Excerpt from White Tigress
"Aaaah-ho. Aaaah-ho." The low, dirgelike chorus drifted across the Wangpu River, settling into Lydia Smith's ears until she shivered in excitement. She had heard stories about the sound. It was the mournful beat of the poor Chinese laborers—the coolies—as they built houses in ever-expanding Shanghai. And now, at last, she was hearing it for real.
"Aaaah-ho. Aaaah-ho." It was a slow sound, monotonous and dull, like the low beat of the city's heart, and Lydia strained to hear every pulse. Just as she struggled to hold the smoky air inside her lungs and see the white bungalow houses behind the brick walls of this new and flourishing city.
She couldn't, of course. The forest of masts obscured all but the boats that clogged the port, and yet Lydia still stood, grasping the rail with her smudged white gloves as she tried to absorb it all.
"It's so beautiful," she whispered, though it wasn't. The sky was overcast, and the air caught thick and moist in her throat. And it tasted faintly of ginger. Still, she repeated over and over, like a litany, "Beautiful Shanghai. My new home."
"Yer sure no one's meeting yuh at the docks, Miss Smith? Not even yer fiancé's servant?"
She jumped as the captain's broad shadow darkened the railing. She turned, wariness mixing with the excitement in her blood. She hadn't liked the looks of him from the beginning, but the temptation of a discounted passage from England to China helped her overcome her scruples. Especially as that meant she was now arriving a full two weeks early.
She couldn't wait to see Max's face when she surprised him.
Meanwhile, the captain was shuffling his feet, apparently concerned for her welfare. "It ain't safe in Shanghai. Not fer a lady alone."
Lydia smiled as she clutched her fiancé's last letter to her heart. "I have his directions and Chinese coins. I shall manage just fine."
"But you don't speak the language, miss. Not a word," the captain pressed, and Lydia felt herself relax at his concern. The man had grumbled about her presence nearly the entire trip, but now that they had arrived, he was obviously worried about her. In truth, he reminded her a bit of her father—gruff on the exterior, but with a heart of gold inside.
"Oh, I know a great deal more than a word." She wasn't fluent, but she was getting the hang of Chinese. "The crew has been teaching me some, and I had an instructor before that. A missionary who'd lived here for years."
He grimaced and began to walk away. "Shanghai's a dangerous place," he grumbled. But if he said any more, she didn't hear it; her attention had turned back to the docks.
Normally, the business of docking at a port would interest her. She'd learned quite a bit about sailing during the journey, had even made some friends among the crew, so she would have liked to be interested in their work right now—these last few moments among her own countrymen. But, of course, nothing could compete with the slowly clearing view of Shanghai. She saw now that it was a cramped city—not unlike London in that regard. The rich and the poor moved side by side, neither noticing the other except to grumble. The rich looked just like they did in London, including the latest fashions and equipages. Even the poor coolies seemed familiar, appearing like sailors to her, with their shortened pants and no shirts they squatted on the muddy banks. Behind them, the tenement houses rose inside bamboo scaffolding, imposing and ugly, in the way of all such buildings.
In short, the scene was no more intimidating than any other big, dirty, living city—or so Lydia reminded herself. She had no reason to feel untoward. After all, she had lived in London nearly all her life. Although no Englishman, no matter how poor, would work without a shirt. But strange sights were to be expected among heathens, or so Max always said.
The sounds, she realized, were very different, and she pushed her bonnet back in the hopes of hearing more clearly. Early by the clock—not more than nine in the morning—the city was already alive and cacophonous. The high-pitched nasal tones of the Chinese language bombarded her from all sides, only growing in volume as she was at last allowed to disembark. She heard hawkers' high-pitched squeals as they sold their wares. The more rounded tones of her own countrymen added a kind of trumpet accompaniment, an occasional ornamentation rather than the main melody. And beneath it all came the steady drone of the coolie aaaah-ho.
It was all so wonderfully different, and Lydia could barely keep herself from dancing up the dock toward the row of rickshaws awaiting passengers.
