As I followed my Chinese mother into her apartments, I thought of the benevolent croakings of friends. Their words rattled through my memory like pebbles shaken in a pail: "She can never be happy with a Chinese husband!" Later it was, "It is all very well in America, but wait until she goes to China." When I had happily established myself there, "Heaven help her," said they, "if she tries to live with her Chinese mother-in-law!" In Shanghai, foreign friends had predicted, "Oh, yes, she's lovely in your house, but wait until you try living in her house!"
"This is the last ditch, Margaret," I said to myself. "Take it clear! Either you are about to make one more argument against intermarriage or you are going to settle the question for ever so far as your case is concerned."
Mother and I went in to dinner together, somewhat later than usual. We attacked our food very bravely, eyes down. I glanced up inadvertently, and the sight of tears on her cheeks released mine too. I leaned forward and took her hand and we struggled with a sentence or two. "No tears!" I said. "Be patient!" she answered.
Next morning after the amah had dressed young Alicia, while the cheerful child was following me about the room with her eyes and talking merry baby talk, I took her up and went, earlier than usual, to see Mother. I found her sitting up in bed. She was dressed for the day, and the blankets were rolled back against the side of the wall, making a comfortable couch for her. Thinking of Chan-King, I looked at the row of little cabinets extending across the back, half-way up towards the canopy. I remembered Chan-King's telling me of the year when he was still small enough to stand under these fascinatingly carved cabinets, where his mother stored her trinkets and toilet articles, embroidery silks, perfumes and the endless paraphernalia of her quiet life, and of the pride he felt when he bumped his head one day and found that he must stoop to be comfortable.
Wilfred was just high enough now to stand easily under the cabinets, but, in some mysterious fashion, the little image of him presented at this moment to my fancy became that of the small, far-away Chan-King, whom I was for ever re-creating in my mind as I went about the house where he had lived his pleasant youth.
This morning I laid Alicia on the bed near Madame Liang. She bent over her and made a moue into the rosy face. I was much pleased when Madame Liang was unusually attentive to Alicia, though my sense of justice always reminded me that my own Scotch mother would probably have made more of the boys. But our Alicia was the first daughter in two generations of my husband's family, and, even though the sons were of priceless value to the clan, she was loved and cherished tenderly. It seemed to me at times that the household was more fond of her than of all the boys together, including Madame Springtime's young Kya-Song, who filled the left wing of the compound with his shouts of glee as he played riding-horse on his precarious bamboo stool. I remembered with amusement the Western idea that daughters are unwelcome, always, in Chinese families.
While Madame Liang patted the baby, talking to her coaxingly, I asked what she wished me to do.
She indicated on her dressing-table a box of stereoscopic views, which I brought to her. They formed a complete story, but had become very much confused. As I could read the foreign titles, would I kindly arrange the pictures in proper sequence? The ease and speed with which I accomplished this task won her instant approbation.
This was merely one of the numberless small things I did for her thereafter. In my new estate I was in attendance on my mother during many hours of the day. I walked with her in the garden in fine weather, I sat with her and sewed, threading needles as for my own mother and even helping her to make those marvellous small shoes that she fashioned so carefully to the form of her feet. One day I told her how amazed I had been when I first learned from Chan-King that Chinese wives made the family shoes, but how readily I could understand, when I saw the dainty embroidered foot-wear he referred to, that shoemaking was indeed a womanly craft.
She and Madame Chau used to take great pride in making for themselves the most frivolous of shoes. Madame Chau's were the smaller, being barely two and a half inches long, whereas those of my mother were twice that length and different in shape. I discovered the reason for this: Madame Chau clung tenaciously to the old style; but Mother had gradually let out her bandages and altered their arrangement, keeping pace with the change that followed the abolition of the old custom.
