In 1906, the Chinese in California lived in the shadows. Their alien customs, traditions, and language hid what they valued from their neighbors . . . and left them open to scorn and prejudice. Their communities were ruled—and divided—by the necessity of survival among the many would-be masters surrounding them, by struggles between powerful tongs, and by duty to their ancestors.
Then, in the wake of natural disaster, fate brought to light artifacts of incredible value along the Monterey coast: an ancient Chinese jade seal and a plaque inscribed in a trio of languages lost to all but scholars of antiquity. At first, chance placed control of those treasures in the hands of outsiders—the wayward Irishman who’d discovered them and a marine scholar who was determined to explore their secrets. The path to the truth, however, would prove to be as tangled as the roots of the ancient cypress that had guarded these treasures for so long, for there are some secrets the Chinese were not ready to share. Whether by fate, by subtle design, or by some intricate combination of the two, the artifacts disappeared again . . . before it could be proved that they must have come there ages before Europeans ever touched the wild and beautiful California coast.
Nearly a century would pass before an unconventional young American scientist unearths evidence of this great discovery and its mysterious disappearance. Taking up the challenge, he begins to assemble a new generation of explorers to resume theperilous search into the ocean’s depth . . . and theshadows of history. Armed with cutting-edge, moderntechnology, and drawing on connections to powerful families at home and abroad, this time Americans and Chinese will follow together the path of secrets that have long proved as elusive as the ancient treasures that held them.
This striking debut novel by a masterful writer weaves together two fascinating eras into one remarkable tale. In the Shadow of the Cypress is an evocative, dramatic story that depicts California in all its multicultural variety, with a suspense that draws the reader inexorably on until the very last page.
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JOURNAL EXTRACTS OF
DR. CHARLES H. GILBERT
Stanford Professor of Marine Biology
“True wisdom comes at great cost.
Only ignorance is free.”
IN 1906, AT THE TIME these entries were written, Dr. Gilbert was a highly respected instructor and researcher at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California.
Dr. Charles Lucas
Department of Marine Studies
Partial diary entry: June 1, 1906
The raging China Point fire was an experience that must be forever etched in the memories of everyone who witnessed the tragedy, though I presently suspect there were those who perceived only profit in the flames. On the night of May 16, 1906, aided by predictably seasonal winds from the southwest, the fifty-year-old Chinese fishing village on China Point was completely burned to the ground in less than one hour. It was the most horrifying conflagration I have ever witnessed. My heart was wrenched with concern for the poor occupants of the village, and I feared the worst for the plight of those trapped in their shanties. The dwellings seemed to burst into flame like boxes of kitchen matches, but there was nothing anyone could do without suffering death for their efforts. By dawn the whole village was nothing more than a black, smoldering skeleton. It was only through the grace of a merciful God that no Chinese were killed in the racing inferno. But it is a certainty to all witnesses that they had lost most of what they once possessed, including some of their nets, sheds, and beached fishing boats.
The fire’s ignition point was most certainly a Chinese-owned hay barn at the south end of the village, and I’m persuaded the deed was initiated with the strong seasonal winds in mind. Though it disturbs me to say so, I am thoroughly convinced that the consequential inferno was the result of a determined and planned act of arson.
If armed with the perspective of hindsight, one can easily deduce that the following narrative has roots that stretch back more than sixty years, and perhaps more than several hundred years if the truth was known. The one person who might be said to have set the engine of destruction in motion is a strange fellow who I came to know in early June of 1898. The man’s name, appropriately enough, was William “Red Billy” O’Flynn.
By any definition, Mr. O’Flynn is a unique-looking individual. Roughly in his midforties, weathered and apparently used to hard labor, the man comes across as keen and observant, and considering his lack of formal education, he shows good sense in most all things. His novel appearance, despite his being born in Ireland and saddled with a brogue broad enough to occasionally make his speech almost incomprehensible, bespeaks a colorful parentage. He once volunteered that his mother’s people were of Moorish blood. “All thoroughgoing Gypsies to the bone,” he said, and “all armed to the teeth with endless batteries of the most chilling curses imaginable.” He had thus inherited his mother’s soft, dark complexion and black eyes, as well as a moderate knowledge of European Spanish, which our local Mexican population disdains for historical reasons.
Mr. O’Flynn’s father, according to his son’s recollection, was “a large and dangerous fellow with a ruddy, moon-pocked face, and hair as red-crested as God makes a peckerwood.” As a result, the young man also inherited a prodigious mane of copper-bright curls. And though he possesses marginally pleasant features, and a muscular physique tempered by hard labor, the abiding contrast between his dark Mediterranean complexion and his vivid red crown of hair is truly a most striking sight to behold. One never quite gets used to his appearance. Every time I came across him at his duties, it was like a novelty surprise all over again.
Only once did Mr. O’Flynn reveal a portion of his history to me, and to this day, knowing his verbal habits as I do, I can’t imagine what inspired him to do so. It was on the day that he first applied to me for part-time work at Hopkins Laboratory. I suppose that, as I was the prospective employer, he felt somehow compelled to reveal that he “first drew breath overlooking the tar-blackened docks of Cork.” His father was a brawling shipyard-pipe fitter, “built like a Birmingham brickbat, but lacking all the wit and modesty God gave a cobblestone.”
Mr. O’Flynn gave me to understand that when he was fourteen years old he escaped Ireland altogether. His father, he said, had long since matriculated well beyond his amateur standing as a tavern tippler, and had gone on to become a renowned professional whiskey drinker. This all-too-common situation, with its predisposition toward physical cruelty, evidently distressed the family sorely. At last Mr. O’Flynn’s long-suffering mother
felt she had endured more than enough. Circumstances obliged her to call forth her mortal quiver of Gypsy curses. Two days later, the senior O’Flynn was discovered facedown in a rain-filled gutter. The coroner formally declared that the notorious and unrepentant boozer had drowned in three inches of rainwater.
I record this here only in passing, because this tragic incident seems to have deeply influenced Mr. O’Flynn, for as far as I can deduce, he has always expressed a total aversion to alcohol. He impresses me as the driest Irishman I have ever encountered. He has for some years been confirmed to the Methodist faith and vehemently speaks against the use of spirits, as well as “all those misbegotten fools what do indulge.”
On the whole, I have always found Mr. O’Flynn a man of simple, if somewhat cautious, honesty. As far as I can discern, he has always spoken the truth, but only as much truth as warranted by the question. On most occasions his natural reticence induces him to say as little as possible, and with the greatest circumspection. Unlike most of his race, Mr. O’Flynn never indulges in idle conversation or even bemused observation. In fact, for an Irishman, he exhibits not the least vestige of Celtic humor. However, he is at all times a stable, capable, and dependable worker, whose efforts rarely if ever draw the slightest criticism from myself, or the laboratory staff.
When Mr. O’Flynn first applied to me for a job, he stated that he had worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for twelve years. He said he had started as a gandy dancer and worked his way up to roadbed foreman with a crew of twenty men to supervise. Then one day a slowly passing engine accidentally ruptured a steam release valve on a piston feed line and badly scalded Mr. O’Flynn and four of his crew. Two of his Chinese workers later succumbed to their burns by way of infection, and O’Flynn almost died himself. Happily, he was pulled back from the brink through the careful ministrations of his hard-nosed Portuguese wife. She bartered housecleaning chores for burn creams and pain medications; these were compounded for her by Charles K. Tuttle’s Pharmacy and given to her at cost. When he later asked the Southern Pacific regional manager for compensation to cover the expense of his injuries, Mr. O’Flynn was given seventy-five dollars and told that he need not come back to work, as his position had been filled in his absence.
The Chinese victims of the accident received forty-five dollars each, and the families of the dead were given thirty-five dollars to help defray burial costs. These latter particulars concerning Mr. O’Flynn I eventually learned from Mr. Tuttle, but only after I’d already engaged Mr. O’Flynn on a part-time basis. Indeed, once I understood the man’s predicament, I found myself quite pleased to be of some small assistance in his financial restitution.
I soon discovered that Mr. O’Flynn kept himself adequately solvent by working six part-time jobs every week. On Mondays and Tuesdays he worked for the county on a road maintenance crew. On Wednesdays he came to us. He was taught how to properly clean fish tanks and assisted with all the equipment maintenance at the laboratory. Thursdays O’Flynn worked making deliveries for Tuttle’s Pharmacy, or carefully dusting the hundreds of large glass-stopped medicine bottles that lined all the walls. On Fridays he ran a steam-saw for Thomas Work’s wood yard. But Saturdays were O’Flynn’s special delight, for he alternated between carting and stocking at Steiner’s grocery store and working at Mr. Hay’s ice cream parlor. He cleaned the large copper kettles in the candy kitchen and redressed and oiled the stone taffy tables. A bemused Mr. Tuttle helped him find these additional jobs when he realized that Mr. O’Flynn was in possession of a sweet tooth the size of Seal Rock. The proprietors of both establishments proved very generous with free samples and token prices. His Sundays were just as regular. The mornings were spent worshipping at the First Methodist Church on Lighthouse Road. And, weather permitting, his Sunday afternoons were dedicated to fishing for the Sabbath table with his Portuguese father-in-law. In general, one would appraise all of Mr. O’Flynn’s habits as quite regular, sober, and disciplined. I must here record that these factors, like the man’s sobriety, are indisputable facts that should be taken into account for later consideration.
There was one additional curious facet to Mr. O’Flynn’s social intercourse within the local community. Though he seemed to possess few friends besides relatives acquired through marriage, he spent much of his free time in the company of his Chinese acquaintances. In particular, he was often seen associating with the well-to-do proprietor of a successful Chinese laundry in Pacific Grove. This rather popular fellow goes by the name of Master Ah Chung. O’Flynn has also been known to keep company with Ah Chung’s younger brother Jim Len. I have since been informed that despite all modest appearances to the contrary, both these gentlemen are alleged to be heavily involved in diverse business interests up and down the California coast. It is widely believed that they receive lucrative stipends from the Three Corporations of San Francisco. This mysterious organization represents the most powerful Chinese clans in California. It is under the auspices of these secretive and financially powerful families that ninety percent of all Chinese imports and exports are bought and sold.
The improbability of our Mr. O’Flynn enjoying social congress with the Chinese stood out as an oddity, until I recalled that he had worked for years supervising Chinese road gangs for the Southern Pacific. And it appears that during his time in that capacity he learned to speak a fair smattering of Cantonese, which I understand is the predominant dialect spoken among our local Chinese.
I discovered these obtuse facts quite incidentally one summer day about thirteen months after Mr. O’Flynn came to work for us at Hopkins. One afternoon a Chinese fisherman and his wife came to visit the laboratory from China Point. They accompanied a rude donkey cart that had been tailored to carry a shallow wooden tub four feet in diameter. The tub had a two-sided hinged lid to keep its contents from splashing out. As they walked along, the fisherman’s wife worked a clever double-channeled hand-bellows. This device, I later learned, pumped a steady flow of air into the tub through a hose end wrapped in a sponge. They had come to our laboratory with a very rare specimen indeed. It was a small, black-skinned, deepwater shark. They had caught the ruby-eyed creature on a deep trotline over the Monterey marine canyon.
I should note that there are a good number of Chinese fishermen on the bay who specialize in hunting unusual species of marine life specifically for their use in an assortment of esoteric Chinese pharmacopoeias. I’m given to understand that the export market for these perplexing products is thriving. Commodities like preserved sea cucumbers, sea urchins, needle fish roe, basking shark eggs, and various species of small kelp crabs and azure-colored sea snails are in great demand. All these and many more are highly prized, and can easily pull their weight in gold or silver on the export tallies.
The visiting fisherman and his wife bowed and introduced themselves in thick pidgin English. The man said that Master Ah Chung had sent them along with something special.
As my negotiations for the exotic shark continued, our Mr. O’Flynn suddenly appeared. Smiling broadly, and in a torrent of pidgin Chinese, Mr. O’Flynn suddenly greeted the fisherman as an old acquaintance. They spoke together rapidly for a moment, and then O’Flynn turned to me and asked what price the fisherman asked for the shark. I told him we had settled on a price of two dollars. Mr. O’Flynn quickly confirmed this with the fisherman, and then turned back to me and said, “For two dollars he’s making you a present of the fish, and he’s delivered it more or less alive, no mean feat if you ask me, but he’s done it only at Master Ah Chung’s insistence. You can safely wager there’s some binding obligation involved. To be sure, you’re barely paying for this fellow’s time. He tells me the shark’s liver alone is worth five dollars, and the tanned skin another twelve. I’ll be begging your pardon for the impertinence, Professor, but if I were you I’d up and give this good fellow eight dollars. That way he can honorably fulfill Mr. Ah Chung’s instructions and perchance realize a pittance of profit so as to save face with his family.”
O’Flynn grinned, winked, and went on. “Mark what I say, Professor, the good word will soon race about that you’re an honest man of business, and before you can recite the saints’ names, you’ll be up to your braces in all manner of fishy God-knows-what.”
I managed the transaction just as Mr. O’Flynn had so earnestly recommended, but I did so in a confused fog of amazement at his hitherto unknown, and totally unsuspected, ability to make himself perfectly well understood in brogue-laced pidgin Chinese. I was dumbfounded to say the least, but I paid out the eight dollars all the same, and was later happy to have done so, for we managed, with constant diligence, to keep this rare specimen alive and healthy for almost fifteen weeks.
The fisherman and his wife were quite pleased with the arrangement, and a minor festival of bowing, smiling, and amicable chatter ensued. It was then I noticed that the fisherman and his wife treated Mr. O’Flynn with particular deference that entailed bowing even lower with hands clasped together as if in prayer. I found this more amusing than interesting, and didn’t reflect on its significance at the time.
After I had instructed some of my more stalwart students to transfer the exhausted shark to one of the large, bay-fed tanks, the proud fisherman and his wife happily took their leave. I recall that they departed in the company of our Mr. O’Flynn, all the while chirping a seemingly endless exchange of Cantonese salutations and polite laughter.
