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BEHIND THAT MASK
Yin Yi, expert wax worker, gazed reflectively over the waxen head he had just completed for Captain Barraby’s Dime Museum and Chamber of Horrors, of Davenport, Iowa. So that he might get the tout ensemble, as it were, of the whole thing, exactly as it would be gotten by those thrill-seekers who ultimately would be visiting that time-honored institution of morbidezza located some two hundred miles west of Yin’s Chicago studio, he held against the forward-sloping side of the base on which the waxen head was reared the small black placard which Captain Barraby had forwarded him by mail. A simple oblong of heavy 8-ply bristol board, the placard was some 3 inches deep by 5 inches or so long, thickly inked over its smooth surface with fuliginous ivory-black, with edges neatly beveled by a safety razor and neatly gilded as well, and lettered in gold letters by some commercial artist in Captain Barraby’s home town. Its brief tale ran:
“Ts, ts, ts!” Yin Yi clicked critically; and his next words to himself, spoken in Chinese, to be sure, proved that he was criticising neither his handiwork nor the position of the black card, but the sad and gory tale thereon. “How unnecessary that this estimable gentleman should have wound up on the gallows. For was it not Chu Fu, the old Wise One, who once did say ‘The Careless Thief, in Stealing a Bell, Forgets to Hold the Tongue of the Bell’? Now, of a truth, this estimable Caucasian gentleman assuredly must have known considerably in advance that he would have to dispatch those who were encumbering his life, were he to realize his amatory ambitions. Why then, why indeed, did he need to end up with his neck enshrouded in a hempen noose, that must have scratched fearfully the tender skin of that region?” He reflected a moment deeply, and morosely. And then nodded sagely: “Ai, that was it! He just forgot to hold the tongue of the bell!”
Now he stood alongside the waxen head a large photograph, somewhat faded, it is true, with the years, and obviously taken from some ancient album. It was held upright in a simple unfinished photo-easel, made of pine sticks. And standing off a few feet, in his wax spattered blue smock, he squinted his eyes as does the true artist the world over, in contemplating his handiwork, then while referring to a typewritten notation, bearing the ornate heading of Captain Barraby’s institution, which read:
Make exackly photagraphic, Yin, except put a slight stare into the bloater’s eyes, like what you did on that other murderer. I find it makes the land-lubbers what comes to my museum shiver a bit, like they was standin’ naked in a noreaster. Also cast him in nearly colorless wax, Yin, sos he’s pale as a goast, but take your bresh and hand him a good bright consumptive tetch on his cheekbones.
Outside, perhaps, of the good Captain’s requirements as to the eyes, the head was a most perfect replica of the large photograph; indeed, it could hardly have been more perfect. Both the 2-dimensional photo and the 3-dimensional waxen reproduction thereof showed a gentleman of about 42—the dangerous age, to be sure, for all such!—with his chestnut brown hair parted in the middle, as was the custom in that mauve decade. Nor was the hair on the waxen bust something that had been recreated merely in wax, nor was it a thatch of vegetable fibres, but real hair, fine silky human hair, and Yin had had to buy it, at so much per ounce, downtown, inserting it generously over the waxen scalp with the noisy chattering automatic electric hair-implanter, and, around the actual hair line, painstakingly hair by hair, with the hand needle—a mere needle with the top third of its eye broken off, and sunken halfway in the head of an inverted wooden clothespin. Indeed, were it not for that crude and improvised tool, the shorter, stiffer bits of lighter-hued hair comprising the effigy’s eyebrows and eyelashes would never have sprung forth so bewilderingly lifelike as they did, and as they invariably do in waxen busts, the world over. The sitter—who, however, had not in this case actually sat!