I became deeply interested in the custom of foot-binding. In Shanghai, all the pupils of my school and (with certain notable exceptions) the women of my social world had natural feet, and the majority of them wore American pumps and Oxfords or English boots. Bound feet, though I saw them frequently in public, seemed very remote. But now, save the girls of twelve and under, who had profited by the new order of things, the women among whom I lived all had bound feet. It may be worth noting, when one remembers how America, with its own great unwashed, jokes at the expense of the Chinese of whatever rank or station, that, in accordance with the fastidious cleanliness of upper-class Chinese, the bound feet were exquisitely cared for, and the narrow, white, specially woven bandages were changed every two or three days. As I watched the daintily shod women of my mother's household, I realized that never before had I appreciated, in reading the literature of my adopted country, the aptness of comparing the walk of a woman with bound feet to the grace of bamboo swaying in the breeze. Never had I suspected the charm attached to twinkling flashes of embroidery beneath a panelled, many-plaited skirt. My own number-four feet assumed alarming proportions. I grew positively ashamed of them. One day as Mother and I sat together in arm-chairs, with a blackwood tea-table between us, I placed my feet in line with hers and said, sighing, "Ah, they look very bad, indeed!" She waved a deprecating hand. "Never mind," she said with courtesy and truth, "they may not look so well, but they certainly walk better."
Of course I was glad that the small Alicia belonged to Young China, and would purchase no golden lilies with a cask of tears, as I had often read that every woman with bound feet must do. But I now decided that the cask must have been filled in the years of girlhood. For the women about me seemed to suffer no pain—only an occasional numbness, relieved by brisk massage from knee to ankle under the hands of a maid. I was surprised at the ease and energy with which they got about, merely balancing with small forward and backward steps when stopping—unless they had a servant's arm, or a cane, for support.
I thought our mother infinitely superior in the grace and dignity of her carriage. Madame Springtime, who had slightly enlarged her feet, at the command of her husband, moved slowly and with a lack of grace characteristic of the younger generation. Madame Chang moved ponderously and with difficulty. Madame Chau hurried with quick, fluttering steps. On occasion she would even run races with Alfred, our merry second son, now two and a half years old. She would catch his hand, lean forward and hurry him the length of the hall, the two of them laughing gaily. Now and then I would fold my hands, balance on my heels and essay a "willow walk," to the great amusement of Mother and Madame Chau.
Life went on very evenly for me in my Chinese mother's house after my husband's departure. His father had not come home for his semi-annual visit, and the second son was away again. Even the quiet-mannered third son, who looked just like his mother, and who used to bring me roses from the garden every day, had sailed for the island port to take his place in the family business. We were under a benevolent matriarchate in the snug compound among the brown hills now brightening to springtime green.
Madame Liang was infallibly generous and kind. I never heard her speak sharply except occasionally to servants who had by their carelessness caused something to go amiss, impeding the smooth progress of daily family life. I used to watch her with interest as she directed the household affairs from the throne of her great bed. She rarely gave her orders at first hand, but would summon a relative or an upper servant, who would receive and pass them down to those for whom they were intended. This imparted to her orders an empress-like finality and importance. The servants gave her complete allegiance.
She took great pride in conducting me through the complicated structure where generations of Liangs had lived and died. Extending back from the main establishment was a series of smaller ones like it, each with its own courtyard, its main hall containing the family altar, its private chambers opening on each side. Similar chains of "homes within a home" extended east and west, at right angles to this central chain. Mother showed me the rooms she had occupied as a bride, with the chamber where Chan-King was born, when the older Madame Liang ruled affairs with a firm yet kindly hand. I felt deeply moved by all this, more than ever a part of the family.
I made many small mistakes, I know, in my effort to practise the toleration, industry and courtesy exemplified in that family group, but Mother, unlike many of the over-sensitive, easily offended Chinese women of her class, was divinely patient. She never asked of me anything that she deemed unfitting for me and she showed a wise discrimination in all the small tasks she assigned. I sometimes accompanied her to the temple, or to the ancestral graves, but only as a spectator. Her religious toleration required no compromise. She wanted me to see where grandparents and great-grandparents were laid to rest. She knew I was interested and filled with respect. To Madame Springtime fell the task of caring for the family altar and keeping up the daily devotions before the sacred shrine.
This young wife was in every way so typical of the old-fashioned Chinese woman, trained but not educated, disciplined but not broken, that I found her a continual source of interest. She was naturally shy and silent, but after a time we talked a little, and one day she showed me her bridal trunks of white lacquer with red and gold decorations, filled to the top with her bridal finery, exquisitely folded, and the clothes for her first child, which had been provided by her parents as a part of her wedding outfit.