The discovery of O’Flynn’s hidden linguistic talents opened new and vigorous channels for acquiring specific species for our research and preservation. Mr. O’Flynn even suggested that a reasonable bounty be paid for specimens delivered alive and in reasonable health. This we did to great effect. The demand for our scientifically preserved laboratory specimens had grown fivefold in five years. We at Hopkins soon found we were servicing six other universities, as well as smaller research institutions. We even managed to set aside a complete catalog of preserved specimens to satisfy the needs of the state biologists for whom the Hopkins Marine Station is almost a second home.
Mr. O’Flynn, though he was only employed every Wednesday, made his presence felt by the ongoing delivery of marine specimens from the various Chinese fishing villages. Due to his admonitions and the bounties offered, all but the most delicate or vulnerable creatures were delivered alive. We even occasionally received (free of charge) orphaned sea otter kits, sea lion pups, and the odd storm-stressed, fledgling pelican. In all respects, Mr. O’Flynn had quickly proved so successful acting as our purchasing agent that we soon were at liberty to offer him a decent commission on all accepted purchases, and a five percent wage increase. He expressed himself completely satisfied with this arrangement, though he insisted on an understanding that should we “find ourselves in want of anything particularly big and dangerous,” he wanted the right to renegotiate terms to compensate for the obvious increased risk all around. Personally amused by imagining what exact picture Mr. O’Flynn envisioned for such unspoken dangers, I so stipulated, and it was all agreed.
Since then, I’m pleased to recall the intervening years at Hopkins have passed most agreeably and very constructively, with Hopkins functioning well, albeit at a metered academic gait. And over time Mr. O’Flynn and I have become better acquainted, but only marginally better than I am with most of my own students. As I have previously stated, he is not a fellow who reveals much if he can help it. But after working for the laboratory for a few years, O’Flynn had come to witness a great many marine oddities; most of these specimens he never would have even suspected of existing. This novel if mostly untutored interest seems to have led him to indulge in a sincere if arcane Methodist interpretation of the Creation. In that vein Mr. O’Flynn’s interest became remarkably focused, if not fixated upon the more bizarre and seemingly pointless examples of “the Almighty’s Grand Design.” Creatures “kin” to the common flea, or the “blood-hungry” mosquito, were most assuredly of Satan’s dark creation. “And I ask you honestly, Professor, just what purpose would a caring Christian God have for a man-killing jellyfish no bigger than a nickel? It just doesn’t make sense in the great scheme of heaven’s design.”
Perhaps it was my position as a tenured old pedagogue at Hopkins that encouraged Mr. O’Flynn, on a number of occasions, to call upon me at the laboratory, or at my home. Hat in hand and head slightly bowed, he would beg my indulgence for a few minutes. He appeared interested in a remarkably wide range of seemingly disjointed subjects, as though he’d chosen them from a fishbowl, like a lottery ticket. He diligently and innocently inquired about pole stars, blackamoors, slack tides, narwhals, whip snakes, monsters, and misanthropes, and all with equal interest, intensity, and enthusiasm. And then he might ask some spiritually obtuse question on the subject of biology. To be honest, I was somewhat taken aback by his interests. The very fact that a man of his limited education could actually frame such questions, I regarded as something of a novelty. The man piqued my interest in numerous ways, and his interests were always remarkably unpredictable.
With each visit Mr. O’Flynn would bring by some living aberration or semifossilized oddity. Then he would ask me to explain what I saw in light of the Almighty’s faultless reputation for perfection. Following this vein, he showed me numerous examples of two-headed snakes and turtles, frogs and toads with six legs or two, a wingless chicken, and other creatures with all manner of strange malformations.
I attempted to explain to Mr. O’Flynn that there were obvious differences between those creatures that in the majority exist within their own zoological perfection, and those that are accidentally conceived with genetic imperfections that usually result in such malformations. I told him such imperfections could occasionally be found in every species of creature, including humans.
It had long seemed to me that our Mr. O’Flynn had been undergoing some small crisis of faith, perhaps aggravated by his peripheral acquaintance with our marine studies at Hopkins. On several occasions I tried reminding him, in a good-natured manner, that it was generally deemed unadvisable, if not impossible, to attempt to reconcile religious faith and pure science in absolute terms of correlation, faith being highly subjective in nature, and pure science (whenever possible) primarily objective.
I’m persuaded that I made no appreciable impression on O’Flynn whatsoever. It appeared that some complex amalgam of “bog-bound Irish superstition,” a rank amateur’s appreciation for the laws of nature, and certain orthodox dictums of faith had all collided at once. It appeared he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge the proposal that measuring scientific validity using religious calibrations was a fool’s errand. Just how this impasse affected Mr. O’Flynn, I really can’t say, but it certainly did not appear to dampen his enthusiasm for our occasional interviews.
He once appeared at my door with a very small human skull that had obviously been buried for centuries. I saw at once that it was not a child’s skull, but rather a fully formed adult whose defined features, though less than half scale by contemporary measurements, were all quite proportional and well formed.
On another occasion he brought me an unusual bronze-shanked iron arrowhead. It appeared to be of considerable age and was obviously not of indigenous design. The shank was approximately six inches long, and the point remained embedded in the neck vertebra of what later proved to be a very large and extinct species of bear. The arrowhead itself was of a fluted, three-edged design and had much in common with medieval bodkins I had seen illustrated in museum catalogs years ago. I asked Mr. O’Flynn how he’d come by such an unusual item. He was reticent at first, as is his way, but when pressed he explained that clearing and grating the county’s roads brought up all manner of strange and wonderful things. I didn’t quite take to this explanation, and he seemed mildly amused by my incredulous response. He took pains to point out that most of the present roads in California, like roads everywhere in the world, were laid out to follow long-existing paths and trails, which had probably been traveled upon for centuries. He went on to speculate that a good number of those thousands of travelers were always losing things along the way while moving from here to there, and to his way of thinking, it only stood to reason that at least some of those lost articles would come to light again one day. He confided that every now and then he came across various items that put a few odd dollars his way, but mostly it was discarded junk, with a few curiosities thrown in every so often. I was obliged to admit that O’Flynn’s serendipitous methods of discovery were impeccably suited to the needs of an incidental seeker of errant roadside treasures.
It was about this same time that I became aware (through the normal channels of idle gossip) that Mr. O’Flynn was spending more and more of his time with his Chinese friends and acquaintances, and less with his fellow parishioners at the First Methodist assembly hall. A later interview with one of the church elders suggests that Mr. O’Flynn’s attendance at services fell off considerably over the years since 1900, until at last he ceased going to church altogether.
Further reports of Mr. O’Flynn’s close social affiliations were verified by his presence as an honored guest at an elaborate Chinese wedding held in Pacific Grove. On December 18 of 1900, the locally popular, and deftly inscrutable, Ah Chung hosted his own elaborate wedding and reception in front of his prosperous laundry establishment on Grand Avenue. I’m told the bride was a well-connected Chinese maiden from Santa Cruz. However, I was mildly surprised to later discover that a handsomely attired Mr. O’Flynn was one of the appointed groomsmen sent to welcome the prospective bride’s train at the depot. The groom even arranged to have a twenty-piece brass band in attendance. Nuptials of this scale and expense are all but unheard-of in Pacific Grove. It was said that only a Chinese New Year celebration could have rivaled Mr. Ah Chung’s wedding in color, ceremony, or festive largesse. An abundance of food and drink was made available to one and all. I was amused to learn that a good number of our local citizens attended, some out of simple curiosity, but most to enjoy the festive nature of the celebration, the copious fireworks, and the colorful Chinese lantern processions. I’m sorry to say I was in Santa Cruz on laboratory business at the time, or I too would have been easily lured to attend the spectacle.
A number of our students did witness the festivities, which is how I discovered that Mr. O’Flynn had a noticeable participation in the ceremonies. This particular fact I did find very interesting, as the Chinese are well-known for being every bit as racially and socially prejudiced as we are, and thus rarely if ever admit “barbarians” to the inner circles of family ceremonial life or clan business. And what proved even more curious, though not totally unexpected, was the fact that Mr. O’Flynn never hinted at his participation in the wedding ceremony. As he was only a part-time worker, I felt any pointed inquiries would be deemed impertinent, and most likely go unanswered for all my curiosity. I chose to err on the side of civility and let the matter pass. If I were to hear anything on the subject, Mr. O’Flynn would have to volunteer the information, and my odds were not favorable in that respect.
Life and work went on in like fashion for a good while. I was privileged, at least for the present, to be unburdened by the requirements of any prospective marital constraints on my time and concentration. This freedom allowed me to indulge in all manner of agreeable research until the spring of 1905, when the warmer southern currents flowed north, and with them came a remarkable change in the local fish populations. The salmon and herring stocks were driven farther north to colder water. They were subsequently replaced by southern species like Mexican mackerel, Humboldt squid, and basking sharks, to speak of just a few. As one can well imagine, we became extremely busy collecting, preserving, and cataloging the encroaching species throughout the year. Even the state biologists were up to their waders in triplicate reports on the fluctuating fish stock appraisals, and the depleted projection of fishery revenues. But even with the increased workload, our two agencies managed to be of enormous service to each other.
At this point I must record that without the enigmatic relationship of our Mr. O’Flynn with the local Chinese fishermen, our ability to assemble a current and relevant collection, and to then preserve and catalog to such a professional standard, would have been very much impaired, if not altogether impossible.
But our success and gratification aside, all normal activities on the bay changed for the worse during the last four months of 1905. The warmth of the southern currents had a detrimental effect upon the weather. The unseasonable storms that raged out of the southwest caused widespread damage, of which the coastal Chinese seemed to suffer the worst material losses. Many of their seaside shanties and storage sheds were blown down, and a fair number of their fishing boats were badly damaged, if not destroyed altogether.
The endless days of sharp, contrary winds and torrential rains brought on inland flooding in the Salinas Valley and beyond. Needless to say, the local fishing industry and tourist trade all but withered on the vine, and we locals could do little better than hunker down to ride out the storms as best we could. In retrospect, one wonders if the dangerously inclement elements only presaged the disasters yet to come. The storms claimed a fair number of big trees all over the county, and in several cases these old-growth monsters had crushed a few barns, outbuildings, and parts of houses. Others had blocked all movement over important streets and roads.
One blustering, black day an oilskin-clad Mr. O’Flynn appeared at the laboratory to say that for the next two weeks he would be obliged to work for the county helping clear the roads. The situation had been voted an emergency by the county board, and they needed qualified men at once.
Due to travel difficulties by land, rail, and sea, the laboratory had temporarily suspended operations; therefore I had no objection to Mr. O’Flynn taking as long as he liked. Remembering the inherent danger in that line of work, I wished the fellow all the best of luck. I didn’t see O’Flynn again for more than a month.
Then one cold, fog-bound Sunday afternoon, while I worked on student papers in my fire-snug study at home, the bellpull at my front door clanged twice. I answered the summons and was mildly surprised to find Mr. O’Flynn, hat in hand, standing under the portico. He bowed his head modestly and apologized for not seeking a proper appointment. Nevertheless, he asked if I might be so generous as to oblige him with a few minutes of my valuable time. I could tell from the look in his eyes that this was a serious application. He declared there was something very important that he wished to consult with me about.
Fully prepared to be shown almost any variety of exotic object or malformed wildlife, I invited Mr. O’Flynn to come warm himself by the fire. He thanked me and sat toasting his hands while I poured out hot sweet tea. He began by saying that his work with the city and county was almost at an end. He was proud to say that he and his crew cut up and hauled away 137 “widow-makers” in less than four weeks. The city of Monterey had even awarded the road crews a modest bounty for speed, which was paid over in addition to their county wages.
O’Flynn paused, scrutinizing me closely, as if deciding whether or not to tell me the purpose of his visit. I must have passed inspection, as he cautiously commenced his story again. He informed me that part of his job was to survey those trees that had been blown down, and determine in advance what kinds of tools and how many men and wags would be required to clear them away. He confided that the city and county were recouping a reasonable portion of their costs by selling the timber to Mr. Work’s wood yard and the railroad.
Mr. O’Flynn had been instructed to ride out to the cypress groves overlooking Moss Beach. One of the older trees near the road had blown down and was effectively blocking most of the route south. He rode out to the location in a very leisurely fashion, free to enjoy the quiet and make his own hours, as there was no county supervisor about to hurry him along.
When O’Flynn came upon the scene of the fallen tree, he was surprised to see how large a root ball the cypress had pulled up with it. He said the collapse left a deep, eight-by-eight-foot hole in the ground. While he was examining the scale of it all, something entwined at the bottom of the torn root ball reflected a strange pink light, so he jumped into the hole to get a closer look. As he patiently brushed away the dirt with his fingers, he realized that he was looking at a very large piece of finely polished pink stone. Using his sheath knife, he carefully cut away the remaining tangle of small roots that enmeshed the stone. He declared it took him almost an hour to free the figure. Once it was liberated, he gently withdrew the oddly shaped object from its ancient cradle in the roots. But it was only after wiping away the dirt that O’Flynn realized the object was a carved stone figure of some kind of animal, and sculpted from very beautiful stone. Evidently, it was while he was climbing out of the hole with his prize that his foot accidentally dislodged a decorated stone plaque. Again it took some time to carefully cut the object free of its root-bound nest, and by then it was getting too dark to examine his finds in any detail. He then packed up the stone in a burlap sack and stowed it in his mule cart. The animal figure he wrapped in his poncho. O’Flynn made his way home as quickly as possible, unloaded and stashed away his discoveries, and then returned the work cart to the county stable.
O’Flynn made a point of saying that his wife had been away for a few nights looking after her ailing father, so when he returned home from the stable later that evening he found ample opportunity to clean and examine his discoveries unmolested by witnesses.
I asked O’Flynn to describe the objects in complete aspect while I took careful notes. My curiosity was palpable and my instincts sharpened.
O’Flynn described the stone plaque as a rectangular, headstone-
like slab, approximately thirty-five by twenty-five inches in area,
and a little more than two inches thick. The stone itself was finely cut, detailed, and highly polished. It was carved and en-graved on one side only. He said it was also remarkably dense and heavy for its small size. The animal figure, on the other hand, was beautifully carved from a large piece of opaque pink stone with slight streaks of white marbled throughout. It too had engraved script on its base. O’Flynn said the stone animal looked almost brand-new, highly polished, and not a chip anywhere.
