than Pen-se is now, her soft baby feet were bound up tightly, the toes
turned and pressed under, and the poor little foot cramped so that
she could scarcely stand. This was done that her feet might never
grow large: for in this country on the other side of the world, one is
considered very beautiful who has small feet; and now that she is a
grown lady, as old perhaps as your mamma, she wears such little shoes
you would think them too small for yourself. It is true they are very
pretty shoes, made of bright-colored satin, and worked all over
with gold and silver thread, and they have beautiful white soles of
rice-paper; and the poor lady looks down at them and says to herself
proudly, "Only three inches long." And forgetting how much the
bandages pained her, and not thinking how sad it is only to be able
to hobble about a little, instead of
running and leaping as children
should, she binds up the feet of Lou, her dear little daughter, in the
great house on the hill, and makes her a poor, helpless child; not
so happy, with all her flower-gardens, gold and silver fish, and
beautiful gold-feathered birds, as Pen-se with her broad, bare feet,
and comfortable, fat little toes, as she stands in the wet tanka-boat,
helping her mother wash it with river-water, while the leather shoes
of both of them lie high and dry on the edge of the wharf, until the
wet work is done.
But we are forgetting Lin, who has carried his fish up into the town
to sell. Here is a whole street where nothing is sold but food. I
should call it Market Street, and I dare say they do the same in a way
of their own.
What will all these busy people have for dinner to-day?
Fat bear's-paws, brought from the dark forest fifty miles away,—these
will do for that comfortable looking mandarin with the red ball on
the top of his cap. I think he has eaten something of the same kind
before. A bird's-nest soup for my lady in the great house on the hill;
nests brought from the rocks where the waves dash, and the
birds feel themselves very safe. But "Such a delicious soup!" said
Madam Faw-Choo, and Yang-lo, her son, sent the fisherman again to the
black rocks for more.
What will the soldiers have,—the officer who wears thick satin boots,
and doesn't look much like fighting in his gay silk dress? A stew of
fat puppies for him, and only boiled rats for the porter who carries
the heavy tea-boxes. But there is tea for all, and rice, too, as much
as they desire; and, although I shouldn't care to be invited to dine
with any of them, I don't doubt they enjoy the food very much.
In the midst of all this buying and selling, Lin sells his fish, some
to the English gentleman, and some to the grave-faced man in the blue
gown; and he goes happily home to his own dinner in the boat. Rice
again, and fried mice, and the merry face and small, slanting black
eyes of his little sister to greet him. After dinner his father has
a pipe to smoke, before he goes again to his work. After all, why not
eat puppies and mice as well as calves and turtles and oysters? And as
for bird's-nest soup, I should think it quite as good as chicken pie.
It is only custom that makes any difference.
So pass the days of our child Pen-se, who lives on the great river
which men call the child of the ocean. But it was not always so.
She was born among the hills where the tea grows with its glossy,
myrtle-like leaves, and white, fragrant blossoms. When the tea-plants
were in bloom, Pen-se first saw the light; and when she was hardly
more than a baby she trotted behind her father, while he gathered the
leaves, dried and rolled them, and then packed them in square boxes to
come in ships across the ocean for your papa and mine to drink.
Here, too, grew the mulberry-trees, with their purple fruit and white;
and Pen-se learned to know and to love the little worms that eat the
mulberry-leaves, and then spin for themselves a silken shell, and fall
into a long sleep inside of it. She watched her mother spin off the
fine silk and make it into neat skeins, and once she rode on her
mother's back to market to sell it. You could gather mulberry-leaves,
and set up these little
silkworm boxes on the window-sill of your
schoolroom. I have seen silk and flax and cotton all growing in a
pleasant schoolroom, to show the scholars of what linen and silk and
cotton are made.
Now those days are all past. She can hardly remember them, she was so
little then; and she has learned to be happy in her new home on the
river, where they came when the fire burned their house, and the
tea-plants and the mulberry-trees were taken by other men.
Sometimes at night, after the day's work is over, the ducks have
come home, and the stars have come out, she sits at the door of the
boat-house, and watches the great bright fireflies over the marshes,
and thinks of the blue lake Syhoo, covered with lilies, where gilded
boats are sailing, and the people seem so happy.
Up in the high-walled garden of the great house on the hill, the
night-moths have spread their broad, soft wings, and are flitting
among the flowers, and the little girl with the small feet lies on her
silken bed, half asleep. She, too, thinks of the lake and the lilies,
but she knows
nothing about Pen-se, who lives down upon the river.
See, the sun has gone from them. It must be morning for us now.