Today's Reading

Beijing, 1966

Every story connects to all stories.

The country is in upheaval. The earth shakes beneath feet pounding this way and that. People rush to proclaim their purity before the other side can proclaim the same. So many are so sure, yet at such odds with one another.

Those of us who've lived long lives have seen such things before.

Over my own long life I've written many stories. But some remain untold, though they happened years ago. The time has come to write those, too. I'll put down as many as I can, relating each as I saw it. Events for which I was not present I'll recount as they were told to me. How reliable will this secondhand testimony be? As reliable as my own, I'll wager. For better or worse.

A good friend once said that no story ever truly ends. If he was correct, that must necessarily mean no story has a true beginning, either. Very well; but the one I'll now tell can be said, for the purposes of the telling, to begin in the city of London, in the year 1924, not far from the Marble Arch.

London, 1924

Leaning on an iron railing, I took in the sights and sounds of a Hyde Park spring afternoon. Yellow daffodils splashed the borders of the emerald lawn, on which picnickers sat on plaid blankets. Threading among them, giggling children chased yipping dogs. The late sun lent everything a generous honey glow.

At Speaker's Corner the Union Jack billowed in the breeze, lofted by Conservatives fixed on squelching Socialists by means of shouted slogans: "Traitors will destroy England!" and suchlike. The Socialists, stationed beside them, waved red banners and roared, "Down with Capitalism!" Young women in severe suits—and more than one in trousers—held placards demanding the full franchise, not the limited version currently on offer. Others who saw salvation in trade unions, the squelching of trade unions, Indian independence, opposition to Indian independence, the Catholic Church, atheism, the Liberal Party, or an end to the consumption of alcohol pressed their causes, while uniformed men and women banged drums and sang hymns in an enthusiastic effort toward the salvation of souls.

Ah, the British. Often wrong, but never without opinions and the zeal to express them. Possibly, I thought, as I turned to walk to my lodgings, we Chinese could take a lesson from them; though if so, I could not for the life of me discern what it might be.

As I approached the little house near the British Museum, my heart began to beat with the usual mixture of anticipation and trepidation. These two emotions shared a common source: the possibility of encountering Miss Mary Wendell.

Miss Wendell, the daughter of my landlady, was quite the most attractive creature I had ever laid eyes on. A gleaming golden bob framed her lively, rose-cheeked face; her blue eyes glowed with merriment and her movements were quick and graceful. From the moment we met she sparked such ardor in my soul as I had never anticipated finding in England.

The fervor of that moment, however, had not been mutual. When I first came to lodge with the Wendells, Mary shared her mother's disdain for the Chinese and would barely speak to me. I could hardly blame the ladies, for their heads were filled with the slant-eyed, long-nailed images of yellow-skinned horror perpetuated by pulp magazines, cheap stage shows, and moving pictures. It was only through the exhortations of the Reverend Robert Evans, a man of the church known to both myself and the Wendells, that the widow Wendell agreed to let me the attic rooms in the name of Christian charity.

In the months that I had been living there, I believed my comportment had caused the Wendell ladies' idea of the Chinese to reverse. Mrs. Wendell and I had become good friends, and Mary now smiled and winked as she rushed off to her work at a millinery shop or her worship at St. George's, Bloomsbury. I had not yet spoken to Mary about my true feelings for her, thinking the time not quite right. But I had hopes, as I stepped into the entry hall that afternoon, of her glowing smile and perhaps a brief but warm conversation.

However, such was not to be.

"Lao She!" came the voice of Mrs. Wendell. The barking of Napoleon, her little dog, joined in. I hung my bowler hat above the mirror and entered the drawing room, where I found my landlady in conversation with a red-headed young man in chauffeur's livery. The young man jumped up when I walked in.

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...