My first impressions of Shanghai are a blur. My husband and I drove rapidly along the Bund, over Garden Bridge, which might have been any bridge in America, past the Astor House, which was very like any American hotel, and then along the Soochow Creek, which could be only in China.
On North Szechuan Road we stopped at a li, or terrace, of newly built houses in the style called semi-foreign. This li, which was in the International Settlement, was very bright and clean. It opened upon the main thoroughfare. The heavy walls of bright red brick were interrupted at intervals by black doors bearing brass plates. At one of these my husband stopped and touched a very American-looking push-button. A bell trilled within, and the door was opened by a smiling "boy" in a long blue cotton gown. We crossed a small courtyard bright with flowers and vines, and, coming to the main entrance, stepped directly into a large square room. It was cool, immaculate and restful. The matting-covered floors, the skilfully arranged tables, chairs and sofa, the straight hangings of green and white, threaded with gold, were exactly what I should have wished to choose for myself. I was pleasantly surprised by the gas chandelier with its shades of green and gold and white. A dark green gas radiator along one wall suggested that Shanghai was not always so warm as then. It was a very modest little home, befitting a man with his own way to make, Chan-King explained, as he led me through the rooms for a hasty survey. Then Wilfred was surrendered to his amah, a fresh-cheeked young woman in stiffly starched blue "coat," white trousers and apron, while we made ready for a tiffin engagement with Chinese friends of Chan-King's.
After a short rickshaw ride—novel and delightful to me—we turned from the main road into another series of terraces and entered a real Chinese household. The host and hostess, who had both been in America and spoke excellent English, were very cordial in their welcome. I felt more at home than I had believed could be possible. Tiffin was served in the Chinese fashion, the guests seated at a great round table, with the dishes of meat, fish and vegetables placed in the centre, so that each one could help himself as he chose. Individual bowls of rice, small plates, chopsticks and spoons were at each plate. Set at intervals, were small, shallow dishes containing soy, mustard or catsup and also roasted melon-seeds and almonds. When my hostess, who had thoughtfully rounded out her delicious Chinese menu with bread and butter and velvety ice-cream, as thoughtfully produced a silver knife and fork for me, my husband explained that I was rather deft in the use of chopsticks. Though he had taught me, during the early days of our marriage, to use a slender ivory pair that he possessed, I was now very nervous, but I felt obliged to prove his delighted assertion. So my social conformity as a Chinese wife began there, before a friendly and amused audience, who assured me that I did very well.
On the way home Chan-King said, "Will this be difficult for you, Margaret?"
"Chopsticks?" I asked gaily, well enough knowing that he did not mean chopsticks. "No, I like them!"
"I mean everything," he said very gravely, "China—customs, people, home-sickness, everything."
"You will see whether you haven't married a true Oriental," I answered him. "As for home-sickness, why, Chan-King—I am at home."
The most important thing at first, materially speaking, was that Chan-King must make his own way without help of any sort. And for the upper class Chinese this is very difficult. He was teaching advanced English in one of the largest colleges in Shanghai, maintaining a legal practice and giving lectures on international law. He was glad to be at home again, filled with enthusiasm for his work, hopeful as the young returned students always are at first, and, through sheer inability to limit his endeavours, working beyond his strength.
Our happiness at being together again made all things seem possible. From its fragmentary beginnings in America, we gathered again into our hands the life we expected to make so full and rich. My part, I recognized, was to be a genuinely old-fashioned wife—the rôle I was best fitted for, and the one most helpful to Chan-King. And I began by running my Chinese household with minute attention to providing for his comfort in small ways that he liked and never failed to appreciate.