A strange sight, indeed, this line of cabbies without cabs. Though she had heard of rickshaws, she had never actually seen one. Now she found them comically bare, with no more than a bench set upon an axle between two large wheels. They had the addition of two long poles extended from the sides for the driver—or runner, really, as a coolie served the function of a horse, pulling the carriage with his every step.
Thinking carefully, she chose a larger conveyance, one that included an umbrella-like covering for shade and a long extended cart for luggage.
"Take me to this street," she said in Chinese, holding out the written characters for Max's address. She would have tried to speak the name, but Max had not given her any indication of how to say the strange symbols, so she could only pray that the driver could read.
Apparently he could not, because he barely even glanced at the page. Still, he smiled warmly, showing his crooked teeth, and gestured for her to climb into his carriage. Meanwhile, all around her, the other runners began speaking and gesturing as well, all in a loud jumble of language, none of which she understood.
Fear made her mouth taste bitter. Things were not quite as easy—or as comfortable—as she'd imagined.
"Do you know where this is?" she repeated in her stilted Chinese.
The driver merely grinned stupidly and tried to help her climb into his rickshaw.
Frustrated, Lydia yanked away, turning to the entire row of drivers, raising her voice to be heard above the din. "Does anyone understand me?"
"Yer speaking in the wrong Chinese, miss," came a familiar voice behind her.
Lydia spun around to see the captain standing there, a grin splitting his coarse features. "It's like I feared, miss. You learned the language from Canton. These here speak Shanghai."
She frowned, surprised. "They do not have one language?"
"They's ignorant savages, miss. They ain't got the same of anything anywhere." He sighed, folding his arms in an irritated gesture. "I ain't planned on this, but I got a bit o' time. And my own regular driver over there." He gestured to a covered rickshaw and a driver in a cone-shaped hat who grinned and dipped his head at her. The captain took her letter and quickly scanned the page. "We can take you where ye need to go."
Lydia smiled, suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude for a man she'd barely tolerated for the last month. "That would be a great help, sir," she breathed. "I had not thought there would be different kinds of Chinese."
He didn't answer except to gesture for his driver to take up her luggage. It was not a great lot for her bridal trousseau—only one trunk—but after her father's death, she and her mother had been forced to practice some rather stringent economies.
"Follow me," said the captain as he escorted her down the line to his waiting rickshaw.
It was then she heard another sound, this one from one of the other drivers in a mixture of English and Chinese. "No, no, laiiddeee. Come wid me. Not wid him. No, no."
She turned, trying to understand what the frantic man was saying, but the captain grabbed her arm in a bruising grip. "Stay with me, Miss Smith. They are thieves and ruffians, every last one of them."
She didn't argue. Indeed, she knew that even London cabbies could be devious if one didn't look sharp. She didn't want to contemplate what could happen to her here without even the right Chinese language to assist her. And thank God the captain was her countryman—a familiar rock amid this sea of strangeness.
So she allowed him to guide her as she stepped uneasily into his rickshaw. The bamboo seemed too flimsy to hold herself and her luggage, but to her surprise, it did not even bow beneath her weight or that of the captain as he shoved his massive body in beside her. Then, before she had time to gasp, they tilted backward. The coolie had lifted the poles and begun to run, quickly pulling them along.
She frowned at the Chinese man. Like his countrymen, he had a small frame. But apparently there was great strength in his wiry muscles, because he had no trouble pulling Lydia and the captain, her trunk, and the rickshaw frame behind him. And besides, there was little choice in the matter, as there weren't any horse-drawn carriages available. So she settled into silence, content to watch her surroundings as the coolie ran them up the street.
All too soon, even the golden pagoda-like buildings and long banners done in reds and golds could not hold her attention. She was looking again at the sweating man pulling their rickshaw. Beneath his cone-shaped hat of dried leaves, the man seemed all bone with little muscle and no fat. She had never seen anyone so thin. Indeed, every bump in his spine, every shift of his ribs as he huffed stuck out as clearly as a nose or an elbow. Just looking at him, Lydia felt guilty for every crumpet she had ever eaten, every fattening ounce that he was now hauling up the street. She wanted to stop him, to apologize, to tell him not to bother with her; she would walk. But she knew she could not. This was his livelihood, and he would not thank her for shortening her ride.