—wore a flowing voluminous brown mustache of the type known as the “walrus” which Yin, being only after all a wax-worker, had selected complete, after much thought, from the huge collection of available beards and mustaches in the huge stock of Monsieur Peloux, the same Monroe Street toupee artist from whom he always bought his human hair. The coat, or at least the brief upper fraction thereof, which enshrouded the waxen head, was a vivid check, with the absurdly short but wide lapels of the ’90’s, hemming in not a modern tie but a huge flaring purple cravat, as well as a very high stiff collar. The fractional segment of coat Yin had had specially made for him by Chee Lee, the old deaf tailor around the corner, and the antediluvian collar and tie he had obtained at Schmidt’s, the North Clark Street theatrical costumer. The defunct Mr. Elisha Bushman’s dainty shell-like ears were seemingly too small for his otherwise normal cerebral dimensions, but the photograph showed that Nature had endowed him with just that precise abnormality; and his kindly blue eyes—Yin always got his eyes at Nicol and Frimpton’s, the Van Buran Street glass-eye wholesalers—popped most beautifully from his head, thanks to the precise way in which Yin had set them in the inch-thick wax shell which recreated Mr. Bushman for modern inspection. The various semi-globular pots of wax, held rigidly each in its surrounding water jacket, and each with its fixed thermometer rising from the wax compartment of the double-container, and all hanging just now on the rack across the room, showed from where the exact stearin must have come which gave Mr. Bushman his extreme paleness of complexion; and the several cans of tints which stood on Yin’s workbench, just under his small skylight, showed exactly whence had come the hectic flush that artfully adorned Mr. Bushman’s cheekbones, and which had been first applied and then neatly worked into the very wax itself. Mr. Bushman was, in short, his own photograph come to life—staring affrighted at the 3 officers who had come to get him—a blush at his own criminal misdeeds just rising to his face.
“Well,” quoth Yin, lapsing into the current English of the year for a change, “that’s done, I guess. One hundred bucks, minus $3.65 for hair, $2.25 for the mustache, $3 for the coat lapels, $1 each for the cravat and collar, $6 for the glass eyes, and $2.50 for expressage to Davenport. A profit of $80.60 for two full days’ work. Not so bad. Not so bad. Hotsy-totsy, in fact—if I have the phrase correct!”
He gazed about him now, speculatively, at the much-confused interior of the unique studio on the fringe of Chicago’s Chinatown. The speculation always arose at this juncture of a job, being nothing more than a fleeting intention to straighten things up and set things aright. But, being a true artist, such righting of things never took place—and the big whitewashed room always continued to exist in exactly the condition it was now in. Wax-spattered benches lay here and there, and over to one side sat the large modeling and casting table, with its plaster-of-Paris encrusted troughs, and the battery of electric lights just above it, focussing downward, when necessary, on the truncated wooden cone on which Yin always made his preliminary model in quick-hardening fine clay. Two large iron kettles of as yet untinted wax stood on ringstands in huge water pans, each on a one-hole gas plate connected by rubber tubing to the wall. A pine board lay across two small saw horses, over its surface a wierd assortment of peculiar smoothing and shaping tools laid out, tools by which a waxen cast was evened out to life-like reality. Barrels stood here and there, of fluffy shredded paper-maché, for filling hollow casts where it was so desired; and various kegs of cement and triply-ground French plaster-of-Paris stood more or less underfoot about the floor. The low north-exposed skylight, angled stiffly upward, its frosted panes facing the rear alley, cast a chromatically perfect daylight into the small niche where Yin did the most meticulous part of his wax-smoothing and his wax-tinting. A rickety flight of uncarpeted steps, with an equally rickety wooden balustrade, ran up the side of the high room, ending in a narrow door which marked Yin’s ascetically simple bedroom and living room that comprised just his narrow iron cot, his cooking cupboard—and his old boxwood upright piano! Two broad show windows gazed out on the narrowest street of Chicago’s Chinatown, but permitted none to gaze within, since, were one outside on the sidewalk, one found both windows painted downward half their heights with opaque red paint to which was added, on the left one, in green letters, the English words “Yin Yi, Wax Worker,” and on the right the three Chinese characters equivalent therefor; and, a few feet back of each plate glass window a dusty brown velveteen drape rose upward to where it hung by a brass-ringed curtain pole stretched clear across. In the left expanse of window—in front of the brown drape, of course—was a dusty waxen head of a Chinese girl, with black bangs and melting appealing black eyes; in the right, a document of some sort looking something like a diploma, with a gold seal and several ostentatious signatures, framed in black wood and resting against an invisible upended brick, its glass surface flyspecked as well as dust enshrouded.