Our two-story house consisted of two big rooms downstairs and sleeping apartments and a tiny roof-garden upstairs. In this roof-garden I spent most of my time, and there Wilfred and his amah passed many afternoons. It was a pleasant, sunny place, furnished with painted steamer chairs, rugs and blooming plants in pottery jars. At the back, rather removed from the main part of the house, were the kitchen, servants' quarters and an open-air laundry. We were really very practical and modern and comfortable. Our kitchen provided for an admirable compromise between old and new methods. It had an English gas-range and a Chinese one. But the proper Chinese atmosphere was preserved by three well-trained servants who called themselves Ah Ching, Ah Ling and Ah Poh. Most Shanghai servants are called simply "Boy" or "Amah" or "Coolie," but ours chose those names, as distinctive for servants there as "James" and "Bridget" are with us. Ah Ching did most of the house-work and the running of errands; Ah Ling did the marketing and cooking, giving us a pleasantly varied succession of Chinese and foreign dishes; Ah Poh, the amah, looked after Wilfred and attended to my personal wants.
From the first I was fond of Ah Poh, with her finely formed, intelligent features, her soft voice and gentle, unhurried manner. She had served an American mistress before coming to me, but showed a surprising willingness to adopt my particular way of doing things, whether in making beds, in keeping my clothes in order or in entertaining Wilfred. On the other hand, Ah Ching, elderly, grave and full of responsibility, was very partial to his accustomed way of arranging furniture and of washing windows and floors. If left to himself, he would dust odd nooks and corners faithfully, but if I made any formal inspection of his labours he would invariably slight them, to intimate that I should not be suspicious, as a friend explained—a form of logic that I found highly amusing. Ah Ling, aside from his culinary ability, was chiefly interesting because his eyes were really oblique—as Chinese eyes are supposed to be, and usually are not, and because his hair really curled—as Chinese hair is supposed never to do, and does occasionally.
For a young pair bent on thrift, we may have seemed very extravagant indeed. In similar circumstances in America, I should probably have thought it extravagant to have even one servant. But this household was a very small one for China and, on our modest income, we maintained it with a satisfactory margin.
Chan-King was helpful and showed great tact and understanding in getting our establishment under way. I would not confess to my utter bewilderment in trying to manage servants who did not understand half of what I said to them. I think he became aware that I was holding on rather hard at times during those first months, and he never failed me. In turn, I helped him revise his papers in the evenings and assisted him with his letters, and he used to call me his secretary. We discovered during that first year in China that we had formed a true partnership.
Our social life was very pleasant. We entertained a great deal, in a simple way. We belonged to a club or two and kept in close touch with the work of the returned students, who have become an important factor in the national life. Though wishing to conserve what is best in the civilization of China, they are bringing Western ideas to bear upon the solution of political, sociological and economic problems. Many of these students, as well as other interesting people, both Chinese and foreign, gathered at our house for dinners and teas.
There was a veteran of the customs service, a portly gentleman with bristling white moustache, who had been one of the first group of Government students sent to America fifty years before. He told interesting stories of the trials and joys of those early days and humorously lamented the fact that real apple-pie was not to be obtained in China. There was a distinguished editor of English publications, a tall, spare figure, whose very quietness suggested reserves of mental power. With him often was a short, energetic man in early maturity—a far-sighted educator and convincing orator. I remember a lively discussion opened up by these two concerning the need for a Chinese magazine devoted to the interests of the modern woman of China—an early dream, which is now being fulfilled. There was a retired member of Parliament with an unfailing zeal for political discussion, who has since returned to the service of his Government. Also a smiling young man, who went about persuading Old China of her need for progress, but who could on occasion put aside his dignity to indulge a talent for diverting bits of comedy. There was the Chinese-American son of a former diplomat, who—born in America and coming to China as a grown man—seemed definitely to recognize his kinship with the land of his fathers, a fact that Chan-King and I found interesting for its possible bearing on the future of our own sons. Naturally, most of our friends were the younger modern folk, who were loosening the ancient bonds of formality in their daily lives. But many of the older and more conservative people also used to come to our evening gatherings, where my husband and I received side by side.