To say that Mr. O’Flynn had by now thoroughly piqued my interest would be a bald understatement. I’m sure he could read the look of inquisitive anticipation that must have colored my expression. I asked him if he had brought me anything to see, and without another word he withdrew a soft leather parcel from his coat, untied the laces, and carefully unrolled the contents onto his lap. From a protective hide of rabbit fur he removed the magnificent figure and set it on the table between us.
The first sight of this treasure took my breath away. From the presence of knobbed horns, I presumed the long-necked creature to be a stylized Asian representation of a giraffe. The figure was approximately nine inches tall, and was posed resting on its knees in the fashion of a camel or llama. But what proved the most enthralling feature of the treasure was the fact that this noble object was obviously carved from one perfectly flawless piece of milky-pink jade. I gently turned the object around on the table several times to examine it from every quarter with my big magnifying glass. I found myself openly praising its intricate engravings, and the simple but aristocratic proportions chosen by the craftsman who created this magnificent work of art. The very posture of the animal, with head facing left and slightly down, seemed to have been chosen specifically for the purpose of allowing the darker pink jade to form a continuous bright crest for the creature from head to tail.
I was so completely preoccupied that it took me a moment to acknowledge that Mr. O’Flynn had spoken for the first time.
“Now, sir, I ask you fair as a university man, a doctor and all, just what kind of animal is that supposed to be?”
It amused me to ask, “What does it look like to you, Mr. O’Flynn?”
“To be sure, Professor, to my untutored eye it looks blood-kin to a hump-shy camel what’s been hung for the untoward loss of it. And I ask you, sir, just what are those odd stumps on its head? What kind of animal is it?”
“Well, Mr. O’Flynn, for centuries, books about mythical beasts called it a Quilin, but one day people were forced to acknowledge that the animal wasn’t a myth after all; in fact, it was modestly abundant in Africa, so people began to call it by a version of its African name, giraffe. The animal is most assuredly a giraffe, Mr. O’Flynn, and those stumps on its head are short horns.”
“So you are saying this ‘gee-raff’ creature is an animal that lives in dark Africa?”
“Yes, Mr. O’Flynn, except for the few that reside in some of the world’s better zoos, giraffes are native to the savannahs of central Africa. I’d be happy to show you a picture if you like.”
Mr. O’Flynn looked confused, but he nodded his head, and I reached for my zoological atlas. I showed him a photograph of a small herd of giraffes pictured in their native African veld. O’Flynn looked at the picture, and then looked at the figure, and then back again to the photograph. He silently repeated this back-and-forth comparison several times, and then closed the atlas with a bang. He sat back with a frustrated sigh and took up his tea. He appeared to be pondering some troubling question that forced him to knit his brows, occasionally suck his teeth, and stare off into space. After a minute O’Flynn spoke up again. “Africa, you say, Professor? And how long have these animals been common knowledge in the old countries?”
“Mr. O’Flynn, the giraffe is unquestionably an African animal. And I’d say it’s very likely the early Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, would have come across such animals in their extensive trade networks.”
“And what about the old-country Chinese, Professor, would they be in the know about such things?”
“I really can’t say without further information. Africa is a long way from China, but I’ve learned with the years that nothing is impossible. I see no reason why a culture as advanced and curious as the Chinese could not sail, or even travel overland, to Africa. Why do you ask?”
“Well, Professor, I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, mind you, but I have seen a fair number of downed trees in my time, and you can tell a lot about them from the root ball, you can even come close to the real age of a tree if you know what to look for. I’m told the old cypress groves hereabouts are spot-on rare, even for California. And they don’t thrive well at all in other climates. Well, sir, that’s what the county surveyor told me when he came out with the cutting crew the next day; the county man wanted to inspect this particular tree, mind you, and when he’d had an eyeful he politely asked that we cut him two sample disks from the trunk for the county forestry office. We were right pleased to oblige, but before he left I asked what they would use the samples for. He said they could date the tree to within a couple of years, and even read the weather for those years.”
“That’s a very common forestry practice.”
“So I was told, sir. I then asked the surveyor if he could take a look at the cuttings and give me an unofficial count of the tree’s age, if only to satisfy the curiosity of the men who would have to spend many hours taking the poor tree down to cordwood. Well, the fellow said he wasn’t really a forestry technician, but he showed me how to count the growth rings for myself. He told me that to make it easier, a man counts off by tens, and then pencil checks each ten. When you’ve reached the core, you go back and count the checks and multiply by ten. And I did just that.”
Mr. O’Flynn gently picked up the jade figure with callused hands, drew it close, and looked deep into its opaque luster. He spoke in an odd fashion, as if the power of ancient superstition now came into play. “Now, there’s something to truly ponder, Professor. This valuable object was purposely buried along with that stone plaque at the bottom of a hole over which a cypress sapling was planted. Do you follow me so far, Professor?”
“I believe I’m keeping abreast for the moment, thank you.”
“Well, sir, if all is as I say it is, then you’ll appreciate that this jewel of a beast and the stone plaque were actually buried in that very spot at least four hundred years ago. And that’s the best evidence accorded by the rings on the tree. You see, I cut a trunk sample of my own and ciphered the rings twice more to be sure. What do you think now, Professor?”
“If what you say is true, Mr. O’Flynn, I’m far more than just interested. Your find begs any number of historical questions, and certainly merits further study and research.”
“Well, then this will give you something more to think about, I’ll wager.” Mr. O’Flynn carefully handed me the figure. “If you’d be so kind, sir, look what’s carved into the bottom.”
I turned the figure over and was surprised to discover that the base was a large, fully inscribed seal. There were ten vertical lines of beautiful Chinese script, each character inset with remnants of gold foil. The same foiling was used on an elaborate oblong cartouche at the bottom right of the inscription. The engraved characters still showed slight traces of the red cinnabar used to print the seal on documents.
I was thunderstruck to say the least, but my curiosity leaped even farther ahead. I asked Mr. O’Flynn if the stone tablet had any writing on it, and he said it had. Three different types of script were displayed, and one of them seemed to be Chinese, but he had no idea what the other two were. He’d never seen the like before. Then I asked whether the lettering on the stone plaque showed any signs of having been inlaid or painted with gold. He answered in the affirmative. He said the stone had been highly polished on one side, and the characters cut into its hard surface. He also mentioned that the whole inscription was bordered within a carved design of flying serpents, flowering vines, and bats. With a perplexed look, he said that the stone had an odd property. When dry, it looked mostly coal black, but when he flushed away the dirt using clear water, the stone appeared to shimmer a beautiful dark green.
Reexamining the superbly engraved characters on the bottom of the jade figure, I told Mr. O’Flynn that while I was certainly no expert in the field of Chinese artifacts, it was my considered opinion that no further useful progress could be made on this mystery until the Chinese characters on both objects had been translated. I asked him what his Chinese acquaintances had thought of the inscriptions. His answer surprised me.
“To be honest, Professor, you and I are the only two people who have seen this carving in centuries. But begging your pardon, sir, the last people I’d wish to know about this are the Chinese. Mind you, they’re a remarkable race, and I have a great deal of respect for their strength of character and ingenuity, but they’re a right proprietary and dangerous tribe when they construe that a Chinese grave has been despoiled, especially by a Christian. And to be sure, Professor, just because I personally saw no bones doesn’t mean they weren’t there hundreds of years ago. Until we can make out what all this means, I’d far prefer to keep our local Chinese friends ignorant of the discovery, if such is even possible.”
O’Flynn leaned forward and lowered his voice in a slightly conspiratorial manner. “Just between you, me, and the gatepost, Professor, when those cheeky fellows care to put their crafty minds to it, they can also become the finest thieves and bandits in the world. And it’s a fact that I wouldn’t have this treasure very long if certain Chinese elders knew about it and felt they held a binding interest. I wouldn’t stand a tinker’s chance in Hades if those gentlemen truly wanted them back. As of now I can trust only you to help me.”
I was gratified by the man’s confidence, and said as much. I admitted that I was honored that he consulted me, but reminded him that anthropology was not quite my field. Nonetheless, I was deeply fascinated by the prospects of sinking my teeth into such a rare discovery. I suppose no thinking person in my position would be averse to daydreams of scholarly glory, but I already knew the pitfalls inherent in such ambitious endeavors, and believed I could keep a tight rein on my perspective.
In careful consideration, I informed Mr. O’Flynn that translating the inscriptions was still of paramount importance. And if he wished no one to see the objects as yet, then reliable copies of the originals had to be made. He inquired whether I knew of a method for accomplishing such a thing, and I said I believed I did, and using only materials readily at hand.
O’Flynn thought for a moment, and then politely asked me if I might demonstrate. From a large roll of sturdy white Japan paper, which I keep for mounting botanical specimens, I cut a piece that would overlap the base of the jade seal. Using a wet cloth, I moistened one side of the paper and pressed it firmly against the engraved text, using my fingers to pressure the paper firmly into every detail. Then, using a clean, dry handkerchief, I continued to pat and press the paper into the stone while holding it near the Franklin stove to help it dry. When it was done, I took a soft charcoal pencil and, working gently, began to make a rubbing across the surface. The process worked quite well, as I expected, and the text was handily duplicated as white on black. Mr. O’Flynn paid close attention to every step of the process, but when I told him he would have to come by with the plaque so that I could make a rubbing of that text as well, he seemed very hesitant to comply.
After pressing him to explain his reticence, I learned that O’Flynn was very fearful of removing the plaque from its hiding place for such an errand. On the other hand, if I gave him the proper materials, he thought he could copy what I had done. I agreed, but insisted that he first make another impression and rubbing of the jade figure’s base, so I could be sure he’d done the work correctly. O’Flynn happily agreed, and his third attempt was every bit as good as mine.
As I packed up the materials he would need, Mr. O’Flynn asked what I planned to do with the rubbings once I had them. I said that, with his permission, I would consult with suitable colleagues at Stanford University, but do so without telling them the origin or present location of the originals. If they agreed to help me, then we might well be on our way to solving the mystery of the burial. O’Flynn asked how long I thought it would take to get the answers, and I told him that I honestly couldn’t say. It all depended upon how difficult it was to find someone qualified to translate the texts. If they were as old as O’Flynn believed, based on the tree-ring count, then a true Chinese scholar might be required to do a proper translation. Understanding the difference in language usage over the centuries might be as complex as translating ancient Gaelic runes or Mayan hieroglyphs. I told Mr. O’Flynn that the process could not be rushed, and the outcome was by no means predictable, or necessarily profitable. However, I made it known to him that whatever happened, the value of the jade seal alone made it a formidable treasure in its own right, considering the quality and size of the jade, worth perhaps many thousands of dollars.
I admonished him to keep the figure hidden and safe until I should receive some response from the university. I also asked him if I might see the tree-ring sample at his earliest convenience. If I was expected to continue with the necessary research on his behalf, I felt scientifically obliged to make the ring count for myself, and this time using published botanical scales for reference. Mr. O’Flynn happily agreed to every particular. Then he carefully rewrapped the jade seal, took up the materials I had given him, and, with brogue-laced phrases of gratitude and confidence, quietly departed just as the setting sun peeked between the thick gray clouds and the ocean’s horizon. Suddenly, golden shafts of azure-flecked fire lanced through the trees, and the belly of the clouds all turned flame red. The whole experience took O’Flynn and myself quite by surprise, and we stood speechless in my little front garden watching the dramatic play of light as it changed color and intensity. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my guest made several furtive gestures with his hands that appeared ritualistic in nature, as if to protect his soul from the darker powers. Perhaps it was just an errant quiver of his Gypsy blood, but it led me to wonder how O’Flynn’s superstitious temperament was managing this unusual series of events.
I must admit that at this juncture I was feeling childish pangs of excitement. Like a little boy with a secret to share, I longed to have somebody to tell about these matters. I was saved from such indiscretions by circumstance alone. I had no wife to wheedle me into making premature confessions. My housekeeper, old Mrs. Bailey, already believed I was but a few steps from being committed to a mental institution, and thus never listened to anything I said, and I knew better than to share my special knowledge with any glory-hungry academics, who just might feel free to poach in their neighbor’s woods. I cast no immediate aspersions, of course, but I have personal knowledge of several such examples of academic chicanery, and I flatter myself that I wisely chose not to test my luck in that dangerous arena.
The following Wednesday O’Flynn appeared at Hopkins for his regular day of work, and he brought with him a package containing two rather well-executed rubbings of the stone plaque, as well as a pie-cut slice of the disk of wood taken from the cypress trunk. From heart to bark it was thirty inches long, which would have made the whole trunk a hefty sixty inches in diameter. Even a cursory glance at the wedge convinced me that there were at least three centuries recorded there. But I waited to examine it and the rubbings until I got home and could be guaranteed uninterrupted privacy.
I thanked Mr. O’Flynn for his fine work on the rubbings and invited him to call upon me at home on Friday evening after supper. I felt sure that by then I would be able to tell him more. I also requested that he bring back the jade figure so that I might make a camera image to verify the origin of the inscription. I pointed out that it would be helpful to have an image of the plaque as well, but I understood his natural reticence to move it about.
I had decided against using the specimen camera at the laboratory because it was too large, too heavy, and too cumbersome to transport with ease. Besides, my use of the equipment would attract unwanted attention, and awkward questions were sure to be posed by the curious.
After considering my alternatives, I went to visit my friend Charles K. Tuttle at his pharmacy. Besides being a good friend and Hopkins’s principal supplier of bulk chemicals, Mr. Tuttle is the county’s most reputable and successful druggist, a man trusted by all who know him.
But the real reason I approached him was because Mr. Tuttle is a keen and ardent photographer, and the owner of several very fine cameras. He also keeps a well-stocked darkroom to process his own plates and print his own photographs. Locally, he’s quite famous for the quality of his work, and I am the proud owner of six of his prints.
I asked Charles if he could set up one of his cameras in my house, with all the distances, focus, and lighting predetermined, so that I could photograph a certain object at a later time without making any adjustments beyond changing the negative plates and triggering the shutter.
Mr. Tuttle was kind enough to visit me that same evening to better understand my needs. I felt obliged to tell my friend that the project in hand had a somewhat clandestine aspect about it. And I went so far as to divulge that the proposed photographs involved something that might or might not have historical significance. The problem lay in the fact that the person in possession of the artifact wished to keep its existence confidential until more was known of its origin. In this way all parties might avoid undue embarrassment if existing presumptions and appraisals should prove to be in error. I explained that many important archives abound in undiscovered forgeries of every description.
