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OUR TALE IS of what befell under the Sung dynasty, in the era of the Emperor Hui Tsung. In that time there lived in Shantung a young rake by the name of Hsi Men. This comely and jovial fellow, whose years were thirty, was amply blessed with cash.
His late father had left him a large apothecary's shop in the market-town of Tsing Ho Hsien. There were five rooms in the front of his house, which was seven rooms deep; his household contained a multitude of servants; his stables were well filled with horses and mules.
Hsi Men had early become accustomed to a dissolute mode of life. After the death of his parents, he devoted much of his time to “riding the waves of pleasure, caressed by the moon and the winds, spending his nights among blossoms and willows.” Boxing and fencing, cards and dice, chess and the solving of riddles were his only accomplishments. A band of wild, smooth-tongued, useless fellows kept him company in his debaucheries. Hsi Men was most intimate with Ying Po Kui. This Ying, a bankrupt silk merchant, now eked out a living by supplying the women's apartments of the local mandarins with fresh commodities. He was commonly known among the townsfolk as “Beggar Ying,” and was something of an authority on chess, football and dicing.
Another of Hsi Men's comrades was a certain Hsia Hsi Ta, the grandson of a former governor of the city. After the early death of his parents he had plunged into a life of disorder, destroying every prospect of an official career. An accomplished lutanist, he enjoyed a favored position in the circle of Hsi Men's intimates, who were nine in number.
These nine were able to profit greatly by Hsi Men's generous nature and his fortune, encouraging him on every occasion to pass his nights in I tippling, gambling, and whoring.
In these nine, and particularly in Hsi Men, desire for seductive maidens burned like embers in a brazier. Never did Hsi Men overlook the beauty of firm, young breasts, or tire of gazing at the pliant body of some rapturously enticing girl whose rice-white thighs and plump cherry lips he might wish further to explore in the dark intimacy of a soft couch.
In business affairs, Hsi Men displayed considerable acumen and ability. Not only were the officials of the district in his debt, but his influence extended to the sphere of a certain group of corrupt court officials, who are known to history as “the Four Exalted State Criminals.” They were, of course, the omnipotent Chancellor Tsai Ching, the Marshal Yang Kien, and the two Lord High Eunuchs Kao Sui and Tung Kwan. It was thus no wonder that Hsi Men was regarded with the greatest respect, throughout the district, for he had a finger in all the community's affairs, and a decision often turned on his word or recommendation.
In his first marriage Hsi Men had begotten one daughter, who was betrothed, but as yet unmarried. His first wife had died, and he had recently wedded Moon Maiden, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of the Left Governor Wu of Tsing Ho Hsien. Moon Maiden, or rather Moon Lady, as she was called after her marriage, now held the rank of First Wife. Hers was a kindly and intelligent nature, and as far as outward appearance went she cleverly adapted herself to her husband's character, though this was fundamentally different from her own.
Other members of the household were two secondary wives, Li Kiao, and the thin, delicate Cho Tiu, former favorites of the flower-garden; and among the maidservants there were three or four pretty little creatures to whom Hsi Men occasionally granted his favors. But as though these were not enough his inordinate desires often drove him abroad “to rage with the winds and play with the moonbeams,” and seduce the wives and daughters of other men.
With his neighbors east and west
Gayly he tippled, richly fared!
Gaudy peony, flower of the peach,
Never a one was spared!
One day he said to Moon Lady, “On the third day of the next month I celebrate with my friends our customary annual meeting. Make the necessary arrangements in good time, so that we may pass the day here feasting as befits the occasion. And engage a few singing girls.”
“I wish you wouldn't ask me to meet such a rabble!” replied Moon Lady, sulkily. “I ask you, are they human beings? This infernal crew of demons, released from the underworld to snap up the spirits of the departed here on earth—do you really mean to entertain them in our respectable house? You ought to have some regard for your Third Wife, who has not been at all well lately!”
“Dear Moon Lady, readily as I agree with you as a rule, in this case I cannot! Your unfavorable judgment of my friends may, as far as I'm concerned, hold good for some, but please except Ying and Hsia. They are two capital fellows, absolutely dependable.”
“That sounds very pretty. If the circumstances were ever reversed they would be of as little use to you as so many lifeless puppets.”
“All the better for me, if I am always in a position to help the others,” Hsi Men replied with a smile. “However, if you like we shall go to a temple; I shall discuss further details with my friend Ying.”
No sooner had he uttered the name than: “Uncle Ying and Uncle Hsia!” were announced by the little chamber boy, Tai A, a smart young fellow with bright eyes and finely marked eyebrows. Hsi Men hastened to welcome the two visitors in the reception hall. Beggar Ying was wearing a somewhat disreputable quilted overcoat of sky-blue silk, but his black crepe bonnet seemed to be fresh from the press, and his shoes and hose were immaculate.
“Where have you two been lately?”
“Oh, yesterday we paid a visit to Aunt Li, and we were admiring your Second Wife's little niece, whom we had not seen for a long time. I say, how the little girl has come on! She's going to be a regular beauty one day! Her mother urged us over and over again to look out for a handsome young husband when the time comes to deflower her. She is afraid that her daughter too might become your prey!”
“Is that so! Well, I must go and see for myself one of these days!”
“Where is this celebration on the third going to take place?” Ying inquired. “Here, or at a temple?”
“We have our choice between a Buddhist or a Taoist temple,” Hsia replied. “Yung Fu Se, the Temple of Endless Prosperity, or Yu Huang Miao, the Jade Emperor's Temple; both are worth considering.”
“Our league hasn't, properly speaking, anything to do with Buddhism,” Hsi Men decided. “Besides, I am not acquainted with the head bonze of Young Fu Se. On the other hand, the High Priest Wu in Yu Huang Miao is well known to me. I propose the roomy and more out-of-the-way Taoist temple.”
“Wait a moment—the truth is that the bonze is not so much an acquaintance of yours, but a very close acquaintance of friend Hsia's wife,” said Ying, teasingly. “For that reason I propose the Yung Fu Se.”