As I came to know the Chinese, I was delighted with their social deftness. They look upon grace of manner and courtesy as the foundations of all social life. I was pleasantly impressed by the measure of deference that they showed to wives, daughters, sisters and friends—so different from the contempt that Western imagination supposes to be their invariable share. Occasionally I noticed a husband carefully translating that his wife might fully enjoy the conversation. Many of the women, however, spoke English excellently. All our receptions and dinners were delightfully free and full of good talk. The Chinese have so beautifully the gift of saying profound things lightly; they can think deeply without being heavy and pedantic.
I remember the first dinner-party I attended in Shanghai. It was rather a grand affair, with many guests, all Chinese save me—"And I'm almost Chinese," I said to my husband. The men and women all sat together around one great table, in excellent humour with each other, and the talk was very gay.
A little Chinese woman whom I knew rather well said to me later, "And think of it—only last year in this house we should have been at separate tables!" When I asked her to explain, she said that once men did not bring their guests to their homes at all. Then they brought them, but entertained them in the men's side of the house. Later they admitted women to dine in the same room, but at separate tables, and now, here we are, chatting and dining together quite in Western fashion. "I like this much better," the little lady decided.
I was glad to see that all of them wore Chinese dress, for it is most impressively beautiful. I wore my first jacket and plaited skirt that night, a combination of pale green and black satin, and now and then I would see Chan-King's eyes turned upon me with the look I best loved to see there—a clear, warm affection shining in them, a certain steady glow of expression that had love and friendship and understanding in it. I think the sight of me in the dress of his country confirmed in his mind my declaration that I loved China—that I wanted to be a real Chinese wife.
After this, though for certain occasions the American fashion seemed more appropriate, I wore Chinese dress a great deal. I remember a day when Dr. Wu Ting-fang came to dinner, and, as he bowed to me, obviously took note of my garb.
He looked at me very keenly for a moment, as if he meant to ask a serious question. Then he said, in his abrupt manner, "You are happy in that dress?"
"Indeed I am," I answered.
"You like it better than you like American clothes?" he persisted.
I nodded firmly, smiling and catching my husband's eye.
"Then wear it always," said the Doctor, with a pontifical lifting of his fingers.
Oddly enough, my husband did not care for the native feminine fashion of trousers and never permitted me to wear them. I considered them very graceful and comfortable, but gladly adopted the severely plain skirts with the plaits at the sides.
I had put on China, to wear it always, in my heart and mind, and thought only of my husband, his work and his people. In the beginning, I should have been perfectly content to remain cloistered, to meet no one save a few woman friends, to go nowhere. Life flowed by me so evenly that I was happy to drift with it, filled with dreams. The noises of hurrying, half-modernized Shanghai reached me but vaguely, deep within my cool, quiet house where the floors were spread with white matting and the walls were hung with symbolic panels. The click of the ponies' feet on the pavement, the thud of the rickshaw coolies' heels as they drew their noiseless, rubber-tyred vehicles, the strident scream of the motor horns, the strange, long cries of the street venders, all came to me muffled as through many curtains that sheltered me from the world. But my husband insisted that I should go about with him everywhere that he felt we should go, that I should help him entertain, that I should meet and mingle with many people, both foreign and Chinese.
He was always ready to advise me on social matters, a more difficult undertaking than might be supposed. I have already spoken of the many gradations in the meeting of East and West. These alone are confusing enough, and there are further complexities due to the fact that in the two civilizations the fine points of etiquette are often entirely at variance. A single example will suffice—the custom of serving a guest, as soon as seated, with some form of refreshment. In the very conservative Chinese household, if the visitor even touches the cup of tea, placed beside him on a small table, he is guilty of a gross breach of good manners. In the ultra-modern household, he must drink the iced summer beverage or the piping hot winter drink, to avoid giving offence. Then there are the variously modified establishments, where he attempts an exact degree of compromise, whether acknowledging the offering merely by a gracious bow, or going further by raising it to the lips for a dainty sip, or being still more liberal and consuming one-half the proffered amount. That such situations are often baffling, even to Young China, I have heard it laughingly confessed in many lively discussions. But, though occasional errors are inevitable, sincere good-will is truly valued and seldom misunderstood. Chan-King's ability to consider all points of view at once was very helpful to me.