Charles Tuttle was in total sympathy with my constraints and subsequent requirements. I might even say that he warmed to the mystery of it all and promised to be of any assistance he could. He helped determine where the table and the object should be placed for best effect with the camera angle, and since the photograph would most likely be taken in very poor light, he recommended that I gather together six to eight bright reflector lamps, and a number of small standing mirrors to help increase the light value focused upon the object to be photographed. After that, success depended upon the right lens for the distance, a properly placed and undisturbed subject, and, of course, the correct length of exposure. To help with this variable, Mr. Tuttle promised to write down all the settings and timed exposures in detail.
By Friday afternoon everything was in place. Charles had generously set up one of his better cameras, along with oil lamps and mirrors all preset to his professional satisfaction, using a porcelain platter as a stand-in for the unnamed artifact. When he departed, Mr. Tuttle left me with a case containing a dozen negative plates, and he added that he would be happy to help me develop them in his darkroom if I wished. I thanked him for his kindness and said I would take the utmost care with his equipment. Not wishing to slight his open generosity, I decided not to tell him that I planned to do that job at Hopkins, as we possessed all the necessary equipment. I felt bad about misleading a friend, but it was the strict need for confidentiality that precluded his kind offer. I knew Charles Tuttle to be a gentleman of consummate discretion, an essential qualification for one whose profession entails a long catalog of personal and medical confidences. If it were my secret to share, I’d go to Charles Tuttle first. However, this was O’Flynn’s discovery, and I was determined to prove myself worthy of his trust and confidence, such as it was.
Mr. O’Flynn failed to put in an appearance at the appointed hour, which I found most exasperating after all the arrangements had been made. Evening came and went, and after a light supper of grilled abalone, I decided to forgo any further waste of my time by going to a warm bed with a folio of scientific journals that I had put aside for study.
I had just banked the coals in the fireplace for the night and doused most of the lamps when there came a knocking at my front door. I answered the summons and my lamplight fell upon a bedraggled and sour Mr. O’Flynn. The heavy night mists had thoroughly dampened his clothes and his demeanor, for he answered my surprised greeting with a frustrated grunt and a burdened shrug. It was then that I noticed my guest was shouldering a heavy, damp gunnysack. By its shape and apparent weight, I knew at once that he must have brought along the stone plaque.
I ushered my moist and disgruntled visitor into the parlor and sparked up the hearth with fresh kindling and split pine. Mr. O’Flynn set his burden down near the fire, removed his coat to the rack in the hall, and sat down to warm his hands by the fire. He said nothing at all at first, so I went to the kitchen and returned with a hot mug of sweet cider and a tin of shortbread biscuits. He looked up and smiled at last when I presented him with these refreshments.
After taking a few moments to enjoy his cider, Mr. O’Flynn volunteered an explanation without the least prompting from me. He said that he was aware that he had arrived at an untimely hour and apologized for doing so without sending some kind of notice. He was forced by circumstance to change his plans at the last moment. He went on to lament the necessity, but he had felt obliged to move his discoveries to a new hiding place away from his home. He suspected that word had seeped around the Chinese community. He’d heard that people were talking about the ancient fallen cypress, and the fact that he had been the man who had supervised its final destruction.
“Now, you may not know this, Professor, but our Chinese friends hold the local cypress groves as sacred. Some say those trees were planted for a purpose generations ago. They believe that tampering with such things can only bring down a cruel fortune on a man’s head.” O’Flynn shook his head in frustration. “But why pitch the stink at my door? It surely wasn’t my bloody idea to blow down the damn tree. It had nothing to do with irreverence or anything like it. And if I hadn’t discovered those stones, someone else was sure to. And it seems some of the village elders have taken on a different view of the situation. Those old men should be harping at the county supervisors, not at me. I’ve heard they’re complaining that a vile desecration has taken place.” O’Flynn shrugged with an air of resignation. “To be sure, I suspect my usefulness among those people is fast coming to an end.” He mustered a slight grin. “My sterling reputation is under something of a cloud at present, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that they have someone watching me.”
I asked O’Flynn if any of the Chinese suspected that he had discovered something important buried under the tree. He shook his head and said that not even his wife knew about it. Then again, he affirmed that no one could ever fathom what the Chinese really knew about anything one way or another. But in that vein, O’Flynn did acknowledge that if, in fact, it had once been a local tradition to bury important people in such a manner, then yes, the elders might have every reason to suspect that something other than a root ball was removed from that hole by the road.
I thought for a few moments and then pointed out that the situation could be easily amended to his benefit, his profit, and even his standing among the Chinese. All he had to do was make their community a gift of what he’d accidentally discovered as a result of an act of God.
O’Flynn shot me a look of surprise. “That won’t do at all, Professor. No, no. You can’t just hand some Chinese elder a couple of ancient treasures and expect him to share with the others.” O’Flynn smiled indulgently, as though addressing a rank freshman. “God bless you, sir, but it won’t work that way; any old burgher you choose will just keep the stones to enhance his own clan’s prestige. And you can’t pass them over to just any old tong or the fraternal corporation, because they’ll do just the same. No. If I might make so bold, Professor, until we know what all this means, I intend to stand on the side of prudence and caution. Once you’ve recorded the objects with your camera, I intend to hide these petards where discovery will be all but impossible.”
Mr. O’Flynn obviously intended to leave the whole question of propriety and ownership till some later date, but I got the settled impression that he intended to profit from the circumstances one way or another, if only to compensate himself for everything he’d been through so far.
Now, it must be said that Mr. O’Flynn never struck me as a man easily given to fits of philanthropy, nor was he, on the other hand, perceptibly materialistic or acquisitive. To his credit, he has a fine head for balancing funds owing against labor spent and the going price of such services. Thus he appears to modestly balance his accounts in the black, more or less. And I never heard him mutter an envious sentiment toward those who possessed more wealth or property than he did, or ever voice an ambition based on serendipitous wealth. For all intents, O’Flynn seems to have accepted his station in life, and appears to have all he needs, if not all he desires. And though there are no scales to judge unspoken aspirations, I’m persuaded that his decidedly circumspect and suspicious nature would not allow him the luxury of indulging daydreams of instant wealth based on what little we had in hand.
Perhaps this instinct was buttressed when I informed him that the only true value of the plaque, and what I perceived to be an official seal, was the importance and context of the inscriptions carved upon them. It seemed to be a case of the message outweighing the value of the gilt-edged parchment upon which it’s written. Once these elements had been properly cataloged and recorded, the objects themselves, regardless of all commercial considerations, would ultimately take their place in some well-endowed state institution where they would most likely be displayed as the historical curiosities they are. I reminded Mr. O’Flynn that he was not the only one who had something to gain or lose. My time spent on research could easily still prove little more than a study in academic frustration. With that, I encouraged the man to forgo his suspicions for a few hours and assist in the evening’s labors.
With Mr. O’Flynn’s help I lit all the reflector lamps, adjusted the mirrors, and prepared to photograph the jade giraffe seal. In consultation we agreed to take six plates of the jade figure, and six of the stone plaque. As this was the first time I had laid eyes on the latter, I spent quite a while studying the stone, examining the engraving, and matching the charcoal rubbing with the plaque for accuracy. I can testify that the stone was a beautifully executed piece of work. The inscriptions were set out in three distinct languages and scripts, with slight hints of gold foil inlaid here and there to highlight certain characters. It appeared, from remaining traces, that similar foil had also been used to highlight details of the border decorations.
The uppermost text was comprised of thirty-six vertical lines inscribed in what I assumed was Chinese. The second segment, though I couldn’t be sure, looked to be of equal length in text, and marginally akin to a medieval form of Persian. But the lowest and most cryptic segment was set out in an alphabet I was totally unfamiliar with, and subsequently unable to identify with any reference available from my meager library at home.
With Mr. O’Flynn’s assistance, I readjusted the lamps and mirrors to accommodate the photographs of the plaque. But even with our best efforts, and all the light available, viewing the inscriptions through the lens was difficult. Mr. O’Flynn solved the difficulty by suggesting that we brush wheat flour over the stone and then wipe off the surface so that the engraved characters would appear white in contrast to the dark surface, and this we did with some success.
By half past midnight, Mr. O’Flynn and I had finished our task. Without further ceremony, he carefully gathered up his treasures and went off into the night to hide them somewhere new. I never asked where he intended to deposit the artifacts, which I believe added further confidence to our informal association. I had all I needed for the present. The photographs, if they proved legible and credible, stood as solid testimony to the existence of the originals. I’m not sure O’Flynn quite understood that the patent value of his discovery rested primarily in the translation and publication of the texts. He was oblivious to all such details. His abiding concern remained focused upon securing the originals against future loss.
Since I presumed it would take some months to track down the proper academic assistance to initiate the work of translation, I agreed with Mr. O’Flynn’s decision to place the artifacts out of harm’s way. However, I encouraged him to consider writing down the location of the hiding place, and placing the envelope in the custody of a trusted third party like a bank or a law office. If something untoward should suddenly happen, the document would be the only way to recover the artifacts. O’Flynn listened politely to the suggestion, as he always did, but I got the definite impression that he had no intention whatsoever of following my advice. This realization led me to harbor a nagging suspicion that I would probably never see those artifacts again.
The following weeks were marked by more unseasonable weather that, though not as severe as the last storms, kept the harbor closed and business generally buttoned down all over Monterey. Only those people bent on serious errands bothered to leave the shelter of their homes, and so I was mildly surprised late one drenching afternoon when there came a knocking at my front door. I answered to discover the oilskinned figure of Mr. O’Flynn standing in the downpour. I invited him to enter, which he did, but he also apologized that he could only stay for a few moments.
As usual O’Flynn came right to the point, but now he seemed slightly uneasy and embarrassed. He talked rather quickly and refrained from eye contact lasting more than two seconds. He announced right off that he’d come out to give personal notice of his departure to all his fine employers. He said he was leaving town to take on more serious and lucrative work now that he was completely recovered from his injury.
I noticed that O’Flynn fidgeted with his hands as he informed me that he would soon be back to work for the railroad up north. In an attempt at affable informality, he justified his choice by bragging that being a road foreman, working the long rails out in the countryside, was a “right-soft berth.” He seemed happy to recall with some degree of sarcasm that “way out on the line” a “family man” might enjoy domestic tranquillity, unfettered conversation with friends, relative safety, and “right-fine” victuals served without complaints. In spite of all this nonsense, I knew the crux of O’Flynn’s reckoning. Like any man in his position, a fat pay packet every two weeks beckoned like an irresistible muse. I imagined this fortunate circumstance would go a long way toward making his wife happy, whether he was at home or not.
As surprised as I was, I hadn’t for a moment forgotten his discovery, or our mutual involvement in its fate. I tried to interject a question concerning its future, but O’Flynn shook his head and insisted we could attend to that matter later. At the moment he pleaded more urgent matters elsewhere. Despite my serious concerns, I saw no reason not to wish him the very best of good fortune in his future endeavors. O’Flynn smiled and thanked me heartily, but upon departing he reminded me that Wednesday would be his last day at Hopkins, and if possible he wished to settle up his wages at that time. I happily agreed and he thanked me again with a handshake. Before I could discover anything further, O’Flynn quickly departed into failing light and pelting rain.
The last time I ever saw Mr. O’Flynn was that following Wednesday at the laboratory. I had especially brought along some of the photographs to show him in the privacy of my office, but he seemed only partially interested. In fact, I noticed that he appeared slightly agitated and distracted. When I asked what was disturbing him, he threw up his hands and shook his copper mane with an irritated exclamation. “Ach! But it’s the same as before.” Then he leaned closer and confided to me that he was positive the Chinese were still dogging his heels. He had twice caught sight of his shadows where they had no business being. He swore he didn’t know how, but he alleged the Chinese elders knew, or at least suspected something. O’Flynn even said that he was fairly sure someone had very carefully searched his cottage when he and his wife were away. He warned me that their obstinate suspicions might soon spread out to include me, especially since they would know of our past associations.
In that vein I asked about the artifacts and his plans for them. Mr. O’Flynn flatly declared they were well hidden and beyond all discovery by the Chinese, or anyone else for that matter. The question must have acted like salt in a wound, for O’Flynn became agitated and stated that as far as he was concerned, “those bloody stones can stay hidden until Satan comes up for trial, or until some cunning fellow shows me how to profit from their retrieval.” Then he softened his words and once again showed himself concerned with my particular situation. “But if I were a clever gentleman like you, Professor, I’d see to the safety of those papers of yours. Those rubbings and photographs are the only proof you have that such articles rightly exist at all. And mark me when I tell you that those courteous Chinese elders across the way are the canniest lot of old badgers on God’s earth; you can take my word for that. And, if you can help it, never but never get between them and something they want. No matter what’s thought of them hereabouts, I can tell you those people can skin you alive with such agility that you won’t even know your hide is missing till you shuck off your pants for a bath.”
I smiled and thanked Mr. O’Flynn for his timely advice. I then asked where he might be found if I should discover something important about the artifacts. O’Flynn thought for a moment and said I should place a notice in the Railroad News. It would eventually catch up to him anywhere he was.
In conclusion I thanked Mr. O’Flynn for his years of hard work and dedication on Hopkins’s behalf. O’Flynn somehow managed a modest blush, and with many thanks in return he signed the receipt for his wages. Then we shook hands and he departed.
As an aside, I ultimately acted upon Mr. O’Flynn’s admonition about the existing evidence and decided to secure my notes, the rubbings, and the photographs in a proper fashion. I sorted the material down into three complete packages, each carefully pressed and secured between folds of unbleached linen and boxed in a cedar packing case that would stand up to the rigors of transport and storage. The first I posted to a colleague at Stanford to hold in trust for me. The second I prepared for eventual shipment east to Harvard University, where I was reliably given to understand the esteemed Professor J. L. Andeborg still held tenure in early Asian languages and texts. Once I had written to him to get his approval, I would ship the materials back east for his opinion. The last package was for myself, and therefore the most complete. Nonetheless, I chose to side with caution. I took the other parcels and temporarily deposited them in the property vault at the Bank of Salinas, where I knew they would be safe until I could turn my attention to their future.
