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Letter from Peking
By Pearl S. Buck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1957 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
The year is 1950, the month is September, and the day the twenty-fifth. The place? It is this valley in the mountains of Vermont, where I was born and where I lived my childhood through. I have crossed the seas, I made my love's country my own. Then came war, and I was an alien in spite of love, and I returned again to the valley.
Half an hour ago I walked down our country road, under the arch of maples, red and gold, to meet the postman. He comes only three times a week to this remote spot in the mountains of Vermont, and three mornings a week I wake early and restless. There is always the chance that a letter will come from Peking, a letter from Gerald. For months no letter has come. But this morning there was a letter. The postman singled it out and gave it to me.
"Here's what you're waitin' for," he said.
I would not open it until he was gone. Then, alone in the lane, under the arching maple trees blazing with autumn fire, I opened the envelope. I knew, as I read, that I had been expecting this letter. No, rather, I knew that it could not surprise me. Nothing that Gerald does can surprise me, or shock me, or even hurt me. I have loved him. I do love him and shall always love him.
I read the letter, over and over again. In the silent autumn air, no wind stirring, the bright leaves floated down. I could hear Gerald's voice speaking the words he had written.
My dear wife:
First, before I say what must be said, let me tell you that I love only you. Whatever I do now, remember that it is you I love. If you never receive a letter from me again, know that in my heart I write you every day.
These were the opening words of the letter, and as I read them I knew what must follow. I read to the end, and then, Gerald's voice echoing in my ears, I walked home. The house is empty after Rennie leaves for school. I am glad for this loneliness. I am here now in my room, at my desk, writing. I have locked the letter into my box. I will forget it. At least for a while let me forget, until the numbness has gone from my heart. This is my comfort, to write down all I feel, since there is no one to whom I can speak.
Yet this morning dawned like any other day. I rise early nowadays. Our neighbor farmers rise at four and sleep soon after twilight, as the Chinese farmers do. But Gerald likes the quiet while others sleep, and so, through the years of our marriage, I have learned to go late to bed. The night hours in our small Chinese house were sweet. The street sounds died after dark, and if there was music, it came when the day's business was finished. Over the low compound walls the voice of a two-stringed violin floated into our courts. It was made by our neighbor, Mr. Hua, who by day was a merchant in a nearby silk shop. In summer Gerald and I sat under the pine tree by the goldfish pool, and we let Rennie, our son, stay with us past all sensible bedtime for a child. He is our only son. Our daughter died suddenly in babyhood. In the morning she was laughing and alive, and by night she was gone. I do not know why she died. The sorrow was part of the price I paid for loving Gerald and going with him to China.
For a long time, it seemed very long, we were childless. I grieved but I was saved by Gerald's grief. I thought he would never cease mourning for our lost child. For months he could not sleep easily and he ate so little that his tall frame, always slender, was skeleton. I suppressed my own tears to listen to his grieving.
"I should have stayed in your country," he said again and again. "If we had lived in America, our daughter would not have died. I have robbed you of too much."
I leaned my head upon his breast. "Wherever you go, there I go. There is no cost in comparison."
He looked at me strangely. "This is the difference between American women and Chinese women. You are more wife than mother."
"When I am with you I am all wife," I said. "And besides, you would never have been happy in America."
He could not be happy here. I knew it then and I know it now. Though in Peking I was often homesick in fleeting moments for the clean cool mountains of Vermont, I was happy there. It is a jewel of a city, richly set, gilded with time and history, the people courteous and gay, and I saw my life stretching ahead of me in peace and beauty, and there, I supposed, I would be buried by Gerald's side, both of us old and full of years. We come of long-lived stock, he and I.
Yet here I am, in this Vermont village of Raleigh, in a lonely farmhouse, with Rennie, our son, seventeen years old. And now, this letter having come, I do not think I shall ever see Gerald again.
As I said, the day began as any other does. I rose at six, I helped Matt milk our four cows and I set the can on the barn stoop for the milk truck to pick up, saving out the big pewter pitcher full for Rennie. Then I went into the kitchen and made his breakfast. Rennie helps to milk at night. He is like Gerald. To rise early is torture but he will work late and with ease. I, being alone, have returned to the hours of my childhood, for I was born here upon this land which belonged to my grandfather and then to my father, and now is mine.
By hope and faith my father was an inventor in a minor way, scamping his farm work to build "contraptions," as he called them. Two or three were fairly successful, an egg-washing machine, for example. But we fed from the farm and for cash depended upon a legacy left my father by his father, who was not a farmer but a famous lawyer. When Gerald and I were married, my father was already dead, and my mother lived here alone. She died before Rennie was born and left me the farm, and Matt Greene took care of it while I was in Peking, and he comes every day as he always has. For when we saw that we must part, Gerald and I, it was to this place that I returned. There was no other.
