FICTION

Number Two wife

RENE NORCROSS May 15 1933
FICTION

Number Two wife

RENE NORCROSS May 15 1933

Number Two wife

FICTION

RENE NORCROSS

MING LEN, which in English means the lily, sat on the worn curb that flanks Wong Kee’s tea store and smiled absently at the dingy brick wall on the other side of Canton alley in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Little Wong Li squatted in the gutter beside her, playing in solemn delight with bits of orange peel.

It was a poor spot for maiden meditation. The clang and rattle of the city s traffic rose a block away, but any place w’as paradise to Ming Len if it lay beyond reach of Chang \ock s harsh tongue. Her father had died when she was six and already motherless; died in debt to his rich cousin, W ong Kee, who had promptly taken the child as he would have taken a bundle of useful merchandise and given her to his shrewish w ife. That was ten years before, and Ming Len had thrived wonderfully on hard work and hard words. At sixteen she was beautiful—slight, supple, oval-faced, w’ith a fine pale skin, perfect teeth, and a small, shapely mouth as softly crimson as a geranium petal.

\ uen Ling, the Engl sh-speaking clerk in the store of

Quong Ho, dealer in silk and jade, was the first to jxirceive that beauty. Under her faded cotton tunic. Ming Len treasured a rose, a gift from Yuen Ling when such roses were expensive. 11 expressed all that the young man found scant opportunity to say, for Chang Yock kept a strict watch u|X>n her meek and serviceable maid, and the courtship had been chiefly a matter of a word, more often a look, in passing. But the looks had been eloquent and sufficed, and it was of her first and only lover that Ming Len dreamed, sitting on the dusty curb, her small, sleek head thrown back, her half-closed eyes gazing far beyond the visible horizon.

It was thus that Quong Ho saw' her. He had watched her many a time swaying under the weight of the Wong baby, but lie had never really seen her till that moment, and he stopped in his tracks, staring.

MING LELN, sensing that someone had halted beside her. looked up quickly into the bloated, crafty face of the rich silk merchant. What she saw there drove the blood from her lips, and dilated her eyes in sheer, soul-sick terror. Quong Ho grinned, showing the yellow' fangs that served him for teeth, and, wheeling about, entered Wong Kee’s store. Ming Len sprang to her feet. For a moment she hung irresolute, divided betw'een her duty to the youngest Wong and the terrible need to know what w'as being devised between the two men at that very moment.

The child played quietly. There was nothing in the street to hurt or frighten him. The girl slipped like a shadow into the store and, bending low behind the counter, crept noiselessly toward the little cubicle at the far end, where Wong Kee kept his accounts and received his friends and creditors. Crouched ten feet from his unconscious back, Ming Len heard; and stole back to the open air, half dazed.

Wong Kee wras her only kinsman. From him she knew’ of no appeal, no rescue, unless . . . Desperate as she was, she yet cast a look at little Wong Li, crooning happily to himself over an orange ixrel pyramid lie was building, then went swiftly up the street, one hand pressed upon the rose beneath her tunic.

Yuen Ling was alone in the dim, crowded silk store. Before his astonishment could find sjieech, the girl had told in a few gasping w’ords what awaited her at the full of the moon, the propitious time for marriage, one week away.

She caught at the wall behind her and shivered, although the July sun was at its hottest, as the sense of Yuen Ling's stammering words flowed over her like an icy wave. Could he. a [xx)r man without friends or influence, a member of a small and obscure tong, oppose the powerful Quong Ho? And Wong Kee! Would the latter submit to the flouting of his just authority? As well might the lotus bud hope to bloom in winter as they two to defy these rich and mighty ones.

It was all true, and she heard without resentment, her heart like stone in her breast, until the young man. encouraged by her silence and anxious to make his withdrawal still clearer, ventured to point out some of the bright spots in the position that fate w’as thrusting upon her. For the wife the number tw’o wife certainly, but still the

young and favored wife of Quong Ho. there would l>e idleness, rich clothing, dainty food . . .

