Ah Ling, The Leper

A poem by Edward Dyson

Up a dark and fetid alley, where the offal and the slime
Of a brave and blusterous city met its misery and crime,
In a hovel reeking pestilence, and noisome as the grave,
Dwelt Ah Ling, the Chinese joiner, and the sweater’s willing slave.

Squatting down amongst the shavings, with his chisel and his plane,
Through the long, hot days of striving, dead to pleasure and to pain,
Like a creature barely human, very yellow, gaunt, and grim,
Ah Ling laboured on, for pleasure spread no lures that tempted him.

And the curious people, watching through the rotten wall at night,
Saw his death’s face weirdly outlined in the candle’s feeble light;
Saw him still intent upon his work, ill-omened and unclean,
Planing, sawing, nailing, hewing—just a skin and bone machine.

Neither kith nor kin the joiner had; perchance he nerved his hand
With the treasured hope of seeing once again his native land
As a Chinaman of fortune, and of finishing his life
At his ease in China Proper, with a painted Chinese wife.

But Ah Ling grew yet more grisly, and ’twas easy now to trace
Signs of vice and fierce privations in his scarred and pitted face,
With a dreadful something added. By this thing the truth was known,
And his countrymen forsook him, and he lived and toiled alone.

Still the work came in, and still he slaved and saw his earnings grow.
Who’s to trouble where the goods are made when buyers will not know?
Gimcrack chairs and pretty nick-nacks from infected dens like this
Go to furnish happy homes to-day where ignorance is bliss.

Now the time was come when Ling might take his treasure up, and go
To enjoy celestial comforts by the flowing Hoang Ho,
But one day his shop was raided, and upon him fell the hand
Of the Law—and death were better than the ruthless Law’s command.

‘Room for the leper, room!’ A thing of fear, Ah Ling was torn
From his hovel and his labour and his cherished hopes, and borne
To a home of untold terrors, where to life grim death is wed,
And the quick behold and know the loathly horrors of the dead.

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