A Delightful Acquaintance
When my three years term in the army expired, I started for the United States, but stopped off in Hong Kong, ran up to Canton, and knocked about considerably in southern China. I fell into bad company as was my habit, and my little savings, received from Uncle Sam at the close of my term of service, were soon swept away in drinking and gambling. I worked my way on a steamer to Shanghai expecting to seek employment, earn some money and return to the United States. But it is easy when one is well on the way down the hill to go from bad to worse and at Shanghai I drifted into fearful depths of degradation. I failed to find employment in Shanghai that would give me anything like good remuneration, simply picking up a job here and there, became discouraged, and spent most of what I earned for bad whiskey, stopping at once of the cheapest lodging houses I could find and lying around the wharf to help load a ship, or discharge a cargo, or pick up any odd job that came in my way.
Frequently, when recovering from one of my drunken sprees, I was strongly tempted to commit suicide, often trying hard to persuade myself that the teachings of my college professors, who sneered at the Bible and made so little of human life and the hereafter, were correct, but the memory of my experience of my early boyhood clung to me and although I sometimes stood upon the brink, I feared to take the leap into the dark.
It was when I had reached a very deep depth of degradation and hopelessness that all incident occurred which was really a turning point in my life. I was working on a small steamer that ran down from Shanghai to the mouth of the river to meet the incoming ships. As the channel of the river is not deep enough to permit the large ships to come up to the city, they anchor near the mouth of the river and small steamers run down to bring up the passengers. One day we were bringing up quite a large company of people. I was, at the time, fireman on the boat, and being quite warm had come up out of the boiler room do catch a breath of fresh air. I was covered with perspiration and the dust and grime from the cool I had been shoveling, and certainly in my bloated and red-eyed condition I presented anything but all attractive appearance. As I leaned on the rail of the boat, a group of elegantly dressed and unusually handsome ladies sat on the lower deck conversing with each other. It was so delightful to hear the English language spoken by Americans, that I turned about and looked at the party, almost unconsciously gazed at them; when one of the women, a beautiful creature with golden hair, fair face, and blue eyes, looked up to me and asked the distance from the mouth of the river to Shanghai. When I answered her, “About twelve miles,” she smiled beautifully and said, “Excuse me, but you are an American,” to which I answered that I was. Upon this she asked me with reference to my native state and on my telling her that I was from a certain state, “Why,” she said, “that is my state,” and upon further inquiry it turned out that I was quite well acquainted with the city in which she had been born and raised and in which she now had her home. She came and stood with me by the rail of the boat and we conversed for several minutes. Under the spell of her charming influence I forgot my soiled and disgusting appearance and also forgot my duties until the stern voice of the engineer aroused me and called me back to my coal heaving.
During our conversation I learned that this young woman was going out to visit her brother, an American gentleman who was connected with a large business firm in Shanghai. While I had no acquaintance with her brother, I knew of his business firm, something of his reputation as a substantial man of affairs and knew him when I saw him on the street. Fortunately he did not know anything of me.
After I had fired my engine and just as our boat was pulling into the landing at Shanghai, I again went on deck and was surprised and delighted that the fair young woman, with whom I had been talking, as she came out with some hand baggage, looked up and nodded me a kind good-bye, and catching a beautiful rosebud which was pinned at her breast and handing it to me she said, “Take that to remember a friend from your old state over the ocean.” I do not think that I ever had a possession that I prized so dearly as that little flower. Poor prisoner that I am tonight, with my little effects in a box here at my feet, treasured away in a piece of oiled paper and shut up in a little case made out of cedar wood with my own hands, is that precious little rosebud. Somehow through the drifting years it has been a sort of link that has bound me on to hope and again and again, when it seemed that I was ready to despair, the rosebud has reminded me of the smiling and beautiful face that thrilled me with some of the noblest desires that ever came into my depraved heart.
I heard the young lady remark to some one of her group of companions that she expected to remain in Shanghai for at least a year, and that night on the ragged soiled bed in the old shack in which I lived, I lay awake and dreamed of the past and the future. I thought of the golden opportunities which I had thrown away, of the cultured people with whom I had once been associated and the miserable creatures among whom I now lived. I was able to see myself by contrast. I could but compare the beautiful young woman with the fair face, golden hair and beaming eyes with my own bloated, sin-burdened and begrimed self. There seemed to be a great gulf fixed between us so wide and deep that there was no hope that I would ever be able to cross it, but a strange change came to me that night.