He got no further. Before the girl’s mental vision rose the face of Quong Ho, bloated, brutal, gloating, and with the intolerable picture came a yet more intolerable thought —that by the ancient, callous law of her people, any children she might have would be counted as the children of the barren number one wife, possessed, named and reared under another roof by the latter. She flung up her hand with passionate, half-strangled cry, the first of her meek, cowed life.

"Mo Cho!” (Be silent.) And Yuen Ling found himself alone.

her small charge. Crouched there, her world tumbled into ruin; she stared before her with blank eyes. Once and again a little shudder ran through her slight body, but otherwise she did not stir.

One of the city’s sprinkling tanks came down the alley. Ming Len neither saw nor heard it until a wail from Wong Li roused her from her frozen immobility as a wide, shallow wave of dirty water washed into the gutter, struck and mounted the curb, and sank the little boy’s gay treasure of peel and colored paper. Again he wailed, but for once his grief w'ent unheeded. Ming Len was staring in awful fascination at the miniature tide of foam-edged water as it rushed away down the gutter, bearing paper and sticks and straws before it. Just so did water, deep, jade-green and foam-edged, dash against the steep grey rock that thrust out from the city park at the narrow entrance to the harbor. Just so would it carry everything before it into the wide bay beyond. And tomorrow was Saturday, and Chang Yock, as her habit was, would take her two youngest children and her servant, and sit beneath the trees where the ground sloped in fern and moss to that steep grey rock and that deep green water. Ming Len drew in a full, slow breath; her rigid attitude relaxed, and a faint smile touched her pale li[>s.

She would escape Quong Ho after all. Something that came within even the narrow round of her life was deadlier, more powerful than he. She rose and lifted the whimpering baby in slight, wiry arms.

Ming Len always waited upon her distant and well-to-do kinsfolk at their meals, eating her own food in a little Kick room off the main kitchen, where the sink was placed and bags of straw matting which contained raw vegetables and curious roots from China.

The Wong family sat about a table covered with a red cloth in the larger room, Wong Kee at one end, the stout, comely Chang Yock opposite with the youngest of the family ujx>n lier knee.

Wong Poy. the eldest, a clever lad of sixteen in black-rimmed glasses, had one side to himself.

He was a promising undergraduate at the provincial university, and the chief pride and joy of his parents. Wong Cup. a twelveyear-old, mainly interested in baseball, sat across from him; with Wong Lou, a delicate, overindulged child of seven, beside him. The lads used forks and long-handled china spoons with which to eat the savory meal of chicken, onion and rice, but their elders handled chopsticks with the skill of lifelong habit.

Chang Yock called sharply, and Ming Len appeared with a closewoven basket in which a large teapot nested in quilted cotton.

As Chang Yock jxwred the {Mile fluid into tiny bowls. Ming Len carried one to each member of the family, beginning with W ong Kee and omitting the two-year-old.

As she set down Wong Ix>u’s bowl he kicked her with a backward drive of his heel, and she winced involuntarily though no sound escaped her. It was no new or unusual experience. 11er slender ankles were seldom without a mark from the spoiled child’s unfeeling attacks. Wong Poy caught her slight movement, and he had no doubt as to its cause.

“Cut it out.” he said with a

ING LEN dropped upon the baking pavement beside

grim kxjk at the offender. Ming Len meant less to him than the goldfish swimming in the glass globe in his father's store, but his brother’s action was retrogressive, unwestern, and it annoyed him. Wong Kee. who had ordered that Cantonese must always be used at the table, looked up.

“You spoke, my son?” he questioned blandly.

The youth’s dark face flushed under the mild rebuke, but before he could frame an ajx)logy his mother interposed.

"It was naught.” she said. “He but spoke in haste to chide that worthless one for spilling the child’s tea.” She pointed to a small stain on the oilcloth where Wong Lou himself had spilled a little tea.