This latter custom of Chan-King's native province appealed to me. It was typical of the many simplicities I found among my adopted people. Those small, brilliant-coloured garments of padded silk and brocade and linen were symbols of hope, good omens for happiness and a fruitful marriage. Accustomed as I was to falsely Puritanic ideals concerning the important realities of life—marriage and birth—their frank attitude toward fundamentals, their unquestioning acceptance of the facts of existence came as a pleasant surprise to me.
I liked also the curious contrast between their simple view of elemental things and the formality and rigour of their personal etiquette. It is the manner of an old and ever cultivated race, who have long since ceased building at the foundation and are now occupied with the decorations of life.
Their scheme of daily living is based on the firm belief that the normal mode of human existence is family life. To this end it must be preserved at any cost. Life cannot develop in discord. If the amenities are worth anything at all, they are worth preserving constantly and at whatever personal sacrifice.
Life behind the arched gate was so pleasant and so filled with small, daily occupations that I thought little of going about. The village had no theatre. On festal days performances were given by travelling troupes, on temporary stages, in temples or private houses. But we occasionally attended the theatre in the great city near, and, when we had guests staying with us for several days, they sometimes accompanied us. We were rather an impressive sight, I fancy, borne at a brisk trot, in half a dozen sedan-chairs, down the irregular path at dusk, preceded and followed by menservants carrying lanterns.
The children led a sheltered, happy existence, with servants and young relatives to amuse them indoors or without, as the weather permitted. They were liberally supplied, by their indulgent grandmother, with pocket-money in the form of handfuls of coppers instead of the strings of cash that sufficed an earlier generation. From passing venders they bought bows and arrows of brightly painted bamboo, whistling birds and theatrical figures of coloured earthenware, inflated rubber toys and an endless variety of rice-flour cakes, sesame-seed confections, peanut taffy and millet candy. On festal days the choice was wider than ever, with fluffy bunches of sugar wool (fine-spun syrup) and brittle candy toys blown from molten taffy with all the glass-blower's art, in the form of lanterns, birds and fish, mounted on slender sticks. At certain seasons, there were huge fish made of bamboo frames, paper-covered and realistically painted, which swam in a breeze with lazy grace, or kites similarly fashioned to represent birds and dragons which winged upward in fascinating flight.
There was a limited foreign settlement in this same city and several of the American and British women came to call on me. Some of them were frankly curious to know how I had come through the "ordeal by family," as one of them expressed it, though of course they were very tactful.
Mother was much interested in these visitors, many of whom—if able to speak Chinese—I presented to her. When they left, she would often ask questions as to their nationality, their husbands' occupation, the number of their children. As for that question, most of them confessed to one child or, occasionally, two. But I shall never forget the call of a strikingly handsome, auburn-haired woman and the conversation that followed her departure. In reply to the usual inquiry, I said, "No children at all! But she has five dogs and has just bought, in Shanghai, two more, which are coming down on the next steamer."
"No children at all, and five—seven dogs!" said Mother in tones of horror. And then we burst out laughing. But quickly she grew sober. "Foreign women do not care for children," she said.
"I do," I protested. "I like many children."
"You," said my mother with a smile, "are a Chinese wife."
But happily my next caller was a sweet-faced American woman, the proud mother of six, two of whom she brought with her. So our national reputation was saved.
In these days, I thought a great deal about intermarriage as a problem. When in Shanghai, a returned student who stayed with us for several days had said to Chan-King afterward, "I almost married an American girl while I was in college. I wish now I had been brave enough to do so." At that time I felt very sorry for the unknown girl who had missed all the happiness that was coming to me, and now I was more sure than ever of the true quality of my happiness. There was no doubt at all on that score. But I realized the many, many ways in which everything might have been spoiled. Had my husband been less considerate, less sincere and loyal, had his family been less kindly and broad-minded, had I myself been capricious and wilful or unable to adapt myself to surroundings, I might every day have plumbed the depths of misery. I decided that no rules could be made about intermarriage. It was an individual problem, as indeed all marriage must be. So, when a young girl from home wrote to me for advice, believing herself in love with a Chinese classmate, and concluded, "You, Mrs. Liang, must settle the question for me," I answered, as I should not have done a year earlier: "That is a question that you two alone are competent to settle. No one can advise you safely, for a mistake either way may result in lifelong unhappiness. But I might venture to suggest that love strong enough to stand the test of intermarriage does not seek advice. It is sure of itself."
