Authors: Pearl S. Buck
T WAS HER FORTIETH
birthday. Madame Wu sat before the tilted mirror of her toilet case and looked at her own calm face. In her mind she was comparing it with the face she had seen in this same mirror when she was sixteen. On that day she had risen from her marriage bed early, for she had always been an early riser, and putting on her new chamber robe she had come into this same room and had taken her place before the toilet table. She had sat in her quiet fashion, easily motionless, and had gazed at her young face.
“Can it be that I look the same today as yesterday?” she had asked herself on that first morning after her marriage.
She had examined her face minutely, broad low forehead, yesterday stripped of its girlhood fringe, long eyes, delicate nose, the oval of cheeks and chin and the small red mouth, that morning very red. Then Ying, her new maid, had hurried in.
“Oh, Miss—Oh, Madame,” she had faltered. “I thought today you would not be so early!” Ying’s cheeks had been bright with blushes.
Madame’s own cheeks were as pearly pale as usual, above the red mouth. “I like to get up early,” she had replied in her usual gentle voice, the voice which in the night the young man whom she had never seen before had told her was like the voice of a singing bird.
At this moment, twenty-four years later, as though she knew what her mistress was remembering, Ying spoke from behind the heavy redwood chair. Her hands were busy with the coils of Madame Wu’s shining, straight black hair, but she had now made these coils for so many years that she could lift her eyes from the task and look at the beautiful face in the mirror.
“Lady, you have changed not at all in these twenty-four years,” Ying said.
“Are you thinking of that morning, too?” Madame Wu replied. She met Ying’s eyes in the mirror with affection. Ying had grown stout in twenty years of being married to the head cook, but Madame Wu was as slender as ever.
Ying laughed loudly. “I was more shy than you that morning, Lady,” she said.
how shy I was then—with how little cause, eh, Lady? It’s only natural, what goes on between men and women, but then it seemed some sort of magic!”
Madame Wu smiled without reply. She allowed Ying complete freedom in all she said, but when she did not wish to carry on the conversation she made her smile fleeting and kept silence after it. Ying fell silent, too. She pretended dissatisfaction with a coil of the smooth black hair under her fingers, and pursing her lips, she let one strand down and put it up again. When it was finished she put two jade pins into the coil, one on either side, and wetting her hands with an oiled perfume, she smoothed Madame Wu’s already sleek head.
“My jade earrings,” Madame Wu said in her clear pretty voice. It was a voice so feminine that it concealed everything.
“I knew you would want to wear them today!” Ying exclaimed. “I have them ready.”
She opened a small box covered with flowered silk and took out the earrings and fastened them carefully through Madame Wu’s little ears. Twenty-four years ago young Mr. Wu had come into this room at the exact moment when she had dressed her mistress freshly in a soft wide-sleeved red satin coat over a pleated black satin skirt whose panels were embroidered, front and back, with birds and flowers. In his hand Mr. Wu had held this box. His handsome eyes were full of sleepy content. He had handed the box to Ying, being too well-mannered to speak to his bride before a servant. “Put these in your mistress’s ears,” he had said.
Ying had cried out over the flawless clarity of the jade and had held them before the bride’s eyes. Those eyes had lifted to her husband for one moment before she dropped the lids with graceful shyness. “Thank you,” she had murmured.
He had nodded, and then while the maid fastened them into her ears he had stood watching. Madame Wu had seen his face in this very mirror, the handsome full face of a willful and proud young man.
he had said, in a sigh of pleasure. Their eyes met in the mirror and each took measure of the other’s beauty. “Go and fetch me hot tea,” he had said abruptly to Ying, and at the sound of his voice the maid had been startled and scuttled away.
They were alone again, as they had been in the night. He had leaned over her and put his hands on her shoulders. He stared into her face in the mirror.
“If you had been ugly,” he said, “I would have killed you last night on the pillow. I hate ugly women.”
She had smiled at this, without moving under his hands. “But why have killed me?” she had asked in her pretty voice. “To have sent me home would have been enough.”
She had been deeply excited that morning. Would he be intelligent as well as handsome, this husband of hers? That would be perhaps too much to ask. But if he were?
At this moment twenty-four years later, Ying now said, “Jade is as beautiful as ever against your skin. What other woman of forty can say this? It is no wonder that the master has never wanted another wife.”
“Do not speak quite so loudly,” Madame Wu said. “He is still asleep.”
“He should wake early on your fortieth birthday, Madame,” Ying replied. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. After all these years she felt she knew Mr. Wu, and of one thing she was certain: in spite of his fondness, he still did not appreciate enough his beautiful wife whom the whole house loved. Yes, of the sixty-odd souls under this roof, who did not love Madame Wu, from Old Lady down to the smallest grandchild and lowliest servant? If in the servants’ quarters a new maid dared to grumble because the mistress saw the dust swept behind a door, Ying jerked her ears.
“This is the house of the Wu family,” she said in her loud voice. “This is not a common house like Wang or Hua.”