Stepping now to the tin washbowl which reposed on a low partially knobless washstand near the west wall of his studio, Yin Yi surveyed himself, for a change, in the large mirror with unpainted wooden frame which hung above the washbowl, the while he stripped off his blue smock, and washed and scraped his long lean yellow fingers. His study of himself revealed no more, no less, than it always did reveal, but which never at any time lost its compelling interest for him: a neatly built young mongolian of not more than 29 years of age; impeccably dressed in dark blue serge of excellent material and good cut; with squat flat nose and enormously high cheek-bones set in a flat ochre-tinted face, jet eyes fearfully oblique, hair a glistening black, and rendered even blacker yet by the two unsmiling rows of even white teeth with their one strikingly visible all-gold incisor in the upper front, its dull, satin-finish surface gleaming in all lights with a sort of mocking radiance. Behind him, on the opposite wall, a wooden pendulum clock ticking away showed the time to be 3:30 in the afternoon; and were one but able to interpret the Chinese daily leaf calendar alongside it, with its peculiar representations of a crescent moon, a dragon beneath the moon, and a fish above, one would have seen that the top leaf was proclaiming the date to be October 29th.
His satisfied survey of himself completed, even as his ablutions came to an end, Yin dried himself on a towel, the while gazing cautiously about the room as though to make sure that none of those slant-orbed urchins who played at times out on the sidewalk were lurking, curious-eyed, under his casting table or behind a paper-maché barrel. Then, apparently convinced that he was quite alone, he stepped to a battered old-time wall phone protruding from the wall not far from the washbasin, and raised the receiver to his saffron ear.
“Please to give me Webster 6900,” he directed in a low voice.
He waited, his Chinese stolidity marred only by a slight impatient tap-tap-tap from the toe of one well-shod foot.
But as he waited, a shadow darkened the door of the shop. And a loud bell tinkled as the door opened, tripping some lever near the top. “Kai dai!” muttered Yin—which was a good round Chinese oath. He dropped the receiver back upon the hook instanter, cutting off his connection short at whatever point it had then advanced to. An old Chinaman, clad in the typical black rubber-like blouse, with pajama-like fasteners, stood inside the door, hands encased within his sleeves.
“Greetings, Yin Yi,” he said imperturbably in Chinese.
“Greetings, Ancient,” returned Yin Yi, also speaking in Chinese. And proceeded thereafter to use that tongue—but in the tsou or formal form, which a younger Chinese, no matter how disparaging or supercilious his words may be to an elder, instinctively uses for the form of his address, and which the older one, strangely, uses to the younger—to keep the latter in his place! “But who mayest thou be?” added Yin Yi. “Methinks I have seen thee shuffling around these sidewalks somewhere.”
“ ’Tis true,” conceded the ancient, but with manifest asperity in his tones. “Like yourself, I was once young, and leaped and sprung like a doe who had drunken rice wine. Today I hobble along, as you too, someday, will drag thy weary way.”
“Thou art not a bringer of particularly roseate pictures,” commented Yin Yi, with a grunt of irritation. “And so who, again, art thou? And what is thy errand with me?”
“Sing Ling is my name,” said the old Chinaman. “And I am errand boy for Kai Gee Lai, the milliner of Chinatown.”
“Ah yes—Kai Gee Lai. I pass his shop always when I go to the Noon Fang restaurant, where I dine when too tired to cook. What dost wish?”
“Honorable Kai desireth me to ask what will be the cost to him of 6 heads made, upon which he may rest hats, instead of, as heretofore, resting the hats upon sticks?”
“Just pretty-girl heads—not reproductions of any particular picture nor person?” asked Yin, businesslike.
“The six, in such event, would cost him no more than $100,” said Yin. “For I happen to possess a goodly number of old plaster casts, made from both comely Chinese girls and equally comely white girls. Which fortunate possession, on my part, renders unnecessary a large part of the labor otherwise required in such artistry as mine. I have also bought, of late, at tremendous discount, a large supply of wax that makes it possible for me to quote a pri—
“Kai Lai does not wish wax heads,” pronounced the ancient.
“Does not wish wa—why?” inquired Yin.