But he forgot to warn me that in Shanghai social calling is proper at any hour of the day from nine o'clock in the morning until ten o'clock at night. I was therefore three days in learning, during a short absence of his, that early morning and late evening calling was an institution, and not an accidental occurrence, as I at first supposed. Finally, Ah Ching gave me a hint. I was in négligé, preparing for a morning of lazy play with Wilfred and hoping there would be no interruptions, when Ah Ching appeared and announced callers. My face must have expressed surprise and a shade of annoyance, as it had for three days previously at these summonses, for Ah Ching hesitated a moment and then vouchsafed what he plainly considered a valuable piece of information. "In Shanghai," said Ah Ching, "he all time go to see—all time come to see." He paused. "All time!" he added firmly and departed. I found this to be literally true and I therefore formed my habits of dress on the assumption that callers demanding the utmost formality of behaviour and appearance might be announced at any moment.
Needless to say, Ah Ching's "he" was pidgin-English for "she," for my personal visitors were all women. They were of many nationalities—Chinese of course, and also American, Canadian, English, Scotch and French. With the Chinese women, especially, I found myself in perfect harmony. Nowhere, I believe, do sincerity and good-will meet with a warmer response. They accepted me with a cordiality that was very real and rendered invaluable assistance in my initiation into the new life. They took me calling, shopping and marketing until Shanghai ceased to be a bewildering maze of crowded thoroughfares; they helped me to understand the complexities of Chinese currency; they explained the intricate points of fashion in dress and recommended skilful tailors.
From the first we were deeply interested in the meeting and blending of East and West that went on about us everywhere, in every field of endeavour. We found unique opportunity for fresh impressions in the Second Far Eastern Olympics held at Shanghai that spring. In the presence of many thousand spectators, China, the Philippines and Japan strove for supremacy in athletic prowess. The affair was managed entirely by Chinese, and during most of the contests my husband was busy on the grounds in an official capacity. I sat in the grandstand with Chinese women friends, some of whom were returned students, and the rousing cheers, the whole-hearted enthusiasm, brought to us vivid memories of college days in America. The evenings were filled with receptions and garden parties in honour of the visitors. Of course our pleasure in the whole affair was immeasurably heightened by China's well-earned triumph.
As the months passed, Chan-King's high-hearted enthusiasm, his dauntless will to carry through great work in the education of Young China, flagged to some degree, from terrible disillusionment.
This is the problem all returned students have sooner or later to face and conquer. They come home brimming with hope and filled with aspirations towards their country's betterment. And gradually they are forced to acknowledge one enormous fact—that China has been her glorious, grim old self for too many centuries, her feet are sunk too deeply in the earth of her ancient traditions, to be uprooted by one generation of youth—or two or three or a hundred.
Chan-King chafed and worried and worked too hard. Strangely enough, he grew home-sick for America, though I did not.
"America strides like a young boy, and China creeps like an old woman!" he said bitterly one day after attending a meeting of the college board, where his modern ideas of education had suffered a defeat at the hand of the reactionary body.
"But China is a wise, wise old woman!" I replied gently.
And very often during this time I would uphold the traditions of the East while Chan-King championed the ways of the Western world.
My husband underwent disappointments, irritations and trials that would have been unendurable in a less securely poised nature. As it was, he suffered so in the great things that he had but little patience for the small ones, and I often found him sudden of temper, with a quick asperity of tone and finality of judgment that showed me clearly how great a strain he was under.
