We can be very thankful, the year is not 1949 and we are not in old San Francisco, Chinatown. It’s a new day in the sun for all of us, even as we pass through the Virus Crisis this year 2020, we can stride forward into the future, confident that our lives will become what we seek and work toward. The crisis will end, opportunity displays itself, and we should fear only our personal fears.
[Reference Article Chinese Wedding Traditions>>>]
AN OLD CHINATOWN CUSTOM
A Story by SIDNEY HERSCHEL SMALL: May 1, 1949
A Chinese young man wants desperately to marry a lower class maiden, but grandfather Sheng Wi’i forbids their wedding. Somewhere in thousands of pages of The Books of Custom is the secret to their union. A loving heart and a powerful mind must battle with old men and ancient books of wisdom. Love must find the secret to deny ancient family tradition.
The mirror showed Mary Liang a happy face. Lower in the glass, she saw reflected the round faces of her younger sisters, already dressed for the kitchen-god ceremony.
She wondered if she had ever looked as solemn as the children. As mournful. Each clutched a handful of spirit money to lie burned when the god’s cloth image was taken from the wall where, for a year, he had observed the family’s conduct.
I am the happiest girl in Chinatown, Mary thought. Why, perhaps right this moment Bill Sheng was asking his grandfather, Sheng Wi’i, for permission to marry her, to have their horoscopes cast, bet rot hal presents sent, the marriage contract drawn, and a lucky day selected for the wedding.
Her smile deepened. She said teasingly to her younger sisters. “Have you been naughty? Is that why you look unhappy? Have you eaten some of the god’s candy?”
“No, Elder Sister,” Elsie mumbled.
Sweets were always placed before the kitchen god on this evening when he rose to heaven to report on the family’s behavior. If he was offered candy and cake he would relate to the judging deities only sweet happenings. If they questioned him about misconducts his mouth would be too sticky to reply.
“I will tell you something to make you smile,” Mary whispered. “Soon I am to be a wife.” Silk hissed as Mary dressed. She sang, “Now I am a ’hiñese girl. Which way do you like me better?” This because she was wondering which way Bill ’d like her better she didn’t see that the sisters were almost crying.
How lucky she was! She had Bill and a grand job. Chinatown girls could find positions in the city, making them independent of families, so difficult for the young men who were under what Bill called the economic domination of the grandfathers. Girls with jobs could even marry as they wished.
The old men did not approve of independent maids who, as her own grandfather said, were more barbarian than Chinese. Old men wanted grandsons’ wives to follow tradition, and bring up children in observance of ancestor worship. But Sheng Wi’i, Bill’s grandfather, had never acted as if he objected to Mary.
The gong hummed; Mary followed her sisters to the living room, where the Liang family was already gathered. There was just enough space for Mary to walk to where the kitchen god, Tsao Chiin, hung on the wall. She did notice that the broad smile on his face was the one happy expression in the room.
Truly puzzled, she bowed, placing her offering of preserved loquats before the deity. As she was about to back away, Grandfather Liang Kung’s bony fingers seized her wrist. With his other hand, he pointed to her red nails angrily; Mary had forgotten to remove something which was not Chinese, something which the god could see and report to the greater divinities.
“You bring disgrace to us,” Liang Kung said. “Again.”
Mary said, “I am sorry, grandfather. I—”
“It is too late to be sorry.”
Lowering her head she turned to go to where the women and children stood. She saw that her mother was trying not to cry. Grandmother’s face was hidden by a sleeve, lest the god see tears. All because of red nails?
“What have I done?” whispered Mary, in English.
Liang Kung put his hands over the god’s ears so that the grinning deity could not hear what was said. “You have made a fool of yourself and of this family. All Chinatown has been led to believe that you would be married to the grandson of Sheng Wi’i. This will not happen.”
Mary knew fear. Bill must have spoken to his grandfather and Sheng Wi’i must have refused permission. Mary, in her misery which had the weight of a hundred centuries behind it, looked cowed and utterly Chinese. Then her lips trembled, becoming a slow, steady smile.