“If thou walked, young one, as do I, on the grass-slippers of our ancestors, instead of upon the delicately shapen white man’s leathern shoes which grace thy extremities, thou wouldst know the reason why, the moment thy feet trod Chinatown’s sidewalks! Even today, though it be the third turn of the 40 and 1st moon in the 7th cycle of Kwong-Sui—you, I presume, call it October!—the sidewalks are hot and their heat penetrates to the very withered soles of my feet. And if thou wert, likewise, observant when thou rushedth to the Noon Fang restaurant, thou wouldst note that Kai Gee Lai’s show window faces the west—and that the hot sun beateth its way daily therein—even as it doth at this moment. In short, I have wasted 9 and 90 words of discourse, to say that waxen faces, placed in Kai Lai’s shop window, will melt.” Sing Ling paused a moment, as though to allow his words to osmose into his hearer. Then he went on “Honorable Kai, however, while in New Orleans recently, did see in a Negro millinery store, like placed to the Southern sun as is his to the Northern, heads which were of hard rubber, though touched upon the cheeks with a dab of red to give the suggestion of reality. He did inquire of the proprietor, who assured him that such last forever, and can be ever changed with a little brushwork; and that the New Orleans sun cannot melt such. Kai Lai wishes me to inquire whether thou possess the craft to make heads of rubber?”
“Ha!” snorted Yin Yi, his artistic soul affronted. “Canst not read a line of English, ancient one?”
“Nay. An unmelodious tongue, that in its intonations riseth and falleth perpetually like—like the roller-coaster in Riverview Park; that scurrieth, in its cadence, madly hither and thither like a he-dog frantically seeking a mate whom he hath scented somewhere in the vicinity. An outlandish tongue, at best, and one not at all necessary in Chinatown.”
“A very necessary tongue,” corrected Yin Yi, with some asperity of his own, “do you have intercourse, social or business, with whites.” He shrugged his shoulders at the hopelessness of making old China see life through younger Chinese eyes. “Well, ancient, couldst thou read that tongue, thou wouldst see that that paper in yon north window is a certificate showing my graduation from the Rubber Technological Institute of Indianapolis, Indiana, where I was born and where I spent my earlier years. For thy benighted benefit, it means that in addition to the trade which I learned by being apprenticed for 7 long years to Song Chew, the great Indianapolis wax-modeler, now alas dead, I also possess the additional craft to do anything in rubber that man can do. I can, if necessary, make thee a big rubber stamp that would carry all the characters found in the old men’s Prayer of Chongwi, presented exactly as painted on rice-paper by thy very own brush, so that thou couldst, on each fete day, stamp thy prayer on innumerable squares of the gold and silver prayer paper—the gum gnun yee chee, as you term them—and burn a hundred times more of them than thy ancient rheumatic wrist can create with brush and ink pot; also could I, were I of a mind to demonstrate my additional craft, cunningly coat thy shoes—didst thou deign ever to wear such!—with infinitely thin rubber from tips to soles, so that thou wouldst ever be carrying an invisible pair of overshoes, and making thee able to walk dry-footed in rain or sleet. And I can, likewise, at no more than $7 a head, cast thee—or anyone else—a fair semblance of a standard Chinese girl in hard rubber, or soft rubber, of any hue. But that, ancient one, is not art.”
“Nay, but it is practicality,” pronounced Sing Ling sagely. He paused. “However, Honorable Kai does not wish a fair semblance of a beautiful Chinese girl. Or any other kind of girl. He wishes a mere rough and unobtrusive headlike form, that will hold properly a hat, but that at no moment will detract the attention from his creation which sits atop it. Or canst thou not perceive the reasoning underlying his desires?”
“My reasoning faculties are so extremely developed,” remarked Yin calmly, “that even when it goes counter to my business advantage, I am constrained to admit the existence of wisdom wherever wisdom truly exists. Kai is, of course, right: the white milliner utilizes such beautiful heads, such as I can, of course, create, that people do not look at the hats! Well, I can give Kai what he wishes; but, I again emphatically say, it is not art.”
Sing Ling gazed innocently at the other. “From thy frequent emphasis on art, I presume thou classifieth thyself thus among workers? Thou art, in short, an artist?”
“Would I receive commissions from all over the United States, were I not?” inquired Yin, derisively.
“Why then art not rich?” pursued Sing naively—but relentlessly.
