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THE VOICE OF THE SEVEN SPARROWS

 

CHAPTER I

 

YELLOW THREADS AND BRONZE

 

Mr. Matthew Fosgrove, senior partner in the firm of Fosgrove and Fosgrove, Engravers to the Publishing and Printing Trades, looked up with annoyance from his flat-top desk in his private office at the timorous young lady-clerk who stood at attention in the doorway. He passed one hand impatiently over the top of his bald head with its fringe of greyish hairs, and smoothed down with the other the recalcitrant waistcoat which covered certain evidences of ampleness in the region of his waistline. Outside, the snow, caught in the eddies of wind that whistled up and down the canyons of New York’s printing-town, whirled in great white flakes against the tall old-fashioned windows which fronted on Beekman Street, and so great was the volume beating against the panes that it had almost cut off the light of the fast-ebbing February day.

“Well—what is it, Mary?” he inquired curtly, one hand poised mid-air over an important engraving contract.

“Please, Mr. Fosgrove, there’s a man outside with a queer sort of job that I don’t understand. Charley, the order clerk, is over on Franklin street estimating on that publishing contract. He’s a strange sort of man, Mr. Fosgrove, and—and I thought maybe you could spare just a minute or two.”

Mr. Matthew Fosgrove, with the sigh of righteous middle-age disturbed in its all-important duties, arose from his desk and, as the young woman stood aside, strode forth into the outer office, past the swinging doors which led into the engraving room proper with its tanks of acids, its rocking tables, its zinc-cutting saws, and all the paraphernalia of an art which would have astounded Gutenberg, and made his way to the old-fashioned wooden railing which cut off the office from the small enclosure reserved for customers.

“Now just what was it you wished?” he said to the one individual standing there. “The young lady who was taking care of you didn’t quite understand your wants.”

Mr. Matthew Fosgrove took occasion to survey the lone customer as he waited politely. The latter was, indeed, an odd person, at least so far as the rank and file of engraving-house patrons went. A seafaring man he was beyond any doubts whatsoever, for the color of his skin, which showed up beneath the bristles of a several days’ growth of beard, was bronzed—bronzed almost to a golden tan—as though from years of fierce subjection to the sun of the tropics and the glare of Western seas. He was perhaps forty years of age—possibly forty-five. A short seaman’s coat protected him from New York’s snows, and a striped dickey was buckled around his neck with one loose end flapping carelessly out. A stocky seaman’s cap hugged his temples on which the flakes of snow had already melted into a trickling dampness. His hands were bronzed to the same tint of golden tan as his face, and the eyes which looked out from that face were gray and calculating.

At the query of Mr. Matthew Fosgrove he had dropped one hand into a pocket of his seaman’s jacket, withdrawing it a moment later, his fingers holding what appeared from the ornamental scrollwork back to be a playing card; and as he laid it face upward upon the railing in front of Mr. Matthew Fosgrove the latter perceived that his deduction had been correct, for it was a deuce of spades. With the production of the card, however, the man in the seaman’s cap again lowered his hand, this time into a different pocket, and this time deposited on the railing in close proximity to the deuce of spades a somewhat peculiar study in black and white.

It consisted of a strip of coarse wrapping paper, perhaps six inches high by three-quarters of an inch across, which served as a backing for a number of squares and oblongs of white paper pasted meticulously upon it. Each of the fragments of white paper bore upon it a varying number of Chinese characters, one four characters, another three, and two fragments bore but one character apiece. Cut with a scissors and care fully pasted into a vertical string, they resembled a complete column of Chinese writing, although the slight suggestion that different brushes had been used on diferent characters as though different writers had furnished various parts of the composite inscription, was intensified by the fact that it was composed of separate scraps of paper. The customer, now that the two articles lay side by side, spoke.

