BETTY put down her story-book and sighed almost from her boots. She wished that she was not only just thirteen; it must be perfectly lovely to be as old as "William the Conqueror" and go into the heat of Southern India to feed poor starving natives. Of course, it wasn't the William the Conqueror famous in history whom she was envying, but Rudyard Kipling's "William—the girl," who insisted on spending a summer helping her brother to rescue Indian famine sufferers.
"I suppose I'm really not pretty enough to be a heroine," Betty thought. "A girl with red hair and a good many freckles wouldn't do at all; still Kipling doesn't make William very beautiful, so if I were a bit older I might have a chance. And Elizabeth Kenneth McKenzie would read awfully well—it's the only beautiful thing about me."
Betty looked wistfully out of the window on the narrow grass plot surrounded by no flower beds in which a few late chrysanthemums still bloomed; beyond these the high compound walls shut her in. On the whole, it was a very small playground and it did not tempt her now. Over the walls came the usual street noises of a crowded Chinese city; the call of the street vender, the shrill scolding of women quarrelling, the barking of pariah dogs, even the grunts of pigs, and at the gate, the tap of a beggar's stick, and his whining voice asking for alms. The air was oppressive with sickening odours, for in China, as a visitor once wisely remarked, "There are seventy-five smells one can identify and twenty-five unknown ones." It would take walls several leagues high to keep these odours from penetrating.
Betty did not notice the noises or the smells; like Brer Fox, who had been "born and bred in a brier patch," she had always lived within sight and sound of these very streets.
This year was different, however. All summer long the rain had fallen, and the rivers and canals had risen and flooded the country as far as eye could see. When Betty had come back from the summer in the mountains and had steamed up the river in a launch, instead of green fields and bright harvests the country was one vast lake. The city, too, had changed; around its walls thousands of straw huts had been built. These were just long enough for a man to lie in, but not tall enough to make it possible for him to stand erect. And in these huts lived one hundred thousand men, women, and children.
Betty was never allowed at any season to go out alone in the crowded streets, but this winter she did not want to go even with her father, as there were hungry people on every hand, begging for bread. She could not bear to pass them by without giving them a few cash, and to do so might cost the lives of all the foreigners; for in a few minutes a mob of starving people would collect and demand food; so all the giving had to be done outside the walls at famine relief camps.
Life seemed very dull and very sad, indeed, to Betty on this dark November afternoon. "I know I should feel better if I could only do something for them," she repeated over and over. "Then I would climb on a mule and go out to the relief work and give out meal tickets all day, and I wouldn't mind their crying so, because I would be doing something."
At that moment she heard a knock at the door of the gate-house and saw the old gatekeeper in his funny padded coat go forward to open the door. He stood making deep bows of welcome to Betty's mother. No matter how often in the day she came in, Chinese politeness called for a certain amount of ceremony every time. Betty was overjoyed to see her, but as her mother came nearer she noticed with a pang how tired she looked. She sank into a chair with a sigh, while Betty stuffed a cushion behind her back, took off her hat, and ran into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Betty had not lived so long in China without finding out the cheering qualities of tea.
"Well, dearie, what have you been doing?" her mother asked between refreshing sips.
"Oh, nothing, only reading," Betty answered. "But where in the world have you been all this time ? It's been terribly lonesome, with the boys at the Steads and you and father out."
"I have been visiting the poor women in the neighbourhood to find the really needy cases; but the trouble is that they are all so needy it's hard to choose," and the tired lines returned to her face as she spoke. "There are at least fifteen babies right around us who will starve to death unless we feed them, and I really do not see how I can do one solitary thing more than I am doing."
Betty's heart went thump; here was her chance, but she must keep quiet and not speak hastily or she might lose it. After thinking a moment, she said with an air of grown-up importance which she unconsciously used when talking to older people, "Oh, mother, just let me feed those babies!"
"You, Betty!" her mother exclaimed.
"Yes, me—your daughter, Elizabeth Kenneth McKenzie—the name ought to help. I can do it morning and evening; you can show me how the first time and then I will do it by my lonesome."