BETWEEN THE END OF MARCH and early April of ’06 the increasingly angry spates of stormy weather were sometimes interspersed with curious and unexplainable periods of dead calm, clear skies, and motionless, millpond conditions upon the bay. In fact, it was very early in the morning, perhaps five o’clock, on just such a motionless day that two of my graduate students drew my attention to the stillness of the water. Classes for some students had been called at that difficult hour to facilitate collecting specimens in the rock pools and traps with the outgoing tide. However, the tide seemed to be going out at an unusually accelerated pace.
I had gone outside to stand with my students and noticed at once that even the birds and animals seemed to be holding their tongues. All the seagulls had departed, and the sea lions were mute for once. But even with all that, I was still quite amazed to witness every boat from the various Chinese fishing villages loaded to the gunwales with men, women, and children. They were simply floating about the glassy bay without apparent destination or purpose.
From the sounds that traveled to us from across the still water, it appeared they had also taken along their dogs, geese, piglets, and God knows what else. I took note that the bay had become so still, in fact, that there ceased to be even the smallest ripple breaking along the surf line. I must confess that I found the unnatural quiet and apparent motionlessness palpably disturbing, almost to the point of vertigo; it was as though the whole planet had stopped moving, and now waited in hushed anticipation for some great and climactic event.
And then it happened. Just as my students and I turned to go back up to the laboratory, the three of us were violently tripped off balance and thrown to the earth by a tremendous shaking of the ground. I’d experienced several small earthquakes before, but nothing of that intensity or tenacity. The brutal tremors continued unabated for at least twenty of the longest seconds I have ever experienced. The disorienting momentum was sharply accompanied by the familiar signature of shattering glass. Instantly my mind’s eye foresaw crashing laboratory cradles cluttered with beakers and test tubes, overturned aquariums, and hazardous shards of laboratory glass liberally distributed everywhere. Hardest of all to dismiss were the distressed and frightened pleas for assistance, and the screams of the students still trapped within the laboratory. And then abruptly, in a nerve-wrenching instant, the quake ceased. And again it was still, motionless, and even more frightening.
Upon regaining our feet, we three immediately went about searching for those people who had cried out for help. Thankfully, there were few injuries requiring serious attention, and the cries for help were coming from people who were trapped by jammed doors or upended equipment. The physical damage to the laboratory itself was not quite as bad as my fears and ears had led me to expect. Most of the broken glass had come from the many windows and dry aquariums stacked for storage, though we did part with a fair inventory of expensive and necessary laboratory glassware. I gauged that replacing all the broken windows would require more labor than all the other repairs.
On one of my trips escorting dazed students out of the building, I happened to look back toward the bay momentarily, and there I spied a curious sight. The water, which had been glass-smooth but moments before, now rippled out in all directions without the benefit of wind or swell. The moving water appeared similar to the effects of a large pebble tossed into a still pool. And out of the silence emerged a sound I shall never forget. It was the broad release of laughter, both joyful and nervous, coming from the villagers on board the fishing junks. I found this fascinating, and ten minutes later I took the opportunity to look out over the bay once more. I was pleased, if somewhat confused, to find the sea conditions had returned to normal and that all the boats had safely returned to the beach with their precious cargo of children and livestock. I have since been plagued with the nagging suspicion that the Chinese knew what was about to happen long before it occurred, and trusted their safety afloat better than they did ashore.
As we went about our search and recovery, my students and I were relieved to discover that aside from a few cases of shock and disorientation, the injuries suffered were indeed minor. I only wish I could say the Almighty had been as kind to the rest of northern California.
With the telegraph wires down, and rail travel at a standstill, it took days for us to discover the terrible scope of the tragedies inflicted upon San Francisco, San Jose, and numerous smaller towns. Even Salinas, which is far closer to home, had its whole main street reduced to smoldering piles of broken masonry in just moments. I was later informed that the parcels I had placed in the bank there were destroyed in the subsequent decimation.
Perhaps it was because Pacific Grove rests upon an extensive granite shelf, or because the town is mostly of newer timber-frame construction and therefore more flexible, but in general the community suffered only modest structural damage. In many cases little was really noticeable beyond drifting porch pillars, toppled garden walls and arbors, or doorjambs and window frames skewed out of all true alignment.
At every church in town, the bewildered population expressed prayerful gratitude for its survival. And afterward many people noted that, aside from the shared demolition of window glass, storage jars, household crockery, and mantel-ensconced family treasures, the overall destruction in Pacific Grove and Monterey was mercifully kept at a minimum. Indeed, coastal communities like Santa Cruz fared far worse.
Barring the loss of a score of roof tiles, a half-collapsed rose arbor over the walk, and a few shattered potted plants, my own little cottage was where I had left it, more or less. However, I soon discovered that the homey interior of my quaint residence had been transformed into a chaotic mound of collapsed bookshelves, scattered books and papers, broken crockery, dinner dishes, and shattered lamps; in short, an unqualified disaster that took many weeks to sort out. Nonetheless, my first obligation was to help get Hopkins Laboratory back in working order, and for a while that hobbled all other priorities.
In the long, distressing weeks following the earthquake, Monterey County experienced a noteworthy increase in population. The influx consisted of shocked and jaded refugees from the more heavily damaged areas to the north. They came to seek shelter with parents, siblings, cousins, distant relatives, or just friends. Some arrived in tatters, friendless and alone, and just camped out where they could.
My friend Mr. Henry Kent owns the Mammoth Livery Stables. When I mentioned all the sad-boned strangers in town, Henry shrugged with Christian resignation and told me he was presently supporting seven heartbroken relatives, late of Hollister and San Jose, at his own house. He said they had all lost their homes and intended to move to someplace safer like Pacific Grove or Monterey.
In that same vein Mr. Tuttle informed me that since the disaster, a general indulgence in mercenary practices had taken hold, and property values had climbed rather considerably. I now believe it was this situation, coupled with traditional racial bias, that caused further hard feelings in the community. It also brought to the fore a renewal of serious interest on the part of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Pacific Improvement Company (owners of the El Carmelo Hotel and other lucrative commercial properties) to increase the value of their estate holdings by manipulating which land leases, whether commercial or domestic, they would continue to service, and which they would terminate to facilitate their own future development.
Serious land speculation thrives now that Pacific Grove and Monterey have achieved a notable status as popular visitor’s destinations. With the peninsula presently serviced by two scheduled railroads, the number of visitors to places like the splendid Hotel del Monte or the El Carmelo Hotel or Chautauqua-by-the-Sea, increases every year. Even Pacific Grove, as small as it is, can boast a fine little depot of its own. In fact, profits and prosperity are increasing in most all areas of endeavor, and for all classes of our population, except one, the Chinese. I have noted that they seem to function on an arcane monetary philosophy that is incomprehensible to westerners. The Chinese receive less compensation for their labors than anybody else, but they also prudently subsist on far less than most people could imagine. Therefore, they realize profit and, to a greater or lesser degree, even property and prosperity.
THE CHINESE FISHING VILLAGE AT China Point had been in existence for over fifty years, and its profitability had been such that, in all those years, not once had the village ever been in default or arrears on its lease payments to the Pacific Improvement Company, which owns the land. For that matter, the Chinese are acknowledged for their prompt attention to debts of any kind. They are just as insistent that others do the same.
The village corporation is managed by what the Chinese refer to as a tong. I don’t know about other Chinese enclaves, but in Pacific Grove the village tong is more like a mayoral arrangement: the tong supervises all the village’s business and maintains social order within the community. In effect, it is judge and jury in all matters of local importance. I’m well aware that in places like San Francisco, Seattle, and other large ports, some tongs are little more than organs of criminal extortion backed by threats of violence, but that wasn’t really the case at China Point. There, the local tong was, for the most part, a righteous set of old gentlemen who genuinely cared for the well-being of their constituents and conducted village business on their behalf.
I am convinced that the underlying conflict was basically aesthetic in nature, though racial considerations certainly buttressed the fundamental discord on both sides. And no one in their right mind would ever claim that the coastal Chinese fishing villages were pleasant to the eye. Their fragile shanties were slapdab affairs made from anything at hand, and looked as though they had been washed ashore by some terrific storm. And this is not far from the truth, since driftwood supplied a good portion of the construction material used. Many of the buildings are precariously perched on the coastal boulders, with the odd piling driven here and there to hold things in place during a heavy blow. The wobbly, rope-lashed appearance of China Point, for instance, may have been quaint to the visitor’s eye from a distance. But for the local white population, it was an eyesore and, in some important instances, far worse.
In all fairness it must be said that when the Chinese dried their abundant catches of squid, which they laid out on every conceivable flat surface in the village, the odorous stench could become quite overpowering. If the wind was hauling from the right direction, the reeking odor could bring up the gall of an individual living at the top of Forest Avenue. For some reason the smell never seemed to bother the Chinese, leading some locals to speculate that the Chinese had no olfactory sensibilities whatsoever.
In short, I believe this conflict between the land agents and the Chinese came about as a result of the confluence of all these elements in an environment of rising property values and much increased revenue brought in by visitors who came to enjoy the pristine beauty of the Monterey Peninsula. As far as the Pacific Improvement Company was concerned, lease or no lease, China Point, with its accompanying perfume, was anything but a jewel in the crown of civic pride, and naturally the company sought any legal means to reclaim the land.
The Chinese, however, would not be bullied. They held a well-drafted, ironclad ninety-nine-year lease, and were not about to relinquish it without very substantial compensations, which the PIC could ill afford after the added damage expenses brought on by the earthquake. Even with the tacit backing of the railroad, which held a strong vested interest in the increased tourist trade, little or no legal progress could be made on the matter.
It was soon after the earthquake that the commandant of the Presidio sent a company of the First Squadron of the Ninth Cavalry down to their old tent camp and parade ground adjacent to China Point. They were sent at the request of Sheriff Robert Nesbitt to help keep order and prevent looting after the quake. These hearty buffalo soldiers had recently served with distinction in the Philippines, and they presented a formidable and reassuring presence. This move also served the Army commandant’s purposes, as his troopers’ new barracks at the Presidio had also sustained damage. Thus he needed to bivouac some of his men until proper repairs could be completed.
A short while later I made the acquaintance of the dashing young cavalry officer in charge of these soldiers. His name was Captain Charles Young, and a more intelligent and perspicacious officer would be hard to find. To tell the truth, I was somewhat surprised by the extent of this officer’s education until I discovered that he had graduated fifth in his class at West Point. Indeed, he was only the third black cadet to matriculate with honors from the Army academy, and had shown special aptitude in engineering and the sciences. Since his men were encamped close by, Captain Young often came by the laboratory to pay his respects. He displayed knowledgeable interest in our work, and was in the habit of asking the most intelligent and interesting questions. As fate would have it, Captain Young and I would become involved on the periphery of a local tragedy.
ON THE EVENING OF MAY 16 I enjoyed a very pleasant dinner with Dr. Trimmer and his wife. It was during after-dinner coffee that Rhoda Trimmer drew our attention to a strange glow to the west. Soon afterward the sound of fire bells was heard. Concerned with the safety of the laboratory, I took my leave and went off with Dr. Trimmer to see what was happening, and to lend our services to any who might be in need. When we drew close, we discovered that the Chinese fishing village at China Point was fully engulfed in flames and smoke. Due to the steady winds and the poor building materials employed by the Chinese, the furious conflagration traveled unimpeded across the length of the village in less than fifteen minutes. The presence of our intrepid volunteer fire company meant little to the sad outcome of the disaster, as there was no adequate water source to feed the pump wagon aside from the bay. However, there wasn’t enough fire hose to reach that far, and even if there had been, the pump wagon didn’t possess the power to lift the water that high. As a result, there was little chance of extinguishing the flames, and so everybody just stopped and watched the village burn to the ground.
Captain Young sent his men to help the fire company, but it was obvious to everyone that the fire had grown out of all proportion to the abilities of even the bravest bucket brigade. The sole grace to the whole tragedy was the fact that, though they were now homeless, no Chinese had lost their lives or been injured. Realizing that the survivors must be sheltered from the elements, Captain Young ordered his sergeant major to gather up as many campaign tents as he could find from the Presidio’s storehouse, and to erect them on the parade field adjacent to his own encampment. He also made sure that food and drinking water were brought in for the dispossessed.
The next day, on the way to work, I returned to the scene of the fire to survey the damage. I was disgusted to find a good number of local ne’er-do-wells scavenging through the smoldering wreckage for anything of value. They brazenly looted charred scrap right under the tearful eyes of the traumatized survivors. Sadly, the Chinese were helpless to stop them until Captain Young told his men to run off the looters and guard the Chinese while they searched for whatever possessions they could still salvage from the fire.
Eventually, small collections were taken up by various church groups to help feed and clothe the survivors, but little else could be done to assist in their relief, as more than a few citizens were quite satisfied to see the village gone. These whispered sentiments saddened me more than anything else.
Two days later, while teaching a class at Hopkins, I was surprised by a visit from Sheriff Nesbitt and Captain Young. They were accompanied by a demure young corporal who seemed rather downcast and distracted. Once I had dismissed my students, I invited my visitors to retire to my office for what looked to be a very serious conference indeed. I only assumed this because Sheriff Nesbitt, normally a smiling, good-natured peace officer, bore the appearance of a fellow now deeply haunted by serious concerns.
Sheriff Nesbitt informed me that he was now quite sure the fire that destroyed the fishing village had been an act of arson. The blaze had begun in a communal hay storage barn on the south end of the village. The prevailing winds blowing south to north, as they usually do at that time of year, had rapidly driven the conflagration through the tightly packed village.
When I asked Sheriff Nesbitt why he suspected arson, Captain Young quickly interjected that six of his men had seen a man run from the barn just before the flames broke out. His men were squadron buglers and concert musicians who had gathered about a small campfire to practice pieces for a company concert. The troopers had evidently seen the arsonist quite well when he ran away.