“Must you always interrupt us with your rubbish, you dolt, when others are trying to talk sense?” retorted Hsia, with a smile.
After drinking another cup of tea, the two visitors rose. “We shall notify the others,” they promised as they left, “and we shall collect the contributions; and you, Brother Hsi Men, will doubtless make all further arrangements with the priest Wu?”
“And be sure to have a few singing-girls there!”
“It shall be done!”
And amid laughter and jesting, the visitors took their leave.
On the morning of the second day of the following month, Hsi Men weighed out four ounces of good silver, and sent his servant, little Lai Hsing, to buy a pig, a wether, chickens, ducks, six jugs of Gold Blossom wine, and whatever else was needed for such a feast, as well as sticks of incense and paper money. It required three of them, little Lai Hsing, Lai Pao, and little Tai A, to carry everything to the temple and give it in charge of the priest Wu.
“Our master and his friends will be here tomorrow to take an oath of brotherhood,” they told the priest. “They wish to spend the whole day here in feasting. Honorable sir, will you be so kind as to draft a suitable form of oath and make all arrangements for the feast?”
Punctually next morning the nine invited guests appeared before Hsi Men in holiday attire. They formed a circle and exchanged ceremonious greetings, quickly took a light breakfast, and set out together for the Jade Emperor's Temple.
On reaching the temple, they noted the spacious halls, the soaring roofs, the thick and lofty stone walls. Over the entrance portal an inscription of eight golden characters gleamed against a red background. Three winding paths led up to the temple. The interior, was of translucent marble, wherein the eye lost itself. The Great Hall, whose rafters curved sharply upwards, was resplendent in gold and kingfisher-blue. In the center, enthroned in august majesty, sat the “Old Ancestor of Threefold Purity,” while in the hall at the back of this, mounted on a black buffalo, was Lao Tse.
Passing through a door in the wall of the lesser hall, the visitors reached the domain of the priest Wu. On either side of the path were jasper-green lawns, bediamonded with flowers, and shaded by tall pines of a dark bluish-green, contrasting with the light halcyon green of bamboo. Raising his eyes, Hsi Men read on the two doors posts this inscription:
In these our spirit grottoes
Time and space are forgot;
Within our magic islands
Pleasure and pain are not.
The priest's dwelling contained three front rooms, wherein he was wont to attend to his clerical duties. In honor of the visitors the rooms were shining with cleanliness. In the central chamber hung a portrait of the “Jade Emperor of the Celestial Palace of Gold,” while from the walls of the adjoining rooms the images of the “Genii of the Purple Palace” and of the four “Celestial Marshals,” Ma, Chao, Wen, and Huang looked down in greeting.
Standing before his oratory the priest received the guests with a bow and invited them to be seated and to drink tea.
After tea they made the rounds of the premises. At the sight of this or that saintly figure, the dissolute fellows could not refrain from facetious remarks. Now it was the tiger in the picture of the Celestial Marshal Chao, before which Pai Lai Kwang was standing.
“Friends, look at the tiger beside old Chao!” he cried. “He must surely be a vegetarian, otherwise such company would be rather uncomfortable!”
“Now that the gentlemen are speaking of tigers,” interrupted the priest, “it so happens that at present our neighborhood is afflicted with just such a monster. He has already attacked a great number of people, and among them ten huntsmen who have lost their lives in attempting to slay him.”
“What!” exclaimed Hsi Men.
“Oh, indeed, have not the gentlemen heard of it? Travelers and merchants no longer dare venture to cross the King Yang mountain alone, but travel in companies. Our District Magistrate has recently offered a reward of fifty ounces of silver to the lucky man who slays the beast. As for the poor foresters—what floggings they have suffered because they have not succeeded in capturing the monster!”
“Splendid! I really must tell you an anecdote!” Ying's laughing voice was heard. “A skinflint is struggling in the jaws of a tiger. His son, coming to the rescue, has already drawn his knife and is about to stab the tiger. 'Stop!' shouts the miser; 'would you ruin a valuable tiger skin?'”
When the roars of laughter had subsided, the priest suggested that they should begin the ceremony, since the sacrificial foods had been made ready. He then produced a written document. “I have the oath here, duly drawn up. In what order do the gentlemen wish their names to appear?”
“Hsi Men's name must be first, of course,” they cried unanimously.
“In order of seniority, Ying comes before me,” protested Hsi Men.
“Oh, nowadays one goes by money, not by age!” Ying objected. “Besides, none of us enjoys more respect and esteem than yourself. The first place is yours by right.”
“You rend my intestines,” replied Hsi Men. But after some further resistance he accepted the glorious title of “Great Brother.” The second place was accorded to Ying; the third to Hsia, while the fourth place was reserved, out of regard for his wealth, for the newly accepted Hua Tze Hsu. The others followed. In the order agreed upon the priest entered their ten names in his text.
In the meantime two tables had been laid with great bowls and platters, and the company sat down to the savory feast. The priest Wu took his place at a separate table. In the midst of their joyful carousal Hsi Men was called home by the prudent Moon Lady, on the pretext that the Third Wife had fallen into a deep swoon. Hsi Men excused himself, and left the banquet before its conclusion, accompanied by his neighbor Hua, since they took the same road home.
A few days later Hsi Men received a visit from his friend Ying.
“How is my third sister-in-law?” asked Ying.
“She is no better. I have just sent for the doctor again—but, tell me, did you go on carousing much longer the other evening?”
“It was about the second drum beat when we broke up. Good old Wu pressed us so urgently to remain that it was rather late before we got away. We all had a splendid session. You may be thankful that you decamped in good time. However, to come to the point of my visit—I've brought you some astounding news.”
“Out with it!”
“Just think, the tiger on King Yang mountain, the one that Priest Wu was telling us about the other day, was killed yesterday by a man who slew it with his bare hands.”
“Nonsense! Tell that to someone else!”