“It’s this way, as I was explainin’ to the young lady w’en she went to fetch you. In the firs’ place you understan’ I don’t know much about this here engravin’ process. But I was told som’eres that you people had a way o’ transferrin’ a piece o’ writin’ to another piece o’ writin’ by engravin’. Anyway, ’ere’s what I want done—or what I want to get the how an’ where of. We’ll call this deuce o’ spades our piece o’ writin’ No. 1. An’ we’ll call this strip o’ paper here our piece o’ writin’ No. 2.” He folded the latter piece exactly double, and then, making sure that he had not folded across one of the Chinese hieroglyphics, tore it carefully in two. The top half of the strip he laid painstakingly on the white space to the right of the two black pips; the bottom half he laid with equal care in the white space to the left of the same two black pips. The size of the characters had been carefully chosen, for they fitted with some degree of margin. “Now ’ere’s what I want to know: Can you transfer the writin’ to the plain’ card just like I got it here?”

Mr. Fosgrove wrinkled up his brow in puzzlement. For a moment he studied in silence the two half strips of Chinese writing as they lay in their positions on either side of the black pips composing the deuce. Then he spoke.

“Well, here’s the situation in what we term the engraving process,” he pronounced. “In the first place, you should understand we have no method of actually transferring one piece of writing or printing to another. What we ordinarily have to do in order to achieve this is to transfer the black lines composing a drawing or signature to a zinc plate through certain processes involving the camera lens and various acids. The zinc plate, thus etched in relief, is mounted on a block of wood and is then known as a printer’s cut. Any job printer could take such a cut, ink it once over with a rubber roller, and make a single impression from its inked surface on any other surface you wished.”

“Then,” asked the grizzled man with the bronzed skin, “how is the quickest way o’ printin’ this particular Chinese writin’ on this or any other deuce o’ spades?”

“As follows,” said Mr. Fosgrove imperturbably. “I would advise you to have a single etching made comprising the black pips of the playing card and the Chinese writing together, life size, which will require only one single cut and one blank playing card, and no complicated monkey-business in a printshop. I can give you the address of a firm over on Spruce street near here who manufactures playing cards—you can get a blank over there and your printer can print what you want in one movement of his press. Here is the way we manufacture the etching in our plant here: Our photographer takes both the card and the two pieces of Chinese writing. He places each in its exact place on the card’s face, and locks them tight between two glass plates so they cannot slip. The entire thing, pips, writing and all, are photographed in one operation. You then get the zinc etching that your printer needs. Have I made it clear to you?”

“You’ve explained it to a T,” exclaimed the bristly-faced, bronzed man in the striped dickey. “I had sort o’ half an idea o’ all this, but the more I tried to get it through the head o’ that girl o’ yours the more balled-up she appeared to get. Now a question please: When this thing, pips and writin’, is printed on the blank playin’ card and is dry, will it look just like the Chinese writin’ is writ on the face of a genuine deuce o’ spades?”

“Most assuredly it will,” responded Mr. Fosgrave. “Playing cards, just like everything else, are printed. And if you use a good black ink, the Chinese writing will look like it’s written or painted on by hand. All the edges and junctions of these various scraps of paper pasted upon that backing, as well as the backing itself, will disappear, for a line-etching in zinc takes to itself only the black lines of a drawing or writing, as the case may be.” He stared down at it. “By the way,” he asked, curiosity getting the better of that deferential attitude with regard to customers’ affairs which characterises business the world over, “what, may I ask, is the object of this peculiar job if I’m not too curious?”

The bronzed man’s lips cracked into a smile that showed two rows of firm, but yellow teeth. “It’s a joke on a friend o’ mine,” he explained affably. “I’m goin’ to slide it in a game o’ cards, and watch his face when he draws it.”

“It seems to me,” said Mr. Fosgrove a bit dubiously, “that it’s a rather expensive joke. But if that’s what you want it for, you’d better buy a deck a cards with the same pattern of backs as the blank one you print it on.” From the unoccupied desk nearest the railing he took up a framed diagram composed of hundreds of lines running at right angles to each other, a diagram which appeared to show every possible rectangle up to the limits of its frame, and setting carefully to one side the two strips of Chinese writing he laid upon it the playing card. “Well—let’s see—3½ inches by 2½ —the reading here is 9 square inches. At 15 cents a square inch that will amount to $1.35. Your printer will charge you very little for his time in putting the thing on the press.” He replaced the frame on the order clerk’s desk. “You wish the cut made do you?” He looked significantly at his watch.