Her fear was stupid. Bill loved her. It wasn’t the kind of love which anything, neither grandfathers nor custom, could thwart. This wasn’t China, where the old men ruled families. Why, right outside, Mary could hear the cheerful clanging of streetcars, the sound of automobile horns—
“I am sorry that there will not be a Chinese wedding exactly according to tradition,” Mary said. “I would have knelt at Sheng Wi’i’s feet obediently.” She did not raise her voice as she said what she could not hold back. “But I am going to be married just the same, grandfather.”
Liang Kung said, “So? Can you marry a man who will go away?”
“Away?” said Mary.
“The grandson of Sheng Wi’i goes to China. There he will marry a Canton maid, chosen by Sheng Wi’i. She will return with him. She will have many male children, and she will teach them to worship at the ancestral shrine instead of riding like demons in jee-lah-pees. She herself will not go to mu-vees. She will make a dutiful granddaughter.
Sheng Wi’i will have many respectful grandsons.”
Mary said, “Bill won’t go.”
“No? When he marries the Canton maid he will be given an interest in the family business. But if he marries you,” Liang Kung shouted, “he gets nothing.” Above the sobbing of Mary’s mother he cried, “You would starve.”
Mary said, not in defiance, “I am well-paid for my work, grandfather.”
“Only one sort of woman supports a man,” snapped Liang Kung.
Mary’s cheeks looked as if her grandfather’s hand had slapped them to scarlet; then they faded to the color of old parchment. She turned and ran, unaware that Liang Kung wildly covered the god’s eyes at this transgression.
Her hands shook in tearing off the Chinese clothes, stiffening as she dressed in business clothes for the street. As she hurried out of the apartment she could hear Liang Kung chanting,
“Tung chi’ hun-t’un,
Hai chi’ mien,”
before the kitchen god. His voice was unsteady as would be the smoke from the paper-money offerings later.
SHE knew, in the street, that she must wait for Bill; he would remain with his family until the ceremony there ended and the new kitchen god was tacked up. With slow steps she began to walk toward the restaurant where they were to meet.
Head high, Mary passed commenting young Chinese; they were the sort of men about whom her grandfather had spoken. She slowed her pace when she was where she could look down into the restaurant, although when Bill was the first to arrive he waited for her on the street. She kept on walking until lights glowed in the street lanterns.
The Book of Custom forbade the love of a Chinese boy for his maid. Love hasn’t much use for wise old books.
Children came out to boast of the rich sweets offered their kitchen god, and tell how beautiful their Tsao Chiin looked in his baggy orange trousers and black jackets . . .
Bill wouldn’t stand for going to China and marrying a Canton maid. What man wanted a gal who couldn’t open her mouth unless she had permission? And other things she knew to be true she remembered now, and felt better.
He was waiting for her the next time she came down the street. “Hi,” said Mary, and Bill’s grin, wry as it was, satisfied her.
Inside the restaurant owner was making up for the time lost at his own family ceremony by hastily chopping up glazed ducks to garnish a dozen dishes. Mary said, “Jung sin sang ho la,” to him, like a true Chinese girl.
When the pair were in one of the booths Bill pulled the curtain closed tightly, and then kissed her.
“Practicing for the Canton maid?” asked Mary.
Bill said, “So you heard about that?”
Mary nodded. “And what happened?”
“I just said ‘no.’ He had everything figured out, up to that, point. I go Chinaside, marry, have ancestor-worshipping children, plenty, so that their prayers take care of mv grandfather above, and add to his face here. But he forgot just one thing. I love you.”
“Ah,” said Mary: and now everything was wonderful. She raced on, “I ran out of our apartment when I heard about it. Grandfather’s furious. Oh, Bill, is it going to be all right?”
“When grandfather gets it. through his head that there’s no soap, he’ll give in. I’m his only grandson. He doesn’t dare go to heaven unless I’m on the job burning sacred papers which’ll send up smoke so he knows I’m praying for him. He could yell when I said, ‘Mary or nobody,’ but he’ll come around.”
Mary agreed. Between a disowned grandson, which meant none at all, and a grandson whose wife might be derelict in teaching children the ancient customs, she was positive that Sheng Wi’i had no choice.