“The man's name is Wu Sung, and he hails from the adjoining district of Yang Ku Hsien. He's the younger of two brothers, for some time he was employed on the estate of the wealthy Tchai in Hong Hai Kun. Upon recovering from an illness, he set out in search of his elder brother. His way led him over the King Yang mountain, where he suddenly came face to face with the tiger. He belabored the beast with his fists and kicked it to such effect that the tiger was left dead on the spot!” All this Ying related in elaborate detail, with such lively gesticulations that one might have thought that he himself had been present.
“And at this very hour he is about to make his triumphal entry with his quarry into the yamen of the District Intendant!” he concluded, quite breathless.
“Oh, we mustn't miss that!”
Hsi Men hurriedly threw on a street robe and seizing Ying by the hand, dashed off with him.
On the way they met Hsia. “I'll wager you, too, are going to see the tiger!”
“You have guessed correctly. Come along with us!”
Before long the three had found good seats on the first floor balcony of a large wineshop in the main street. They had not been waiting long when they heard the approaching roll of drums and crash of gongs. In the street below, the people began to crane their necks. A squad of huntsmen strode by in double file, bearing long spears with red tassels fluttering from the points and behind them, cautiously borne by four men, and looking much like a sack covered with yellow silk, appeared the body of the tiger. Closing the procession, riding on a fine white palfrey, came the valiant warrior, the tiger slayer himself!
Ha, what a mighty hero! His body was at least seven feet in height. He had a broad face with a square jaw; his eyes were like glittering stars, and their steady, penetrating gaze seemed to rest on the distant horizon. His hand was gripping a heavy iron club. On his head the young hero wore a turban embroidered with two silver flowers. His body was protected by a coarse, patched hunter's doublet, spattered with blood; over this he wore an open, square-cut surcoat of red satin.
“One would need the strength of a thousand-pound water buffalo to deal with him!” Hsi Men whispered to his comrades, gnawing his fingernails in his excitement. Hastily sipping their wine, the three, with bated breath, expressed their admiration. So this was the hero of the day, the famous Wu Sung from Yang Ku Hsien!
The procession at last arrived before the yamen of the District Intendant, Wu Sung dismounted and strode into the hall, where the Intendant awaited him in the midst of the assembled officials. At the sight of this mighty hero, and the great dead beast, which was laid on the ground before the vermilion dais, the mandarin said to himself:
“What other man could have performed such a feat?”
The mandarin then presented the hero with a threefold draught of honor, and ordered that the proclaimed reward of fifty ounces of silver should be handed to him.
Wu Sung, bowing low, replied modestly: “It was not owing to my feeble strength, but rather to the blessed influences emanating from your Lordship, and to certain fortunate circumstances, that I was able to overcome the brute. I really do not deserve so rich a reward, and it grieves me that so many brave huntsmen have been punished so severely because of this tiger. Will your Lordship deign to hear my humble proposal? Let the reward be distributed among these good huntsmen, that the magnanimity of your Lordship may be radiantly displayed!”
“Let it be as the valiant hero wishes,” the mandarin graciously decided.
Wu Sung then promptly distributed the silver. Moved by such humanity, such a sense of duty, and such comradeship, the mandarin resolved to employ Wu Sung in the public service.
“Your native district, Yang Ku Hsien, and my district of Tsing Ho Hsien adjoin each other,” he said. “I am minded to appoint you my Captain of the Guard. It would be your special duty to wipe out the robber bands along the Tsing river.”
Wu Sung thanked him on bended knees. “I shall do my utmost to prove myself worthy of your favor.”
One day Wu Sung heard a voice calling him in the street.
“Hey, brother, don't you recognize me?”
He turned about, and there before him was Wu Ta, his brother, for whom he had long been searching.
The skin of his temples wrinkled in joy,
His mouth opened in a smile.
A bad harvest and the subsequent scarcity of food had caused Wu Ta to turn his back on his native town and migrate with his daughter, little Ying, to this city of Tsing Ho Hsien. His weak body, servile manner, small features and wrinkled skin caused the neighbors to give him the nicknames of “Three-Inch Manikin” and “Bark Dwarf and he was often a victim of their mockery and ridicule. He earned his living by marching up and down the streets all day with a hamper on his shoulders, offering hot tarts for sale. He had lodgings in the house of a certain Master Chang. There he lived in a little shop fronting the main street. While he continued to hawk his tarts as before, he was able, in his friendly, helpful way, to enlist the sympathies of the housekeeper, who interceded to have him exempted from paying rent.
Master Chang was a very wealthy sexagenarian. He possessed tens of thousands of strings of a thousand cash:, but he had not a single son or daughter to call his own. His household consisted only of his wife, an austere, conventional old woman. There was not a drop of fresh young blood in the house to cheer his heart Often, striking himself sadly on the breast, he would sigh:
“Poor childless old man that I am, what good do I get from all my money!”
And one day his wife had answered him:
“Very well, I shall commission a go-between to buy you two pretty young slaves. As far as I'm concerned they may entertain you from morning till night with their dancing and lute playing.”
The old gentleman received this suggestion with joy, and a few days later a go-between brought two pretty young girls to the house. Unfortunately, the sixteen-year-old Pai Yu Lien died soon after her arrival.. The other, the fifteen-year-old Pan Chin lien, was the sixth daughter of a poor little tailor, Pan, who lived in the suburbs, to the south of the city. The name of Chin Lien—“Gold Lotus”—was given to her because of her precocious charms and her pretty, slender feet. After the death of her father the girl, barely nine years of age, had been sold by her mother into the distinguished household of one Master Wang, and had been instructed in singing and lute playing, and also in the arts of reading and writing. Hers was an exceptionally alert and versatile nature. When barely thirteen she knew already how to embellish her eyebrows and her eyes, and how to redden her lips and cheeks with perfect art. She could play on the bamboo flute and the guitar; she was proficient in all fine handwork and needlework, and had mastered the difficulties of the written language. Her carefully waved hair she wore attractively arranged in luxuriant masses. She drew her garments closely about her young body. And so she grew up to be a coquettish little beauty.
