IT may as well be admitted in the beginning that Wang Sao Tze was no angel. Her neighbours would say, with a shake of the head, when her shrill scoldings disturbed the peace of the hamlet, "There is no doubt that Wang Sao Tze's pechih (disposition) is very bad." Her husband certainly thought so, and he had cause to know.
Like many other persons with stormy tempers, Wang Sao Tze possessed a capable pair of hands and a clear brain; therein, perhaps, lay the difficulty, for her husband was notoriously weak, and without her strong hand at the helm the family fortunes would have been wrecked long ago. She was decidedly the captain of her own soul and of her husband's as well, not to mention all the little Wangs. The village elders murmured, however, when she sought to apply successful home tactics to community affairs.
One morning when the spring wheat in the fields surrounding the Twin Dog Village was a sea of green, Wang Sao Tze stood in her doorway talking to an itinerant quack doctor in stentorian tones: "I have taken your powdered dragon's bones and your snake fangs, and the pain is worse, I tell you; and now you want to stick red hot needles into my side, which will increase the agony tenfold! It is all a game to bleed me of cash, and I want no more of you." Turning to the oven, she raised a dish of boiling fat and threatened to pour its contents over the doctor, who beat a hasty but highly strategic retreat down the street.
But Wang Sao Tze was stopped in her first impulse of pursuit by a most unexpected sight. Coming down the crooked lane, which was to the citizens of the hamlet what the Champs Elysees is to the Parisians, was a tiny procession. In the lead were two leisurely-going donkeys carefully watching their steps for fear of mud-holes, while a collection of shouting boys and barking dogs brought up the rear, making themselves generally obnoxious.
What turned Wang Sao Tze almost to stone, however, and froze the torrent of abuse on her lips, was the sight of an unmistakably foreign woman riding upon the first donkey. The fact that she wore a Chinese coat, hat, skirt, and shoes, could not disguise from sharp hostile eyes that her hair was brown and wavy, and her features Occidental.
Many a time and oft had Wang Sao Tze rehearsed to an admiring group of villagers what her course of action and conversation would be—if screaming at the top of one's lungs may be called conversation—should a foreigner ever have the hardihood to show himself on their streets. That the first visitor might be a woman never had occurred to her; but there seemed no reason to think that the same tactics would not be effectual in this case.
While she was adapting her mental processes to meet the new condition, the stranger had slipped from her donkey, and, standing directly in front of Wang Sao Tze, she made a deep bow that could have been learned only in China's first circles. In a sweet, low voice, without one trace of fear, she inquired:
"May I ask your honourable name?"
Startled at being greeted with such perfect courtesy, Wang Sao Tze's voice, which had been about to scream at a high pitch, "Yang Gwie Tze!" (Foreign Devil), cracked as she tried to lower it to the tone required in polite society.
"My humble name is Wang," she said.
Perceiving her advantage, the lady began to ply her with questions so rapidly that she prevented the Chinese woman from putting into practice any hostile intent. At last she inquired, "Is there no inn in the village where I may buy a cup of tea? I have travelled many li to-day and have many still to go, and I am very thirsty."
Greatly to her own surprise, and still more so to that of her neighbours, who had gathered at a safe distance, Wang Sao Tze found herself saying in a voice of honeyed sweetness, "If the foreign lady will forgive my great presumption, I would ask her to enter my unworthy door and drink my tea, though it is not fit to offer a great taitai (lady) like yourself."
The house stood in a shabby court and was a poor place indeed, with its mud walls and straw thatched roof and earthen floor. It had no windows and the only air permitted to enter came in by way of the open door, or through chinks in the walls. A forlorn dog worried a bone in the corner, and a black pig, to whom water was an unknown quantity, made itself at home in a pile of refuse at one end of the court; while in the other, a donkey raised a discordant sound of welcome to his comrades in the street. From the beams of the ceiling strings of onions, garlic, and other vegetables were hung, and dried hams and sausages advertised the fact that Wang Sao Tze was a thrifty manager of domestic affairs who looked well to the ways of her household. On one side of the room the kitchen god held sway, and not far from it was the ancestral tablet. Beyond these aids to worship there was no attempt at adornment of any kind unless a coffin, which stood in a position where the eye fell on it immediately upon entering the door, could be so called. It is certainly true that Wang Sao Tze regarded this coffin as the apple of her eye, for was it not a pleasant reminder that her decent burial was assured ? Two rude benches, a table, and an oven completed the furnishings of the interior.
With an unconscious hospitality that was really beautiful, Wang Sao Tze bowed her guest to the seat of honour, while the latter, after duly protesting her unworthiness, finally accepted it. Then Wang Sao Tze, all her prejudices forgotten, bestirred herself in the preparation of tea, while the staring villagers almost asphyxiated the two women by crowding around the door, and effectually shutting off the sweet May breeze.
Question after question was poured forth upon the tired traveller, who answered with an unending patience. To their great amazement her listeners had found out that she had reached the marriageable age of thirty without accomplishing matrimony, an unheard-of situation to their minds. She claimed to have come to China to tell them some message of good news; exactly what it was they could not understand. And one old dame voiced the feelings of all when she exclaimed, "You might better far have spent the money on a dowry, for I hear it costs at least one hundred taels to come from your country, and you could have made a fitting marriage with that large sum."