Read The Ginger Tree Online

Authors: Oswald Wynd

The Ginger Tree (4 page)

It seemed to take a long time to get back to my berth and into it. Once there I tried to make that padding of blankets, but this wasn’t enough to hold me in and I found a grip for both hands, one of them on the roll board, the other on a small rack fixed to the wall. It was very hot in the cabin, but I think I was perspiring from fear.

Somewhere down the passage a woman began to scream. The sound would die away, then there was another bad roll and she screamed again. Above that roaring noise and the creakings came a sharper tearing sound, as though the very metal plates were being torn from the ship’s sides. I was sure that the
could not keep afloat for much longer and that we were all doomed. I prayed to God that He would not let me die on a ship to China. It was a coward’s prayer and I am ashamed of it, but I lay with my eyes shut and asked it over and over. Then I thought that perhaps the Jesuits in the Second Class were praying, too, and that might help. I thought of other things, that it was Sunday and in Edinburgh Mama might now be pulling on her gloves and coming out of the house as all the church bells of Morningside said it was time for morning service. On Sunday, with no trams running, all you hear is the feet of people on the pavements going to church, not even the clip-clopping of horses because there is no need to use carriages with so many churches near at hand. When one of the rolls seemed to be becoming too deep for the ship to recover I called out: ‘Mama, Mama!’ as though she could hear me on her way to church, but I still didn’t become as noisy as the screaming woman.

I thought of something else on my berth, but not for hours, as though it needed a long time of me being afraid to bring it out from hiding in my mind. I asked myself why I was coming to China to marry Richard and I couldn’t get any answer to that, just a sort of dreadful emptiness. I couldn’t see his face, as though my memory refused to bring out a picture of him. And the awful thing is that even now, when I try, I can’t seem to
him. We didn’t exchange photographs. There is just a very small snapshot of him in the Highlands when he was standing beside the horse he had been riding, but it is mostly the horse. What I can remember is that his hair is tight, fair curls over his head, and his side whiskers are not too bushy and he has blue eyes, but I can’t see his
face. In the Highlands, at Margaret Blair’s, I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen and that is only thirteen months ago. Probably he doesn’t remember what I look like, either.

There was a letter waiting for me in Hong Kong. My hand shook as I opened the envelope. The words seemed quite formal, but then he is like that. He was most correct in writing to Mama asking for my hand in marriage by the same post as he asked me. In this letter he said he was impatiently waiting to meet me in Tientsin and that it was his great regret that he couldn’t come to Shanghai but his military duties prevented this. He has, however, made all the arrangements for me in Shanghai, I am to be met by an assistant Consul he knows there who will see me to my hotel, where I have a two-day wait for the ship that is to take me on to Tientsin. It was a letter full of arrangements. He said he had a hundred things to do to make ready for me. It was quite a long letter but beyond the words I could see that he was writing as I am now doing to Mama, trying to find things to say. I suppose that is the way I would be writing to him, too, and probably I am lucky in that I don’t have to, I will be there before any letter.

If I find coming to China was a mistake what is to happen to me? If when we meet we just stare at each other as two strangers what can I do? I could never go back to Edinburgh in humiliation.

February 7th, 1903

I have just come down from the deck where it is bitterly cold to my cabin, thawing my fingers on the heating pipes. We have turned into one of the wide mouths of China’s greatest river, the Yangtze Kiang, and Shanghai itself is up a side turning from the estuary, past what Mr Davies called the famous Woosung forts, though why they are famous he did not tell me and I was too cold to ask. The river is the colour of weak milky coffee and has flat banks of what looks like marshland. The only interesting thing to be seen are the junks with their ribbed sails like bats’ wings.