When Gold Lotus was fifteen, old Master Wang died. Her mother at once redeemed her from slavery for twenty ounces of silver and sold her to the house of Chang. There Gold Lotus perfected herself in manifold arts, and learned, in particular, to play the seven-stringed pi pa. She had now seen eighteen springs, and had blossomed into a perfect beauty. “A face of peach-blossom loveliness; two brows as finely curved as the sickle of the new moon.” For a long while Master Chang had been itching to possess her, but his dread of his austere wife had always restrained him from plucking this precious blossom. Then one day, while his wife was visiting a neighbor, he finally succeeded. He had, indeed, to atone five times over for the short-lived rapture of this secret indulgence. He was immediately affected with: first, backache; second, running of the eyes; third, ringing in the ears; fourth, a cold in the head; and fifth, catarrh of the bladder.
Naturally the cause of his sufferings could not long be concealed from his wife, whereupon a violent scene took place, with words of abuse and blows for poor Gold Lotus. This grieved Master Chang deeply, and he decided to give her in marriage outside his household. He himself was filling to provide her dowry. On hearing this, his servants suggested their amiable lodger, the widower, Wu Ta, as a suitable husband for Gold Lotus. Master Chang reflected that this arrangement would enable him to visit Gold Lotus in secret from time to time, so he gladly accepted the proposal. The fortunate Wu Ta was not asked to pay a single cash piece; he received his new wife absolutely free of charge. Even after the marriage, Master Chang was greatly concerned for the welfare of the young couple, and was always ready to aid the husband if Wu Ta happened to be short of money.
Whenever Wu Ta was away for the whole day, unsuspectingly hawking his tarts in the street, his benefactor, as soon as he saw that he was unobserved, would slip into his tenant's house in order to carry on his clandestine affair with Gold Lotus. Once the husband actually surprised his patron on such an occasion, but he dared not complain, for he told himself that he was merely clay in the old man's hands. The affair continued until one day Master Chang was carried off by a grievous catarrh of the bladder. His wife, who had long known of the affair, showed her displeasure immediately by turning Gold Lotus and her husband out of the house. And so Wu Ta had to seek new lodgings. He was fortunately able to rent a couple of small rooms in the house of a certain Wang, on the west side of Purple Stone Street Once more he tramped the streets with his basket on his shoulders, selling his tarts, and earning a bare living.
Gold Lotus had nothing but contempt for her poor wretch of a husband. Angry words often passed between them, and in her rage she even cursed the memory of old Chang.
“Why, of all the men in the wide world, did he choose for me just this miserable creature, who meekly swallows every insult, who becomes so drunk from the smallest mouthful of wine that not even a cobbler's awl could tickle him awake! What crime did I, unhappy creature, commit in a former existence, that I should be punished by such a marriage?”
In the mornings she could hardly wait until he had left the house with his tarts, so impatient was she to be alone for the rest of the day. She liked best to while away the time behind the balcony window. She delighted to attract the attention of the elegant young idlers in the street. Soon there were daily promenades before the window, and the notes of strumming lutes, caressing words, and amorous allusions were wafted up to her. Someone, perhaps, would sing:
Poor tender fillet of lamb,
Snapped up by the jaws of a curl
These and other such words flowed smoothly from youthful lips. Naturally the matter attracted attention, and in the end her husband was bound to hear of it. Wu Ta now decided that under the circumstances it would be unwise to continue to live in Purple Stone Street. One day, therefore, he suggested that they make another change of residence.
“You loafer, you crazy simpleton!” his wife scolded. “Perhaps you would like us to live still more cheaply among strangers, and expose ourselves to still more ridicule from the neighbors? If you're resolved on moving, you might at least exert yourself to provide the necessary money, so that we could at last have a decent little house of our own!”
“And where am I to get the money for a high rent?”
“Pah! you helpless idiot! You filthy clod! Such a one dares call himself a man! If there is no money, you may pawn my jewels for all I care! We can always redeem them later.”
Wu Ta promptly scraped together ten taels on credit and rented a four-roomed house in West Street—two rooms on the ground floor, two on the floor above, and a little garden. It was a quiet and attractive dwelling. When the moving was finally over and everything in order, Wu Ta once more walked the streets with his tarts, painfully earning his livelihood.
One day, in the course of his wanderings, he came upon his brother, Wu Sung. Overjoyed, Wu Ta invited him to his house. He led Wu Sung into the upper rooms, and, full of pride, introduced him to his wife.
“Here is the famous tiger slayer of King Yang mountain, the Captain of the Guard—your brother-in-law, Wu Sung!”
With secret rapture, Gold Lotus gazed at the pattern of physical manhood who was seated before her. The notion of strength so tremendous that it could strike down a tiger thrilled her.
“How is it possible,” she marveled, “that these two should spring from one and the same mother! The one deformed as a stunted tree, only three-tenths man and seven-tenths an ugly demon! The other a hero bursting with vigor! Oh, he simply must come and live with us,” she decided.
“Where are you living, brother-in-law?” she asked, her face wreathed in smiles, “and who attends to your housekeeping?”
“My position does not permit me to live too far from the yamen. I have taken a room in a tavern near by. And as to housekeeping, two of my men see to that.”
“Dear brother, would you not rather live with us? Dirty soldiers to cook for you and wait on you, brr, how unappetizing! Here, your sister-in-law would prepare your food, and take the utmost care of your personal belongings.”
“I am deeply obliged to you,” Wu Sung replied, evasively, hesitating to accept her offer.
“Doubtless you have a companion?” she cautiously inquired. “You could live with her here without misgiving and undisturbed.”
“I am not married,” he answered.
“How many verdant springs does my brother-in-law count?”
“Eight-and-twenty years have I squandered in vain.”
“Then you are five years older than I.”
Thus they sat talking, in the upper chambers of Wu Ta's house. At last, Wu Ta reappeared on the scene.
“Dear wife, will you not see to the food?”
“Pray be so gracious, brother-in-law, as to partake of our meager fare and watery wine!” said Gold Lotus, offering the first cup to their guest.
