A wedding procession turned the corner. All the world over a wedding procession arouses laughter and derision in the bystanders. Even the children jeer. It may be instinctive; it may be that children vaguely realize that at the end of all wedding journeys is disillusion.
The girl in the forward chair raised herself a little, the better to see the gorgeous blue palanquin of the dimly visible bride.
“What a wonderful colour!” she exclaimed.
“Kingfisher feathers,” said Ah Cum. “It is an ordinary wedding,” he added; “some shopkeeper’s daughter. Probably she was married years ago and is now merely on the way to her husband’s house. The palanquin is hired and so is the procession. Quite ordinary.”
The air in the narrow street, which was not eight feet wide, swarmed with smells impossible to define; but all at once the pleasantly pungent odour of Chinese incense drifted across the girl’s face, and gratefully she quickened her inhalations.
In her ears there was a medley of sound: wailing music, rumbling tom-toms and sputtering firecrackers. She had never before heard the noise of firecrackers, and in the beginning the sputtering racket caused her to wince. Presently the odour of burnt powder mingled agreeably with that of the incense.
She was conscious of a ceaseless undercurrent of sound—the guttural Chinese tongue. She foraged about in her mind for some satisfying equivalent which would express in English this gurgling drone the Chinese called a language. At length she hit upon it: bubbling water. Her eyebrows, pulled down by the stress of thought, now resumed their normal arches; and pleased with her discovery, she smiled.
To Ah Cum, who was watching her covertly, the smile was like a bit of unexpected sunshine. What with these converging roofs that shut out all but a hand’s breadth of the sky, sunshine was rare at this point. If it came at all, it was as fleeting as the girl’s smile.
The wedding procession passed on, and the cynical rabble poured in behind. The pole-chair caravan resumed its journey.
The girl wished that she had come afoot, despite the knowledge that she would have suffered many inconveniences, accidental and intentional jostling, insolence and ribald jest. The Cantonese, excepting in the shops where he expects profit, always resents the intrusion of the fan-quei—foreign devil. The chair was torture. It hung from the centre of a stout pole, each end of which rested upon the calloused shoulder of a coolie; an ordinary Occidental chair with a foot-rest. The coolies proceeded at a swinging, mincing trot, which gave to the suspended seat a dancing action similar to that of a suddenly agitated hanging-spring of a birdcage. It was impossible to meet the motion bodily.
Her shoulders began to ache. Her head felt absurdly like one of those noddling manikins in the Hong-Kong curio-shops. Jiggle-joggle, jiggle-joggle...! For each pause she was grateful. Whenever Ah Cum (whose normal stride was sufficient to keep him at the side of her chair) pointed out something of interest, she had to strain the cords in her neck to focus her glance upon the object. Supposing the wire should break and her head tumble off her shoulders into the street? The whimsey caused another smile to ripple across her lips.