But with us there was always love. And Chan-King was very careful to make me understand, even in the midst of small disappointments and vexations, that these things were the universal human annoyances that had nothing to do with regrets or a sense of alienation. I broke into tears one day when a sharp little scene occurred over nothing at all. "Oh, Margaret, my dearest!" he said, taking me in his arms, "these moods mean nothing between us, when we love each other so! Don't take them seriously! What could destroy our happiness now?" In spite of the world-wide difference in our race and upbringing, whatever difficulties of temperamental adaptation we had to meet were merely such as must be faced by any husband and wife in any land.
Yet Chan-King's personal fascination for me, his never-failing appeal to my imagination, were definitely founded on the Oriental quality in him. I found throughout the years, in every phase of our relation, a constant, irresistible, always recurring thrill in the idea that we were not of the same race or civilization.
Once when I confessed this fact to him, he said, "Do you love me only because I am Chinese?"
"No—I think I should have loved you no matter what race you came of. But how can I know?"
"I like to feel that you love the essential me."
"Yes, but the essential you is Chinese."
He thought a moment. "Chinese, yes, but a most respectable member of the Dutch Reformed Church of America!"
"I won't let that injure you in my eyes!" I assured him, laughing. I was of the Anglican faith, and we often referred to the strange mixture of nationalities in our creeds.
My husband, in spite of his firm faith, was not of a deeply religious mind, and of the two I was much more mystical in my beliefs. Love, divine and human, had come to mean everything to me, in a literal and spiritual sense. I believed, obscurely at first, but with increasing surety and faith as time went on, that human love also was not of time only, but of eternity as well. And, when I found that Chan-King did not share this belief, I felt, for the only time in all my marriage, alien to him, shut out by an impalpable veil from his profoundest inner life, which I wished passionately to share in everything. The discovery came hand in hand with our first shadow—only the shadow of a shadow, I might call it, so vague, at the beginning, that we could not feel more than an uneasiness.
Chan-King fell ill, though not seriously, and he recovered quickly. But on the up-curve of returning health he never quite regained the old plane of physical well-being. Signs—oh, the very smallest of signs—warned us of a grave, slow breaking down of his system under phthisis. We could not quite believe it.
His physician advised him to ease the strain of work as much as he could. We talked together in the early hours of many nights, Chan-King always insisting that his depression was the result of temporary fatigue, sure to pass away with a few weeks' repose in the open air of the hills.
It was during this time that I spoke to him of the everlastingness of love and my faith in a life farther on. "Where could death take one of us that the other could not follow?" I asked him, in strange triumph.
His eyes held mine a long minute. His face was very sad. "I am not sure of that. I have no idea of what we shall be to one another in another life. I am only sure that we are all things to each other now."
An inexpressible sense of fear took hold of me. Chan-King seemed at once terribly alien and removed; I could not speak, for I had the feeling of calling in a strange language across a great chasm. I said nothing for fear of distressing him, but he must have sensed my disquietude, for he took my hands and held them to his face and let his eyes shine upon me. "Don't look like that," he said. "We have much time yet to think of eternity." But from the day of this illness the shadow was never once removed from me.
Now we were lured by the residential charms of the French Concession, with its broad, tree-lined avenues and fresh, windswept spaces. So we took a new house in a terrace fronting on Avenue Joffre. We liked our large rooms, each with its tiled fireplace, its polished floors laid with Tientsin rugs, its electric lights. There was a grassy lawn with Chinese orchids and a border of palms and magnolias, and just around the corner from us was a public garden where, to Wilfred's delight, dozens of children played each day under the care of their respective amahs. Our staff of servants was now increased to five by the addition of a rickshaw coolie and a second amah.
Chan-King received shortly after this a letter from his father, the first communication he had had from his family since our marriage. It contained an invitation to return home for a visit, since his mother wished very deeply to see him again.
"I can interpret this in only one way, Margaret," he said in a puzzled tone. "It is an offer of reconciliation. That means that they do not know you are with me."