While the head of the house poured the wine, Gold Lotus placed the best portions of the food before her brother-in-law and urged him, with her most winning smile, to help himself.
Wu Sung was a simple creature, who accepted all these attentions as marks of hospitality. He did not suspect that her amiability hid base intentions. Still, it did not escape him that from time to time her gaze caressed his body from head to foot, and more than once he could not refrain from bowing his head in embarrassment. And so, when the meal was over, he hastened to take his leave, and firmly declined her pressing invitation to remain.
“Some other time, sister-in-law!”
“But you are definitely coming to live with us, aren't you—? You know what I told you before—how much we have to suffer from the mockery of our neighbors! Your presence would mean so much to us!” she whispered urgently, at the very door.
“Very well, sister-in-law, since you wish it so much I will send my things over this evening.”
“Your slave awaits you!”
SHORTLY AFTER HIS moving into the house, Wu Sung gave his elder brother a few silver pieces to buy cakes and other dainties to send as gifts to the neighbors. The neighbors hastened to subscribe for a feast of friendship, and then it was Wu Ta's turn to show his appreciation by arranging for a feast. Thus, Wu Sung was able to improve his brother's relations with his neighbors.
Always courteous, Wu Sung did not forget to surprise his sister-in-law with the present of a length of gayly colored satin for a new dress, which greatly delighted her.
With servile devotion, Gold Lotus, whether he returned from the yamen late or early, did her utmost to assure his comfort, and she lavished upon him the best that the kitchen could provide. He, in his simple and thick-skinned innocence, did not seem to be aware of any hidden purpose behind her attentions, and if ever she ventured a suggestive remark that made her intentions a little more obvious, he simply did not reply.
In the meantime the winter had come, and for several days a biting November storm had been raging from the north. The whole sky was covered with dense, reddish clouds, and suddenly a mighty fall of snow set in.
Ten thousand miles around
The russet clouds.
Out of the air,
Beneficently floats a light curtain.
From the eaves the flakes
Whirl in a lovely dance.
Soon the snow lies heavy
On terraces and roofs.
The down-flowing silver
Merges into the silver of the heights:
Like sifting salt, like floating flour,
It fills all space.
The snow continued to fall until dusk. Far and wide the landscape lay in silver splendor, as though heaven and earth, like monstrous rollers, had hulled mountains of rice. On the following day, when Gold Lotus had packed off her husband as usual to tramp the streets, she requested her neighbor, the widow Wang, to obtain some wine and meat. She had already kindled a charcoal brazier in her brother-in-law's room.
“Today I must succeed!” she told herself. “This time he shall not remain indifferent!”
For a long while she watched for his approach from behind the curtain, shivering with cold. At length, long past noon, she saw him coming through the snow. He stamped up to the door in an eddy of snow crystals. Gold Lotus pulled the curtain aside.
He entered the house, and removed his wide-brimmed felt hat. Gold Lotus offered to take it from him.
“Don't trouble yourself, sister-in-law!” he protested. He shook the snow from the brim and hung the hat on the wall. He took off his belt, and put on his parrot-green quilted cotton coat, which bore many patches. Then he went to his room, Gold Lotus following at his heels.
“I have waited for you in vain all the morning. Why didn't you come to lunch?”
“A friend invited me,” he replied. “He really wanted to go on drinking, but I managed to get away.”
“So that was it. Well, make yourself comfortable by the fire, brother-in-law!”
“Ah, that does a man good!” Wu Sung pulled off his greased boots, changed his socks, and slipped his feet into a warm pair of slippers. He pushed a bench close to the charcoal brazier and sat down.
Meanwhile little Ying, at her mistress's bidding, barred the doors, both front and back. Gold Lotus then proceeded to set bowls of hot food on the table in Wu Sung's room.
Little Ying now appeared, carrying a pitcher of punch, which she set on the table. Gold Lotus also pushed a bench close to the brazier and sat down. Twice, in rapid succession, she handed Wu Sung a full goblet.
“Please drink it, brother-in-law,” she encouraged him.
For the sake of courtesy, Wu Sung accepted the punch, and then poured some for Gold Lotus. She drank, and handed him a third goblet. Her dress had suddenly become displaced, so that the swell of her smooth bosom appeared; her loosely knotted hair came undone and fell upon her shoulders. Her lips were twisted into a roguish smile.
“Brother-in-law, it is said that you keep a singing-girl in a house not far from the yamen. Is that so?”
“Don't listen to such gossip! I am not that sort of man.”
“Who knows? Perhaps you speak one way and think another?”
“Well, please ask my brother.”
“Your brother? What does he know? He dreams his way through life, as though he were half drunk! Would he have to peddle pastries if he had any wits?—Drink, brother-in-law!”
And she forced three more goblets upon him, and then a fourth. She herself had drunk three, and the insatiable lust of youth was blazing within her like a fire. Her speech became more and more undisguised.
Despite all that he had drunk, Wu Sung was still nine-tenths sober. He had no thought of basely profiting by the occasion; ha bowed his head, and was silent. Gold Lotus rose and went into the kitchen to pour out some more punch. She was absent for some time, and Wu Sung whiled away the minutes by raking together the glowing embers in the brazier. At last she returned. In one hand she held the steaming pitcher of punch; the other she placed upon his shoulder. He could feel a slight pressure from her fingers.
“You're so lightly dressed, brother-in-law. Don't you feel the cold?”
His thoughts were elsewhere, and he paid no attention to her. Suddenly she took the poker from his hand:
“Brother-in-law, you don't seem to understand how to handle this thing. Let me do it: I'll make you as hot as the stove itself!”
Inwardly Wu Sung had long been boiling with rage, but he held himself in check.
Gold Lotus did not seem to realize his restrained anger. She threw the poker aside, and hastily took a gulp from a fresh-filled goblet.
“Drink up, brother-in-law, if you have a heart!” she cried, holding out the half-emptied goblet.