The waiter brushed the curtain aside, bringing tea and bowls. Bill ordered what Mary liked. Black mushroom soup, chicken and water chestnuts, pork with chard; and Mary rinsed the bowls with tea, warming them, before pouring.
They sat long over a final cigarette. It was, in the booth, as if they were far from Chinatown, customs, problems. They were alone.
The restaurant was crowded when they threaded their way out between the close tables. Bill Sheng had to wait until other diners paid their bills at the counter where the owner stood; at last Bill said, “That was excellent food.
Please add the cost to our family account.”
“Pay now,” said the owner.
Bill stared at the older man. “Are you crazy?” he demanded. “When the head of my family hears how you have insulted me do you think he will appreciate such an attempt to take away my face?”
The owner shrugged. “Sheng Wi’i sits in the corner behind you,” he said. “And now I am waiting for the money.”
Mary knew somehow that the restaurant had become silent. No one spoke. Clicking chopsticks were held poised.
The implication was clear to her. as it must have been to Bill. Sheng Wj’i had told the owner what to do. She saw how Bill’s hand started toward his pocket and stopped. Oh, darling, darling, she thought, suffering because of the obviousness of the arrested movement, the proof that Bill, like all Chinatown’s young men, was held in check, kept subservient, by being given only dimes, and quarters, by the grandfathers.
If she had been the sort of Chinese maid whom Grandfather Sheng Wi’i desired as the mother of his grandsons, Mary would have done nothing. Instead. she reached inside her bag for money.
“What is mine is yours.” she said proudly, in English; and by this Mary Liang meant all things.
Jeering laughter filled the vacuum of silence when Bill took the currency. He held it for a moment, swallowing bitterness, finally dropping it to the counter as if his fingers refused to retain it.
Mary turned, facing the Chinese in the restaurant. Their mockingly cruel eyes, the amusement on their faces, seemed to press her and Bill back against the wood of the counter. Only one person in the place was not watching, not sucking enjoyment from the scene. That person was Sheng Wi’i, in holiday black silk. He went on eating, now shoveling rice into his mouth, now moistening the mouthful with moist gai lan cabbage, now searching for a bit of crisp duck skin . . .
Forces, one ancient, one newly activated, struggled within the girl. One urged respect for old men, particularly for the old man who was the head of her beloved’s family. A grandfather. Sheng Wi’i. The other was a compelling desire to tell a cruel old man that he was heartless.
Bill’s lax hand had found her arm, tightening there as if her warmth, the fury in her, flowed to him. Mary let him turn her. She started with him for the stairs to the street. Her throat was beginning to ache, her eyes to blur.
ON THE street she said unsteadily, “Oh, Bill.” Then she pleaded, “We needn’t wait. Let’s be married.” A streetcar passed. The lights of a machine, rounding the corner and angling down, where the sidewalks were again crowded with Chinatown’s people, showed Mary the miserably set face of her companion.
“My own grandfather did that,” Bill Sheng said unhappily, “as a warning to me. It was okay for him to do it, according to custom. I hate their customs! I—”
“Marry me now. Nothing else counts.”
Bill Sheng said roughly, “How? Custom demands that we live with my family. If grandfather says ‘no,’ that settles it. His long arm would keep anyone in Chinatown from renting to us. Even if I had money.”
“We’ll live somewhere else. I’ve got my job—”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried to get one?” blurted Bill. “Think I want to be a China-fashion scholar? Grandfather’s intention is to get me all filled up on devotions to ancestors so that his only grandson will know how to do plenty of number one praying for him. Think that’s what a fellow wants?” Mary knew that it wasn’t.
“I’ve never tried to get a job in Chinatown,” Bill said savagely, “because no Chinese would risk Sheng Wi’i’s disapproval. But when I’ve been supposed to I’ve been memorizing the guff about old customs. I’ve looked for a job. A Chinatown guy hasn’t got a chance unless he knows something. All I know is the army. When I’m asked about my experience I know I’m licked.” “You could look for a job after we’re married,” said Mary.
Bill said, “You’re pretty swell,” and some of the misery left his face. Mary slipped her hand to his arm.