"Go and see for yourself what it is," I told him. For I would have consented, for his sake, to a reconciliation on almost any terms. I had seen enough of Chinese family life to understand the powerful bonds of affection and interest that bind the clan together, and I felt in my own heart the cruelty of breaking those between mother and son and brother and brother.
"I want to tell them about you,"[Pg 78] Chan-King answered. "This is my opportunity."
Before accepting their invitation, Chan-King wrote and told them that his wife was with him. And their replies to this proved him right in his first surmise. His family knew he had returned to China and, having heard nothing further of his marriage, had supposed that it was all over. This was not exactly a surprising conclusion for them to reach. More than one foreign woman has refused to accompany her Chinese husband home. I myself came in contact with an occasional half-household, in which a Chinese was held in China by his business affairs while his wife waited for him on the other side of the world. Sometimes, too, she did not wait, and the marriage ended in the conventional way—that is, in the divorce court. Chan-King's people imagined that something of the sort had occurred to him, and were quite ready[Pg 79] to wipe out old scores and resume the ties of relationship.
After having written the initial letter of reconciliation, they held to their attitude in a thoroughbred way, only amending their welcome a trifle by requesting him to visit them alone. Very tactfully and gently they put it like this: his father was growing old and any sudden change disturbed him; the household had lately been added to by marriage and births, and he would find everything very much more comfortable if he should come alone.
He went, firmly resolved to change the mind of his family toward me. And I, too, was anxious for them to know that a foreign marriage had not harmed Chan-King. During the six weeks of his absence his letters were cheerfully non-committal, though he spoke of his happiness in being in his mother's house again. I thought a great deal about that house, the [Pg 80]intricate lives of the people in it and their many degrees of kinship and authority. Chan-King had told me enough to give me a fairly clear picture of them. I had always admired their ability to sustain difficult relations under the same roof with the utmost good temper and mutual courtesy.
Yet I was Western enough to feel that Chan-King and I knew each other better and had been more free to learn each other thoroughly, alone in our own household, which was growing into quite a Chinese fashion. I expected my second child and looked forward, with much hope, to the new life, for I had always been deeply maternal and wanted several children. But to Chan-King and me our love for each other was the greatly important thing in life—the reason for all the rest of our existence. We accepted the fact of birth as naturally as we did the change of seasons. Children were an essential[Pg 81] to our happiness, but not the dominant essential. We ordered our home for ourselves, as two lovers who had elected to pass their life together.
Chan-King expressed our views thus: "The Chinese idea is that the family is the end, the children the means of keeping it up. In the West, the children are the end, and the home merely the means of keeping them up. You and I have it perfectly adjusted, I think—the home is for all of us, and all of us have proper places in it."
Chan-King returned early one morning, and I knew, from my first glimpse of his face, that his visit had been a fruitful one. I flew to his arms, and, as he kissed me, I saw that his eyes were serene and contented.
"How is your august mother, my lord?" I asked him with a bow.
"My mother is in good health and wishes to meet her daughter-in-law," he[Pg 82] answered, and, in spite of the bantering tone, I knew he was in earnest.
I wanted to know how this change of feeling had come about.
"When I told them of you," said Chan-King, "my mother was visibly amazed. 'I did not understand!' she kept repeating. 'I did not understand!' And before I left, she said to me, 'If she is all you tell me she is, why do you not bring her here?' I didn't mention the fact that this was our first invitation, Margaret! Should you like to go, my dearest?"
I hesitated a moment. "Yes, but not yet," I answered.
"We will not go for a while," Chan-King assured me.
We talked a great deal about my husband's visit, and I gained new light on the actual facts of his estrangement from his family and the enormous significance that his marriage assumed in the minds of his Chinese relatives.