“That’s what I do,” replied the customer with no hesitation.

“Want ’er made just the way you showed me.”

Mr. Fosgrove, with the extreme care which long years of correcting errors in customers’ work had engendered in him, took from his pocket a pencil and marked the letter A in the white space to the left of the two black pips, placing the letter B in the corresponding space to the right. He then turned over the slip which had reposed a moment before on area A and marked on its back not only the same letter, but added at its top the word “top.” In the same manner he treated the other slip, marking it B and also denoting its top by the proper word.

“There,” he said, taking up the card and the two strips, “we have them now marked so there cannot be any mistake by the photographer when he puts them together to make the cut. I’ll personally explain to him, also, how the three will lie with respect to each other. Now let’s see”—he reached over in a drawer of the same unoccupied desk from which he had taken the computing frame, and from a small compartment holding business cards of many firms took one bearing on it a diamond, a club, a spade and a heart, in colours, combined with the printed name of a firm. “If you will drop in at the office of this playing card manufacturing company on Spruce Street, one block from here, at any time, you can purchase both a deck of cards and a blank of the same pattern. The blank will cost little or nothing. I think that was what you wished?”

“Hunky dory,” said the seafaring man, taking the business card and stowing it carefully away in the pocket of his jacket. He pulled out a roll of greasy bills from his pocket and peeled off two of them. “Now when shall I come f’r it?”

“Our engravers will be sitting on a strike meeting to-morrow morning,” quoth Mr. Fosgrove with deep regret mirrored in his voice. “Let’s see—to-day is February 25th. Say—February 28th?”

The stranger’s face darkened. “Couldn’t you make that a little quicker? I’m on the ‘Nancy Hestor,’ dockin’ at the foot o’ 25th Street. We expect to pull out on the 28th o’ February.”

Mr. Fosgrove reflected. “Well—yes—I guess we can. Call for it the afternoon of the 27th then. I’ll see that it’s ready.” He turned from the rail and motioned to the young lady-clerk who was hovering about the rear of the oflice. “Mary,” he called. He nodded to the customer. “The young lady will give you a receipt. Mary, make out a cash receipt for 9 square inches to—what name? And address?”

“Well—the name’ll be—” The stranger paused. “Thomas Griggs,” he added after what seemed a bare second’s thought. “Address, the ‘Nancy Hestor,’ foot o’ 25th Street.”

“Take it, Mary,” Mr. Fosgrove directed, and with a brief nod to the customer he turned back towards his private office once more, playing card and strips of Chinese writing in hand, leaving with Mary the stranger, the two greasy bills, and the task of filling out the necessary papers by which Mr. Thomas Griggs would be enabled to reclaim his odd job.

Once back in his office, Mr. Fosgrove deposited the three articles underneath a generous sized copper paperweight, and proceeded to forget entirely Mr. Thomas Griggs and his strange joke at $1.35, losing himself in the mazes of a contract which would make it necessary for a new magazine just starting up on Park Row to have all of its engraving done in the shops of Fosgrove and Fosgrove with mutual profit to all concerned. And he did not fall into a speculative mood, a musing mood, until close around five o’clock when Lewis Fosgrove, the selling end of the firm as well as the unmarried one, his keen matter-of-fact eyes framed behind tortoise-shell spectacles, his eternal cigar tilted upward from the corner of his mouth between firm white teeth, propelled himself into the office and dropped for a bare minute at the flat-topped desk across from that of his brother Matthew.

“How’s everything, Matt?” he asked, as he stuffed his papers in his desk, and tossed his leather portfolio into the corner.