"But, Betty, the babies are so dirty; I'm sure you will have all sorts of diseases. I simply can't have my little daughter touch them."
"Well, mother, I don't see what's the use of being the daughter of a foreign missionary if you can't keep babies from starving. I might as well be brought up in style in America; anyhow, with father spending all his days among the famine fever patients, and you in the people's houses, if we are going to catch things and die, we will anyway."
Her mother knew that she spoke the truth, but she could not help a sigh. She did not doubt Betty's powers, for she had trained her herself and had not left her to servants. With all her teaching she had kept Betty a healthy, romping girl, inducing her only to curb the quick temper that is supposed to be the concomitant of red hair, and rejoicing always in her daughter's warm heart.
Mrs. McKenzie was deep in thought, but at last she said, "We will have to ask father, but I'm sure he will consent; we simply cannot let any human beings starve whom we can save!" Then she let her usual reserve go, for she was very sad and tired. "I wonder all the time how it will end. Here is your father working himself to death, and every morning when I say good-bye to him, I ask myself, will he come back to-night? If the Chinese were not the most patient people in the world, they would rise up and demand food of those in authority, and would wreck everything until they were given rice. There is no telling where they would stop."
Betty looked at her mother in surprise, for she was always so bright and cheerful. If she gave way, things must be black indeed. However, she had won her victory, for she knew her father well enough to realise that he would not place obstacles in her way—as her brothers often said, "What mother says goes."
Soon all was arranged; the women from the immediate neighbourhood whom Mrs. McKenzie had seen were to be allowed to bring their babies to the compound and the next morning was set for their first visit. The supply of condensed milk sent on the relief ship from America was brought out, as there would not be enough cow's milk to go around.
Betty arose with the roosters; there were no larks in that city to rise with, but there was plenty of poultry. Prompt as she was, she could not out-distance the first eager woman who, with the Chinese idea of time, arrived at the earliest peep of the sun. Betty kept her waiting in the gate-house until she was entirely ready and need not be flurried; then with a nod from her, Lao Wong let all the women in.
They were a motley and miserable crowd, and reminded Betty of the creatures of the highways and byways, or the scarecrows which she had seen in America. Each pitiful figure had a scrawny, wizened baby in her arms or led one by the hand; and all were wailing with hunger. Betty wanted to sit right down and cry too, but she knew that would never do, for she was there to stop their crying and not to add her voice to theirs. In a very business-like way she and her mother went to work; some they fed from a bottle, some from a spoon, and one little mite from a medicine dropper. It was slow work, but Betty said afterwards that she was very glad she had nursed her dolls herself through the measles and scarlet fever, instead of leaving them to trained nurses, for now she knew how to handle real babies.
They could not feed the children and leave the mothers looking like famished dogs, so they gave them breakfast also. One poor woman looked up with gratitude in her eyes and said, "You are so good; yesterday my husband told me that to-morrow I would have to sell my baby or throw it away." Making a gesture with her arms she added happily, "But I can keep her now," and she hugged the baby close. It was nearly eleven when the last woman made her last deep bow and said her final, "You are two good, gracious ladies," and left the now empty and quiet compound.
"I feel as if I ought to soak in disinfectants for the rest of the day," laughed Betty. "But this has shortened the hours so that I have no time. We will begin again at four."
Every morning and evening throughout the winter Betty fed her babies, and little by little she had the joy of seeing their wizened faces change and brighten, and have them hold out chubby arms to her instead of the claw-like hands which had so distressed her at first. The mothers, too, seemed to love her, and began to soften their loud tones and straighten out their rough hair and wash their dirty garments.
When June came Betty was a tired and very white-faced little girl, but I doubt if any girl in the whole Celestial Empire was as happy as she. For the fields were green with a harvest that promised plenty for every one for the coming year; and on Sunday afternoon, fifteen bright-faced Chinese women who held fifteen plump, smiling babies in their arms, walked into Mrs. McKenzie's class.
"We have come to hear about the God that loves little children," the oldest woman said.