THE GLANCES of husband and wife met and locked. After a moment Wong Kee discreetly lowered his eyes

and continued the skilful use of his chopsticks. Wong Lou made a grimace at his eldest brother. The young man’s eyes gleamed angrily, but he held his peace. Wong Gup glanced speculatively from one to the other of his brethren. He also had been sufïiciently long and far from his mother’s exclusive influence to have acquired an occidental viewpoint on many matters. When—he thought in English, the idiomatic and slangy English he heard constantly in the school playgrounds—when Wong Poy got the kid out of their mother’s hearing he sure would give him an earful. Everybody was mad at everybody else around this dump. Wong Gup thought of the gang of white and Chinese boys who would be assembling now on the vacant lot at the end of the alley, and, finishing the last spoonful in his bowl, he slid quietly from his chair and, halting behind it, bobbed his black head at his father.

"Sin sang ngoh i kor hui mor?” he mumbled. (Has this unworthy one your honorable leave to depart?)

Wong Kee peered at this son of whom he saw least and thought least, since he was neither eldest, youngest nor sickly. Wong was old, much older than Chang Yock. His

mind leaped a gap of fifty years, and he saw himself bowing before his own father in the crowded warren of a house in the outskirts of Tientsin, bowing low from the hips, arms crossed, hands hidden in the wide sleeves of his tunic, his little, tightly plaited queue slipping past his shoulder and tickling his ear; and the sardonic humor lying deep in all his race stirred in him at the utter incongruity of this crop-headed boy in tweed knickerbockers and gingham blouse, golf stockings and sneakers, even attempting that time-honored and elaborate obeisance, used though he was to its daily occurrence. He nodded the desired permission and, rising himself, shuffled back to his disturbing accounts.

Wong Poy rose ceremoniously at his father’s departure and went away also, to an upper room where a pile of Latin authors awaited him on a carved teakwood table. Wong Lou sat down on the floor and ran a train of cars for the amusement of his little brother, while Ming Len gathered and washed the dishes. When nine o’clock approached, and the evening cooled a little, as summer evenings do cool on the Pacific Coast, she undressed Wong Li and put him to bed in a small room separated from that of his parents by a. high partition, and herself lay down on a cot close at hand. She did not sleep. The thought had come to her that if it rained Chang Yock would not go to the park, and the following Saturday would be too late. It was not until the sun rose in a cloudless sky, promising another fine, hot day, that her fears subsided.

I ATE IN THE FORENOON Chang Yock started for the

I_park. She wore black trousers instead of a skirt and a

silk-frogged, high-collared tunic, and she carried a large cotton umbrella over her bare, elaborately dressed head. Ming Len had no change of garb for the public streets. She wore the outmoded trousers as became her lowly station, and tugged the go-cart containing Wong Li along the footpath leading into the park from the car terminus.

while Wong Lou ran ahead with yelps of joy. It was a shady, pleasant walk; and it was her inner excitement, not fatigue, that made her breath come short when, at the end of a mile. Chang Yock turned from the roadside down a ferny trail to her favorite spot, a mossy log under a spreading maple on a little grassy level. Below it the ground continued to slope, dotted with tall bracken and wild rose bushes, to that steep drop to the water that Ming Len had treasured in her thoughts through all the sleepless night. It was safeguarded by a four-foot fence of solid logs which Wong Lou had been strictly forbidden by his father to climb. When Wong Kee spoke in a certain tone his sons obeyed him to the letter, and Chang Yock felt no uneasiness over the boy’s welfare.

She sat down with a sigh of relief and took from the lunch bag a square of green velvet, upon which she was embroidering an intricate bird in red silk. Ming Len untied the baby from his go-cart and set him on the grass, and was glad that instead of being content to squat in one place and play with all the green things within reach as usual, he chose to throw a gaily painted ball with all his little might, keeping his faithful attendant busy retrieving it. For her head was burning, her hands and feet cold with nervous strain, and she dreaded to meet her mistress’s hard gaze lest the excitement in her eyes should betray her secret. So, patiently and unweariedly she brought back Wong Li's ball, until a distant sounding of whistles proclaimed it twelve o’clock and time for the lunch of cookies and oranges. Chang Yock folded her work.