I told Nesbitt and Young that I couldn’t imagine what the crime had to do with Hopkins, as I couldn’t imagine we harbored any blatant arsonists. Sheriff Nesbitt didn’t find my response the least bit amusing, and I will never forget the exchange that followed. Sheriff Nesbitt looked at me with knitted brows. “Dr. Gilbert, just when exactly was the last time you spoke with a man in your employ called Billy O’Flynn, known in some quarters as Red Billy?”
I was of course stunned by the question, but I told him all that I knew of Mr. O’Flynn, his rather sudden departure from our employ due to some kind of reconciliation with the Southern Pacific, and how he and his family had left Pacific Grove some weeks past as far as I knew. I asked Sheriff Nesbitt if he had made inquiries with O’Flynn’s other employers, and he answered that everyone interviewed had stated the very same facts and presumptions.
“But why would you be asking after Mr. O’Flynn?” I asked.
Captain Young then spoke up. “My men are the best skirmishers and pickets in the Army. General Abernathy called us his Night Owls. My boys can spot a vole at fifty yards on a moonless night. That’s how we stayed alive all those months in the Philippines.” Captain Young looked to his corporal for confirmation and received it with a nod. “And to that end, they swear that they witnessed a man run from the barn just before the flames appeared at the doors. The culprit was remarked by my men as a figure of unusual appearance, primarily because he seemed to have a dark complexion crowned by a mane of bright, copper-colored hair.”
Sheriff Nesbitt stepped in to save time. “The only man that fits that description is Mr. Bill O’Flynn . . . The question is, to what purpose would a man, who has supposedly migrated north to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad, secretly return to burn down an innocent Chinese fishing village where, according to what you’ve told me in the past, he was so well received and respected for his fair dealings?”
I admitted to them both that I had no idea why these presumed crimes might have transpired, all the time secretly suspecting that some dangerous impasse had taken place between O’Flynn and the Chinese. Perhaps the conflict had something to do with O’Flynn’s secret discovery. I’m ashamed to say that this scenario suddenly fit and reinforced all my irksome suspicions. But at the time I saw no reason to express them publicly.
Sheriff Nesbitt went on to say that he had set an investigation in motion, but that without more substantial evidence, he knew not where to turn. He could petition for a general warrant of arrest against Mr. O’Flynn, of course, but not knowing where he had gone, or even if he was indeed the true perpetrator, left the sheriff with little to take before Judge Kimmerlin as proof of culpability.
Further inquiries made with the Southern Pacific Railroad revealed that Mr. O’Flynn had most assuredly not been reemployed in any capacity whatsoever. The company claims to have had no dealings with their erstwhile employee since he’d been paid off and invalided out years before.
In the following weeks nothing could be discovered of O’Flynn’s whereabouts or place of present employment. The Southern Pacific adamantly denied any knowledge of him and offered to open their employment rosters for official inspection.
In any case, I was never again officially consulted on the matter. Nonetheless, for warrantable reasons, my interest was understandably affixed, and I continued an informal investigation of my own, which I’m sad to report has revealed little to illuminate the situation aside from my affirmation that the facts presented here are true and unadulterated.
For the life of me, I cannot fathom the purpose or motive for what O’Flynn has been accused of doing. He might well have had some troubling disagreement with the Chinese, but could it have been so dire as to drive the Irishman to arson and possible murder? But on second thought, it cannot be denied that over the centuries the Irish have been known as masters of the incendiary art. Cromwell’s General Monck was once quoted as saying that an Irishman would happily burn down his own house just to enjoy the pleasant afterglow, but he would much prefer to burn down his landlord’s manor first. Be that as it may, Sheriff Nesbitt is of the opinion that perhaps O’Flynn committed arson on behalf of a third party, but without hard evidence he doesn’t propose to cast a wide net to find the culprits. Suspicion and implied accusations would only cause bad feelings all around. And though it saddens me to say so, I find myself in total agreement. Justice, I fear, will have to wait upon future events to sort matters out.
THE PLOT HAS NOW TURNED as we expected. The Pacific Improvement Company is more than happy to honor the Chinese lease to China Point, but they adamantly refuse to allow them to rebuild, and they have had a city ordinance passed to put teeth in this repudiation of reconstruction. The Chinese, in response, and under the stewardship of their tong, have enlisted the legal services of one Albert Bennett Fox, Esq. I am reliably informed that he is a rabid antitrust advocate with an abiding passion for going after the railroads on any pretext whatsoever. I can only offer the fishermen my best wishes. Though, in truth, I’m sadly persuaded it will be a very long trek in search of recourse, compensation, or even justice.
As it now stands, aside from those few diehards who are taking shelter under canvas so as to continue to fish at the height of the season, most of the Chinese have already moved on from China Point. Some joined relatives in other rickety, rock-bound coastal villages like Point Alones, Cypress Point, Pescadero Point, and Point Lobos. However, other, more intrepid souls simply moved on and leased more land on McAbee Beach in Monterey. The Chinese refugees were back in full operation within two weeks. By way of comparison, it will most likely take the city of Salinas two years to accomplish full recovery.
All the while, the fishing has never stopped, and another Chinese village just seemed to appear overnight like a fairy ring of mushrooms on a fresh-mowed pasture. I have an abiding respect for the ingenuity these people display in every aspect of their lives. I truly believe they could build a viable community from almost anything at hand. They let nothing go to waste and find purpose for discarded materials that others would overlook. They are tenaciously loyal to family and clan first, but usually come together in solidarity where their mutual interests are concerned. I’m convinced the Chinese will always garner profit in whatever field they employ their considerable talents.
November 23, 1906
A FEW MONTHS HAVE PASSED since my last entry concerning this matter. Recently I received word from Dr. Fiche, only now returned from his field trip. He said he had stored my material in the antique documents vault at the university before he left, but would return them forthwith. He added that he had not been able to discover as much as he would have liked about the artifacts, but the objects were most certainly very old. Dr. Fiche stated further that he thinks the three scripts carved into the stone might be fifteenth-century Mandarin Chinese, Medieval Persian, and possibly an Indian script that he could not pin down without further research. He assumed it was a form of Tamil Cyrillic, or some other closely linked language. He believes the large jade seal was an artifact of some importance, and he put forward that it must have been the property of a notable Chinese official. A valuable piece of pink jade of that size and perfection, carved and engraved as it was with such precision, could only have been the property of someone of great importance. But until accurate translations could be made of the archaic inscriptions, nothing more could be determined.
I wrote back to Professor Fiche and thanked him for all his help, promising to communicate what details, if any, I could discover about the inscriptions. I asked him to use his best efforts to locate a Chinese-language scholar, which I assumed would be no easy matter under the circumstances.
The arrival of my package from Dr. Fiche has occasioned many hours of cold and painful introspection. No scholar trained in the sciences can ever relish the idea that an important discovery, no matter how culturally obtuse it may seem, can be arbitrarily withheld or hidden based on the whims of those who are too ignorant to comprehend the importance of such knowledge. For those educated to understand these matters, and who thus appreciate the significance of such information, all attempts at suppression would seem like rank cultural hubris or worse. My own profound disappointment was almost too painful to acknowledge. How much more so would it be for those dedicated scholars who had spent their professional careers in search of examples of the very objects I had seen, touched, and, in my poor way, cataloged. I didn’t know offhand who those scholars might be, but I was sure they were out there in the world somewhere. My frustration concerning the now hidden artifacts was only matched by my anger at being hoodwinked by that rascal and rogue, Red Billy O’Flynn, may he ultimately suffer the agonies he so blithely intended for others.
Sheriff Nesbitt has done his best to track down the accused arsonist, and his office has sent telegraph alerts to every county in the state, but Nesbitt is still at a loss for a clue in any direction. It is as though O’Flynn and his people have simply dropped off the earth. This mystery can only lead me to believe that there has been a criminal conspiracy afoot all along, and that O’Flynn, on behalf of the propertied interests, played a key role. The obvious motive aimed at driving the Chinese from China Point so that property values adjacent to that location would find parity with the rest of Pacific Grove.
Still waters may run deep, but any competent douser can find them, and though the truth of the matter may not have been spoken of openly, it was known to most thinking citizens. Unfortunately, few people chose to speak out with anything akin to a moral opinion that might muddy their own wells. Too many people had too much at stake to indulge a controversy that would only come back to haunt other aspects of their commercial and political interests. So in the end I believe nothing viable will be done to compensate the Chinese for their losses.
I personally, and on my own account, went so far as to follow O’Flynn’s parting suggestion. I therefore advertised for two months on the message page of Railroad News. Without mentioning O’Flynn’s name, in case it had been changed recently, I requested only that “a recently departed employee of Hopkins Laboratory in Pacific Grove contact me on a matter of mutual interest and dire importance.” As I should have suspected from the first, no response has been forthcoming, nor do I really expect that I will hear any word from that quarter again.
December 18, 1906
THOSE IN POLITICAL CIRCLES HEREABOUTS have informed me that the case for the people at China Point will not be resolved any time soon. Some interests are predicting a year or two, but the odds in favor of the plaintiffs are slim indeed. Unfortunately, this eventuality only fuels my sense of injustice and the absolute need for fair dealings all around.
Embracing a circling flock of guilt-tinged sentiments, I determined at least to restore what little remained of the treasure Red Billy O’Flynn had discovered and sequestered away for his own profit. I began to believe that perhaps the return of my historically pertinent documents (in lieu of the artifacts themselves) might at least mitigate some small portion of the loss the Chinese community had recently experienced. Either way, my evidence could be of little use to anyone beyond a truly dedicated scholar of fifteenth-century Chinese inscriptions, or to the local Chinese themselves.
I berated myself again and again for not insisting that O’Flynn tell me where he had hidden the stones before he departed. But then I have to acknowledge that I’m not really a person who finds overt confrontation a viable approach. Such a coarse contention between us might have inspired O’Flynn to make off with the rubbings and photographs as well.
Since I could do little at present to alleviate my sense of culpability, I determined to unburden myself of the problem as best I could. With this in mind I sent word to Master Ah Chung, who I was given to understand was now the majordomo of the local tong at Point Alones. He soon returned a polite reply by messenger requesting I pay him a visit at the tong’s meeting hall on the following day at noon, which I did.
Master Ah Chung met me promptly at noon and invited me to share tea. The small meeting hall was deserted except for three tong elders who sat to one side and said nothing during the whole proceedings. Ah Shu Chung, to use his formal name, spoke an educated English that was flawed only by the chronic Chinese difficulty with the consonants l and r, which one might easily get past with patience and a close attention to context.
It was affirmed that he was acquainted with my erstwhile employee, Mr. Bill O’Flynn. He said that many people in the village had done business with Mr. O’Flynn, and that he was always held in high regard for his fair and honorable dealings. I then took the opportunity to inform him that, after what I had to impart, such an opinion might be significantly degraded. He invited me to speak at liberty, and so I went on to tell him everything I knew of O’Flynn’s activities and his subsequent discoveries at Cypress Point. I told Master Ah Chung all I knew of the Chinese artifacts that O’Flynn had unearthed under the fallen cypress and then brought to me for a scholarly examination and appraisal. I then presented Master Ah Chung with the portfolio containing the stone rubbings and photographs. I invited him to inspect the material in detail.
What followed surprised me more than I can say. Master Ah Chung opened the folio and examined the contents in what appeared to be a very cursory fashion. Though he examined the rubbings and seemed to be reading a small part of the text, he showed no outward emotion whatsoever. Indeed, after a short perusal, he closed the folio and passed it back across the table to me without comment.
This gesture so surprised me that I found myself at a loss for words. I was stunned that there should be so little interest or recognition of the obvious. My frustration instantly inspired me to stir the pot in the opposite direction. I changed the subject by asking my host if he was aware that there was an official contention that the fire that destroyed the fishing village had in fact been a matter of arson, and the suspected perpetrator was none other than their friend Mr. Billy O’Flynn. I further stated that there were several reliable witnesses who would attest to the fact that O’Flynn had been seen leaving the China Point barn after the flames broke out. Again I was surprised by the lack of appreciable reaction on the part of my interlocutor.
After a few moments of silence, my host turned to the three elders discreetly seated at the side of the hall and spoke to them in Chinese. These gentlemen spoke among themselves for a few moments, and then turned back and nodded to Master Ah Chung. He in turn pleaded for my patience and requested that I not speak of this matter with anyone else until our next interview, which he proposed should take place the following Monday at the same location.
I agreed, of course, but in a state of some confusion, which led to several sleepless nights as I speculated and wondered just what the Chinese had perceived from my statements. I was also puzzled by the fact that Master Ah Chung had so easily, and without the least hesitation, returned my evidence as though it was only a matter of passing interest at best.
I arrived back at the tong hall on the appointed day and time, and was again kindly received by my host, Master Ah Chung. However, this time he was accompanied not by the silent elders, but by a Chinese gentleman of unusual aspect. This gentleman was introduced to me as Dr. Lao-Hong, and a more prepossessing figure would be hard to imagine. Unlike Master Ah Chung and many others who still wore Chinese dress and kept their hair in the traditional queue, Dr. Lao-Hong was Western in every possible detail. His hair was fashionably dressed, he wore an expensive gray suit, and he sported a blue silk waistcoat and highly polished boots. The doctor peered through gold-rimmed spectacles, and across his waistcoat hung a heavy gold watch chain from which was suspended a unique-looking fob of translucent amber mounted in gold. But what astounded me most was the fact that Dr. Lao-Hong spoke perfect English without the least trace of an accent, though his pronunciation hinted that he might have studied somewhere in the east, perhaps Boston or New York.
Again tea was served, and it was then that I was introduced to the purpose of Dr. Lao-Hong’s visit. The gentleman explained that he functioned as a trade representative for the Three Corporations of San Francisco. In that capacity he handled the export of dried squid for the local fishing villages. He also dealt in exports of salt-cured eels, smoked abalone, and quality abalone shells, which were used in China to manufacture mother-of-pearl buttons and other decorations.
After a polite pause to enjoy our tea, Dr. Lao-Hong asked after my own background. I gave him a modest biographical sketch, as well as my academic credentials and present position. Dr. Lao-Hong seemed somewhat impressed, and said that he had attended Harvard University for three years before being summoned west at the request of his uncles who were officers of the Three Corporations. Unlike them, Dr. Lao-Hong had been born and educated in America. His knowledge of Western traditions and business practices were thought to be of considerable value to his uncles’ extensive commercial interests.
