Who Is Who

‘MISSY mean well but missy no savvy China custom. Missy talkee bargain — missy throw master’s money out of topside window by the handful.’

Thus Chang, fourteen years my husband’s servant, put me, the bride of two weeks, in my proper pigeonhole in China.

Neat, complacent, courteous, self-satisfied, he stands before me with an air of suave reproach. His head is shaven clean in accordance with the new fashion since the disappearance of the queue. His black silk trousers are always bound trigly at the ankle with bands of purple satin. His long white uniform fits snugly and is fastened at the throat and down the left side with tiny covered buttons; the sleeves touch his wrists, the hem the top of his silent velvet shoes.

I stand before him guilty and resentful at heart. I had thought he was out of the house before I summoned the lacemaker. But seemingly I am never to have an orgy of purchasing, undirected and unsupervised. Thoughts enter my mind of running away to a distant street and squandering my cash in a joyous splurge of spending.

‘Missy chose which piece she likee. Put all one heap. Merchant-man not drink tea bottomside. I take lace missy want catchee and go talkee bargain.’

I am brought back from my mad dream by the sound of Chang’s voice. In a flash of memory I recall the light tap on my study door, the entry of Chang, the exchange of greetings between Chang and the lacemaker, the disappearance of the latter down the back stairs. Suddenly I am hot with rage.

‘I have made my bargain,’ I say coolly, in my best Chinese.

‘What money lacemaker talkee?’ queries Chang in broken English.

I know I am beaten. My anger will not outlast his patience. I tell what I have said I will pay. He takes my selection of laces and departs kitchenward. Ten minutes later he returns to tell me that he has saved fifty cents. I put the money away quietly.

Another time it is my husband’s shaving-brush I would hide, in return for a trick he has played on me. I wrap it carefully in green paper, tie it with Christmas ribbon, and secrete it in his shoe.

In the usual time he returns from his dressing-room to ask if I am ready to go down to breakfast. I am puzzled. My curiosity gets the better of me.

‘How did you get shaved?’ I demand.

‘Shaved?’ He is plainly puzzled.

‘But your shaving-brush —’

‘My shaving-brush! What is queer about my shaving-brush? It was beside the hot water as usual and did its work very well.’

Just then I open a dressing-table drawer to get more hairpins and discover the green paper beautifully folded, with the Christmas ribbon beside it. My husband denies ever having seen the paper or ribbon. Chang, who looks after my husband’s clothes as well as the affairs of the house, is heard moving in the next room.

‘What about the paper?’ asks my husband.

‘Nothing,’ I respond; ‘I just wondered how it got there when I usually put paper in the box in my study. Absent-minded that time, I suppose.’

Our house is built on an English pattern, large, with many bedrooms. The thought comes that I will convert one sleeping-room into a cozy study; the study I have been using is too huge for comfort. I call Chang and give my orders. I want the bedroom furniture moved to the storeroom, an old desk and two chairs brought from the third floor, two cases of wedding presents opened, and pictures changed. I would do it all in haste and surprise my husband when he comes to tea.

Chang listens with his usual courtesy and goes downstairs. Five minutes pass, ten minutes pass, fifteen minutes are gone. I go to investigate. On the lower landing of the back stairs I find a meeting of all the servants of my household. I interrupt them.

‘Why do you not begin work?’

Chang moves toward me and bows. ‘Missy, does our master know that you would make this change?’

I have to acknowledge that he does not. No furniture is moved until he returns home.

Again, it is a warm spring day. I decide to take the motor-car out of the garage and go to meet my husband at his office without the chauffeur. The garage-key is kept hanging on a nail in the kitchen. I go to get it and I am asked if I want Lui to take me out. I answer that I will go alone.

‘ Missy no can go alone through crowded city streets; missy no savvy way of China people. Lookee very bad all neighbors see official man’s wife drive car; missy have got motor-man with plenty uniform.’

Chang takes the key. Persistent effort fails to get the key. In a loyal group the servants cling together — the gardeners, the gateman, the coolies, and even the amah who does my mending. Then I order a mechanic, who works at the gasoline pump for the day, to break the lock with his hammer. He owes no loyalty to Chang and his confederates. The hammer is raised. Chang gliding swiftly turns the key in the lock.