So she sat in uncomfortable silence, finding herself aware of the bob of the rickshaw, the huff of his breath, even the slap of his crude sandals against the stone street. She felt herself begin to breathe with him, stupidly wishing she could breathe for him, pull with him, do something to ease his labors.
She felt certain she would tip him generously, even if the captain did not. Except when the moment finally came, the captain left her no time. As soon as the rickshaw stopped, he grabbed her hand and nearly dragged her off in one sweeping movement. She barely had time to gasp a quick "Xie xie" in thanks before the captain was pulling her toward a building.
"Please!" she gasped. "Slow down!"
But the man had apparently wasted too much time with her and was anxious to be gone. No more than she wished to be rid of him, despite his aid. And so she allowed him to rush her into a large building among a whole street of beautiful buildings. All were lavishly decorated, with ornate doors. She had the brief impression of beautifully carved black wood painted with red and gold dragons or swans or other such Chinese decorations, of red paper lanterns hung from the front eaves next to red banners with gold characters. She couldn't read any of the words, of course, but they had a festive appearance that lightened her heart.
Then she was inside, looking at an elaborately carved staircase of the same black wood as outdoors. To one side, Lydia saw an elegant sitting room furnished with more carved chairs done in slightly faded red fabrics. She saw tables and linen, wall hangings in silk, and gilding everywhere, though obviously gold paint rather than gold leaf. It was loud and gaudy and tended to overwhelm the senses for all that it was empty of people. Especially as there was a slightly nauseating scent of something much too sweet lingering in the air.
"This is so unlike Maxwell," she murmured to herself. "He is such a restrained person, I cannot think he likes this entryway." But from what she had seen, all of Shanghai was overdone in gaudy colors and loud tones. She was sure his apartment upstairs must be more sedate. So, with that thought in mind, she moved toward the staircase, only belatedly remembering her manners.
Turning back to the captain, she extended her gloved hand. "Thank you, sir, for bringing me here. I am sure I can find Maxwell now." She glanced upstairs. "Indeed, I suppose his rooms are directly above."
The captain did not even acknowledge her gesture; his gaze was trained over her shoulder into the sitting room. Lydia turned to find she'd missed the entrance of a Chinese woman of indeterminate age flanked by a burly man of clearly mixed heritage. It was he who drew her attention first as she studied his features. Though almond-eyed like every Chinese, his skin was less golden, more pale in hue. His nose was more pronounced, but his jaw and brow less so, as if his entire body lagged behind a Romanesque nose. Still, he was muscular and broad-shouldered, especially by Chinese standards, and he was clearly unused to smiling. This attitude was enhanced by his clothing—a stained gray tunic over black pants.
Truly he was the shadow of the woman, who, though shorter, carried herself with a pride that infused every part of her—from her powdered face, through her form-fitting black-and-gold silk gown, down to her black-slippered tiny feet. And if that were not enough, her black hair was coiled high atop her head and held by two ivory combs that glittered in the dusty light. She said nothing and neither did the captain. Instead, the woman pursed her dark red lips and openly inspected Lydia.
It was bizarre and unnerving, so Lydia decided it was time to take control. Smiling with more warmth than she felt, she stepped forward, all the while praying the woman understood English. "I apologize for the intrusion, but I am Maxwell Slade's fiancée. If you could just show me to his rooms, I can wait there for him."
Instead of answering, the Chinese woman simply smiled and turned, waving at her burly companion. "Tea!" she said imperiously, and the man bowed before hurrying away.
"Don't bother arguing," interrupted the captain in low tones. "It will only insult her. Just drink the tea, Miss Smith."
"But Max..." Her voice trailed away as she suddenly felt the weight of the truth. It would be many more hours, at least, until she would see her beloved fiancé again. He was likely at work and would return home in the evening. She might as well do what she could to charm her new landlady. Mustering a joy she did not feel, she turned to the woman and smiled. "Of course I would love some tea," she lied as she began to untie her bonnet.
The Chinese woman gestured to a small square table—one of many in the room—and Lydia sat down, doing her best to feel at ease. In truth, she wished only to put up her feet in Maxwell's no-doubt pristine quarters. Instead she sat at the table, turning to address a question to the captain.