Old men cackled their disgust at this violation of custom. And because the two had been walking slowly, aimlessly, there had been time for other old men, who had been in the restaurant, to catch up with them; and what they said, intended to be overheard by everyone in the street, again brought flame to Mary’s cheeks. The ribaldry shocked her speechless.
“Hear what you are?” grated Bill. “Hear what I am?”
Mary sought to react like a modern girl. She managed to gasp, “You can make an honest woman out of me.” “That sort of talk would be thrown at us all our lives.” The frustration, the lack of weapons with which to fight back, the despair turning into finality, made him mutter, “We’ve got to forget it.”
“Of course,” said Mary. “We know better.”
BUT then she knew that Bill hadn’t meant forgetting the nastiness of the old men. He meant that they had to forget their love, their dreams, their future. Her store of courage was running out. If she wanted anything, this moment, it was to hide, from Bill, from customs, from life.
And yet, with clarity, she recognized what they would face married. Mary had not been afraid of this before; she was not afraid of it now. Somehow, somewhere, they could make a home. One way or another. Of course, there would be children later. She would have a fine life. Nothing mattered but Bill. But—what of him? What about a man? A man who, in Chinatown, would be accorded no respect, no honor? A man who, having no face, would have no friends?
Mary didn’t say, “I love you too terribly to hurt you, darling,” but, instead, shivering, “Yes. We’ll forget it.”
Bill Sheng stopped walking, so abruptly that old Chinese behind bumped against man and girl. Completely illogical as it was, he said, “You, too?”
“You, too?” Bill repeated, and all the bitterness in the world was compressed in the accusation.
If this is how it must be, thought Mary, I mustn’t explain. Oh, darling, you talked yourself into giving up because you couldn’t find a way out for us. Neither can I. Perhaps a boy and a girl can defy customs in other places, but they can’t do it in Chinatown.
“Good-bye, Bill,” said Mary.
She saw him bite down words; but whether they would have been ugly ones about a girl who ran out on a boy, or an appeal, she had no way of knowing. She did see a twitching, uncontrollable, of his lips, until he said monotonously, “Customs.” He said next, “Changa chang,” and the farewell, in Cantonese, was to Mary as if Bill were returning, beaten, to all which was traditional.
She cried herself to sleep that night.
AT MORNING rice Mary learned XJL from Grandfather Liang Rung that Sheng Wi’i had brought his rebellious grandson to his senses. It was stupid of the young fool to have attempted to match wits with Sheng Wi’i, who knew Chinese customs and exactly how to apply them. Sheng Wi’i was a fox.
“Now that the grandson understands what can happen to him,” said Liang Rung, “he will go to China and marry according to Sheng Wi’i’s order.”
Mary had to ask, “What can happen to him?”
“Ho! If the grandson proves disobedient Sheng Wi’i has formally announced his intention of sending adoption presents, money, incense, and a red rooster to the family of a distant Sheng young man. This young man will take the place of the undutiful grandson. He will worship at the family shrine.”
It was Mary’s mother who asked tremulously, “Does the grandson continue in his disobedience, Father Liang Rung?”
“He was stubborn,” Liang Rung admitted. He shot a grim glance at Mary’s little mother. “When he was told by Sheng Wi’i that the mother who bore him, after an adoption, would be sent to the kitchen in disgrace, he bowed his head. But he insisted upon proof. Sheng Wi’i was forced to show the custom to him, to read it from the Book of Customs, the great Chi Ch’eng.”
Mary said, “Oh.”
This drew Liang Rung’s attention to her. He said, “You were guilty of taking the grandson’s mind from his studies, or he would have known it. Who will want you as a wife for a grandson?”
“I don’t want to be anyone’s wife,” said Mary; then, seeing that a storm was about to break, she said, “I bow before your superior wisdom.” She further pleased Liang Kung by asking his permission to depart.
CHINATOWN could be dreary in the early morning. Girls like Mary Liang hurried to work on sidewalks barely passable; crates of chickens and vegetables and oblong boxes of iced fish waited on the pavement until carried into the food shops. Tins full of water, and edible black snails, had already been brought out of dark basements. Squid tentacles, like long-dead fingers, lay limply outside baskets; and it all smelled. Nothing was covered, at this hour, by incense.