In a household where only my eldest son and I spoke English, my lingual struggles were unexpectedly mild. Chan-King had left me a list of everyday phrases, and my ear grew very keen in my constant efforts to understand the rapid speech going on around me all day long. In a short while I could understand virtually everything said to me.
During the long conversations that Mother and I had in the quiet of the evening, we talked much of Chan-King and she displayed treasured relics of his boyhood: a small jacket of deep red velvet, a worn cap, a silver toy and the identical schoolbook in which he began the study of English. I loved them all, loved her the more for cherishing them and was made supremely happy by being given a photograph of Chan-King at an earlier age than any he possessed. She was very much interested in all our photographs too. She was vastly amused at Chan-King arrayed for college theatricals and, when I brought out pictures of myself at all ages, of my parents and grandparents, she traced family resemblances with unerring perception. Sometimes we looked at magazines that Chan-King sent us from the capital or talked of various foreign customs. I soon found it very easy to talk with her and with her help I learned also to read and write simple Chinese characters, for a very liberal-minded father had given her educational advantages enjoyed by few girls of her generation.
When the hands of her small ebony clock pointed to twelve, she would touch my hand gently and say, "Time for you to sleep."
"But first I must write to Chan-King," I would answer.
She would shake her finger at me with kindly caution. "It is too late," she would answer. "You must sleep."
I would hold out firmly on this point. "But, my mother, if I do not write to Chan-King, I cannot sleep!"
She would assent then, and next day I would carry the pages to show her, for my letters to Chan-King and his voluminous responses were a source of much amusement to her. I translated these letters to her as faithfully as my limited Chinese would allow, and in my letters always added messages dictated by her.
I was learning the romanized method of writing Chinese, which for our dialect has been remarkably developed and standardized. Mother was much interested when I showed her how to write familiar words with foreign letters, and Chan-King always answered these messages in kind, though his mother and he carried on a regular correspondence in the Chinese characters.
"Those children write long letters to each other, fifteen and twenty pages at a time," she often told her friends with manifest delight.
Beyond this personal companionship with my mother, which I enjoyed very much, there was no restraint put upon me in any way. I was free to walk out alone, to return calls and to shop in the city.
My own sense of fitness prompted me always to present myself at the door of my mother's apartment before I left the house, to explain to her the nature of my errand and to ask for her approval. Accepting the little formality for the courtesy it was, she never once demurred. She was accustomed to this respect, and I saw no reason for withholding it. All the invitations I received from acquaintances, either foreign or Chinese, I declined or accepted as she advised, because I relied upon her unfailing knowledge of people and social customs.
Twice during those months of Chan-King's absence death came near. Once it was a clever young boy, an only son, in whom high hopes had been centred; and, then, the young girl who had accompanied Mother to Shanghai. She was no servant in the ordinary sense, but an orphaned distant relative of Mother's. Madame Liang was always kind and generous with her, and when, soon after her return from the trip to Shanghai, which had been a great event in her quiet life, a promising marriage offer was made, she was sent forth to her new home with a complete bridal outfit. Hearing at last of our presence in the family home, she put on her wedding-dress of pale green and came to see me. Her evident pleasure in the meeting touched me poignantly. With bright eagerness she told me of her husband, her kind mother-in-law. With pride she described her tiny son. After a gay hour with the children she left, promising to come again. But I never saw her afterwards. Death took her abruptly from her happiness.
I began to think of death as something not so remote after all. Several times a group of us—children and cousins and friends and servants—made short chair-trips into the hills. The sight of thousands of graves, their stones whitening the hillsides for miles in some places, impressed me more and more with the comparative shortness of life.
Scattered over many of these hills are curious monuments of stone, called "widow arches," each one standing alone, usually by a roadside, in commemoration of a faithful wife who, in ancient days, killed herself at the death of her husband. A widow who wished to make this sacrifice would, after a short lapse of time, announce her intention of committing suicide. The members of her family would erect a high stage for her and invite relatives and friends to attend the ceremony. At the chosen hour, the lady would hang herself, and a high stone arch would later be erected as a memorial of her devotion and heroism.
In the Chinese family, the widow who does not remarry receives honour and veneration second only to the mother-in-law. With age, she acquires added authority. She is not forbidden to remarry, but the conditions of second marriage are made difficult enough to discourage any but the most intrepid. The children of her first husband remain in the house of his people, and the family of her second husband do not give her any too cordial a welcome.