I drive the car away, leaving the air behind me thick with disapproval.

Under my husband’s office-windows I honk the horn gloriously, noisily, freely. I turn my gaze upward and wait for his astonished face at a window. Hat and stick in hand, ready for departure, he comes through the gates while I crane my neck expectantly.

‘ Chang telephoned me when you left the house so I am ready,’ he says smiling. ‘The old boy seemed to fear you would n’t get the “fire-wagon” down safely.’

Chang has served fourteen years. I have been married seventeen days. There is nothing I can say.

Another time a gardener leaves us suddenly and must be replaced. A neighbor recommends one. His home is Shantung and not Peking, the birthplace of Chang and his associates. Living in Nanking, the geographical difference means nothing to me. The man is a born gardener and gardening is my hobby. Together we plant, pot, and sow. He likes the touch of the warm brown earth and so do I.

A morning dawns when my gardener is gone. He spoke no English and so I never knew what lay behind his weather-beaten brow. We communicated by gesture. Chang informs me that all Shantung men are worthless. He advises, since I know so little, that he select the next gardener — in fact he has a Peking man waiting in the kitchen all ready.

The Peking gardener proves efficient. His wages are one dollar a month less than the wages of the Shantung man. There is no possible cause for complaint to ‘the master.’

Each day since I came to dwell in the house I have gone through the formula of housekeeping. I make out menus and lists of duties. If I order fruit-jelly, Chang gives peach pie, pie with a crust which melts in my mouth; when I suggest lamb with mint sauce, I have beef with delicious Yorkshire pudding; should I think biscuits, I get rolls, crisp exquisite rolls. The mere mention of beginning to clean the west rooms and progressing to the east causes the method to be reversed, but my house is spotlessly clean.

Three such weeks go by, and then the small matter of a Madeira tablecentre when I said Irish crochet drives me to ring a bell furiously. The amah answers it and informs me that Chang has gone to market.

The click of a golf-ball as my husband practises strokes in the back garden breaks on my ears. I decide I will go and make a clean breast of the whole affair and discover who is who in the household.

But the way to our back garden lies through a bower of flowers and across a smooth stretch of grass. Dew glistens on poppies as they raise their silken petals to the kiss of the morning sun. Larkspurs are spikes of heaven-sent blue. Old-fashioned pinks are gentle and sweet with perfume. A band of late primrose is pure gold. The first bloom of a rose is a sacred thing. My feet can never be made to pass them swiftly, and I am drugged when the odor of new-cut grass mingles with the incense of flowers.

Nature has her way with me. The sudden knowledge comes that life is too crammed with beauty to hold the pettiness of rankled personal feeling. Roast duck or chicken, clear soup or thick, Madeira or Irish crochet — what does it matter who is who? Life is too wonderful for fussing.

My husband is accustomed to Chang. He would yield to my wish and try to make things right if he knew that they were wrong; but I resolve not to disturb things. Chang knows his shirts, his socks, his habits; he has served him well for many years. With my decision comes a sense of triumph. In American slang, ‘I have one on the Chink.’ He no longer has the power to ruffle me.

I cease to fume and begin to rejoice in house, garden, and service. I congratulate myself after another week that my air of superior indifference to mundane things has brought about a change in Chang, because suddenly my slightest suggestion comes to be carried out exactly.

Months later, when it is all so remote as to be a joke, I tell my husband all about it and end up with the sequence that as soon as I rose above hurt pettiness, Chang recognized my virtue and became my ‘servant.’

A slow smile plays amusedly about my husband’s mouth. ‘It is a very pretty tale, — I don’t like to spoil it, — but when did Chang’s change of spirit begin?’

I think back.

‘The morning of the first day of the month.’

‘The morning after I settled all accounts with him and told him you were the holder of the privy purse.’

Perhaps it is because I am a lady of superior temperament, perhaps it is because I am Chancellor of the Exchequer; but, whichever it is, Chang is a diplomat of rare ability. He is my very worthy houseboy.