Then Wu Sung seized the goblet and angrily poured the contents on the floor. And while he extended his other hand as though to repulse her, he shouted, as his eyes blazed with fury:
“Enough of these indecencies, sister-in-law! I am an honest man who has always stood upright on his two legs between heaven and earth, and kept his tongue inside his mouth. I am none of your dissolute swine who disregard all decency and human principles! Stop this nonsense! If you let yourself be bent like grass by every puff of wind, my eyes may recognize you as my sister-in-law, but my fists may forget it!”
Blushing all over her body, Gold Lotus endured his rebuke in silence. Then she called Ying, and bade her clear the table.
At last she stammered: “I was only jesting. How could I know that you would take me seriously? How coarse you are!”
She turned her back upon him and disappeared into the kitchen.
O joy, thinks the falling flower,
To be swept away by the flood!
But the water flows unheeding
And the blossom lies in the mud.
It was the fourth hour of the afternoon when Wu Ta returned home with his pack over his shoulder, in a heavy fall of snow.
He spoke to his brother. “I say, shan't we have something to eat?”
The younger brother did not answer, but sat brooding. After a while he rose and silently made for the front door.
“Hey, where are you going?” Wu Ta called after him.
But Wu Sung went his way, stiff and silent. After a time, he returned, followed by a soldier who carried a yoke over his shoulder. Wu Sung made straight for his room, waited while the soldier packed his belongings, and went, as he had come, without a word.
“But, brother, why are you leaving us?” Wu Ta called after him.
“Spare me the need of an explanation. Otherwise you might think I was competing with you unfairly,” was Wu Sung's cryptic answer. “Let me go my way in peace. That will be best.”
About a fortnight later Wu Sung was called before the District Intendant. The mandarin wished to dispatch to the Eastern Capital the considerable treasure in gold and silver which he had accumulated in his two years of office in the district, and to entrust it to the care of a kinsman. Mandarin Chu, Commandant of the Palace. When, in the following year, the Intendant's term of office was completed, this treasure would serve to open the doors of the high dignitaries of the Court, and persuade them that he was not unworthy of an audience.
“You are just the man I want,” he told Wu Sung. “Now do not pain me by refusing this commission; You can rest assured that on your return you will be amply rewarded.”
Wu Sung humbly thanked him and announced that he was ready for the task. The mandarin honored him with three goblets of wine, and dismissed him graciously with a present of ten ounces of silver.
That same day, Wu Sung went to his brother's house. An attendant carried a jug of wine and a basket of provisions. Wu Sung squatted down before the threshold. He would not enter the house before his elder brother had returned from his peddling.
When Wu Ta arrived they went upstairs and sat down at the table. Wu Sung let his brother and sister-in-law sit at one end of the table; he himself sat on a bench facing them. At last he turned to his brother and solemnly addressed him:
“On behalf of the District Intendant I have to set out tomorrow on an official journey. I can hardly return before the end of two months. Dear brother, you are rather soft and tender-hearted by nature. I am afraid that during my absence people may tease you, and perhaps try to injure you. Do not under any circumstances allow yourself to be drawn into arguments, but wait until I return and I will then set matters right. Further, if I were in your place, I should take out only six trays of tarts instead of the usual ten. Don't leave too early, and don't stay away from home too long. Don't take to drinking with your friends. Let down the curtain as soon as you get home, and lock your door early. That will save you a great deal of annoyance. Now, let's drink to it!”
The elder brother emptied the offered goblet.
“You are right; I shall do just as you say,” he promised. Wu Sung handed a second goblet to his sister-in-law.
“Sister-in-law, you have such delicacy of feeling that I need not say much. You see what a kindly, innocent duffer my brother is, and how completely he relies on you.
Simple and solid is worth more
Than tinsel and empty show—
as the proverb says. Therefore, sister-in-law, make a comfortable home for your husband, so that he finds no cause for complaint,
A fence must be strong and sturdy,
Then no stray dog can enter.”
As he spoke these words to Gold Lotus, a wave of purple, starting from her temples, flooded her whole face. Pointing a finger at her husband, she suddenly burst out in a rage:
“You stupid clod! What have you been saying about me that I should have to endure such insults? Because I don't wear a man's turban, do you think that I am worth less than one of you men? I am a wife as honest and dutiful as the ring of the gong when it is beaten! You can stand on my fist; a horse can walk over my breast, over my body! I am not a soft, lazy toad that has blundered into a bloody mess of pus and mucus and can't get out of the sticky mess! Not so much as an ant has crawled over our doorstep since I married you. So what is the meaning of this talk of a dog and a fence? Brother-in-law, desist from riddles and insinuations for which there is no foundation! A tile does not drop into emptiness, but falls somewhere on firm ground.”
Wu Sung seemed to be amused by her outburst of temper.
“So you feel that you yourself are responsible for the peace of this house? That's all right, then. But you must put your heart into the business. However, I shall keep your words well in mind. On that understanding, sister-in-law, let us drink!”
The following morning Wu Sung went to the yamen to receive final orders for his journey. He started on his trip to the Eastern Capital well armed, with his cargo of gold and silver laden on a camel.
For the next three or four days Wu Ta had to endure the scolding of his wife. He controlled his temper, patiently swallowed his anger, and let her rage on. For the rest, he followed his brother's advice and left the house with only half his usual batch of pies. Early in the afternoon he returned, and no sooner had he put down his tray than he shut carefully the front door, drew the curtains, and sat down in the living room. This naturally evoked a fresh outburst of rage from Gold Lotus.
“You fool, you have now lost all, even all sense of time! To shut up the house while the sun is still high in the heavens! The neighbors will have something more to laugh about! They'll say we see ghosts in broad daylight! This comes, of course, of listening to your rake of a brother. He can't lay anything but addled eggs, but he cackles all the more loudly and impudently for that!”
“Let the people laugh!” Wu Ta retorted. “My brother is quite right. In this way we save ourselves from something worse.”
Life hastened onward, fleet as a spirited colt when it leaps over.
graves; swift as a weaver's shuttle the days and months flashed by. And with the end of the twelfth month, Yang, the Prince of light, resumed his dominion, and now the season of the plum blossom had arrived.