One naturally prefers free will in these things. Yet I had a whole-hearted sympathy with the idea of life-widowhood, long before I dreamed it was to be my portion. Painful as the sight of the "widow arches" was to me at first, my convictions made the Chinese view of them seem not unnatural, though I knew the custom had been forbidden by imperial edict some two centuries earlier.
Even in the days when Chan-King and I believed that our love would somehow give us earthly immortality, the idea was strong in me that, to those who loved truly, death could only extinguish the torch for a moment to relight it in the clearer flame of eternity. Then, I cherished this thought in the background of my mind. Now, I live by it.
For this reason, too, I have always found the Chinese attitude towards the dead very comforting. They never for a moment relinquish hold on their loved ones. The anniversary of the day of death is as festal an occasion as the day of birth. The pageant of life marches without a break, birth to death and beyond, and birth again, the generations endlessly touching mystical hands, until the individual feels himself to be part of an endless procession that passes for a moment into a white light and out again, feels himself touching those who came before and those who come after—one of a long line, bound together irrevocably.
With all their ethics of personal sacrifice and their preoccupation with the idea of eternity, the Chinese have no ascetic contempt for the material world and they earnestly desire and seek length of days. Among the varied symbols and characters used to express good wishes—as health, honour, riches—those for "long life" hold pre-eminence. They are wrought in rings, bracelets, hair ornaments, and are sewed into bridal garments and upon children's little coats and caps. I always felt this enormous respect for life in all their daily customs—the preparing of the baby clothes when the bride left her father's house, the nurturing and strengthening of the clan with many children, the reverent regard for the graves of the ancestors to whom the living owed their grace of existence.
On several occasions I accompanied my mother on her visits to the ancestral graves. I remember the last time, only a few days before Chan-King's return, that I walked with her, holding one of her hands, while with the other she grasped her gold-headed cane. She wore a light costume—a plaited black skirt and lavender "coat" and lovely black kid shoes. Servants followed with her baskets of offerings.
We stood at a respectful distance, in silence, while she performed her rites. All about were placed papers, weighted with small stones. She knelt and, clasping her hands, devoutly repeated her prayers under her breath. Then, assisted by a servant, she burned the paper symbols of refreshment and replenishment for the dead. Fire-crackers were exploded to clear the air of evil spirits, and the ceremony was over.
As we returned to the village, everywhere people called out to her from their doorways and she invariably replied with friendly courtesy. In the outskirts we stopped for rest and a visit to the house of a cousin. When we left, many of the relatives and friends went with us a little way, crying out repeatedly, "Good-bye!" and "Come again, come again soon!" I saw the sunlight on Tiger Mountain; I smelled the saltness of the sea. As we passed around the great boulders that hid them from our sight, the modulated cadence of their "Come again, come again soon!" floated to us. It was the last time I should hear it as I was then, and I did not even dream that it was so.
For a month I had been expecting the arrival of Chan-King. His letters were always love-letters, with added paragraphs saying that he was getting on well with his work and would have much to tell me of it when he came home. At last a letter told us to expect him by a certain steamer, on a certain day. But schedules were still in confusion because of the war. That steamer was delayed, and Chan-King sailed for another port, meaning to change there. More delays followed. More letters of explanation. More delays again. Mother and I both became heart-sick with hope deferred. At last, one morning, worn out with watching, I slept later than usual, and on that morning Chan-King came home.
Awakened out of a long drowse, I heard a stir in the quiet house, the clang of a gong, a rush of padded footfalls in the outer hall. Happy voices mingled in greeting at the door of my mother's apartment. I threw on my robe, tucked Alicia under my arm and ran across the room, flinging the door open even as Chan-King had his hand raised to knock at the panel. I saw him dimly in the wavering light. He was smiling, and behind him stood his mother, also smiling. Each of us solemnly spoke the other's name, trying to erase, with a long look, the memory of all those months of absence. Then he saw the baby. "Li-Sia, my thousand catties of gold!" he said, in Chinese. Alicia smiled and held out her arms to him. "She recognizes him!" said Mother, in pleased surprise. We three stood together a moment, silently, gathered around the child. I felt myself more deeply absorbed into the clan—a Chinese woman, dedicated anew, heart and spirit, to my adopted people.