I can hardly exaggerate the importance of the position held by the eldest son in the higher class Chinese household. After his father, he is the male head of the family. His wife is the attendant shadow, the never-failing companion of his mother. Our phrase, "A man marries," is expressed in Chinese as "He leads in a new woman." Under the old regime he literally did so, for he invariably brought his bride to his ancestral home. The phrase for the marriage of a girl is, "She goes forth from the family." "A new woman" is the term for a bride. The Western education of many young men of the Chinese upper class has resulted in some acute readjustment in the ancestral households. Often these elder sons return, marry according to the old custom and live in their parental homes. But often, too, they marry advanced Chinese women, set up establishments and professions of their own, far from their[Pg 84] native cities, and live after semi-foreign ways.
In this respect, our case was somewhat typical. As I have already related, Chan-King's mother had been looking forward for years to the marriage of her eldest son with the little Miss Li-Ying. She had expected in her middle age the usual release of the Chinese woman from the bonds of youth. Having been a faithful and obedient wife and daughter-in-law, she rightfully expected to assume authority over her family, leaning on the arm of her son's wife. This younger woman would take her place in the long chain of dutiful daughters; she would help to welcome guests; she would keep up the family shrines; she would perform all manner of household duties under the supervision of her mother-in-law. On the death of her husband's mother, she would become the woman head of the family, responsible for everything, her [Pg 85]privileges and authority growing with her years, especially if she were the mother of sons. Her great mission would be to furnish children to the clan, in order that the ancestral shrines might never be without worshippers. I explain these matters at this point in order that I may not be mistaken for a moment when I tell the incident that follows. By this time, I had lived long enough in China to be almost thoroughly orientalized, in so far as my sympathies were concerned at least, and yet, when Chan-King, after talking for a while about the events of his visit home, came to a full pause and said uncertainly, "There is one thing I wish to tell you, but I am not sure you will understand," I was a trifle apprehensive.
But I answered at once: "Of course I shall understand. China has been kind to me. What have I to fear?"
Chan-King then went on deliberately:[Pg 86] "Not until I saw my mother again did I understand that I had done a really cruel thing to her, in depriving her of a daughter-in-law on whom she could lean in her old age. Oh, Margaret, woman's lot is not easy, with all the complexities of parents and brothers and children! And I would have atoned for my share in all this if I could—but of course there was nothing I could do, nothing at all."
And very calmly he told me that shortly after his arrival at home his mother had conferred with him seriously on her need of a daughter-in-law. In accordance with ancient customs she wished him to take a Chinese secondary wife, who would live in the family home, who would be, in a fashion, proxy for me in the rôle of daughter-in-law. Chan-King's mother offered to arrange this marriage for him and assured him that the secondary wife and her children would be well cared for and treated kindly during his long absences.
I listened incredulously, and the question I could not ask was in my eyes. I knew, of course, that the custom of taking secondary wives was not unusual among wealthy families in China, even where both wives lived under the same roof. But I had given it only the most casual thought. And not once had it occurred to me that the problem would touch my life. Brought suddenly level with it, I suffered a shock at the very foundation of my nature. I could not think, of course, in the moment that followed my husband's recital. I only felt a great roaring tide of pain rising about me, a sense of complete helplessness, such as I have never known before or since. I wonder now at my instant subjective readiness to believe that my husband had conformed to this custom of his country; that he had shaken off his Western training at his first renewed contact with the traditional habits of his race.
"Did—you——?" I asked finally, and stopped.
He came to me instantly, his arms about me. When he saw the distress in my face, he frowned, with an odd, remorseful twist of the brows.
"I wonder that you ask," he said. "How could I come back to you—and to your loyalty and trust—with the shadow of that deception between us? I made it very clear to my mother that I would never have any wife but you. It's you and I together, dear one, and no one else so long as we both shall live."