One seductively radiant spring morning, Gold Lotus decked herself in her newest and most dazzling finery. She waited only until her husband had gone to take her place under the awning before the door. It is an old story that the encounters willed by Pate are mostly brought about by trivial chances. In short, the young woman was in the act of adjusting the prop that held up the bamboo awning above the door when a sudden gust of wind caused the pole in her hand to swing aside, so that it grazed the head of a passer-by.
Startled, and yet amused, Gold Lotus looked more closely at the stranger. He had the air of a man about town, and was perhaps thirty-five years of age. His handsome figure was clothed in a tunic of thin green silk; on his head he wore a fine tasseled hat, decorated with golden arrows whose pendants tinkled faintly as he moved. Around his, waist he wore a golden girdle with a border of jade; on his feet were cotton socks of dazzling cleanliness, and light, thin-soled shoes. In his hand he carried a gold-spattered Sze-ch'uen fan. Altogether he was a very Chang Shong, a second Pan An; in short, such a smart cavalier as every woman's heart must desire.
When he felt the pole graze his head, he stopped short, and was about to make angry protest. But he found to his surprise that he was confronting a seductive beauty. Her thick black tresses were piled upon her head: the kiss-curls, like raven's feathers, contrasted sharply with the snowy whiteness of her temples; her blue-black eyebrows were curved like the sickle of the new moon. The almond-shaped eyes met his with a cool, clear gaze; the cherry mouth exhaled a fragrant breath; her little nose was like rose-colored jasper; her full, rounded cheeks were delicately pink; her figure was slender and pliant as the stem of a flower, which could almost be spanned with the hands. Her fingers were like tender onion-shoots, carved out of jade; her small waist was supple as an osier. And then that tender body, white as rice powder, those full firm breasts, those tiny feet, peeping forth like twinkling stars, those smooth thighs! And there was something else—something tightly closed, something firm and youthful, something dark and cushioned ... I know not what. Ah, who could ever tire of gazing at such charms!
Dark splendor of tresses rolled in a heavy knot;
Waves of fragrance well forth from its recesses,
It is transfixed with delicate arrows;
On one side is a flower stem with twofold bud.
A comb is rakishly set in the knot, at the back.
Words cannot describe the sweep of the eyebrows:
Slender willow leaves curving above two peach blossoms.
The tinkle of earrings is faintly audible.
Under the small wide-armed jacket
Of clinging blue-green muslin
Shows the gentle swell of the jasper bosom.
Over the tunic, slashed in the mode of Hunan,
A short skirt of taffeta glistens.
From the open sleeve peeps a gayly flowered lawn kerchief,
A sachet of perfume swings at her waist,
Above her breast is a button, and one at her throat.
Roving downwards, the eye beholds
Two tiny, nimble, gold-lily feet:
Blessed the dust over which they float
In their white satin slippers, artfully quilted,
And light as clouds!
She moves, and the red silken hose are revealed,
Caught at the knee with a border of flowers and birds.
Now and again, as she walks or sits,
A breeze entices from her under garments
A breath of a strangely piquant fragrance,
A breath of musk and the scent of orchids.
Only to look at her!--Where is the man
Who would not long to swoon in her embrace?
And to be derided by her
Would truly be mortal anguish.
This unexpected sight caused the stranger's anger to take flight to the far land of Java. The scowl on his face changed to a gracious smile. The young woman, however, very conscious of her awkwardness, raised her clasped hands in greeting, and said, with a deep bow:
“A gust of wind made me lose my hold, so that the pole accidentally hit his lordship! His lordship must forgive me!”
Straightening his hat, the person thus addressed bowed so deeply that his head almost touched the ground: “It was nothing at all. The lady may be quite easy.”
Mother Wang, proprietress of the tea room next door, who had observed the whole performance, now intervened, stepping forward, and amiably grinning.
“The noble lord got a real swipe as he was passing by!”
“Entirely my fault!” the stranger insisted with a courteous smile. “I hope the lady has forgiven me?”
“Please, please!” Gold Lotus exclaimed. “The gentleman has no reason to ask pardon!”
“Oh, please, I beg you!” He spoke with the greatest submissiveness, trying to give his voice a ringing and melodious tone. But his eyes, thievishly desirous, accustomed for years to lust after flowers and grasses that quiver in the wind of desire, clung to the beauty's body. At last, but not without looking back some seven or eight times, he turned to go, resuming his indolent, swaying gait, and waving his fan.
The stranger's elegant and worldly appearance, and his cultivated manner of speech, had made a deep impression on Gold Lotus. Had he not caught fire from her, would he have turned his head seven or eight rimes as he left her? If only she knew his name and address! She could not help looking after him until he disappeared from her sight. Then, and only then, she drew in the awning, closed the door, and went inside.
Worthy reader, who do you think this stranger was? He was none other than the chief of that band of dissolute fellows whose pastime it was to rage with the winds and sport with the moonbeams; their leader in plucking the blue flowers of the night, and rifling their magic fragrance; our wholesale apothecary, the most highly esteemed Master Hsi Men.
Still saddened by the recent death of his ailing Third Wife, whom he had just conveyed to her last rest, he had left the house this day in search of distraction. He felt a longing to see his friend Ying Po Kui, whose company would surely cheer him a little. And now, on his way to call on his friend, he had this unexpected adventure under the awning of a strange house. He gave up the thought of visiting Ying, and turned homewards. Once indoors, he abandoned himself to his thoughts. What an adorable little bird! How could he ensnare her? Mother Wang, the tea-house woman next door—she could do the trick! A few ounces of silver were nothing to him. Without even allowing himself time for his midday meal, he hurried back to the tea house of Mother Wang, and seated himself comfortably on a stool beneath the penthouse.
“Worthy adoptive mother, come here; there is something I simply must ask you. That little bird next door—whose girl is she?”
“Why, she's the younger sister of the Prince of Hell, the daughter of the Marshal of the Five Roads. Why do you ask me about her?”