Later, Chan-King explained to me the reason for his home-coming. His legal service for the Government had been completed and his expected appointment had come at last. We were to return to America, where he would be in the Chinese consular service. After a period in this work, a bright future in the diplomatic field seemed assured. It meant leaving my beloved China, where I had firmly taken root. But we agreed that the exile would be for only a few years and that we would return surely to our Promised Land, there to enjoy our span of "long life with honour."
Now our leisurely existence was broken up to a degree. Almost immediately we set about preparations for our new life in America. Chan-King looked forward with absorbing interest to the change, almost as if he were going home. My instant reaction was one of joy, swiftly followed by sorrow at giving up things now loved and familiar. I wanted to appear cheerful, as a duty to those around me. I did not want to seem too cheerful, lest Mother should think me glad to go.
In this period, at last, I met my Chinese father. One beautiful day in early autumn, Chan-King and I went down to the city, returning in mid-afternoon. As our chairs were set down before the entrance, the gatekeeper announced to Chan-King his father's arrival. I was filled with swift apprehension. Again chance had decided my costume: I was wearing, not the conservative Chinese garb in which I had met my mother, but a frilly American dress of blue and white summer silk, a white lace hat with black velvet and pink rosebuds and white kid shoes. Chan-King had on white flannels and a Panama hat. The latter he handed to a servant, as also his cane. As we entered the main room together, a figure rose from beside Mother to receive us. I saw an elderly man of medium height, with grim, smooth-shaven face and grey hair. He was wearing a long gown of deep blue silk, with a black outer jacket and the usual round cap of black satin. My husband first greeted him and then presented me. While I stood uncertain, there was a courteous inclination of the grey head, the grimness of expression dissolved in a wonderfully winning smile, and, surprisingly, as Mother had done, my Chinese father extended his hand. I felt that he was interpreting me in the light of all she had told him, that his cordial handclasp and kindly words of welcome were his ratification of her judgment. Then, with a courtly gesture, he assigned me to his lately occupied chair beside Mother, while he and Chan-King took seats together opposite us. Mother smiled into my eyes with her happiest expression. I felt that Chan-King's background was complete. Long before, I had conceived of it as harsh and threatening, but I had now proved it to be wholly kind and protecting. At my recent fear of this last test I wondered and smiled.
Father was much gratified at finding his grandsons able to converse fluently in his native tongue. He would gather them all about him for an hour at a time, asking questions to test their practical knowledge, or telling stories to amuse them. Alicia also delighted him. At simple Chinese commands, she would now clasp her hands or fold them and bow profoundly. Mother was very proud of her wee granddaughter and would often say, "She is just as Chan-King was at her age!" And her husband would invariably assent with an indulgent smile. There existed between these two—conservative types though they were—an evidence of mutual affection and respect, of real companionship, that touched me profoundly. I was glad that Father was to be with Mother when Chan-King and I took ourselves and our three children from the home where, according to the old Chinese custom, we all rightfully belonged.
The question of leaving one or more of our children there for a time was discussed one afternoon later.
"Under ordinary circumstances," said Father to Chan-King, "you would go alone, as your brother does, leaving your entire family with us. At the very least, you would allow one child to remain in your stead. But of course your mother and I understand that these are not ordinary circumstances. Your wife is an American. She has been considerate of our point of view in many ways—more than we expected—and in this matter we do not fail to consider hers, which is no doubt your own as well. We understand that according to the American view the children belong with their parents, always. We cannot, of course, deny your right to this manner of living. But we want you to feel that, if you can leave even one child with us, we shall be very happy. You understand what protection and care will be given it."
For a moment there was silence. My heart was very full, and, even had it been my place to speak, I should have been unable to do so. Mentally I pictured Mother's loneliness at losing so many of her children. Vainly I tried to imagine our home in America with even one small face missing. I watched my husband, noted the tiny traces of conflict in his face, impassive perhaps to the casual glance. At last he spoke.