Wires on a crate’s edge could mean a ruined stocking. Mary walked carefully, her thoughts dreary as the foggy morning. She knew clearly now that marriage was impossible.
Old men, she was thinking, could be devils. They could be as malicious as the evil spirits in whom they believed, especially when traditions were involved. And they had everything on their side. The purse strings. Chinatown opinion. Ability to thwart what young people tried to do. Everything. There was always some custom to back up what the grandfathers wanted. Nor could young people fight fire with fire. The customs were designed to benefit the old men.
Mary did not glance sidewise when she passed one of the shops owned by the Sheng family, the one where old Sheng Wi’i often sat as if half-asleep behind a bare counter. Yet somehow she felt as if the head of Bill’s family were looking out at her, and that after she passed he would return to his newspaper, or click away at his abacus, or light a cigarette. But before he did any of these things, he would make some typically Chinese remark, which would concern the manners of barbarian maids or jackets which did not button up to the neck, or anything un-Chinese. Custom . . . custom . . . it was Chinatown law.
The feeling that she had been scrutinized whitened her cheeks; they became cold as clay when she saw Bill standing at the next corner. He said, “Mary,” and walked with her. She could not so much as nod.
WHEN they were out of Chinatown, away from amused eyes which never seemed to be really watching them, Bill Sheng said, “If you haven’t heard, grandfather threw the book at me. The custom permitting him to adopt a grandson was okay with me. I told him he could adopt a dozen. But—”
“I heard it all,” said Mary. She added, each word like a turned knife in her side. “All I heard was what would happen to your mother.”
Bill said, “The old men who originated the customs didn’t forget anything. In the six thousand volumes of the T’u Shu Chi Ch’eng every custom is for the benefit of old men.”
To Mary Liang, as she nodded, Grandfather Sheng Wi’i was the symbol of all old men, who intended to be worshipped traditionally, to control their families not only when living but when dead. Grandfather Sheng Wi’i. Austere. Ruthless. Wealth and custom stood behind him.
Yet her heart beat with unreasonable hope when Bill said savagely, “I’d like to give the old men a bellyful of custom!”
She waited for him to continue; but when he said, “But how can I?” Mary Liang knew what she herself had to do. “Bill.” Mary said, “we were right last night. Yes. Even if we didn’t know then what Sheng Wi’i could do to your mother. This is it, Bill. Don’t wait for me again. Every custom is against us. And don’t try to do anything which might make Grandfather Sheng Wi’i angry. We just can’t win. I know I’m right.”
She saw his shoulders droop.
“I’m right,” said Mary.
She heard Bill quote, “ ‘The wisest must in six thousand times be once mistaken, the most foolish in six thousand times must be once right.’ ” I’ve got to make it final, thought Mary; and, with this in mind, she said, “I know I’m a fool. You sound just like your grandfather.”
She flashed off; and how she got to the office, and through the day, she didn’t know. She had accomplished what she wanted, or rather what she was sure was necessary. But somehow Bill shouldn’t have admitted that she was right. He should have fought against her correct reasoning. He couldn’t have meant that she was mistaken this one time. He would have laughed, would have looked at her if that had been what he meant.
As The days and the evenings for gossip passed, she learned how successfully final it really was. Girls in Chinatown gave Mary to understand that Bill, bowing to his grandfather’s wishes, was studying constantly in the Chi Ch’eng, not only to become a scholar, but with the intention of making a good husband for the maid in Canton who would expect traditional husbandly behavior. Grandfather Sheng Wi’i was so delighted that he had bought the finest of fitted bags for Bill to carry when he went to marry the maid, and increased Bill’s allowance, and bragged about him in the restaurants.
Mary learned also that the Canton maid was singularly beautiful, according to Chinatown gossip. The Canton maid had moth eyebrows, peach-blossom skin, a voice like the wind of spring. She was graceful as a willow.
Pride kept Mary’s head high, but she could not stop her ears against comments of cruel old men, nor was it easy to see Bill several times, and to say, “Hi,” as she had done before. Nor could she bolster her pride by thinking that it was she herself who had driven Bill into the Canton maid’s arms. She hadn’t done it. Custom had done it. There had been no choice for her.
