HELEN BRETT was a slave to time and she knew it. She had known it for five years, and because of this knowledge her nerves had begun to give way. She confessed to the doctor that the sight of a clock made her faint, and when she heard one strike she wanted to stop her ears and run. Of course she realised that almost all the people that she knew were in the same bondage, but as they were unconscious slaves, it did not hurt them, she reasoned.
The habit began while she was preparing for college. In order to enter Smith when she had planned, it was necessary to use every minute, and so she had started life with a watch in her hand. Helen meant to succeed and she had succeeded, and not until she had been a professor in one of the leading women's colleges for two or three years did it begin to dawn upon her that she hated to be efficient; that she loathed a schedule, and that a life ordered like a railroad time-table was crushing her spirit and ruining her disposition.
At the pyschological moment came her sabbatical year and a letter from Matilda Kellogg asking Helen to spend her leave of absence in China. At the first paragraph Helen shook her head emphatically; Matilda must certainly have lost all that practical common sense for which she was famous when they had been chums at college, or she would never suggest such a weird idea. But when she read further, she paused, for the letter ran:
"If you decide to come, there is one thing I must warn you about, for I do not want to get you here under false pretences. The Chinese have absolutely no idea of time; all hours of the day seem equally good to them, and as far as they are concerned, the sun and moon stand still. I must also admit that we foreigners grow careless after a vain effort to try to hustle them on our first arrival, and we soon grow almost as tardy in our habits as they are. Knowing that to you punctuality is the greatest human virtue, I make this confession; nevertheless I hope you will come."
On that very evening Helen tore up her carefully prepared itinerary for a tour of Italy, wherein the arrival and departure of trains was methodically noted, and -cabled Matilda Kellogg, "Coming on the next steamer."
On stepping off the launch at Shanghai, the first remark Helen made was, "Matilda, I have come to China to drift, and I want to do the very most unpunctual thing you can think of."
Matilda wiped a tear away—this seeing her first home friend for seven years was homesick work—but in a minute she was laughing at Helen's characteristic, business-like directness. "If you want to drift, what could be better than the house-boat trip to my station which I am planning for you? A house-boat, next to my cook, is the most unpunctual thing in the world."
Helen found that a house-boat trip required much preparation and was not to be undertaken lightly and unadvisedly. Nearly a week went by before all the necessary purchases for a winter in the interior of China could be made. When they finally started for the river steamer that was to take them to the mouth of the Grand Canal, their rickshas were heaped to the gunwales with packages, while the heavy freight went on in carts in front of them. They made quite an imposing procession.
"I suppose to-morrow evening we will be on our own little boat," said Helen gaily as they paced back and forth on the broad decks of the steamer. "We get to Ching Kiang about noon, do we not?"
Matilda laughed. "My dear tenderfoot, do you think we are in Chicago? Why it will take at least a day to negotiate for the house-boat, then there is all the freight and coal for the winter to get on board. Let me see? This is Tuesday; we will be lucky if we get off by Friday."
On Saturday morning Matilda Kellogg stated at breakfast that she thought that they would be able to sail by ten o'clock. The houseboat was all ready except for their personal belongings and the coolies were to come at nine o'clock.
At a quarter after nine Helen descended the stairs all dressed and ready and seated herself on the trunks standing strapped and waiting in the hall, "I am fifteen minutes late. I did it on purpose. I really think I am beginning to understand their ways. I will just stay here, for they can't be long now and they say it is always wise to keep one's eyes on one's things," she murmured to herself.
By eleven o'clock her wait had begun to grow irksome; so Helen ascended the stairs to her room to see what Matilda was doing. She found her friend contentedly rocking back and forth and discussing some interesting mission problems with her hostess.
"Why, Matilda, are you not ready? It is a quarter after eleven!" she exclaimed reproachfully.
"Oh, is it; have the coolies come?" Miss Matilda asked absent-mindedly.
"No," replied the hostess, "Jack couldn't get the ones we usually employ, so he has gone to another hong. It is quite a distance across the canal, and they will probably be eating. Then they will have to smoke a pipe or two, so you might as well make up your minds to stay to tiffin." It seemed the only thing to be done, so they consented.
By two o'clock there was a noisy crowd of coolies in the compound, and Miss Matilda sent down word to the kitchen to her cook and amah that she was ready to start. But the cook was not to be found; the last seen of him was when he had said he was going out on "the street" to make some purchases for the trip. After being all summer in the mountains with Miss Matilda, his wardrobe he felt had need of replenishment. There was nothing to do but wait, for they could not leave without him and there was no way in which he could follow.
So the afternoon slipped on until half past four when Lao Liu, the cook, reappeared, very much pleased with himself and the rakish derby hat which he had bought. As a sop to Cerberus, he presented a live chicken to Miss Matilda, and listened with a placid smile to the scolding that she administered, for she was not to be placated by the fowl.