“About as well as could be,” replied his more prosaic brother whose mind, now that the contract was finished, persisted in revolving a bit about Chinese writing. “Lew,” he asked suddenly, “I was just sitting back in my chair here reflecting on the general subject of Chinese writing. Interesting thing, in a way. Seems to me you read that article that we made cuts for here some year or so ago—that article on the subject of Chinese writing in the encyclopedia that never came out and cost us several hundred dollars in unpaid bills. What do you remember of the subject? Pretty hard language to learn, is it?”

“Well,” replied Lew, cocking his cigar upward, “I imagine it is, yet I never went into a chopsuey restaurant or a Chink laundry yet that I didn’t find some yellow-faced Oriental poring away at a Chinese newspaper. As I remember the article you speak of, there are about 8,000 signs in the language, many of ’em representing a single idea or a single word; but many more are just phonetic—sort of short-hand signs representing a single squeak or syllable of one of the yellow beggars. The article stated that the Chinese is the only language on the face of the earth into which American names, dates and places can be translated, for the reason I’ve just described—that for every syllable in an untranslatable American word there’s a Chinese sign which exactly fits its sound.” Lewis Fosgrove snapped open the cover of his watch and sprang up. “Well, old Brooklynite, I’ve got to beat it. Got a date with a little blonde I met to-day to take her to the Follies to-night. So long.” And he was off, through the now deserted offices and into the corridor of the building where Matthew, through the rear door of the private office, heard the click of the elevator as it closed behind him.

He raised himself from his desk, and surveying for a brief moment undecidedly the two pieces of Chinese writing which reposed with the deuce of spades beneath the copper paperweight on his desk, lifted them suddenly and deposited them in a leather billfold which he took from his pocket. Then, putting on his overcoat and his mittens, he snapped out the lights in the office and wended his way down to the hurrying throngs of New York City.

He tramped through the snow the short distance to Brooklyn Bridge, bought an evening paper there, and after maneuvring himself through the jam that surged about the gates there, boarded a Putnam Avenue trolley car and proceeded to lose himself in his paper as the car rolled over the great bridge into the Borough of Brooklyn. When he had deposited the two slips of Chinese writing in his billfold a while back in New York he had had a definite idea in mind, but when he dismounted from the car at Nostrand Avenue and Madison Street and turned east through the soft flaky snow which the afternoon had brought, now sparkling diamond-like beneath the street lights, he suddenly recollected for the first time the original reason why he had brought with him to-night those two strips. Whereupon he turned back in his tracks and went south on Nostrand Avenue, filled with the establishments of small tradesmen, groceries, drug stores and all the commercial paraphernalia by which the city dweller saves daily steps, until he reached the middle of the block.

Here stood a Chinese laundry, the black painted wooden Sign hanging out in front reading simply “Sing Moy, Laundry,” its interior cut off from the gaze of spectators without by a generous coat of green paint applied to the distance of eight feet up on its plate glass window. Stamping off the snow, Mr. Matthew Fosgrove turned in, and when hardly over the threshold his glasses were filled with steam so badly that he almost stumbled. He took them hastily off, which process revealed a small railing cutting off the laundry full of linen-covered sorting tables, a cheap pine bundle rack filled with neatly tied bundles bearing red and green and violet and orange tickets covered with jet black hieroglyphics, and an unpainted matched board partition cutting off what was either more laundry or else living quarters in the rear. At a table near the railing, clad only in belted trousers and spotlessly white cotton undershirt, and working the lever of an ingenious little machine which, swinging in an arc and carrying with it a gas-burning metal shoe, ironed out flaccid looking collars with a rapidity that startled the very eye, stood a lone Celestial, yellow of face under the bright tungsten light that focussed down on his work, short of stature, mild of manner, and with brown eyes which appeared to see only his all important work.

He swung to one side the lever of the collar ironing machine and stepped to the railing, glancing up.

“O—Mist’ Fosg’love! How you, Mist’ Fosg’love? You gottee t’licket?”