Somehow Bill seemed to have acquired something of his grandfather’s grimness and austerity. He did spend long hours poring over the Chi Ch’eng, the Great Book of Customs; and his grandfather began gaining importance and face because a grandson could answer traditional questions even better than some of the old men. Sheng Wi’i was now being envied by the very people who had laughed at a family head once defied by a grandson. And at times, when Bill would say, “Yes, now we do this, but according to strict custom we should do differently,” old Sheng Wi’i was so pleased that he would shake hands with himself.
It was as a scholar, and one with tired eyes, that Bill approached Sheng Wi’i a week before the time to leave for China.
“Grandfather,” he said, “when a man goes away and leaves behind a maid whom it was believed he might have married, her family loses face.
“A small money payment will give Liang Kung back whatever face he loses,” Sheng Wi’i smiled. “The days of blood payments are over.”
Bill bowed gravely. “I have read in the CU Ch’eng that it is customary for the family of the discarded maid to give a feast to the departing man, showing that no wish for vengeance exists. If this were given me by the Liang family and paid for by the same money you would give Liang Kung for his lost face, Chinatown would be aware that the two families remain friendly.”
‘‘I have never heard of it being done in that manner,” said Sheng Wi’i, ‘‘but I have not studied the Book of Customs as you have.” He scratched his chin. “It will be an excellent thing for Chinatown to have this further demonstration of your new knowledge.” Sheng Wi’i smiled, thinking how men would praise him for it. “I agree. Go to Liang Kung and say I will buy a feast, and attend it with my family. Arrange for it at the best restaurant.”
“It is written that a travel feast in a restaurant is unlucky,” said Bill. “I find that it should be given in the house of the discarded maid’s family.”
Sheng Wi’i nodded. “I am pleased that you have ended your youthful foolishness about the Liang girl. Each time you say ‘discarded maid’ I am happy. However, I do not wish you to carry this business of ‘discarding maids’ too far. I expect great-grandchildren who will burn sacred papers at the ancestral shrine.”
When Grandfather Liang told his family about the feast, Mary gasped and put a hand to her throat; how could Bill do this to her? Had he reverted so far that he wanted revenge because she had refused to marry him?
Equally horrible to Mary was listening to Liang Kung’s orders concerning what was to be served at the feast. While he talked about a banquet that all Chinatown would drool over, when hearing about it, Mary choked. Glazed pheasant, crab curry, sliced pigeon in apricot jam, chicken stewed in fermented rice liquor, sweet lotus soup, cassia mushrooms, the crispest of pork. . . .
It will be my heart which will be eaten, thought Mary.
THE Liang family was waiting ceremoniously, in Chinese attire, when Sheng Wi’i appeared, similarly dressed, at the head of his own family. Men and women packed the apartment so tightly that the ceremonial flowers had to be carried to the outer hall, and the jackets and trousers of the Sheng and Liang women blended to the hues of changeable silk, blue, green, lavender, silver, scarlet.
When the two old men had shaken hands with themselves, Sheng Wi’i said, “My grandson will come shortly.” Mary, approaching with a tray, heard him add above the babble of voices, “It is written in the Chi Ch’eng that a man about to leave his family must make nightly and solitary devotions before the tablets of his ancestors. This he is now doing.”
Not wanting to show ignorance, Liang Kung said, “Excellent. Yes. I, myself, a long time ago, did the same thing when I left China.”
Mary’s cheeks were pale as she offered them bowls of tig’ há’ pi on her tray to the guest-grandfather. After he had taken it and held it cupped in one hand, he smiled; he could afford now to be courteous. Magnanimous.
I Sheng Wi’i handed Mary a customary dinner gift, and said to Liang Kung, “I give it just to her instead of to you since she is the cause of our feast. In addition,” said I Sheng Wi’i, “my grandson sends her a small present.”
What he put in Mary’s icy hand could be only one thing. Inside the long , envelope must be currency. The envelope was not big enough to contain a rice-paper volume of verse, nor a hand-painted good-luck card, nor a length of ancient silk. In the envelope must be money. Money! From Bill! A common enough gift in Chinatown, but, to Mary Liang, an insult. Money in return for the happy clasp of hands. Money for her kisses. Money for dreams. Money for a discarded maid.
