Zhen Shi-yin makes the Stone’s
acquaintance in a dream
And Jia Yu-cun finds that poverty is not incompatible
with romantic feelings
GENTLE READER,What, you may ask, was the origin of this book?
Though the answer to this question may at first seem to border on the absurd, reflection will show that there is a good deal more in it than meets the eye.
Long ago, when the goddess Nǚ-wa was repairing the sky, she melted down a great quantity of rock and, on the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains, moulded the amalgam into thirty-six thousand, five hundred and one large building blocks, each measuring seventy-two feet by a hundred and forty-four feet square. She used thirty-six thousand five hundred of these blocks in the course of her building operations, leaving a single odd block unused, which lay, all on its own, at the foot of Greensickness Peak in the aforementioned mountains.
Now this block of stone, having undergone the melting and moulding of a goddess, possessed magic powers. It could move about at will and could grow or shrink to any size it wanted. Observing that all the other blocks had been used for celestial repairs and that it was the only one to have been rejected as unworthy, it became filled with shame and resentment and passed its days in sorrow and lamentation.
One day, in the midst of its lamentings, it saw a monk and a Taoist approaching from a great distance, each of them remarkable for certain eccentricities of manner and appearance. When they arrived at the foot of Greensickness Peak, they sat down on the ground and began to talk. The monk, catching sight of a lustrous, translucent stone—it was in fact the rejected building block which had now shrunk itself to the size of a fan-pendant and looked very attractive in its new shape—took it up on the palm of his hand and addressed it with a smile:
‘Ha, I see you have magical properties! But nothing to recommend you. I shall have to cut a few words on you so that anyone seeing you will know at once that you are something special. After that I shall take you to a certain
locality on a little trip.’
The stone was delighted.
‘What words will you cut? Where is this place you will take me to? I beg to be enlightened.’
‘Do not ask,’ replied the monk with a laugh. ‘You will know soon enough when the time comes.’
And with that he slipped the stone into his sleeve and set off at a great pace with the Taoist. But where they both went to I have no idea.
Countless aeons went by and a certain Taoist called Vanitas in quest of the secret of immortality chanced to be passing below that same Greensickness Peak in the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains when he caught sight of a large stone standing there, on which the characters of a long inscription were clearly discernible.
Vanitas read the inscription through from beginning to end and learned that this was a once lifeless stone block which had been found unworthy to repair the sky, but which had magically transformed its shape and been taken down by the Buddhist mahāsattva Impervioso and the Taoist illuminate Mysterioso into the world of mortals, where it had lived out the life of a man before finally attaining nirvana and returning to the other shore. The inscription named the country where it had been born, and went into considerable detail about its domestic life, youthful amours, and even the verses, mottoes and riddles it had written. All it lacked was the authentication of a dynasty and date. On the back of the stone was inscribed the following quatrain:
Found unfit to repair the azure sky
Long years a foolish mortal man was I.
My life in both worlds on this stone is writ:
Pray who will copy out and publish it?
From his reading of the inscription Vanitas realized that this was a stone of some consequence. Accordingly he addressed himself to it in the following manner:
‘Brother Stone, according to what you yourself seem to imply in these verses, this story of yours contains matter of sufficient interest to merit publication and has been carved here with that end in view. But as far as I can see (a) it has no discoverable dynastic period, and (b) it contains no examples of moral grandeur among its characters—no statesmanship, no social message of any kind. All I can find in it, in fact, are a number of females, conspicuous, if at all, only for their passion or folly or for some trifling talent or insignificant virtue. Even if I were to copy all this out, I cannot see that it would make a very remarkable book.’
‘Come, your reverence,' said the stone (for Vanitas had been correct in assuming that it could speak) ‘must you be so obtuse? All the romances ever written have an artificial period setting—Han or Tang for the most part. In refusing to make use of that stale old convention and telling my Story of the Stone exactly as it occurred, it seems to me that, far from depriving it of anything, I have given it a freshness these other books do not have.
‘Your so-called “historical romances”, consisting, as they do, of scandalous anecdotes about statesmen and emperors of bygone days and scabrous attacks on the reputations of long-dead gentlewomen, contain more wickedness and immorality than I care to mention. Still worse is the “erotic novel”, by whose filthy obscenities our young folk are all too easily corrupted. And the “boudoir romances”, those dreary stereotypes with their volume after volume all pitched on the same note and their different characters undistinguishable except by name (all those ideally beautiful young ladies and ideally eligible young bachelors)— even they seem unable to avoid descending sooner or later into indecency.