I am not only down here to get warm but also to get away from Mr Davies who, since the storm, has become something of a nuisance, and thank goodness I’m not still sitting at his table. It isn’t what he says so much as the way he looks, which gives me the feeling that at any moment at all he may suddenly say something quite improper to someone in my position and that I won’t know what to say in return. So I am rather running away from him, which is horrid of me, because he has been most considerate in a way ever since Mrs Carswell died. He is really a very nice man, and it is such a pity that at his age he isn’t long settled with a home life. It makes me nervous when he talks about a sailor’s lonely years at sea, always meeting people who will soon go down a gangway and pass away from him forever. He can sometimes be quite poetical, perhaps because he is Welsh, and that’s when I become most uneasy. Surely, apart from everything else, he ought to realise that at thirty-two he is remote from me in the generations? I told him that my fiancé is twenty-five, but any mention of Richard makes him frown. Mr Davies would be a very possessive man, I think, if he was given the chance.

Grand Hôtel de Wagon-Lits, Shanghai
February 8th, 1903

Well, I am in China for the first time, since Hong Kong is not China proper. Hong Kong is beautiful but this place, from what I have seen of it
so far, is quite hideous. My hotel is in the French Concession. I had never heard of Concessions and the Assistant Consul who came to meet me had to explain what they are. Apparently the Great Powers have taken pieces of China and established their own laws in these places, the natives only able to come into them as foreigners, which seems rather odd. All the buildings I can see from my window are European and, except for rickshas and those Chinese foreigners walking in the streets, I might not be in the Orient at all. There is a narrow river in front of the city, very dirty and very crowded with shipping. Along its banks are the poor living in boats with all their families and dogs and cats, cooking on braziers in the open exposed to the bitter wind. Mrs Brinkhill told me to expect to see great misery in China and said that I would get used to it. She also said I was to remember that people who don’t know any better don’t miss the things they haven’t got. That is all very well if you live in some remote area, but these poor people here can look across at buildings like my hotel, all lit up with gaiety and high living. I should think this would make them angry. Of course, I must remember that we have our poor, too. Mama would never allow me to go unaccompanied down Leith Walk in Edinburgh or into places like the Canongate and the Grassmarket, these places of great misery. Still, I cannot believe that the poor in Scotland are anything like as poor as these Chinese on boats. The Bible says that the poor are always with us, so perhaps we must just accept that, but I wonder if it is going to be difficult for me to do it in China? I certainly hope that Peking is a prettier city than this.

There was a letter from Richard waiting in this hotel, not so formal as the one to Hong Kong, and he signed it with love, so I am not feeling cold inside even though everything around is strange. The Assistant Consul who met me was at Harrow with Richard, very pleasant, though his wife who came with him to the ship stiffish, a plain woman with a thin face, wrapped in furs and wearing a hat of the same skins. I was not asked to their home.

Saying goodbye to Mr Davies was rather sad. He was waiting at the gangway and held my hand for too long, his very hot. He said he hoped God’s blessing would go with me into China and quite suddenly that
brought tears into my eyes and I had to turn away. When we were getting into the carriage on the jetty I looked back to see him at the rail, and he waved his big hand. I wish him well. He should get a Welsh wife. As he said, it must be sad to go down to the dining saloon on a ship to sit all alone at a table from which the passengers of only yesterday have all gone.

Today is exactly one month since my birthday. I am a changed person from what I was in the Red Sea.

Grand Hôtel de Wagon-Lits, Shanghai
February 9th, 1903

This morning I woke up with a headache and in that state which ladies must endure. I had what breakfast I wanted brought to me in bed. It is strange how quickly one comes not to think of these Chinese
as men. After the hotels in Singapore and Hong Kong it doesn’t bother me at all if one of them comes into the room when I am still in my nightgown, I do not look at him nor he at me. Everything he does is very smooth and quiet and one scarcely knows when they have gone.

I am glad to be alone when this is happening to me. Even at home with Mama it was always a trial, not only because one must never speak of it but also she dislikes having any sign at all brought to her attention. I was so startled when Mrs Brinkhill spoke openly to me of one’s problem, as though there was no need for screening with delicacy. I will never forget how frightened I was the first time, which was at school. That was when Margaret Blair helped me and we became such friends. If I ever have a daughter I will not let her have such a shock. The thought of having a daughter is strange.