Except, he had disappeared. Indeed, twisting slightly, she saw his heavy form already thumping back down the walkway.
"Captain?" she said stupidly. Then she recalled her trunk. He was no doubt bringing it inside for her.
"Sit, Rest," said her landlady, effectively distracting her from the captain's abrupt departure. "Drink tea," she continued, her voice deeper than Lydia expected. And significantly more nasal. Indeed, thought Lydia, she would have to work to understand this woman's English.
It was just as well that her first task in Shanghai would be to learn the language as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, her landlady's companion returned carrying a pot of tea in one hand and a small round tray in the other. As he slowly set down the tray, Lydia got her first look at Chinese teacups. Small and round, they did not even possess a handle. And once again, the decorations were done in gold paint. To match the decor, she supposed.
While she was still looking at the elaborate design—a gilded lotus—her landlady leaned over and poured the tea.
Lydia frowned. The woman was still standing over her, gesturing to the teacups. But there was more than one cup on the tray. "Won't you join me?" she asked. Then, in case the woman didn't understand, Lydia gestured with her hands, inviting the woman to sit at the table with her.
"No, no," answered the woman, with a smile that did not reach her eyes. "You drink."
Unsure what else to do, Lydia lifted her cup. Looking into the brew, she saw the dark swirl of a single escaped tea leaf. She smiled at the sight, feeling an inner tinge of satisfaction that she knew why. This was how the Chinese brewed their tea, with the leaves actually in the water when served, not strained out as in England. Maxwell had spent an entire letter on the evils of Chinese tea.
Yet she supposed if a whole nation of people drank their tea with the leaves in it, the brew would not kill her, so Lydia took an obliging sip, somewhat eager to taste her first real cup of Chinese tea. It was more bitter than she was used to, and also had an undercurrent of sickly sweetness, as if the Chinese woman had tried to make English tea but somehow failed.
Lydia set the cup down, frowning as she tried to analyze the taste. But the moment the cup left her lips, the woman was beside her again, actually lifting Lydia's hands to get her to drink.
"No, no. Drink. Finish tea."
Lydia did. Indeed, how could she not without appearing horribly rude? So she swallowed the stuff down, surprising herself by not spilling it. She wondered briefly if this was some Chinese custom—to drink the tea without stopping—and envisioned sharing this experience with Maxwell as soon as he returned. Would they laugh about her ignorance? Or about the landlady's obsessive need to have people consume her tea?
Oh, she had so much to tell him! When would he get here?
Setting down her cup, Lydia looked at her landlady. "Please, can you tell me where Maxwell works? I should like to meet him there."
But the woman wasn't listening. She was pouring Lydia more tea.
"Oh no, thank you." Lydia extended her hands to stop her, but the lady would have none of it. She finished pouring, then rudely shoved the cup back into Lydia's hands.
The woman's tones were strident, and so Lydia did as she was bidden, finishing the cup just as she had the last. But that was all she was going to drink until she had some answers. So, setting down the cup—somewhat harder than she anticipated—she frowned at the woman.
"Yes, yes," said the woman, nodding as she poured more tea.
Lydia frowned. She had not said that right. "Maxwell Slllade. Where does he woke? Work. Where does Max work?" How odd that her tongue felt numb. And she was having difficulty forming certain sounds. Meanwhile, the Chinese woman was saying something in heavily accented English.
"Your man come soon. You drink now." She was leaning over Lydia, pushing the teacup on her once again.
But Lydia had had quite enough for one day. She twisted her head away, pushing to her feet. The man was coming toward her from the other side, but Lydia ignored him. She regretting having to be rude to her new landlady—the first real Chinese person with whom she had ever had a chance to converse—but it was necessary. She absolutely refused to drink any more of the vile stuff.
Except, something was wrong with her feet. As numb as her tongue, they would not support her as they ought. Indeed, the moment she came to stand, she just as quickly began to collapse. Her head felt three sizes too large, and ungainly on her neck as well.
What is the meaning of this? she demanded of the woman. Or rather she tried. What came out, she was very much afraid, was something more like, "Wha!?"
Then she knew no more.