I THINK a person's religion is like their skin; they are born with it and they cannot alter it. Besides, the Orientals are happy in their religion; then why under heaven should we seek to change it? I call it giving ourselves foolish airs." With the complacent manner of one who has put forth an absolutely unanswerable argument, my friend sipped her tea and started a lively discussion on world peace with her other neighbour.
"Happy in their religion!" At these words the tasteful drawing-room faded away, and I ceased to listen to the merry chatter around me, while Li Sao Tze's gentle face arose before my vision and I lost myself in the thought of my days in China.
Is it mere chance that on leaving the soft green shores of Japan, one must sail through a yellow sea before one can reach the yellow country and meet the yellow people, and must the religion be yellow because the skin is, I wonder? We had sailed through the Yellow Sea on our voyage of discovery, and steamed up the river to Shanghai with our Occidental eyes wide open to miss no sight, our ears attentive to miss no sound, and our unwilling noses missing no scent of that strange land, for it seemed as if even the little breezes smelled yellow.
The tales of our childhood about Topsy-Turvy Land came to our minds as our ragged-queued rickshamen whisked us around corners, and we found to our dismay that we were expected to point the way to them, instead of their showing it to us. Newcomers must beware, if they do not want to be landed in some unsavoury corner of the native city where no word of English is spoken.
As we had a guide we were ultimately delivered in good order at our destination. Our first night on Chinese soil was a test as to whether we could stand the alarms of life in the Interior. We were regaled at dinner with stories of the famous Shanghai riot that had occurred shortly before our arrival, and also with detailed accounts of the massacre that had recently taken place in the south. It was all part of the day's work to those hardened to the vicissitudes of life in China, but it stamped itself deeply on our impressionable minds.
After retiring that night I found that the tales to which we had listened still haunted my brain, and unable to sleep, suffered in imagination all the horrors that had been related. I must have been in bed about two hours when suddenly I heard shouts in the distance, and then what seemed like hundreds of hurrying footsteps and the most terrifying shrieks. I hastily arose and ran to the window and listened, shaking with fear, and fully convinced that the rioters were coming, thirsting for foreign blood. In intense anxiety I waited for the people of the house to sound the alarm and call us together to make our escape, but every one slept peacefully on, while each moment the din grew wilder. Finally, it swept past the house altogether.
"They have gone," I thought, "for some larger prey, but they will surely come back." I waited in vain for a summons, but as our friends did not seem to be at all apprehensive, I at last decided to try to sleep. I spent a restless night, however, and came down to break fast in a pensive mood.
"What was that horrible noise last night?" I inquired. "Was it a riot?"
"No, only a wedding party," my friends laughingly replied.
"A wedding party! What, then, were the blood-curdling outcries and discordant wails?"
"Oh, that was their singing, and their musical instruments."
"Well," I ejaculated fervently, "if that was a wedding, may I never hear a riot!"
In the weeks that followed, we had the diversion of watching one of the world's great pageants as it passed under our balcony: Chinese dandies in silks and satins, with the ever-present fan held to protect their eyes from the piercing rays of a semi-tropical sun; ladies in gaily decorated sedan chairs, and women of the poorer classes pushing wheelbarrows with three or four people in them; regiments of tall Sikhs with the steel flashing in their turbans; sailors and marines wearing the uniforms of many nations, ashore from the warships that lay in the river; lightly clad Lascars, swarthy seamen from the merchant ships. There were wedding and funeral processions with their accompanying din; one funeral procession took an hour to pass, and the glories of the embroidered robes of the Buddhist and Taoist priests caused much envy in the mind of one spectator. And not the least entertaining part of the strange sights was a monkey in the courtyard across the way. It afforded amusement not only to the little Portuguese children that owned it, but to all the neighbours as well.
On one hot morning a little file of rickshas drew up at the front door, and there followed the usual squabble of liberally paid coolies protesting over the fare. Too much engrossed with the foreign street scene to pay much attention to the arrival of a few Americans, I did not even turn my head until I heard a baby's voice at my elbow.
"Auntie, auntie, here we are!" and on rooking down, I found a mite, all dimples, tugging at my skirts.
Lois was right, there they were, and the proper things were said and done—the things one always does to a niece whom one has never seen before, and to the parents, whom one has not beheld for five years, and has travelled half way around the world to visit.
Behind these members of the family stood an unassuming woman clad in the blue cotton coat and black trousers which was the costume of her native town. She waited with a bright smile on her face, absorbed in the happiness of others, and watching with surprise the demonstrative ways of these strange foreigners. At last we came to ourselves and Li Sao Tze was presented; we liked her from the first for her gentle, modest ways, and for her unselfishness. It was explained that while we were in the mountains she was to serve as amah and baby's nurse.
The family of Li Sao Tze belonged to the scholar class, the gentry we would call it, but they were in reduced circumstances and glad to eke out their income through her labours, and they would not "lose face" thereby, as she was away from home. Her husband was dead and her sons were "ne'er do weels," and we thought that it must be a comfort to her to be free from them for a season.