Grand Hôtel
Next day

I go aboard the coastal steamer this evening for a sailing at midnight. Last night I was at dinner with the friends Richard wrote about, people called Hamlin who live in a very large house in the British Concession with
many servants and grand furnishings in the French Empire style, which makes a very impressive room to enter but not so comfortable to sit in. The only hints of China were in the vases and the servants. At dinner nine courses were offered, but I must have lost my sea appetite suddenly because I couldn’t do more than touch most of them. It was a large party into which I had been squeezed out of politeness at the last minute, and the gentleman they had got to keep the numbers right was old with a red face, his only interest being the contents of the glasses in front of him. Each place setting had five of these and I would have thought Red Face could have found a wine that pleased him, but apparently not, for suddenly he said to our host: ‘I say, Willie, none of this stuff has travelled, I’ve had enough of it. Brandy soda.’ This rudeness only made Mr Hamlin laugh, and a servant at once fetched what was wanted.

I asked Mr Hamlin what being a company lawyer in Shanghai meant. He leaned over, patted my hand, and said: ‘It means, my dear, that my life is dedicated to protecting innocent British business men from the machinations of the wily Chinee.’ I said quite boldly that giving such advice seemed to be profitable, at which he went into shouts of laughter which had his wife looking at him from the other end of the table and clearly not at all pleased. I think Mr Hamlin quite liked me though I am certainly looking far from my best, quite horrified to see the state of my skin in the first large, well-lit mirror I’ve had the use of for some time. It must have been the salt sea air. Fortunately Mrs Brinkhill warned me about China Skin along with China Tummy and all sorts of other horrors and in Hong Kong I bought a pot of the cream she uses called ‘Apple Petal’ which you apply nightly and allow to soak into the pores. This is the first time I have used any aids to beauty other than oatmeal soap, and I don’t really like the idea much, but perhaps in this part of the world it is essential.

I decided not to wear either the voile or the brown dress to the Hamlins’, going down into the trunk for the blue French silk with Belgian lace in a series of little capes from the shoulders. It is rather low over the bosom and Mama had sewn another piece of lace, on a backing, across the lower part of the square neckline which quite spoiled the dress, so I
took it out again. In the Edinburgh shop they said it was a Paris model, and it cost enough to be … eleven pounds. Mama, generous in these things, said I must have one dress which was a wild extravagance for the very special occasion and then she began to cry, which was surprising in a shop.

I did not at all like it in the drawing-room when we were waiting for the men to join us after their port. There were nine ladies besides me and all of them seemed to have been too free with the liquid refreshment at dinner, including Mrs Hamlin. She is what Mama would call a handsome woman, certainly very sure of herself and her position in the world. She talks with her head held back, as though her nose was helping her to see you. She is a friend of Richard’s mother so is quite old, but does not look as though she had ever been a girl. I had already noticed that in the Far East the ladies are very
in their dressing, with satins and embroidery and so on. There is a great display of jewellery also, to the point of seeming vulgar, though I noticed when visiting Richard’s family in Norfolk that this seems socially acceptable even in English country areas in the evening. They wear such plain clothes in the day and then are peacocks at night. I felt like a dull Scottish hen. Of course, I did not have my blue silk then.

When the men joined us the servants set up tables for a Chinese game called mah-jong. The ladies seemed surprised that I had never heard of it and one of them said it was becoming all the rage in London. I told her that in Edinburgh we are very slow at taking up
fashions, which Mr Hamlin thought an excellent thing, this causing his wife to give him a hard look again. I wonder if they are a happy couple? Certainly they have plenty of this world’s goods. They sent a carriage and pair to the hotel for me, with a Chinese coachman in a livery of sorts, this padded for the winter, so that he looked like a very small man inside fat clothing. Most of the people here, though, apparently don’t keep carriages, the ladies having their own private rickshas with a private coolie to pull them. This came out because one of the ladies’ coolies had just died and she had had him for fifteen years which is apparently quite remarkable, for the pullers are not long-lived. When I asked whether this was because of their work
the lady said certainly not, it was because of tuberculosis. She explained that the coolies of Europeans were very well looked after indeed, it was the wealthy Chinese who quite often mistreated theirs.

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