All thought of leaving that day had to be abandoned, and as the next day was Sunday, they were forced to put off their departure until Monday morning. On Saturday night as they were about to retire, Helen unfastened her wrist-watch with a dramatic gesture and handed it to Miss Matilda. "Take it," she said, "and bury it in your deepest trunk, for I can easily see I will never need it here."
Strange as it may seem, for China is the land of contradictions, at half past eight on Monday morning the luggage was ready, the coolies collected at the gate, and the cook and amah, their arms full of bundles, awaited the word of departure. The shock was almost greater than Helen could bear, and for the first time in nearly ten years she herself was half an hour late.
Her one consolation was that the cure was beginning to work.
As they closed the compound gate and plunged down the narrow, winding street, Helen's heart failed as it had not done since she had sighted the low, mud shores of China. Heretofore she had travelled in chairs or rickshas and the poverty and dirt had not pressed so close upon her; but now she was to see things as they were with a vengeance, and she was not sure that she was going to like it. It was picturesque enough as far as the buildings were concerned. The street was so narrow that only a ribbon-like strip of blue sky showed above, and the curved roofs, carved doorways, and long pendant signs covered with characters would rejoice an artist's soul. Helen was about to exclaim with pleasure at the sight, when her eyes were suddenly called back to earth, for she stumbled, and nearly fell headlong over a black pig that was lying sprawled directly across her path.
"This is no place for star gazing," chided her friend. "You must look where you are going or you will land in a mud-hole, and then it would take more than Sapolio or Dutch Cleanser to make you respectable."
Helen could hardly repress her disgust, but if Matilda Kellogg, the fastidious, had stood it for so many years, she at least would be game enough to tolerate it for one.
"I do not want to be critical, but it seems to me that your coolies and all those others," pointing to a group down the street, "are rather sketchily clad for weather and decency."
"Now, Helen," laughed Miss Matilda, "you didn't expect Fifth Avenue when you came to China, did you? You'll soon get used to such little things. I never notice it now, though I confess to a turn or two at first. Here, wait a minute; I am going to stop and buy some turkey red to make some curtains for the houseboat. If we cannot be elegant, we may as well be cosy."
Laughing and chatting in this manner, they came down to the bank of the canal. Helen in truth felt a little like whistling to keep up her courage; this being cut off from one's kind and going alone into a not too friendly country, she found was a new and far from pleasing sensation.
At this point the canal was very wide, and on every hand as far as the e}^e could see, wrere myriads of boats of every size, from the large, stately junk of the official to the tiny, clumsy boat of the beggar.
"Why, all the world's a boat!" exclaimed Helen. "But where is ours and how can we possibly reach it?"
"Way out there! We shall have to cross from boat to boat with narrow boards as gangways stretched across. It really is a little dangerous," Miss Matilda added anxiously, "for they do sometimes go over, and the current just here is swift."
"Let's ask Lao Liu to burn an incense stick for us while we are crossing," laughed Helen.
Miss Matilda did not reply to this sally as Helen had expected, but still wore an anxious frown. She had seen a man drown at this spot on her last trip, and it was no laughing matter; but she kept the knowledge of this accident to herself.
By this time everybody in the vicinity who had nothing to do, and also many who had been busy, began to collect around them. In China no one is in such a hurry that he cannot stop, look, and listen whenever any new thing appears, and nothing is a greater treat than the sight of a foreigner. Therefore, the ladies felt it better to start at once on their perilous trip. Sometimes the board would be as steady as a church; sometimes it would nearly turn and they would have to jump to make it, and sometimes there would be no board at all. The onlookers gave them plenty of good advice which was Greek to Helen, but she got on exactly as well without it. After a great amount of exertion they reached their haven of refuge and hastened into the tiny cabin to rest.
"I never saw so many boats nor so many people in my life. There must be a good deal of disease among them, isn't there?" asked Helen.
"There is plenty of contagious disease everywhere in China, and if you are going to worry about that you might as well go right home, for there is no way of avoiding exposure. That boat over there, for instance, has smallpox in it. I went the other way on purpose, but it was hardly worth while, for probably there was some one ill in nearly every one we crossed."
"Well," said Helen, "now at length we are off. I wonder what time it is, and how far we will get to-day," and she looked down to the place where her wrist-watch used to be.
"Not so fast, not so fast," replied Miss Matilda. "If there is not a favourable wind, and the sailors are not disposed, we may not go at all to-day; besides which the sail has to be raised, the incense burned, the firecrackers set off, the drum sounded, and, perhaps, a chicken sacrificed before we can start. All the evil spirits must be propitiated, or our voyage may end in disaster."
"And you a foreign missionary!" gasped her friend. "If there is no wind, why did we leave a perfectly good house thus early in the morning and hurry down amidst all this disease, and these eyes?" She added this as she looked up and discovered curious eyes in every window.