"Matilda! Matilda! what is that?" she said in a hoarse whisper.
"What is what?" came the sleepy answer.
"That scraping sound; do you not hear it?"
Then there was a scream and Matilda bounded from her bed. "Helen, it is a rat; it ran right over me."
The boat was indeed alive with rats. The friends scarcely closed their eyes all night, for no sooner would they drop off than a rat would run up the wall, or drop from the ceiling to the floor with a thud. Finally, in desperation, Matilda arose and searched for some mosquito nets tacked on frames; these at least would keep the intruders off their faces. As the night wore away Helen decided that the only blessing she could find in this discomfort was that to-morrow morning she would not need to arise at the first stroke of seven, breakfast at half after seven, prepare a lecture at eight and be in the classroom promptly at nine. She could make up all this lost sleep with never a pang of conscience.
Before leaving the village on the next morning, they purchased the leanest, hungriest cat that they could find. She looked as though it would take scores of rats to satisfy her appetite. She proved a valuable asset and the nocturnal visits of the rats steadily decreased.
"I wish we could find as successful a cure for the boat-woman's voice," Helen remarked very often.
As the days went quietly by this woman was the only disturbing element, so to speak, for in spite of the fear of pirates, their voyage passed uneventfully. Helen soon grew accustomed to the shouts and screams of the boatmen as they delivered and executed,orders ; she found it was their method of letting off steam, but she never got over resenting the quarrelling of the woman. It was inefficient, she felt, as it never seemed to get anywhere. In other ways the traveller's education progressed rapidly. She was very philosophical when she heard that the trip would take anywhere from ten days to three weeks. She soon learned the reason of this, for on some days they sailed many li, and on others the wind was contrary and the river they had now entered was winding, so that their progress scarcely seemed to exceed that of the famous tortoise.
"The turtle eventually arrived, you remember," said Miss Matilda, when defending this mode of locomotion against the taunts of her friend.
"I have learned a great deal, but I have yet to understand the boatmen's mental processes," said Helen one day. "I do not really care, because it makes no difference to me when we arrive, and I would enjoy another month of this care-free existence, but I cannot help wondering by what principle they start on some mornings at four and work all day until six, and on others we weigh anchor at nine and tie up by three in the afternoon. Do you know?"
"No; sometimes it's the wind, and sometimes the desire for sleep, I suppose," said Miss Matilda.
The last day of their voyage seemed to drag terribly; the boatmen simply would not hurry, and Miss Matilda, eager to reach her home, for once tried to urge them on. All persuasions were useless, and at length she abandoned the attempt. Though the wind seemed propitious, the sailors tied up at a village at noon and lay down on their deck to smoke and gamble. As was her custom, Miss Matilda gathered a few leaflets together and started off to talk to the women of a hamlet which they saw in the distance. She asked Helen to accompany her, but she refused, saying that she would take a nap.
After a quarter of an hour or so Helen noticed that the family quarrel that always raged while the boat was anchored, was growing hotter and hotter, and she tried in vain to get some sleep. The people might have been in the same room, so plainly could she hear them. Then followed a sudden lull for a few minutes, and just as she was congratulating herself that it was all over, there arose the most blood-curdling screams from the bank. This was too much! The woman was surely being murdered, and Helen ran out on deck to find a boatman beating his wife's head against the river bank. Her hair was streaming down her back, her eyes bulging, and Helen felt that in a moment all would be over. A crowd had collected and were watching open-mouthed, but not one finger was lifted in the wife's behalf. Helen had not a word of Chinese and, of course, the people knew no English; but, lifting her voice as loudly as she could, and pointing with an accusing hand at the man, she commanded him to stop. Something in her manner conveyed the meaning her words could not, and in his surprise the man let go his hold and the woman retreated hastily toward the village.
Very weak and trembling, for she did not know what the crowd might do, Helen retired into the cabin. She felt, however, that a Carnegie medal was certainly due her for saving a human life. When Matilda returned she recounted her story with many thrills, but Miss Kellogg's reply completely dashed her.
"I heard the story as I came along. I think perhaps you might better have left the man alone, for the woman wanted to go to the village to buy opium and he was trying to stop her. Now she is gone, and we will have to wait for her to return, as it would not do to leave her here alone. I am afraid it will be impossible now to make Feng Ti Fu to-night. I am awfully sorry too, as I am anxious to show you my women; they are so quiet and refined, a great contrast to this one."
Helen could not refrain from a laugh at the anticlimax to her exploit. "Anyway, I think
I may consider myself a complete cure," she said. "Think how I would have fretted six months ago over this delay, and now the only thing I mind is to have disappointed you."
"It is as well you came this year," her friend replied. "Next year the railroad will be finished and we will make the trip in ten hours instead of three weeks, and you would then have to do it all by the time-table."
On the next morning, with a splendid wind, they sailed into view of East and West mountains, and saw the city of Feng Ti Fu nestled at their feet. Then Helen, having mastered the lesson that time and house-boats wait for everybody, regretfully turned her back on the river and went ashore.
It was on a very similar morning, ten months later, that she entered the rocky portals of San Francisco harbour, and felt another pang of regret that this voyage, too, was over and her trip to the East nothing but a pleasant memory. All the way across the continent, with a superior smile she watched the hurrying crowds. "How little they realise the pleasure of living in their hurry to achieve," she thought. "But I can never, never forget."
On stepping out of the Grand Central Terminal she saw that the car which she wanted was standing nearly half a block away. The people who had come off the train started to run, and picking up her grip she ran too, and while she was climbing on the platform, the conductor shouted, "Step lively, please!"
As Helen seated herself, she looked out of the rear door of her trolley to see another car which she could have taken standing directly behind. By her running she had saved exactly thirty seconds. When college opened that autumn the very first lecture that Helen delivered to a class of expectant, eager freshmen, was entitled "The Force of Habit."