“Because though my art is a rare one, and its workers are few, it supplies the needs of a field that is greatly limited. And so I must needs pluck my living on the few jobs that arise here and there, now and again, and are delegated to me from far as well as near, because of my far-flung fame.”
“Then thou art famous too?” badgered the old man cunningly.
“I am indeed fam—say—dost thou grow sarcastic with me?” inquired Yin suspiciously, his face darkening. “If thou dost,” he added meaningly, “change thy tone, if not thy words. For thy enlightenment—and the whole rest of Chicago’s Chinatown from Archer Avenue to 25th Street, and from Wentworth Avenue here to the railroad embankment, dost thou wish to carry the information forth—I am not only an artist, but am that rare thing, an artist with a daring and strictly individual point of view in all things he does, as to what constitutes true and real human beauty, be it masculine, or be it feminine. Moreover, I am a poet, capable of blending the words in either of two quite unlike languages into magic phrases that charm the hearer, white or yellow. I am also a musician of no mean sort, as thou might guess, couldst thou see my piano upstairs in my simple living room, with also my mandolins—or yeong kum—lying atop it. Only a month ago, in the earlier moon of 7th Kwong-Sui, did a bird, trilling vaingloriously and pompously upon my sill upstairs cease his song in deference to myself, the greater master, who ran but idly over the keys. And wait—open not thy withered lips to bandy further words with me. I am also a scholar of no mean attainments, for I am able to reconcile the curious old theory of Mencius that time is substance, with certain modern theories by one Ein-stein, that time is non-existent and is in reality space. And being a scholar, I am, consequently, a philosopher, a philosopher of the deepest and most profound type, so much so that nothing painful that will ever in the future befall me will so much as make me even shrug my shoulders, because I know it to be written for me even now on the book of Destiny. I am also—don’t go ancient—an actor a consummate actor, able to render the so-called Hamlet of one Shakespeare, more perfectly even than recently it was rendered on the talking screen at the Golden Dragon Cinema at State and 22nd Streets. No less a man than Sir Alfred Leets, greatest Shakespearean tragedian in the world, upon whom I called recently at the Stevens Hotel to modestly demonstrate my talents, did say that were it not for my Chinese blood I would have undoubtedly made my mark as a thespian upon the American stage. Moreover—pause a moment longer, ancient, and obtain some more information for that rabble out there in Chicago’s Chinatown!—my histrionic ability is basically natural, and dependeth not on melodramatic lines written by white playwrights, since I can do the chamber act from that great play of the Yuan period known as The Auspicious Hour and the Beating of Hang-Niang better even than Mei Lan-Fang, the great Chinese actor, who rendered it here in Chinatown’s own theatre but 6 months ago. I am again, in addition to all things I have enumerated, a logician of high acuity, able to perceive the flaw in any train of reasoning, as well as the most subtle error in any presumed sequence of cause and effect. And lastly, I am—but not of my own doing, to be sure!—a handsome and practically perfect example of my racial type. By which—and all my other talents—I wield a magnetic power by which I can charm the heart of yellow maid or white maid, at my will.”
“I am pleased,” said Sing Ling plaintively, “that it was granted me by Fate that before shuffling off of this old earth, I could meet and converse with a man who possessed all of those attainments.” He blinked gravely once or twice as he spoke, but his wrinkled face remained a triumph of impassivity. “To have met such a man as you, Yin Yi,” he added solemnly, “is to have fittingly climaxed a long and eventful life.” He withdrew one long-nailed hand from one capacious black sleeve. And put its skinny fingers on the knob of the door. “I will convey to Kai Gee Lai thy quotations, as well as the fact that thou art trained in the working of other pliabilities than wax, particularly in that single one which we did mutually discuss. And he will no doubt call thee for a conference, if thou wilt deign to honor his shop with thy presence.” And turning, the old man exited painfully, the bell above the door tinkling reverberatingly as he went out.
Yin Yi took no further chances, this time, of interruptions, and consequent eavesdroppers. He proceeded over to the shop door, and locked it tight by means of the long-shafted key protruding inward from its keyhole. And, key safely in pocket, he returned once more to the battered wall phone.
“Webster 6900,” he asked again, in a low voice.
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