So then, Rennie came down this morning, his cheeks rosy from the cold night air of windows open in his bedroom. "Good morning, Mother," he said, and kissed my cheek.
"Good morning, son," I said.
This ritual his father has always insisted upon. We greet each other, when we have been apart.
"When you leave the presence of your parents," Gerald instructed his son, "then you must say goodbye to them, you must tell them where you go, and immediately upon your return you must show yourself before them and inquire how they are. This is filial piety."
"How are you this morning, Mother?" Rennie inquired.
"Very well, thank you," I said.
"I hope you slept?"
"I did, thank you," I said.
We smiled at each other, Rennie and I, remembering Gerald, he his father, I, my husband. Rennie looks like his father. He is tall for his age. Hair and eyes are black, and his skin, smooth as only Chinese ancestors can bequeath, is the color of Guernsey cream. His profile is beautiful, the features subtly subdued and yet strong.
"Sit down, son," I said. "Your breakfast is ready."
Breakfast for Rennie is a monumental meal. He heaps his oatmeal with brown sugar and rich milk. Gerald has forbidden white sugar, and in Peking we used only the dark Chinese sugar. Milk is American, but Rennie is American too, his Chinese blood only one-fourth of his ancestral inheritance. His body is not Chinese. He is strong-boned, his hands and feet are well-shaped but big, and he has not his father's elegant structure.
"Three eggs, please," he said as usual.
It is a good thing I have hens. My small legacy would not suffice for eggs and meat on the scale that Rennie enjoys. Bacon, too, is a luxury, but I delight to provide it for my son I must not so soon begin to say mine, instead of ours. Rennie is also Gerald's son. Let me not forget. But I do not know how much the letter will change my life.
The dining-room window looks on the road, conveniently, and from his seat at the head of the table, Rennie can see the school bus coming. At first we left the seat empty, against the time when husband and father might sit there. For when we left Gerald on the wharf at Shanghai, he said he might join us in three months. At the end of three months he said nothing of his coming, and his letters were already weeks apart. So, because he could see the road, Rennie said he would take his father's chair for the present, and I did not say yes or no. Perhaps I knew already that the letter was on its way.
"There's the bus," Rennie shouted. His eggs and bacon were gone, so were three slices of brown toast and butter, and he drank down his second glass of milk and reached for his windbreaker and cap.
"Goodbye, son," I said.
Gerald has never allowed an abbreviation of my name. When Rennie learned from American children in Shanghai to say Mom or Ma, Gerald was stern.
"Mother is a beautiful word," he said gravely. "You shall not corrupt it."
He spoke in Chinese as he always does when he wishes to teach his son, and Rennie obeyed.
When I was alone, the house silent about me, I did my usual work. I washed the dishes and then went upstairs to make the beds. My room, the one my parents used, stretches across the front of the house. It has five windows and the landscape changes with every day and hour. This morning when I rose at six the golden moon, round and huge, was sinking behind the wooded mountains. The level rays were still strong enough to make black shadows from the pointed cedars upon the grey rocks beneath. I loved the safety of our compound walls in Peking, but I love this landscape better. Without Gerald, I choose my own country. With him any land serves and all are beautiful.
Facing south, my room on a fair day is lit with sunshine. I made the big fourposter bed and dusted the bureaus and chests and the white-painted chimneypiece. The air is dustless and the floor needs only a brief polishing. I wonder sometimes that I labor so easily here in this house, when in our Chinese house I needed five servants, or thought I did. Gerald said I did. He did not like to see me work with my hands. It is true that I have nice hands. It was the first thing he said to me.
"You have lovely hands."
I held them up to look at.
"Do I?" I asked stupidly. No, not stupidly, for I wanted to hear him say it again.
"American girls do not usually have good hands," he went on. "I notice this because my mother, being Chinese, had exquisite hands."
"Do all Chinese women have exquisite hands?" I asked.
I think he never spoke of my hands again, but I have not forgotten. Perhaps he began to love me because my hands made him think of his mother's. How can I know now?
It has been nearly three months since I have had a letter from Gerald—until today. The letter is mailed not from Shanghai but from Hongkong, and it is inside an envelope addressed by a strange hand.
"You must not worry if my letters are far apart now," Gerald writes. "I cannot tell you the difficulties," he writes. "I cannot even tell you how this letter reaches you. When you answer, do not send the letter to me, but to the address on the envelope. It may be months before I can reply."
We used, at first, to write every day when we were apart. But until the war with Japan came, we were never apart. Then, when it seemed that the northern provinces would fall easily to the enemy, Gerald said I must take Rennie to Chungking before the railroad to Hankow was cut.
