Gateway to the Classics: The Seven Sisters by Jane Andrews
The Seven Sisters by  Jane Andrews

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 their signs.

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 beautiful birds.

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; bird's 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.

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