“No nonsense! Please talk seriously.”
“Aha! Then I'll tell you. Her husband is the pieman, Wu Ta.”
“What! The Three-Inch Manikin, the Bark Dwarf?”
Hsi Men shook with laughter. But then he exclaimed, bitterly: “All the same, it is a pity this delicious mouthful of roast lamb should fall into the jaws of such a filthy dog!”
“Well, that's how it is always,” sighed the old woman. “The dullest fellows ride the best horses and sleep with the loveliest women. The old man in the moon is partial to such unequal matches.”
Next morning, no sooner had Mother Wang opened her shop than she saw Master Hsi Men pacing up and down the street before her porch.
“He's in a mighty hurry!” she thought. “Well, he's fleeced the whole district, and now he's fallen into my hands! He shall pay a pretty price for his pleasure!”
It should be remarked that Old Wang was quite untroubled by moral scruples. For years she had been an active procuress and matchmaker, and an expert nurse and midwife; and lastly, she was a resourceful receiver of stolen goods.
Aloud, she said: “It seems to me there is something on your mind.”
“Listen: if you can really guess what is troubling me at this moment, I will give you a prize of five ounces of silver.”
“Oh, it won't take me long to guess, that! I will whisper it in your ear right away: if you have been running your legs off today and yesterday, it's because of a certain person next door whom you can't get out of our mind. Well, am I right?”
“My congratulations! You've guessed it I must admit that since I saw her yesterday standing before her door, I have no longer* any control over my three souls and my six senses. Day and night I can find no peace or rest. I have lost all desire for food and drink, and if I try to do anything, I feel as though I were paralyzed. Can't you give me some good advice?”
“Well, I'll speak quite plainly. If I were to depend on my miserable tea room for a living, I might as well hire a ghost as night watchman. It is now three years since a few poor bubbles of steam have evaporated from my tea kettle. I remember it distinctly; it was on a cold and snowy day at the beginning of June. Since then my shop has been without a patron. Under these circumstances, I naturally had to turn to some other means of support. I have been a widow since my sixty-third year. How were my boy and I to live? Well, I earned my living by negotiating marriages and acting as midwife and nurse; I sold old clothes on commission, and I did a bit of procuring; also, I know a bit about cauterizing wounds and diagnosing sickness with the sounding-needle.”
“Good heavens, but you're a versatile woman! Well, if you'll help me to an interview with my little bird, I'll pay you a fee of ten ounces of silver. That's as much as you'll need for your coffin.”
“Ha!” said Mother Wang; “you were taken in at once! Why, I was only joking!”
“Worthy adoptive mother, ten good ounces of silver are yours if you can bring this about,” Hsi Men repeated urgently.
“Listen to me, my noble gentleman. In love affairs it's not so simple as that. What does 'love' mean today? Stolen love. And for that, six things are necessary: good appearance, money, blooming youth, ample time for loafing about, the gentle rigidity of a needle wrapped in cotton wool, and finally a something as strong as the thing of an ass.”
“Frankly speaking, I can offer all six of these requirements. First, as regards my looks. I don't indeed wish to compare myself to a Pan An, but otherwise I can very well say—not so bad! Secondly, I have plenty of money to burn. As for youth, I may still count myself one of the younger generation. As for loafing, I've time and to spare. If it were not so, would you find me so diligent a visitor? And as to gentleness, well, I'll let a woman strike me four hundred times before I so much as clench my fist. And finally, as for the sixth point, since my earliest youth I have been at home in all the houses of joy, and have reared up quite a nice little monster.”
“Then so far everything is in order. But there is still one difficulty, on which such affairs are most commonly wrecked.”
“And that is?”
“Don't be angry if I speak quite frankly, but a love affair like this often goes wrong because one begrudges the last one per cent of the expenses. I know you are a thrifty gentleman who doesn't thoughtlessly waste his money. That's where the difficulty lies.”
“You need not worry about that. I shall do exactly as you wish.”
“Good! If that's how it is, I know of a nice little plan for bringing you and the little bird together.”
“Really! Then out with it!”
“First of all you must go quietly home. Three or six months from now we'll discuss the matter further.”
“Stop! This is absolute torture! Think of the reward that awaits you!”
“Not so hasty, noble gentleman! It is true that the little bird is of humble descent—old Pan, her father, is nothing more than a little tailor outside the South Gate; but she is intelligent and cultured; she can sing and pluck the guitar, throw dice, and play chess; she knows by heart all the songs of the hundred poets; and she is thoroughly skilled in all the arts of the housewife. She learned to sing and play the guitar in the house of old Chang. You've heard of the wealthy Master Chang: it was he who gave her, free and gratis, to the Three-Inch Manikin as wife. As she is much alone in the house, and never goes out, I frequently keep her company. She often asks my advice, and she calls me, quite familiarly, her 'adoptive mother.'
“If you want to get your way, then take my advice: first buy two bolts of coarse silk, one blue and one white, also a bolt of fine white silk and ten ounces of the best cotton wool. Have it all sent here to me. Then I'll go over to her and ask to see the calendar, pretending that I want to find a suitable day to send for the tailor. If she does not offer to do the work herself, well then, we must give up our plan. On the other hand, if she tells me that I needn't send for the tailor, and that she will gladly do the work for me herself, then we have won one-tenth of the game. If, at my suggestion, she comes here to do the work, two-tenths of the game is won. I shall then put wine and food before her and urge her to help herself. If she declines and leaves without touching the food, then we must give up our plan. If, on the other hand, she accepts without a word, then the game is three-tenths won.
You mustn't come here the first time. You mustn't show yourself until the third visit, some time in the afternoon. Dress yourself in your best, and before you enter announce your arrival by clearing your throat Say that it's a long time since you've seen me, and you would like to drink a bowl of tea. Then I'll invite you to come in. If she gets up as you enter, and if I can't persuade her to stay, then we must give up our plan, if, however, she doesn't stir, then the game is four-tenths won.