"Tong goh sum man chai loi." (Bring the child.)

Ming Len, trembling with an awful joy in this moment for which she had waited, went quietly down the slope, calling the boy low and timidly, knowing he would not answer but would baffle her search for as long as he judged his mother’s patience would endure the delay. Halfway to the fence she saw a bush to her left shake.

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and knew he w'as behind it, but she looked the other way, pretending not to see, and continued downhill, striving not to run. restraining her desperate eagerness until she saw the fence. She reached it. felt its rough back under her hands, and in a sudden exultation began to climb. She heard a startled yell from Wong Lou. echoed by a cry from Chang Yock, but she was at the top of the fence now. Below was a ledge of rock, and straight below that, the rushing water of the outgoing tide. In a moment she had scrambled down, scuffing her worn shoes and tearing a great rent in her tunic, and, facing round as the noise of Chang Yock’s heavy and hurried approach reached her, she leaped straight out. struck the water and sank.

Although site drove downward with her arms, she broke the surface presently —and struck out in a motion, forgotten by her mind but perfectly remembered by her muscles, that she had learned while a tiny child in the yellow waters of the YangtzeKiang.

For ten strokes the instinctive reaction held her. Then realization came, and with a mighty effort she forced her arms down by her sides. Instantly the water closed over

her, and instantly she w'as swimming again and terror seized her. This way lay life, not death; slavery, not freedom, Chang Yock again and, last and worst of all, Quong Ho. And then, just in time to save her from utter panic, a blessed sense of fatigue crept through all her limbs and she saw her way dear. The bay was wide, its far shore hazy-grey in the distance. If she could not cease this strange, life-preserving motion, she could direct it, and sooner or later her strength must fail. Calmly, once more mistress of her dark destiny, Ming Len turned her back on the green, deserted shore so close at hand, and swam steadily toward the centre of the bay.

AS THE CITY CLOCKS struck noon, a / \ crack liner backed out from her pier in Vancouver harbor on the first lap of her 4,000-mile run to the Orient. A shining vision of white paint and glittering brass work, she forged through the turbulent water below' Prospect Point and headed down the bay.

The first gong for lunch had already sounded but few jxissengers had gone below when Captain Phillips emerged from the chart house and crossed the deck. From

force of habit he halted at the head of the companion, not to admire the scenery, fine as it was, but to cast a glance over the course. A dark object a couple of hundred yards away on the port bow' caught his seaman’s eye.

“Mr. Barker,” he called, and as the navigating officer came quickly forward: “What do you make of that spot over there?”

The younger man put a pair of binoculars to his eyes.

“By George, sir, it’s a man, and in difficulties, too.”

The captain grunted.

“He would be. and not a boat near but ourselves,” he remarked sourly, but his orders were prompt and to the point.

Some of the passengers who had gone below made haste to reach the decks again when the slowing of the big ship’s engines told experienced ears that something out of the ordinary was afoot, and those who had remained above got the thrill of their lives in seeing a boat swing out and descend, manned by four seamen and an officer, and pull away to the place where some unfortunate was believed to be drowning. A

few had the forethought to run up to the boat deck, and presently details and comments were flying from lip to lip.

“A Chinese, just a girl, fully dressed, too.”

“Do you suppose she meant to drown herself?”

“All this way from shore, and not a boat near for her to have fallen out of? My dear, use your mind.”

“Poor little thing, I wonder what drove her to it? Oh, we’re moving again. Let’s go and finish lunch.”

They finished it, still chatting about the incident that was the topic of the hour, while from the wireless antennae far above their heads a message leaped and crackled, to be presently delivered at police headquarters in Vancouver to the man on duty at the desk. It was concise and not overlong.

“Young Chinese woman giving name of Ming Len residence Vancouver picked up in exhausted condition. Admits attempted suicide under circumstances meriting strict investigation. Will leave in charge of Victoria police. W. H. Phillips, Captain.”

The End