TROUGHOUT the long days of July and August the low plains of Central China lie steaming in the sun; the humidity is terribly high and the effect on the human constitution can be compared only to a vapour bath that never ceases day or night. Then, when the enervated foreigner feels ready to give up the fight for such a weary existence, the climate suddenly changes and there follows week after week of the most glorious autumn weather to be found the wide world over.
It was seven of the clock on one of these matchless mornings, and Anne Waring, latest and rawest recruit to the staff of an inland station, was supposed to be hurrying with her dressing. The glimpses of Chinese life, which she caught from her window through the plum trees and over the high compound wall, sadly hindered the process. The novelty of seeing so many purely domestic rites—fit only for the eyes of one's nearest and dearest—performed in doorways and streets still fascinated her and held her spellbound. She found herself whispering the words of the nonsense rhyme, "Now really, John, what next?" Here a man was eating a bowl of rice with noisy enjoyment, handling the chopsticks with a deftness that was a fine art; near him stood a woman scrubbing some garments in a muddy pool; and next to her, her best-hated neighbour was washing her face and hands in the same muddy water.
This was the "simple life" indeed; Charles Wagner should have come to China if he had wanted to learn its a, b, c's. A voice in the hall, and a fragrant whiff of coffee brought the dreamer back to herself, and hastily fastening the last button and giving an extra pat to her rebellious curls, she ran down the stairs. The dining-room was a pleasant sight in the morning sunlight, with its blue Soochow rug, a few well-chosen pictures and the gleaming white cloth with a bowl full of late roses in the centre of the table. It was homelike and simple too, but—oh, the contrast between this simplicity and that of the Chinese street!
Behind the coffee urn sat Miss Matilda Kellogg, known all over the Empire as "Miss Matilda," a quiet, well-poised little lady, with many virtues, no vices, and a great amount of dignity, as became one who had lived in the East for twenty-five years, and was an authority on matters of Chinese etiquette. Although Miss Matilda had no vices, she had one great weakness, which she secretly regarded almost as a sin; that was her fondness for her old silver. It was the only thing of value she had brought from America with her, for she was the last of her family, and the plate had belonged to a Kellogg for nearly one hundred years. Whenever the verse was read aloud commanding us to set our affections on things above, and the danger of thieves and rust in this world below, Miss Matilda thought of her silver with a pang of conscience, and knew that she had not yet been made perfect.
Anne Waring seated herself at the table with a brief, "Good morning." She then proceeded to help herself freely to strawberry jam from the jar standing temptingly near her, and which, like the delectable sweets in Alice in Wonderland, seemed to say, "Eat me." She spread her crisp, buttered toast very thickly, for she felt that she needed all the sugar and spice she could find to make bearable a morning spent memorizing Chinese radicals.
"What makes Following the Procession pant as if he had been running ji race? It isn't so far from the kitchen," she finally inquired.
"Who? What? Where?" gasped Miss Ma-tilla bewildered.
"Why, the new table boy, of course. I call him Following the Procession. Dr. Scott assures me that it is a free translation of his name, and I cannot yet pronounce his Chinese one."
Miss Matilda frowned a little; she did not like to have the slightest fun poked at anything belonging to her beloved Chinese, but her sense of humour soon conquered, and she laughingly replied, "A most appropriate name; he is just the type that would follow a procession to the bitter end, regardless of anything else. In fact, when I first saw him he was doing that very thing; it was the June idol festival, and he was one of the most engrossed of a crowd of boys who were following in the wake of the Taoist priests as they marched from the temple. The reason he breathes so hard when he waits on the table is that he is afraid of us and our strange foreign ways; he does not know but that at any moment some of the orders we give him may bewitch him."
"All I can say is we will have to have him oxygenated if he keeps it up much longer; he is fairly red in the face and blowing like a porpoise." After this elegant expression Anne Waring turned her attention to her breakfast.
She was startled out of a reverie by Miss Matilda, "Sneak thieves came in last night and stole some clothes off the line; I think we will have to buy a goose."
Anne repressed a flippant desire to say, "What is the use of buying a goose when we already have Following the Procession?" She also wondered what stealing of clothes had to do with buying a goose. Her theory was that in a new country it was better to "Stop! Look! Listen!" rather than to ask too many questions, so she kept her curiosity to herself and answered.
"What a lark! I suppose wre'll have it for Christmas! A goose at Christmas seems so like Dickens and Washington Irving, and so charmingly Mid-Victorian." The last word she added with a wicked little twinkle.
Miss Matilda shuddered at the "Mid-Victorian." This latest comer to the station was very modern and iconoclastic, she thought, but she let it pass.
"Why, I do not want to eat the goose," she explained. "The Chinese use geese instead of wratch-dogs, because they cackle at the slightest noise, and I thought we might try one. We are very unprotected here at the edge of the city; they say that there are many brigands about this year, as the winter promises to be a hard one. The cook and the table boy go home at night, and the gatekeeper sleeps like the dead, so he is no help."