When all the polite amenities had been dispensed with, Dr. Lao-Hong asked me to repeat what I had said to Master Ah Chung on my previous visit. Again I passed over the folio of rubbings and photographs and reiterated all I had to say about O’Flynn, his discoveries, and the subsequent charges of arson that had been laid against him.
Dr. Lao-Hong’s examination of the material seemed just as cursory and disinterested as Master Ah Chung’s had been, and he soon passed the folio back to me. Something about their lack of real interest aroused my suspicion, which in turn, I confess, inspired a twinge of tension if not outright anxiety.
Dr. Lao-Hong turned to Master Ah Chung and spoke in simple Cantonese. After a contemplative pause, Master Ah Chung nodded thoughtfully and rose from his seat, gesturing for me to follow. Dr. Lao-Hong smiled at me and stood to follow as well. I was escorted to the back of the hall, where a curtained alcove stood. On my first visit, I had noticed the embroidered silk curtain and had assumed that it formed a partition to a back room.
As the three of us stood before the curtain, Dr. Lao-Hong spoke to me in a lowered voice that denoted either reverence or a fear of being overheard. “I believe, Professor Gilbert, that you may have misjudged Mr. O’Flynn. But then, there would be no way for you to know the truth of the situation. We Chinese may have our failings, like all the rest of humanity, but one of the things we are brilliant at is keeping secrets. It has proven our salvation throughout history.” The doctor smiled knowingly. “If we had not, then gunpowder, the compass, printing, and paper money would have found their way to the West three hundred years before they did. Can you imagine the bloody chaos that would have ensued if Charlemagne, for instance, had been able to bring cannons to bear upon his enemies? On the other hand, some secrets, my dear Professor Gilbert, are so powerful that they inspire disbelief no matter how loudly you proclaim them to the world. And we are faced here with just such a secret. So you see, it was Mr. O’Flynn who helped our efforts to preserve it. For we are sure that knowledge of the information you recorded could only hurt our position here in California and elsewhere. Some things are better left unspoken if one is to survive the slings and arrows of ignorant incredulity as well as racial and cultural prejudice.”
Dr. Lao-Hong turned to Master Ah Chung and nodded. That gentleman drew back the curtain to reveal not a doorway, but an alcove housing what I took to be a shrine. I had seen others like it before. Every village had a shrine dedicated to prosperity, peace, and domestic felicity. Almost every house had smaller but similar shrines dedicated to household deities and ancestors. But this shrine was slightly different insofar as, at its center, there was a shallow, two-door wooden cabinet covered in ornate Chinese calligraphy. I noticed that the cabinet was secured with a small brass lock. Dr. Lao-Hong must have noticed my bewilderment, for he nodded again to Master Ah Chung, who in turn lit tapers on either side of the altar, clapped twice ceremonially, and unlocked the cabinet. Then he opened both doors and stood aside so I could get a better view of its contents. The astonishment on my face must have been palpable, for there in the muted light of the tapers I saw the stone tablet and the jade seal. The artifacts had obviously been meticulously cleaned and polished so that they shimmered like jewels in the candlelight. I well remember being at a loss, for I attempted a response that came out as a stutter.
“But . . . but . . . but how did you come by these artifacts, Doctor? Mr. O’Flynn expressly told me that he was going to hide the stone and the seal where no one could find them until he was ready to disclose the location.”
Dr. Lao-Hong smiled once more and nodded. “And so he did, Professor Gilbert. He brought them to Master Ah Chung for safekeeping, and I assure you he was handsomely rewarded for his fidelity. You see, Mr. O’Flynn is respected by our community, and accepted into our homes as a faithful friend.”
I was stunned. “But he was the one who was seen setting the fire that destroyed the whole village. How can you count such a villain as a friend? Besides, what’s so significant about these artifacts that they should inspire such clandestine dealings? Surely they can do no harm in and of themselves.”
Dr. Lao-Hong took on a contemplative expression, as though weighing his alternatives. “I hope you will forgive the impertinence, Professor, but you are quite wrong. But to satisfy your justifiable curiosity, I shall answer your second question first, if that’s agreeable.”
“Any explanation would be most appreciated, Doctor. I fell into these present circumstances quite by accident, and would be most grateful for any information that would set my mind at rest.”
The doctor nodded. “Well, sir, under the reign of the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di, a great fleet of massive ships was commissioned to explore the known world and bring back ambassadors from those far lands to serve the emperor’s court. Now, you must understand that many of these great ships were over four hundred and eighty feet long, the largest sailing ships in the world at the time, and were powered by as many as twelve sail-crowded masts, and crewed by thousands of sailors, soldiers, and diplomats. The grand admiral of this tremendous expedition, which consisted of over two hundred and fifty vessels of every variety, was the renowned Zheng He, a man of remarkable talents and industry. Zheng He accepted the commission and set about accomplishing his master’s designs. At some point during that extended journey, Admiral Zheng He divided his fleet into separate squadrons and sent one of his vice admirals, Zhou Man, to explore the lands in the far eastern Pacific. To that end, and as far as we can tell, he sailed south to north along the coasts of the Americas and possibly set up small exploratory enclaves along the way.
“At some time during that journey, approximately June 1422 by your Western calendar, Admiral Zhou Man’s squadron anchored in Monterey Bay. We now believe, evidenced by the inscriptions on the stone tablet, that he must have landed and set up camp at a place that is presently known to you as Cypress Point. Indeed, you might like to know in passing that the Monterey cypress trees that the locals are so proud of are in fact not indigenous to this place, but instead come from the coasts of southern China. It has long been the custom of Chinese sailors to plant trees native only to China in places where they could be seen as recognizable landmarks for those who followed. The stone tablet records just such an endeavor. The plaque was then buried, along with the seal, under the cypress saplings to mark the importance of the place as one that owed its allegiance to the benevolence of Emperor Zhu Di.”
To say the least, I was enthralled and astounded by all I was hearing. “But, Doctor,” I said, “how can you be so sure of these facts? As far as I know, there isn’t the least mention of such an occurrence in local Indian traditions.”
“I’m well aware of that, Professor. The jade seal belongs to Admiral Zhou Man. It affirms his rank and authority and carries his personal chop. And who is to say whether some Chinese sailors left on these shores did not intermarry with the local inhabitants? You must admit that the indigenous Indian populations along the coast of California look a great deal more Chinese than they do Spanish. Wouldn’t you agree?”
That interesting fact had never really occurred to me, and in lieu of a pointed response I just nodded. Then a question popped into my head. “But if that were indeed the case, Doctor, why keep such an important piece of historical information secret? These revelations could change our whole view of history. As a teacher and scholar, I could no more suppress such information than I could suppress a newly proved truth about science.”
Dr. Lao-Hong barely held a laugh in check and then apologized for any offense. “You must forgive me, Professor, but would you truthfully say that we Chinese in California are accepted as anything more than cheap labor? Would you say that, like other European minorities, any serious efforts have been expended to help us assimilate as equals, or that our contributions to society are respected in any way beyond that already accorded us as peasant laborers who dig for your railroads, work your mines, do your laundry, and demean ourselves as household servants? In truth, wouldn’t you go so far as to say that we Chinese are viewed as little more than an inconvenient necessity, and that most white people might wish us to depart if it weren’t for the fact that very few occidentals could carry on with business as usual without our labors?”
I nodded modestly, and he continued. “And what of your Spanish and Mexican compatriots, the people who settled this coast before a greedy and shameful war tore their possessions from them? Are they treated as honored equals? Don’t bother to answer, Professor, for we both know the answer. And in that vein, let us suppose that a modern-day Hernando de Alarcón did sail into Monterey Bay and marched ashore with banners flying and made territorial claims based on prior discovery and occupation. Just what kind of a reception do you imagine he would receive? You need not respond to that either.”
I was having difficulty following the relevance of the doctor’s contentions and said as much as politely as I could.
“Well, Professor, perhaps we should look at the question from another perspective. Just imagine what people would do if they even suspected that we poor Chinese held a prior claim, albeit distant in time, to the West Coast of America and beyond; how do you imagine we would be treated then? We already live under a cloak of cultural and racial suspicion. What would our taskmasters do if they thought for one moment that we might one day register a prior claim to their land? Of course, these are but rhetorical questions, since it is our intention to send these voices from the past back to China as soon as proper arrangements can be made. In that way our brilliant maritime exploits shall be maintained, albeit in silence, without giving offense, or causing undue suspicion and cultural paranoia. We believe this to be the best feasible solution for all concerned.”
I must confess to the fact that, all things being taken at face value, at this stage of our conversation I felt myself the target of a thinly veiled manipulation that bordered on threat. I confess that it made me slightly angry, but I kept it to myself as much as possible.
“But, Doctor,” I said, “unless you propose to take them from me by force, I still have the rubbings and photographs as proof of the existence of these artifacts.”
“My dear professor, no one here would think of depriving you of your property. But on the other hand, you must admit, as a scientist, that without the original artifacts your evidence would hardly influence matters one way or another, as such things are easily forged. Indeed, forgeries are hardly a rarity in any culture. They are usually created to dupe the faithful, fleece the gullible, and influence the wealthy. After all, if one assembled all the bones of all the known saints that now reside in treasured reliquaries in Catholic churches all over Christendom, you’d certainly have more bones than saints.” Then he said, “You are welcome to publish your findings once you’ve made your own translations, but just who do you imagine would put their reputations on the block to defend your flimsy paper evidence? How many Western scholars of Chinese culture are there who might defend your premise, and how many of those scholars can translate antiquated Persian or Tamil? For I tell you, Professor, that this plaque, like the Rosetta stone, makes the same claims in all three languages, which means that all three cultural groups were involved in these voyages. So who of those chosen scholars, Western in the main, would believe that these diverse cultures were all in nominal service of Imperial Emperor Zhu Di and sailed as trusted colleagues in his treasure fleets? Not that I mean to belittle your position, Professor, but you are a teacher of marine biology at a small Western university. Thus it is my qualified opinion that your information will never see the light of serious academic inquiry.”
I found myself racked between the wheels of frustration and anger. Frustration at the knowledge that Dr. Lao-Hong was correct in his assumption, and anger at Mr. O’Flynn for not taking me into his confidence about his relationship with the Chinese. There remained only a profound sense of disappointment. Whether or not the treasure came within my field of study made little difference to me. I had come across an extraordinary piece of history. I had touched the evidence, duplicated the text with rubbings, and even photographed the stones from all angles, and yet it seemed I was to have no part in sharing the information with the world without putting my reputation as a teacher in some jeopardy. And if the very Chinese concerned in the case insist on denying the veracity of my evidence, I’m left standing in quicksand. The sensation made me very angry, and in a fit of pique I mentioned O’Flynn’s involvement in the arson.
Master Ah Chung interjected by saying that Mr. O’Flynn had only done what he had been asked to do. My look of surprise must have been more than obvious.
Dr. Lao-Hong explained that Mr. O’Flynn had early on informed the elders at China Point that there was a plot in hand to drive the Chinese from the village in spite of their ironclad lease with the Pacific development company. This plot was covertly seconded by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which intended to construct an extended railroad line down the shore, and then engage excursion trains so that tourists might enjoy the beautiful sights. And by all means, the Chinese fishing village at China Point, with its cloying, fetid odors, was judged neither a salubrious nor desirable experience for their paying passengers.
Dr. Lao-Hong went on to elucidate. “These powerful interests conceived a diabolical plot to drive the Chinese fishing families from their holdings with an allegedly accidental conflagration. When the local tong elders learned of their plans from Mr. O’Flynn, they decided on their own response. Knowing they would most likely lose everything without apt and timely preparation, they sent a Caucasian emissary to San Jose to purchase fire insurance to cover any losses at China Point. And just whom would you think we got to insure the property? I’ll save you the speculation by saying that it was the Southern Pacific Railroad. They very conveniently maintain their own public insurance company, and since the right hand had little notion of what the left was doing, an insurance policy for ten thousand dollars was drawn up in the name of the tong at China Point against any community losses from fire. Then the tong very secretly arranged to have all the inhabitants of the village pack up their most precious possessions to be removed to a place of safety at Point Alones, leaving behind only those items, like stoves or ovens, that could not be removed without drawing suspicion. Most all the boats, nets, and fishing gear were moved to the south end of the beach below the village, where the flames of the fire could not possibly reach them. Only the older boats and nets were left to burn. When Mr. O’Flynn came to us and said that he had heard reliable rumors that something untoward would soon take place, we set our plans in motion. On the appointed evening our brave friend Mr. O’Flynn secretly returned to town and set the barn aflame as was arranged. The tong elders, of course, notified the villagers what to expect and when, which is why there were no injuries or fatalities as a result of the fire.”
To say the least, this information rocked me back on my heels. I asked Dr. Lao-Hong where Mr. O’Flynn was now, but he said that information could not be divulged. O’Flynn had protected them at the risk of his freedom, and they would do no less for him. He was in a place of safety and future prosperity. “Besides, Professor Gilbert, if they can’t find the alleged perpetrator and coax a confession, then nothing can be proved either way, and the onus of responsibility remains an open question.”
“But Mr. O’Flynn is already under suspicion. He was witnessed setting the fire by a group of soldiers. Even Sheriff Nesbitt thinks he is the arsonist, which goes a long way toward putting a cap on the matter.”
Dr. Lao-Hong smiled in the most inscrutable manner. “I have no doubt of what you say, Professor, but Mr. O’Flynn was first and foremost a railroad man. He had worked for the Southern Pacific for years before his injuries, and the infidelity of his masters forced him out with a tawdry pittance. Knowing that, where do you think the most suspicion would be aimed? Perhaps one might argue that the Pacific Improvement Company and the railroad made him an offer that impending penury obliged him to accept. Who can say? We believe the question should be left to the courts. Don’t you agree? But either way, Mr. O’Flynn will not be present to stand in the dock to take the blame or point fingers. So the question of responsibility will remain a mystery for quite some time, and indeed may never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, which is perhaps as it should be.”
“But what about the villagers and their homes?”