I determined to give up the use of strong drink and tobacco, to work hard, to save my earnings, and to strive to at least be a decent human being. I will not undertake to tell the reader of the tremendous conflicts I had with the appetite for strong drink, but I won the fight. I was receiving fairly good wages on the little steamboat and saved my money with greatest care. Within two weeks’ time that little rosebud had lifted me out of the old shanty into a fairly respectable boarding house and by the end of a month I was decently dressed and in my leisure moments avoided the vile portions of the city of Shanghai and walked the decent streets and was pleased and comforted when anyone spoke to me in my own language.
I went to the American consul and told him something of my story, of course keeping back the worst part, but informed him that I had served in the army and was anxious for a more remunerative and respectable position than the one I now held. Through his influence, I was able to secure a clerkship in a freight office on one of the large wharves at quite a good salary and a few weeks thereafter had a little bank account, was stopping at a nice boarding house and wearing the first tailor-made suit I had had on since I first joined the army.
The reader may be sure I had not forgotten the beautiful woman who gave me the rosebud. By following her brother from his business house, I located his place of residence and also found out where he, with his wife and sister, attended church. I had not been inside of a church in many years, but I fully realized that unbelief and the wickedness which had come along with it had been my undoing, and, influenced no doubt more by the woman of whom I had spoken, than by any desire to become a Christian man, I commenced attending church. The services were rather formal; the preacher was not a good speaker nor did he seem to feel the power of the truths he was proposing to proclaim. I suppose I was a poor listener and very incompetent to judge of the good qualities of a sermon; at all event, I did not seem to derive much benefit from the preaching. But it was a change and a change for the better and the novelty of it entertained and somewhat refreshed me. The singing sounded very sweet and took me back to the days of my boyhood, reminded me of my dear brother, John, and his warm heart and earnest Christianity.
While I had given up faith in the Bible, or at least tried to do so, I could not give up my faith in John, and while I had striven hard to doubt my own immortality, I could not for a moment help believing that John was somewhere in a conscious state of existence, and that he was in a state of peace and happiness.
During my time in the army and the dissipation which followed, I had sadly neglected reading, but I now secured some good books and when not engaged at my work put in much of my time reading and in six months from the time I had come so unexpectedly into the possession of the beautiful little rose, I was a very much changed man. I was no Christian, but I was sober. My heart was not changed, but there had awakened desires and longings in me which were certainly drawing me in the right direction My health was fully restored. I stood six feet tall in my stocking feet and was a robust well proportioned man with strength above the average.
As the time went by I was promoted, my salary increased and in some business matters I was brought in contact and became acquainted with the brother of the young lady I had met on the steamboat. He in turn introduced me to has wife and sister at the church and in due time I was invited to visit their home where a delightful acquaintance sprang up between myself and Miss Rosalind Fawnsworth. This was the name of the woman who by one little act of kindness had started me on the road to better things. Of course, I said nothing of our previous meeting and, it would have been impossible for anyone to have recognized me as the poor bum to whom she gave the little flower that had done so much for me.
I frequently walked home with her from church and occasionally took her out for a drive, was introduced by her to a group of intelligent and interesting people. It seemed that a new era had dawned upon me and I sometimes felt as if genuine happiness was a possibility, and I should have been happy, but for the sad secret I carried hidden in my heart. A man who takes the life of his fellow-man shoulders a fearful burden to carry through life. Only those who have had the experience that has haunted me can have a real conception of the unrest that attends the man who has taken away the life of his fellow. The specter leans with him over his books at the desk, walks with him on the street, sits with him at the table and is hanging on his bedside when he goes to his restless pillow, startles him from. his slumber, and grins with a cruel familiarity in his face when he arises from his broken rest to meet another day of remorse. I would that those who may read these lines may fix a deep resolve within their hearts to be saved from the burden I had so foolishly taken upon my shoulders. In spite of it, however, there was hope rising up in me for better things.
It is useless for me to tell the reader that I was passionately in love. The object of my affection was in every sense worthy. She was of good family, educated and accomplished. She had a high moral sense, she was a Christian with an unclouded and restful faith. She was tender-hearted and compassionate, and was full of cheerfulness; there seemed to be no unkind thought or impulse about her. She was one of those women in whom a man could confide absolutely. Like all true women, she was genuinely affectionate, and as the days went by, although a modest and reserved woman, she gave frequently cause for me to believe that she had some feeling for me other than mere friendship which so readily springs up between people from the United States who meet even casually in the far away oriental countries.