"Without you?" I cried.
"I will follow when I can," he said. "I cannot leave until the college leaves with me."
He was the president of the university, and responsibility was heavy upon him. I knew he was right, and Rennie and I set forth alone for Chungking. It was not an easy journey. The train was crowded with refugees, who clung even upon the roofs of the cars, and the hotel in Hankow was full of the escaping rich and their retinues. I made the most of the dying prestige of the white man and found a tiny space for Rennie and me, and by urgency and bribes, I bought a passage upon the small steamer that makes the perilous journey up the Yangtse gorges to Chungking.
Thither Gerald was to follow, and he did, months later, his students and faculty with him. Meanwhile Rennie and I had found a small house in the hills above the city. Oh, the joy of reunion with the beloved! He came in, so gaunt he seemed to have added inches to his height. But he was content. His students and faculty had stayed with him, he had led them to safety. The city gentry had given him the use of several ancient ancestral halls, and all were housed. He had seen them safe and fed before he came home to me.
When I put my arms about him that day I felt him tremble and knew how tired he was.
"Here you can rest," I told him.
He looked about the home I had made. I have a passion for big rooms. When I first found the brick farmhouse we rented near Chungking, I told the owner that I would take it only if he allowed me to tear out two partitions in the main building and make three rooms into one large room.
"Where will you sleep?" he asked, rolling his little eyes and wagging his head. He was a fat fellow, shaven-pated and dirty, an owner and not a farmer, living on his rents.
I pretended I had not heard him. It was none of his business. I had already planned to use the two storerooms on either side of the enclosed court as bedrooms. The gate-house rooms would do for kitchen and stores. Therefore the room that Gerald saw was large and comfortable. True, we had brought nothing with us from our Peking house, but I knew how to find what I needed in the small shops of any Chinese city. Chinese, craftsmen are skilled and they love beauty.
"You have the genius of a homemaker," Gerald said. He sat down in a cushioned wicker chair and leaned his head back.
"It is heaven," he said, and closed his eyes.
I cannot write for crying—
It is already the first day of February. For weeks our Vermont landscape has been winterbound, the mountains white and the valley silent under snow. Three days ago a warm wind and sunshine melted the snow on the hillside and the roads, a deceptive thaw, I know, for winter will come back again. We have some of our deepest snows in March, and even in April. Sometimes the spring sugaring is delayed for days because the sap freezes in the pipes on its way down to the sugar house. Today the valley is hidden in mist and the mountains have vanished. I can see no further than the gate to the dooryard. My father put up the fence for my mother who, Boston reared, could not bear the frightening distances she saw from the windows of this house, the mountains rolling away.
"I must live behind a gate," she told my father, "else how do I know where I belong?"
He put up the fence, enclosing plenty of lawn and the clump of big white birch. My mother was a pretty woman, slender as long as she lived, and she lived years after my father died. But she was rigid in mind and body. She demanded fences and gates and she seldom went beyond them. When I told her I wanted to marry Gerald MacLeod she was not pleased. She had not enjoyed marriage, in spite of loving my father, and she did not want me to marry.
"There is much in marriage that is distasteful to a nice woman." This she said when I asked her why she did not want me to marry. "Although MacLeod is a good name," she added.
I considered for one moment whether I would tell her next that Gerald was half Chinese. He can pass for a dark Caucasian, for while his eyes are slightly almond-shaped, they are large and his brows are handsome. He is far more beautiful as a man than I am as a woman. I am small and fair and my eyes are grey rather than blue. I have never been sure I was pretty. Gerald has not told me I was pretty.
"Your skin is exquisite."
"Your mouth is very sweet."
Such words he has said, defining attributes but never declaring beauty. With all my heart I declared his beauty. For indeed there is some magic in the mingling of blood. Yet from which side the magic comes, who knows? It is the formula that provides the freshness .
But if I considered concealing Gerald's Chinese blood, it was only for a moment. My mother was exceedingly acute. She could surmise what she did not know. I said, carefully casual,
"Gerald's father lives in Peking. He is American but he married a Chinese lady and so Gerald is half Chinese."
My mother's little mouth opened. She looked at me with horror.
Only my mother called me Elizabeth. I am named for my grandmother, Elizabeth Duane. Gerald calls me Eve. It is his love name for me. By others I am called by every possible variation.
"Eve," he said, that day when we were newly betrothed, "you are my first love."
"Shall I call you Adam?" I asked half playfully.
He looked half amused, half cynical. "I doubt that Christians would concede the name to a Chinese," he remarked.
Excerpted from Letter from Peking by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1957 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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