The Ragged Edge by Harold MacGrath


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Page 1

We middle-aged fools and we old fools can no longer dream. We have
only those phantoms called memories, which are the husks of dreams.
Disillusion stands in one doorway of our house and Mockery in the
other.

This is a tale of two young fools.

* * * * *

In the daytime the streets of the ancient city of Canton are yet
filled with the original confusion--human beings in quest of food.
There is turmoil, shouts, cries, jostlings, milling congestions
that suddenly break and flow in opposite directions.

It was a gray day in the spring of 1910. A tourist caravan of four
pole-chairs jogged along a narrow street. It had rained during the
night, and the patch-work pavement was greasy with mud. From a
bi-secting street came shouting and music. At a sign from Ah Cum,
official custodian of the sightseers, the pole-chair coolies
pressed toward the left and halted.

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.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Wed 20th Nov 2019, 20:11