And his words had the solemn sound of a vow renewed. This high honesty of Chan-King's with me was a rock on which I founded my faith. And his final repudiation of an accepted form among his people represented a genuine sacrifice on his part, so far as his material welfare was concerned. As generously and unhesitatingly as he had made the first one, at[Pg 89] our marriage, he laid the second votive offering on the altar of our love. He had, you see, according to the view of his father and mother, hopelessly injured them in his marriage. Above all, he had denied in himself the great racial instinct of the Chinese to obey his parents. If he wished to please them, here was his last opportunity. The taking of a Chinese secondary wife would have been a complete atonement in their eyes. At the same time it would have meant his instant restoration to his rightful place among them—first in their affections and inheritance. The family assistance would have placed him at once in the position towards which, without it, he would probably have to struggle for years.
And later I understood how very easily he might have complied without my needing ever to know of the fact. Indeed, I could have lived in his mother's house with a second wife and never have [Pg 90]suspected that she was there in that position, so securely welded and impassive is the clan sense, the reserve and remoteness of the personal relation when the family peace and dignity are to be considered.
Some of these matters I had been aware of since my life in China began, some of them I learned that day in talking with Chan-King, and others, as I have said, I discovered gradually afterwards. But from that day, certainly, our relation subtly shifted and settled and crystallized. We both became for ever certain that we could not fail each other in any smallest thing. Into my heart came a warmth of repose, like a steadily burning lamp. We were assured of our love beyond any possibility of doubt, ever again. And for a time we experienced a renascence of youthful happiness, a fine fervour of renewed hopes and ambitions, as though spring had come again miraculously, when we had expected October.
The family letters came now regularly to Chan-King, with always a kindly message for me. Evidently relations were to be resumed on the plane of a good friendship, nothing more. But that was so much more than we had dared to hope for that we were perfectly happy to have it so.
Chan-King must have mentioned his slowly failing health, for his mother sent a worried letter to him and asked him to come home for a while once more. Chan-King decided that his affairs would not warrant his absence and wrote to her to that effect.
One morning as I sat in the sun-porch, sewing, Ah Ching appeared suddenly before me.
"Master's mother, he downstairs," he announced calmly.
I gazed at him without understanding.
"What do you say?"
Ah Ching came nearer. He held up[Pg 92] one hand and counted his words off on his fingers slowly. "Missee-sabe-master-have-got-one mother?" he inquired patiently.
"Well, he just now have come. He downstairs!"
I got to my feet. I was more frightened and nervous than I had ever been. I remembered to be grateful. I was wearing complete Chinese dress—a black skirt and blue velvet jacket. This fact assumed an amusing importance in my mind as I stood there, struggling to get myself in hand. I had planned this meeting a thousand times, and now that it was fairly upon me I was totally without resource. I progressed downstairs confusedly, running a few swift steps and then stopping short and beginning again slowly. If Chan-King had been there, I should have fled to him and left the entire situation in his hands; but[Pg 93] I was alone and certain of one thing only—I meant to win the love of my Chinese mother if I could. Subjectively, all the tales I had heard of Chinese mothers-in-law must have impressed me more than I had admitted, for I remembered something Chan-King had told me long before: "I cannot describe to you the importance of the mother in the Chinese household. She is a complete autocrat, with almost final authority over her sons, daughters-in-law, servants, relatives, everybody except her husband, who is usually absent on his business. Her old age is a complete reversal of the restraint and discipline of her youth."
I stopped short at the door of the drawing-room. I saw my husband's mother for the first time. She had become to me a personality of almost legendary grandeur, and I felt a little wave of surprise go over me that she looked somehow so real and alive and genuine. She[Pg 94] sat in a big, tall-backed chair, her hands spread flat on her knees. Her face was the face of the young mother in the photograph Chan-King had shown me, only grown older and a trifle more severe. She was dressed in black brocade, its stiff folds and precise creases accentuating her dignity. Under the edges of her skirt glimmered her tiny grey shoes, embroidered in red and green. At her side stood the male relative who had accompanied her—a Chinese gentleman of the old school, in a long gown of dark silk. Behind her chair stood a maid and two menservants.
I knew that she spoke no English, and as yet I had no knowledge of her southern dialect. There was a sharp pause in the dead-silent room while we regarded each other.