If Mary could have moved her hands, she might have torn the envelope to pieces. Somehow her feet took her out of the crowded room and to her own. There, in misery, she turned the envelope over, looking with her burning eves at the red seal of the Sheng family.
Chaotically she thought, How could he! Oh, no, no, no . . .
Her fingers opened the envelope. She found a blank sheet, but there was no money folded inside. There was another sheet of paper, folded, and on it she read, in English, “Grandfather is a fox, but he won’t suspect that I’m using him as a messenger. He is so smart that I had to fool you about what I have been doing. He had to be sure that you were unhappy. I had to let you believe that I was a heel. Now, we will use the Book of Customs. It will work for us.”
As she read, she said aloud, “Oh, no!” but that was because she was fearful and hopeful, both at once. What could she do about this thing Bill had planned? She couldn’t refuse. She didn’t want to refuse, afraid as she was. Most importantly, he loved her! He had never stopped loving her!
WHEN she returned to the others, she bent once and touched the cheek of one of her sisters, and Little Sister’s skin felt hot and feverish. But it was really Mary’s fingers which were frost-cold.
Can I go through with it? she kept asking herself.
Grandfather Sheng Wi’i, nostrils dilating at the smell of good food waiting to be devoured, remarked that even a grandson’s final devotions could be overdone. A full ten minutes passed before there was a pounding on the outer door.
Mary cried, “Who is there?” “William Sheng.”
If Mary heard both grandfathers ordering that the door be opened, she did not move. She dare not make a mistake now. She had to remember every word in Bill’s letter; and, although she was trembling all over, her voice was steady and clear.
“Do you wish to come into this house and live with me?” called Mary Liang. “Is that why you knock and give your name?”
His “Yes!” came instantly.
Mary’s silks hissed as she walked jerkily to the door. She knew that she must have opened it, because Bill was inside and leading her back into the apartment.
As from a long way off Mary heard Bill say in Cantonese, “In the presence of the family heads, who made no protest, this woman has admitted me after I announced my intention of making her my wife. Thus we are pledged.” Bill Sheng paused a long moment. Then he said, “It is the custom.”
Grandfather Sheng’s mouth was as thin as wire, his voice like wires in a typhoon. “You found this custom in the Chi Ch’eng? Swear!”
“The custom is out of the book,” said Bill.
It was so quiet in the room that the rasping of streetcar brakes was like thunder, like warning of lightning.
Mary saw the little flicker in Sheng Wi’i’s agate eyes. She could almost read his thoughts. If he insisted on proof, and his grandson presented it, Sheng Wi’i would appear as an ignorant man. But if the custom were fraudulent, the attempt to invoke it, although stopped by Sheng Wi’i, would bring howls of laughter in Chinatown. Sheng Wi’i was trapped. Either way he lost face.
Mary’s heart was pounding. Was Sheng Wi’i thinking of the days and nights when the grandson he believed to be studying had actually been searching for some custom which would allow young people to marry? Did Sheng Wi’i guess that when Bill could not find one, as he had told Mary in the letter, he invented one?
“There is a custom which is the same now as it was ten thousand years ago,” the old man said abruptly. “Men desire maids.” He said, “A man has no need of studying in the T’u Shu Chi Ch’eng … or falling asleep over the books, for all I know … to be aware of this fact.”
Was there admiration in his eyes as he continued staring at his grandson? Next he examined Mary, from shining unornamented hair to embroidered slippers.
“Granddaughter of Liang Rung,” he said grimly, “you understand that I expect great-grandsons?”
“Yes, Sheng Wi’i,” whispered Mary.
“Address me as Grandfather Sheng,” snapped Sheng Wi’i. “Do you know what to do when you bring me the red bowl of betrothal wine?”
Mary said, “I kneel while you drink it.”
But while this was the custom, according to the Chi Ch’eng, it was not written there that the man to whom a maid was betrothed should go with her to fill the red bowl. Bill did. Nor is there mention of kissing in the Book of Customs, not in any one of the six thousand volumes. ★
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