“No, Sing,” said Mr. Fosgrove. “I ought to be bringing my laundry over instead of getting it. Wish you’d call for it to-morrow if you get time.” The Chinaman nodded emphatically. “What I dropped in for, Sing, was this.” He withdrew from his pocket the leather billfold and from it took the two strips of Chinese writing composed of various fragments pasted together. Glancing at the pencil marks on their backs which determined their relative positions, he laid them next each other so that his auditor, by craning his neck ninety degrees, could survey them with him. He went on speaking. “Sing, a fellow came into my engraving plant to-day—don’t suppose you know exactly what engraving is—but he wants us to reproduce this piece of writing on a playing card, which is to be handed or given to somebody. I don’t just understand. He says it is a joke. I know it’s none of my business, really, but I wondered if you wouldn’t give me a translation of it. You understand—read me what it says in English.”

The Chinaman’s intent expression during the explanation showed that he could grasp the meaning of a flow of English words better than, with his “r”-deficient tongue, he could produce it, and as Mr. Matthew Fosgrove finished he craned his neck around and riveted his attention on the two little columns of writing lying side by side. His slant eyes began at the top of the right-hand one and ran down to its bottom, ascended to the upper end of the left-hand one and proceeded downward in like manner on it, and as they pursued their way they narrowed, but his head was so bowed that his visitor could not have seen their narrowing. His face was impassive.

“You say, Mr. Fosg’love, man wan’ plint this on card an’ give somebody?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly,” replied Fosgrove. He was getting hungry. “Well, Sing, what’s the joke back of it? What are you going to charge me to read it in English?”

“Me—I not chalge anyt’ing,” said Sing Moy indignantly. “You givee me wash—why I chalge?” He fastened his gaze on the two strips of writing fascinatedly, then he looked up. “You axcuse, Mist’ Fosg’lave, w’ile I look in Tsinese dictionally for part of liting? Then I glad tlanslate jus’ like is lead.”

“Sure, go ahead,” said Fosgrove, “but make it quick, Sing. I’m half starved.”

Sing Moy picked up the two strips of paper and with them in his hand disappeared like an apparition back of his partition. But he did not pursue his way through the pages of any great Chinese book of vellum pages as his words suggested he was compelled to do. What he did do was to take down from an improvised soapbox cupboard a small conical pot of black ink in which stood a long slender paintbrush with fine camel’s hair tip, and with most marvellous speed, his wrist working like a steam engine, he copied the entire inscription on a convenient scrap of wrapping paper without making a single deviation from the intricately formed hieroglyphics. Leaving the ink to dry on his hasty copy, he hurried back to the front office with the strips in his hand.

“Tsinese plovelb,” he said succinctly. “F’m Con-Fu-Tse the Gleat—you call ’im Confucious. Plovelb—you unnastan’?”

“A proverb,” quoth Mr. Fosgrove. “From Confucious. Yes, I get you, Sing. And what does it read?”

“I lead—you tly unnastan’,” ordered the Chinese. Looking down at the two strips he wagged his head from side to side and in an absurd sing-song voice rattled off: “The wise man ’e tu’ln back at the snake’s—the snake’s—the snake’s—how you say, Mist’ Fosg’love, when somet’ing scale off man like not to do no more?”

“Hm,” mused the engraver. “Scare off a man like—do you mean the word warn, Sing?”

“That’s word,” replied the Chinese gleefully. “Waln! The wise man ’e tu’ln back at the snake’s walling hiss; the fool ’e go mellily—go mellily—mellily on. You get ’im, Mist Fosg’love?”

Mr. Matthew Fosgrove wrinkled up his brow in perplexity. “ ‘The wise man turns back at the snake’s warning hiss,’ ” he repeated very slowly; “ ‘the fool goes merrily on?’ Is that what you’re trying to say, Sing?”

“You got,” replied the Chinaman gleefully, nodding with the greatest of vehemence. “You got just so like I said.”