“That was also seen to. In preparation for the impending destruction, the tong arranged to take an extended lease on some property over on McAbee Beach in Monterey. The fishermen were back on the bay three days after the fire, and the villagers will soon replace everything they lost, thanks to the prompt attention of the Southern Pacific Insurance Company, which under the circumstances could find no reason to disavow the claim. They were mired in their own machinations with nowhere to turn. They will drag their feet, no doubt, but they’ll pay up in the end unless they wish to see their Chinese labor force go on strike. It was all very well thought out, I assure you.”
Here I found a chink in the doctor’s reasoning. “But, if secrecy was so paramount, why have you told me all this? What prevents me from taking what information I have to the authorities?”
“Because, Professor, you are an honest and empathetic man, and were once a friend of our Mr. O’Flynn. You also know about the seal and the stone. But you are also a highly intelligent man and aware, I’m sure, that without absolute proof, your hearsay testimony would be scorned as improbable, if not altogether ridiculous. And I’m quite sure you’ll agree that neither the Pacific Improvement Company nor the Southern Pacific Railroad will acknowledge that any such plot to burn us out ever existed. But if, however, you did choose to take such an action, the tong would vehemently deny all knowledge of Mr. O’Flynn, of you, and this meeting, to say nothing of the artifacts you claim to have examined and copied. For I assure you, Professor, no American will ever lay eyes on those treasures again.”
I left the village at Point Alones feeling quite giddy. It was almost as though the whole situation had been conjured in a murky dream and, as such, perched beyond explanation. Even to those of my contemporaries who might be willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, the lack of all corroboration would mark me as a crank or, worse still, the victim of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a disgruntled employee.
I slowly realized that Dr. Lao-Hong was right. Anything I might publicly say on the matter would most likely be ridiculed as pure invention or, at the very least, idle speculation. For it’s certain that the white population hereabouts would never acknowledge or believe that these supposedly ignorant and lowly Chinese could have so deftly arranged matters for their own benefit, or so thoroughly hoodwinked those who had planned their destruction.
Though I’m now sure that the chain of events will live on only in my journal, and probably go no further, I’m left with a very intriguing source of speculation. What would history have been like if that famous Chinese admiral and his great fleet, armed as they were with highly developed technology and political expertise, had stayed behind in California to protect their claims of discovery? After all, Columbus managed to make a sizable impact on history with far fewer resources and much less intelligence. But of one thing I’m now quite sure. If those medieval Spanish conquistadors, lacking as they did all enlightened self-interest, should have come upon a thoroughly entrenched Chinese presence in California, they wouldn’t have stood the remotest chance at conquest, much less trade. It’s my studied opinion that men of violence rarely indulge in honest commerce.
—Dr. Charles Gilbert
© 2010 Thomas Steinbeck
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In the Shadow of the Cypress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Thomas Steinbeck. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The mysterious discovery of ancient jade artifacts on California’s Monterey Peninsula indicates an Asian presence in the New World much earlier than previously thought. The idea is breathtaking, and dangerous, as three disparate people find when attempting to bring this information to light across the course of a century.
Beginning with the 1906 journals of a Stanford professor of Marine Biology and ending with the high-tech, deep sea search of a brilliant and determined student in present time, Steinbeck vividly depicts the tense confrontation of science and tradition against a vibrant backdrop of Chinese-American life throughout the twentieth century.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Which narrative style did you feel was most effective in relaying the mystery of the jade artifacts: Doctor Gilbert’s first person journal entries or the third person Dr. Lao-Hung and Luke’s stories are told in?
2. When considering the events he observed on the day of the earthquake, Doctor Gilbert reports that he has “been plagued with the nagging suspicion that the Chinese knew what was about to happen long before it occurred, and trusted their safety afloat better than they did ashore” (43). How does this statement portray Chinese culture? Why do they consider the sea a safer place than the land? Discuss the bigger concept of the Chinese community being insular and trusting themselves rather than each other. Is the white community the same way?
3. Doctor Lao-Hong finds himself in a difficult position: to the Americans he appears too Chinese; to the Chinese he is too American. What does this say about early 20th century Chinese-American relations? How has this changed in the past hundred years?
4. “The Chinese Empire had only one all-powerful enemy in the world, and it was the Chinese themselves” (77). Do you agree? Do you think that this problem is unique to Chinese culture? Why or why not?
5. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was an American Revolution pamphlet arguing that Britain’s rule over the United States was a mistake. Included in Paine’s argument was the idea that America was not simply a ‘British’ nation; it was composed of people from all over Europe. Why did Steinbeck choose to include this particular piece of literature? How does this apply to any resistance that might have occurred as a result of the jade artifacts? Can Paine’s point be stretched globally?
6. Discuss the elaborately detailed fishing scene. How is Doctor Lao-Hung changed by this experience? Does it affect his decision to help the fishing community?
7. Yung Lee appears to simply be a generous hostess; however, later we find out that she is deeply involved and influential in the community. How can this be seen as an allegory to the Chinese role in the Californian community?
8. One of the proverbs Steinbeck includes is: “Wisdom is not a birthright it is a treasured inheritance” (131). Earlier, Doctor Lao-Hung observes that, “There were men and women in this very fleet who could proudly name ancestors who served under great imperial admirals” (102). Do you agree that wisdom can be passed down? Is there evidence of this in the novel?
9. On the saucer given to Doctor Lao-Hung in gratitude for his assistance it reads: “Mankind poses questions for which there are no answers. Without devotion chaos ensues” (120). How could this proverb help Luke reconcile the fact that he is unsuccessful in uncovering the artifacts?
10. Doctor Gilbert and Luke both insist on bringing the truth to light while Doctor Lao-Hung and the fishing community work ardently to rebury it. Which side are you on? How does Steinbeck balance the importance of historical truth with protecting an ancient heritage?
11. Luke argues that “pure science” rises above any cultural or racial bias. Do you agree? Discuss some contemporary examples that support or refute this argument.
12. In the conclusion of the novel, Robert eventually follows tradition and joins the family business; however, he chooses to marry a Vietnamese woman. What does this say about the evolution of this tight-knit Chinese family? Has Robert done what Doctor Lao-Hung was unable to and bridged the gap?
Tips for Enhancing Your Book Club
1. Read Thomas Steinbeck’s short story collection Down to a Soundless Sea; a vivid historical and cultural depiction of Monterey County.
2. For a chronology of Asian Maritime History visit: http://www.maritimeasia.ws/topic/chronology.html
3. For information on the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its ocean conservation efforts, visit: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/. If you’re local, see it for yourself! (And if you’re not, look up a public aquarium near you at: http://www.aza.org/findzooaquarium/ ).
A Conversation with Thomas Steinbeck
You mention that your interaction with Chinese culture and your relationship with your own family were greatly influenced by two childhood friends. Are any of the characters in your novel based on them?
The characters in my stories, whether historical of fictional, usually prove to be a compilation of influences taken from differing sources, but never drawn from one model. I might use the sharp folk humor of one reference, graft that to the abiding anger and frustration of another, and then lash both to the wizened figure of a Portuguese fish peddler, or perhaps a snake-faced Stockton bank clerk. The most important consideration is to assemble character traits that work to serve the purpose of the story overall. Plot makes the character just as history makes the man.
Why did you decide to transition from the first person narrative of Doctor Gilbert to the third person narratives of Doctor Lao-Hung and Luke? Which did you find more difficult to write?
When it comes to the form the narrative will take, whether first person, third person, or Aunt Grace’s cat, I usually find that the story tells me which voice it prefers, and that often changes as I go along. And in the end it really doesn’t matter as long as the author can rig those voices all in harness to pull the same load. Sometimes one voice or the other will kick up the traces, but that’s what good editors are for.
Is there any historical basis to the scene in which the fishing community takes to the ocean in apparent anticipation of the earthquake?
The Chinese, who have gained an intimate knowledge of earthquakes over the centuries, have been manufacturing unique earthquake prediction and measuring devices for over eight hundred years, and simple versions of these devices were often kept in local temples, and watched over by monks or priests. If one made their livelihood from, and or lived near the sea, common knowledge dictated that a strong earthquake was usually followed by dramatically unusual, and lethally dangerous, tides and waves. To be caught between land and sea at such a time is akin to being placed between millstones. Chinese fishermen often chose the lesser of two evils, gathered up their families, and put to sea if there was time, it was hoped that this precious interval might be supplied by the quake prediction devices. At a reasonable distance from shore, a tsunami is little more than a series of very large swells traveling outwards like pond ripples. It’s when the swells near a shoreline and become crashing super-tides that all the destruction begins in earnest.
But to check off the question, it was reported that a great many crowded sampans were afloat on Monterey Bay the morning the famous 1906 quake struck. Without better information for or against the reasons, I simply extrapolated their purpose and presence from existing sources concerning known Chinese folk technologies. The Chinese also paid very close attention to the conduct of their domesticated animals for hints of impending earthquakes and monsoons.
You appear to have a rich knowledge of Tong culture and complex Chinese rituals. How much of this knowledge comes from research and how much from experience? How do you balance research and creativity in your writing?
I would hardly say that I have a rich knowledge of anything in particular, but I do seem to be burdened with an unseemly appetite for intellectual and artistic erudition, which, for the sake of balance, I keep well harnessed to a reliable sense of the absurd. With these principles in train, I must admit that I have always been impressed by the fact that history records, with varying degrees of accuracy, that most of the world’s greatest feats of socio-political, intellectual, philosophical, legal, technical engineering, both civil and military, found their nativity in the vastly diverse, and culturally unique provinces of what is now termed modern China. I just followed the obvious historical implications and allow my readers to make up their own minds. After all, they have every right to expect me to do my half of the job, while I expect them to do theirs.
And when it comes to balancing such mutually paradoxical elements as history (as written by the winners), and social research (as compiled by academics), literary license must take a supporting role when highlighting the interface. To that degree, I believe the creative element and the historical perspective merge and become the same creature for the purposes of the story. However, I have never done anything in the accepted manner. I follow an ancient Persian engineering principle, “daydream first, deliberate second, and do the research last of all”. One way or the other, errors will be corrected by better minds than mine before the work goes to print.
Doctor Lao-Hung’s place between Chinese and American cultures offers the reader a unique perspective on second-generation immigrants. Would you say Lao-Hung’s struggle to belong is still relevant in the 21st century?
The need to belong is hardly an unusual trait in socially aligned creatures, and “safety in numbers” is possibly the oldest recognized medium of human survival, both mentally and physically. But that instinct is often tempered by circumstances that influence individual experience and background. For an illiterate Ukrainian or Irish peasant farmer, born into centuries of serfdom and unending toil, and lacking all sense of history beyond a few passages recited from the Bible and possibly the names of his grandparents, becoming an American and belonging to the greater wealth of potential was a true blessing sent from heaven, and as such, it was to be wholly embraced without question, if not complaint. Belonging brought benefits unknown to their ancestors, notwithstanding the fact that life in America was often a very difficult, brutal, and dangerous business for each new wave of immigrants.
On the other hand, if a wealthy, multi-lingual Ukrainian noble, handsomely educated in Paris and widely traveled, were to come to America, the gentleman would find his standing and importance much reduced, only his wealth would make him acceptable. Comparisons with life on his estates, under the care of fawning servants, would soon dull any enthusiasm for the American experience.
But Doctor Lao-Hung is of a different stripe altogether. Though born and well educated in America, his patrician family has hardly stinted on his Chinese education. He is more than aware that he comes from a culture that was, in all manner of human endeavor, manifestly superior to the West a thousand years before the birth of Christ. His place of residence is all but irrelevant, whether California or Timbuktu, Dr. Lao-Hung will forever be Chinese first and everything else second. Any desire to belong to some greater mechanism has been amply satisfied by that one fact alone. The doctor may speak perfect English, and dress like a wealthy Harvard don, but at his core there remains a soul that perceives the world through a lens of Chinese sensibilities that are only marginally influenced, or buttressed by western philosophical thought.
Luke maintains a strong belief that “pure science” has the potential to overcome any cultural or ethnic biases. Do you agree? Does the ‘truth’ always deserve to be known?
Luke’s belief that pure science should intrinsically exclude the influences of all cultural or ethnic bias is hardly new. It is the standard that all wide-eyed, young scientists salute, and a topic that rich scientists debate with their bankers. I, for one, believe that mixing myth and science makes for great fiction now and then; i.e. Ray Bradbury’s ‘Martian Chronicles’, but in general that concoction taints what we improperly term ‘pure science’. Whether purity of anything is even possible or practical is another question, but one way or another, it doesn’t bring much joy to the world of literature, where character is often textured with complex imperfections for the sake of plot and entertainment. And the one remarkable thing about scientific truth is that it exists free of mythological interpretation, and requires no public consensus to maintain its viability. Whether people really wish to know the truth or not is another thorny question.
Admiral Zheng He and his early voyage to the Americas is the constant center of the novel. What research has been done so far on this encounter and how much of the novel is based on this evidence?
There are a number of very credible books concerning Admiral Zheng He’s global voyages. A simple computer search will highlight all relative sources.
Luke emerges as a brilliant, head-strong and thoughtful character. Will we be seeing any more of him in the future?
Whether Luke ever appears in my work again is more a matter of circumstance than anything else. If I need him to serve the purposes of a story, then yes, but that would be the only reason. There is only one character in this book that has inspired me to create a broader role in a subsequent work, and that is Lady Yee. She now inhabits a novella, and will soon occupy her own book.
In the epilogue, you tease the reader with the mention of “great stone, helmeted Olmec heads” and the possibility of a book on maritime connections between Africa and South America’s Olmec civilization. Can you give us any more to look forward to?
I am often drawn to historical speculations concerning possible cultural connections between distant peoples. Having sailed since childhood, and having witnessed numerous singlehanded crossings of all the world’s oceans, I see no conceivable reason why a ship manned by experienced African fishermen couldn’t have crossed the Atlantic very easily. Making landfall on the coast of present day Mexico, or points further north and south if they wished. We have a tendency to express a form of cultural bias by discounting the brilliant achievements of Stone Age societies, and there is every reason to believe that their skills afloat were equal to their considerable skills ashore. The Olmec connection appears an interesting trans-oceanic perspective, especially if it can be traced to eastern Africa, but whether or not I ever get the time to delve into the subject in greater detail is open to question. For now the concept occupies the netherworld of speculation and daydreams. I’ll wait and see what sprouts after that.