ONE beautiful afternoon in late October the tiny living-room of our Chinese house was flooded with sunshine which touched the soft red-stained walls and the vases of gay chrysanthemums that stood in every nook and corner. Through the casement window other chrysanthemums shyly peeped, as if standing on tiptoe in their garden bed, full of curiosity to see what their comrades were doing within.
After a two weeks' trip in a cramped houseboat, these surroundings seemed spacious indeed, so in deep content with our new environment, we sank into the comfortable armchairs. Then suddenly our Eden was invaded; we heard the clump, clump of a springless bound-foot in the courtyard outside, the bang of a door, and then the voice of our hostess saying, "Weh Sao Tze, this is my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law from America."
On looking up I beheld the tallest, gauntest Chinese woman I have ever seen, making deep ceremonial bows before us. Now mothers-in-law are held in great honour in China, but even in her desire to do respect to the aged foreign lady, Weh Sao Tze could not repress her consternation.
"Cannot they speak one word, not one little word?" she asked.
The pity and contempt in her voice needed no interpreter, though her language might. All our little store of learning seemed to be stripped from us, and for the moment this crude woman was a sage compared to ourselves. Having once heard Chinese spoken, one forever after holds any person in veneration who has mastered its intricacies—no matter if that individual, like Weh Sao Tze, had been born to it.
All this time Weh Sao Tze was bowing before us like an automaton, and in her awkwardness she apparently filled the tiny room. She had attempted to freshen her blue coat and untidy hair to do honour to the foreign ladies, but her unkemptness beggared description.
After the usual polite question to the mother-in-law as to her honourable age, the exclamation, "Why, I thought you were a great deal older!" was in order. Then the names and ages of the lady's sons were investigated and commented on, and congratulation given upon her "great happiness." At last Weh Sao Tze's hostess gave her a decided hint to withdraw, and still shaking her head and muttering below her breath, "They can't speak a word, not a single word," she left us.
Immediately on Weh Sao Tze's disappearance the room seemed to regain its normal size, and we drew a sigh of relief to think that, for the time at least, the ornaments were intact. Turning to my sister-in-law with deep feeling, I exclaimed, "Who is Weh Sao Tze, and where did you collect such a wild specimen?"
Laughingly she replied, "You ought to have seen her when she was first caught—fresh from the country. She is to be our amah this winter."
"That's a pity," I murmured. "What a suffragette she would make; everything would have to give way before her convictions."
"Yes, she is really the man of the family, and manages her husband and sons like a general. It is hard for us to realise what heathenism really is until we encounter people like her. She had no idea of the difference between right and wrong; she informed me quite frankly, in fact, that the only harm in lying was in being found out. She has had twenty children, but only three are with her. In a famine year she left one baby girl under a tree to die of exposure and another one she sold for a coat. She told me all this as though it was an everyday occurrence, as, alas, it is in this city! She was quite surprised when I exclaimed in my horror over her tale.
"But in the last two years she has seen a great light and is struggling hard to overcome her fearful gusts of temper and other vices," my sister-in-law continued. "You would respect her more if you knew her temptations. She was admitted to the church this autumn in the hope that its support would be of help."
"I can easily see that life would never be monotonous in Weh Sao Tze's vicinity," I replied. And it never was.
It was Christmas time before Weh Sao Tze really mastered the rudiments of housework; by that day she had learned the surprising facts that sheets belonged next to the mattress and not on top of the spread, that even husband and wife might not take a bath in the same water and, more astonishing yet, that the dish pan was not the usual place to brush one's teeth. Words fail me to tell of the peace and quiet that descended upon us at night when she had returned to the bosom of her own f amily. Often I wondered if her husband enjoyed the blessed quiet of the day as we did the stillness of the night.
Christmas was to be a gala-day for the Christians and a feast was to be served for them in the new foreign house. The Boys' School had prepared an entertainment for the evening which was considered the social event of the winter, as the head official and his wife were invited and tickets were in great demand.
Great was Weh Sao Tze's excitement. She had already begun to have more regard for her personal appearance; fewer straws from her rough bed were to be seen sticking to her hair, and her coat was evidently washed at least once a month, but for Christmas day she really outshone herself. She embroidered a new hat and gay shoes, washed and starched her coat, and really was an example of what soap and a little—a very little—godliness can do. From that day forward it was interesting to see Weh Sao Tze cleansed and brushed, with her Bible and hymn-book tied up in a gaily coloured handkerchief, and her two boys, also much brushed and washed, beside her on the way to church.
One of the duties of the amah was to light our bedroom fires before we arose in the mornings. It seemed to me that I had just fallen asleep on Christmas Eve, when I heard a rattle and bang at the stove and the sound of a roaring fire just built. The house was dark, and there was not a sign of dawn, but I had no Chinese words in which to demand an explanation; so I lay still awaiting developments. Soon from the distance I heard the master of the house approaching, and I listened to him ordering Weh Sao Tze away in no uncertain tones. On inquiry I found that it was only half-past two, but Weh Sao Tze had no clock, and in her zeal had decided that now it must be morning. Three different times did she start those fires, until at last in self-defence, at six o'clock in the morning, we let her have her way. Do you wonder that some people think that by sheer perseverance the East will conquer the West?