"Father, mother," he began earnestly, "we do indeed appreciate your great kindness and generosity. You will understand that, just as you understand most truly our situation. We know that here with you our children would have many advantages that we, perhaps, cannot give them. But which one could we leave to enjoy those advantages? Not Wilfred, for he is our eldest son, on whom we place great dependence. And Alfred—of us all he seems least fitted for the southern climate. The summer heat has left him a little pale and listless. He needs the sea voyage. As for Alicia, she is the baby, and our only daughter. Do not think us unmindful of all you have done. But I fear we should not know how to make our home without our children."
After all, it was evidently not unexpected. They shook their heads a trifle ruefully at each other and then smiled.
"Very well," Father assented. "But this you must promise: that at intervals, whenever your work permits, you will come back—all of you—and spend a year with us again. Do not let the children forget us nor their Chinese speech. In four years, at most, all come back together."
We promised readily, Mother and I repeating the phrase to each other, "In four more years, all come back together." Our eyes were full of tears.
That night I said to my husband, "We should have left one of them."
But Chan-King was a clearer thinker, just then, and knew the truth of this situation better than I did. "Which one?" he asked me significantly, in a tone that made me see the essential hollowness of my protest.
On the Sunday before our ship sailed, Chan-King and I bade farewell to China. In company with our parents and many other relatives we walked to the top of a very high hill, where an old temple, which commanded a magnificent view for miles around, crouched contentedly among the rocks, in the grey sunshine. It was a temple of the three religions, with huge stone images of Confucius, Buddha and Lao-tse grouped in its outer court. Together, Chan-King and I climbed to the crest of the terraced rock. I looked about me, down upon the proud, bright little village, alert and colourful on the hill-side, upon the scattered fertile patches in the midst of the barren mountains where tigers build their lairs. The eternal hills swept the lowering, clouded skies, rolling away from us, silent, shadow-filled. A surging love of the very soil under my feet, a clinging to the earth of China, overwhelmed me. I wished to kneel down and kiss that beloved dust. "Oh, Chan-King," I said, shaking with emotion, "This is home! I wish we were not leaving, even for a day!"
"We will come again soon," he said, in Chinese, "and we will live here when we are old."
That evening we sat together in the quiet garden. From Mother's apartments came the sound of her young nephew's voice as he chanted his morrow's lessons. We heard the subdued merriment of two little maids, teasing each other in the hall beyond. Along the outer path a sedan-chair passed with rhythmic sway, the bamboo supports creaking a soft accompaniment to the pad-pad of the bearers' sandalled feet.
From varying distances came the clang of a brass gong, shuddering on the stillness, the staccato sound of slender bamboo sticks shaken together in a cylindrical box, the measured beat of a small drum-rattle, as the different street venders announced their wares. Over the hills, now purple in twilight, the round moon swung leisurely into the violet sky. Strange breaths of incense were wafted about us. The sea-breeze stirred the branches of a dragon's-eye tree close by, where the ripening fruit-balls tapped gently against each other like little swaying lanterns. For long moments we sat in silence, with clasped hands.
Out of that silence my husband spoke softly, words I had long yearned to hear: "Absence, Margaret, teaches many things. Once it showed you your own heart. This time it has taught me to believe with you in the immortality of love like ours. Physically, we may be separated at times, but mentally, spiritually, you and I are one for all eternity."
The moon rose higher, golden, perfect, even as our love.
A few days later, we sailed for America. The rest may be told in a few words, for, after all, no words could adequately tell it. A week after our arrival in America, Chan-King was stricken with influenza. For several years he had been in the shadow of a slow illness, but with stout resistance and such buoyant recurring periods of good health that we had for a time almost forgotten that early and sinister threat. But those years of struggle were all thrown into the balance against him when the decisive hour came. After six days, he died. Quietly, with terrible implacability, death closed over him. We feared a sudden end, it is true, but were still incredulous of such a calamity. We gave each other what assurance we could: our ultimate farewells were simple renewals of faith, a firmer tightening of our hands for our walk in darkness. "Of all the world, you are my love," he said, many times. "More than anyone else you have understood, you have been unfailing—you have been my wife." And, almost as he spoke, my arms held no longer my living beloved, but only the clay where his spirit had been and would come no more.
So, by the visible evidences, my history is finished. But it has begun anew for me, not as I wished, not as I hoped, but on a level that I can endure. For I have my children and my memories and my home in China, which waits with the gentle healing of sight and sound and place ... and I have learned that in love, and only in love, we can wring spiritual victory out of this defeat of the body.