The head cook always grinned at this. All his life as a husband he had known that against the mistress, he was nothing in Ying’s eyes. But indeed in this house even the two sons’ wives had no evil to speak. Those narrow hands which Madame Wu held so often lightly clasped on her lap, were firm and kind while they ruled.
“I will have my breakfast,” Madame Wu now said to Ying. “After I have eaten I will speak with my eldest son. You will dress me for the feast at noon. But keep watch over your master, and when he wakes let me know.”
“That I will do, of course, Lady,” Ying replied. She stooped to pick up a comb she had let fall. It was made of the fragrant sandalwood which was the scent Madame Wu used for her hair. Ying plucked a few long hairs from the comb and curled them carefully around her finger and put them in a small blue porcelain jar. She was saving these hairs against the day of her mistress’s great old age, when it was possible she might need to thicken even her coil with a switch.
Madame Wu rose from the chair. She was ready for this day. A woman’s fortieth birthday in a rich and old-fashioned family was a day of dignity. She remembered very well when her husband’s mother had passed such a day, twenty-two years ago. On that day Old Lady had formally given over to her son’s wife the management of the big house with its many members. For twenty-two years Madame Wu had held this management in her own hands, skillfully maintaining its outward habits so that Old Lady did not notice changes, and at the same time making many changes. Thus before Madame Wu had decided to do away with the overgrown peony bushes in the eastern garden, just outside these rooms, she had allowed the peonies to die one winter. When their strong red shoots did not push up as usual in the spring she called Old Lady’s attention to this and helped her to decide that the peonies must have exhausted the soil and air in this garden, and therefore something else had better be planted here for a generation or two.
“Narcissus?” Madame Wu, then eighteen, had suggested gently. “Orchids? Flowering shrubs? I am only anxious to please you, Mother.” But she had put orchids in the middle of the sentence. They were her preference. By putting them in the middle, Old Lady would think she did not care for them.
“Orchids,” Old Lady said. She was fond of her daughter-in-law, but she liked to show her own authority.
“Orchids,” Madame Wu had agreed. Within five years she had the finest orchid garden in the city. She spent a great deal of time in it. Now, in the early part of the sixth month of the year, the delicate silver-gray blossoms of the first orchids were beginning to bloom. By the eighth month the dark purple ones would be at their height, and by the ninth month the yellow ones.
She went from her own sitting room into this garden and plucked two of the scentless gray flowers and took them back with her into the room, where her breakfast was waiting. It was a slight meal, for she had never been able to eat much in the morning. Tea, rice congee in a small closed bucket of polished wood bound in silver, and two or three little dishes of dried salt meats stood on the square table in the middle of the room. She sat down and lifted her ivory chopsticks that at the upper end were held together by a thin silver chain.
A maidservant came in smiling. She carried in both hands a plate of long-life steamed rolls of bread, very hot. They were made in the shape of peaches, the symbol of immortality, and each one was sprayed with red dye.
“Long life, long life, Mistress!” the maidservant called in a coarse, hearty voice. “Mistress does not like sweet in the morning, I know, but we who are servants must bring these for good luck. The cook made them himself.”
“Thank you,” Madame Wu said mildly, “thank you all.”
Out of courtesy she took one of the steaming rolls and broke it open. A dark sweet filling was inside, made of crushed beans and red sugar, “It is delicious,” she said, and began to eat.
The woman was encouraged and leaned forward. “I ought not to tell you,” she said in a loud whisper, “but I do it because I think of the good of the house. That old head cook, he is charging our Mistress three times the price in the fuel grass. Yesterday at the market I heard the price—it is high now, true, because the new grass is not in yet—but eighty cash a catty will buy as good as can be found. Yet he charges two hundred cash! He thinks he can do anything because Ying is your maid.”
Madame Wu’s clear black eyes took on a look of distance. “When he brings in the accounts, I will remember,” she said. Her voice was cool. The woman remained an instant, then went away.
Madame Wu put down the roll at once and with her chopsticks picked up a bit of salt fish. She resumed her thoughts. She had no intention on this day of resigning her position to Meng, the wife of her eldest son. In the first place, she had four sons, two of whom already had wives. Old Lady had had only the one, and so there had been no question of jealousy between young wives. Her eldest son’s wife, moreover, was very young. Liangmo had been married according to old-fashioned ways. She had chosen his wife for him, and this wife had been the daughter of her oldest friend, Madame Kang. It had not been her intention to marry Liangmo so quickly, since he had been only nineteen; but her second son, Tsemo, who had gone to a school in Shanghai, had loved a girl two years older than himself, and had insisted upon marriage at eighteen. This meant that Rulan was older than her sister-in-law, who was nevertheless her superior in the house. Out of this embarrassment, for which Madame Wu blamed herself in not having kept better watch over Tsemo, her only refuge now was to keep her own place for another few years, during which time anything might happen.
She would therefore announce no changes in the house today. She would accept their gifts and the great feast which was planned. She would be kind to the grandchildren, whom she warmly loved, and in all that was done she would defer to Old Lady, who was getting out of bed at noon especially to be at the feast.