In those days of which I write, the Twin Dog Village, settled as it was in the midst of the most densely populated part of China, had nothing to distinguish it from other villages. It seemed cut from the same piece of cloth as thousands of other hamlets, and matched them so exactly that it would be hard for a stranger to tell without inquiry whether he had reached his destination or had still another li of humpy, bumpy by-paths to travel.
There was the usual group of willows shading the little collection of cottages, if the mud huts that the villagers called homes could be dignified by such a name. Beside nearly every house or in front of it there was a little pool of water. The clay for the walls of the dwelling having been dug therefrom, and the hole never having been filled up, water had settled in it, thus making a convenient wash-tub in which the lady of the mansion could do her laundry work. Sometimes fairly large fish might be seen swimming leisurely back and forth, and it was considered fine sport by the boys of the village to catch the fish in their fingers. In the springtime the chorus of frogs from these innumerable ponds made a volume of sound that would have driven a neurasthenic mad, but fortunately there are no neurasthenics in a Chinese village.
At one end of the hamlet was the usual village well, and here it was, on a lovely spring evening, that three women met, it must be admitted, for a little gossip. The willow wands over their heads were turning a filmy green, and tender little green things were shyly beginning to peep from the near-by fields, while at their feet two unkempt dogs were snarling and fighting, but the women's heads were too close together to heed such things.
The oldest one, a toothless crone with a few grey hairs brushed over an otherwise bald head, was talking, "There is no doubt about it, Wang Sao Tze is mad, quite mad. I knew it from the moment I first laid eyes on her when she returned from the hospital; her face was so changed that she looked altogether different. Any one could have told her it was not safe to meddle with foreigners, but then she always did as she liked, and listened to no advice. It is certainly plain that they put foreign magic into her tea and that has turned her head. As for me, I would rather bear a thousand agonies than go to Feng Ti Fu to the hospital."
"You speak, as always, like the sages," replied another. "Such new ways are against all custom and may bring the evil eye"—here she touched a charm—"upon the whole village. Do you remember the first evening of her return, how she was all smiles and politeness? Who ever saw Wang Sao Tze polite before? That was not her disposition. Then that night she refused to burn incense to the kitchen god and all the trouble began. In the whole month she has been at home she has only lost her temper once, and then she screamed but a short hour or two, and old Wang Si Fu does not know what to make of it. He actually beat her head against the door the other day because she insisted that she must soon return to Feng Ti Fu for another week of teaching, and he said he would kill her first. He is no longer afraid of her and comes and goes as he pleases."
The third woman now felt that it was her turn to contribute. "Wang Sao Tze may be bewitched; I think she is; I hope she stays so. Never since she came here as a bride has the village been such a pleasant place to live in. She was always quarrelling, and now we have a little peace, I, for one, think Wang Si Fu a fool not to know when he is well off."
"Well," replied the first, "I might think you were right if it were not for the religion she talks; evil is sure to befall one who will not burn incense to the gods, or go to the temple. But her kindness has been great; she wanted to sit up all night with De De, my grandson, when he was ill and give him some foreign drug that she said would heal him, but it was too big a risk. We could not allow him to take it."
At this moment the subject of their conversation appeared at the other end of the village street. "There she is now," exclaimed the old crone. "See, she has in her hand the book of magic from which she is never parted. We had better separate quickly before she bewitches us, for I have no doubt she knows we have been talking about her. People who use the black art are very clever."
Poor Wang Sao Tze's path had been a good deal like the country roads around her since her return from the hospital at Feng Ti Fu; many were the pitfalls laid for her unwary feet, and many the stones over which she stumbled. She had left her foreign friends, who had given her new life and health, full of high hopes of how eagerly she would tell the message to her neighbours, and how joyfully they would listen, but, instead, she found only dull indifference or ignorant prejudice. True, tact was not Wang Sao Tze's strong point; it never had been, because downright measures had always gained what she wanted, and she was too old to begin other methods.
An added difficulty was that Wang Si Fu, her husband, had learned the sweets of liberty in her prolonged absence, and he was loath to return under the bondage that had held him for so many years. When she had summarily torn down the kitchen idol and the ancestral tablet and Wang Si Fu found them in the pool outside the house, it was his turn to give vent to a fit of temper, and for the first time in his married life he had beaten her well. Wang Sao Tze's spirit, however, had remained unbroken; she had learned how to be happy and no one could take away the love she had for her friends at Feng Ti Fu.
Another source of joy was her children; for now that her manners were more gentle, they had ceased to fear her, and they loved to hear the stories she had to tell about the foreign children. There was something in her mien that drew even the neighbour's children, and they would cluster around her whenever their parents would permit. She also had put into practice some of the laws of neatness, newly acquired but very valuable, and her efforts, though crude, made her home and children seem almost to glow with cleanliness in comparison to those of her neighbours.