“Pish,” spluttered Mr. Fosgrove, put out with himself and his overpowering curiosity of a while back. “Sounds more like a threat to a chopsuey restaurant proprietor than a joke.” He felt very vexed and irritated with himself. He took up the two slips of writing and dropped them back into his billfold again. “Well thanks, Sing. Don’t forget to run over to my place and get my laundry to-morrow. Mrs. Fosgrove will give it to you.”

“I get—I come,” declared the Chinese, stepping back to the collar ironing machine.

Had Mr. Matthew Fosgrove not been so intent on getting home to that combination so inviting to prosaic middle-agedness, his green felt slippers, his warm supper, his buxom wife and four children, and that evening paper other than the one he read on the homegoing car, he might have seen the beginning of an odd train of actions which was to take place after he had left the laundry. Sing Moy remained only long enough at the collar ironing machine to make sure that his visitor was indeed departed. Then he stepped out of the small swinging gate in the railing and going to the door of the laundry locked it securely against further customers. This done, he repaired back of his partition where, in front of his packing-box table, he stood gazing down at the hasty copy of the Chinese writing he had made scarcely three minutes before.

“Strange, most strange,” he said to himself in his own tongue in which he both thought and expressed himself with satisfactory clarity, “are the ways of Fate which throw into the possession of a humble laundryman the knowledge for which a thousand—yea—ten thousand—of his brothers seek in vain. Strange indeed! So Leonard Wong is found?” His head nodded slowly as his eyes rested on the bottommost characters of his copy. “Leonard Wong,” he repeated. “Leonard Wong—the name can be no other. And all else in the message bespeaks that he it is.” Sing Moy was silent for a brief moment, trying to absorb his own discovery. “It is he,” he nodded to himself, “and found at last.” He sighed, a deep, deep sigh. “Would that the humble Sing Moy himself could have the joyous distinction of avenging his brothers, but it is not to be so. For the hand of Sing Moy is too weak—his arm is too short. That hand must be strengthened—that arm must be lengthened, by the stronger hand and arm of the T’ong of the Seven Sparrows.”

He stood only a moment longer in front of the packing-box table, then stepping to the wall proceeded to raise the receiver of a very American telephone which hung there. He rang a number the giving of which in English to the operator proved a somewhat trying task to each of them. Could one, during the repetition of the number to the patient operator, have seen through the walls of the Nostrand Avenue laundry and across space to the instrument corresponding to the number being called, one would have found himself gazing into the interior of an inside windowless room of an old building on Pell Street, filled with strange wooden gods coloured with gilt and red, and strange fires of incense, and strange sounding bells. And could one’s eyes have continued to pierce the veil of space made even more opaque by New York’s smoke, one might have seen, at the same instant that Sing Moy got his connection, an aged wrinkled Chinaman in the Pell Street room, a venerable patriarch whose years could with ease have been close upon a hundred, raise the receiver of an equally American telephone on that end of the line.

“Yuk Sang speaks upon the American’s devil wire,” the old voice croaked in Chinese.

“And I, Sing Kwai Tsui Moy, who maintains the laundry on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, speak with deference to the most honourable and most venerable Yuk Sang. I, Sing Kwai Tsui Moy, would appear to-night before the inner council of the T’ong of the Seven Sparrows. I have, honorable Yuk Sang, news for which ten thousand men seek.”

There was a pause, and then the cracked old voice on the other end of the wire spoke patiently, imperturbably.

“You utter strange words, Sing Kwai Tsui Moy,” it said. “But it is well. You, Sing Kwai Tsui Moy, shall appear before the inner council to-night. The place—the time—you know them both?”

“I know them both, honourable Yuk Sang.”

“Until then,” said the old Chinaman, and he hung abruptly up. He paused a moment in studious reflection. Then he took up a light stick bearing on its end a weighted knob covered with soft chamois-skin, and with it struck a great bronze gong whose deep reverberating tones beat their way in veritable breakers of sound through the room and through many adjoining rooms of the Pell Street honeycomb. The message of one Sing Kwai Tsui Moy was being conveyed to its destination even faster than that lowly slant-eyed Oriental in Brooklyn could have hoped.

 

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