“The trouble with this last kind of romance is that it only gets written in the first place because the author requires a framework in which to show off his love-poems. He goes about constructing this framework quite mechanically, beginning with the names of his pair of young lovers and invariably adding a third character, a servant or the like, to make mischief between them, like the chou in a comedy.
‘What makes these romances even more detestable is the stilted, bombastic language— inanities dressed in pompous rhetoric, remote alike from nature and common sense and teeming with the grossest absurdities.
‘Surely my “number of females”, whom I spent half a lifetime studying with my own eyes and ears, are preferable to this kind of stuff? I do not claim that they are better people than the ones who appear in books written before my time; I am only saying that the contemplation of their actions and motives may prove a more effective antidote to boredom and melancholy. And even the inelegant verses with which my story is interlarded could serve to entertain and amuse on those convivial occasions when rhymes and riddles are in demand.
‘All that my story narrates, the meetings and partings, the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of fortune, are recorded exactly as they happened. I have not dared to add the tiniest bit of touching-up, for fear of losing the true picture.
‘My only wish is that men in the world below may some?times pick up this tale when they are recovering from sleep or drunkenness, or when they wish to escape from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of their vital forces. What does your reverence say to that?’
For a long time Vanitas stood lost in thought, pondering this speech. He then subjected the Story of the stone to a careful second reading. He could see that its main theme was love; that it consisted quite simply of a true record of real events; and that it was entirely free from any tendency to deprave and corrupt. He therefore copied it all out from beginning to end and took it back with him to look for a publisher.
As a consequence of all this, Vanitas, starting off in the Void (which is Truth) came to the contemplation of Form (which is Illusion); and from Form engendered Passion; and by communicating Passion, entered again into Form; and from Form awoke to the Void (which is Truth). He therefore changed his name from Vanitas to Brother Amor, or the Passionate Monk, (because he had approached Truth by way of Passion), and changed the title of the book from The Story of the S tone to The Tale of Brother Amor.
Old Kong Mei-xi from the homeland of Confucius called the book A Mirror for the Romantic. Wu Yu-feng called it A Dream of Golden Days. Cao Xueqin in his Nostalgia Studio worked on it for ten years, in the course of which he rewrote it no less than five times, dividing it into chapters, composing chapter headings, renaming it The Twelve Beauties of Jinling, and adding an introductory quatrain. Red Inkstone restored the original title when he recopied the book and added his second set of annotations to it.
This, then, is a true account of how The Story of the Stone came to be written.
Pages full of idle words
Penned with hot and bitter tears:
All men call the author fool;
None his secret message hears.
The origin of The Story of the Stone has now been made clear. The same cannot, however, be said of the characters and events which it recorded. Gentle reader, have patience! This is how the inscription began:
Long, long ago the world was tilted downwards towards the south-east; and in that lower-lying south-easterly part of the earth there is a city called Soochow; and in Soochow the district around the Chang-men Gate is reckoned one of the two or three wealthiest and most fashionable quarters in the world of men. Outside the Chang-men Gate is a wide thorough-fare called Worldly Way; and somewhere off Worldly Way is an area called Carnal Lane. There is an old temple in the Carnal Lane area which, because of the way it is bottled up inside a narrow cul-de-sac, is referred to locally as Bottle-gourd Temple. Next door to Bottle-gourd Temple lived a gentleman of private means called Zhen Shi-yin and his wife Feng-shi, a kind, good woman with a profound sense of decency and decorum. The household was not a particularly wealthy one, but they were nevertheless looked up to by all and sundry as the leading family in the neighbourhood.
Zhen Shi-yin himself was by nature a quiet and totality unambitious person. He devoted his time to his garden and to the pleasures of wine and poetry. Except for a single flaw, his existence could, indeed, have been described as an idyllic one. The flaw was that, although already past fifty, he had no son, only a little girl, just two years old, whose name was Ying-lian.
Once, during the tedium of a burning summer's day, Shi-yin was sitting idly in his study. The book had slipped from his nerveless grasp and his head had nodded down onto the desk in a doze. While in this drowsy state he seemed to drift off to some place he could not identify, where he became aware of a monk and a Taoist walking along and talking as they went.
‘Where do you intend to take that thing you are carrying?’ the Taoist was asking.
‘Don't you worry about him!’ replied the monk with a laugh. ‘There is a batch of lovesick souls awaiting incarnation in the world below whose fate is due to be decided this very day. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity to slip our little friend in amongst them and let him have a taste of human life along with the rest.’
‘Well, well, so another lot of these amorous wretches is about to enter the vale of tears,’ said the Taoist. ‘How did all this begin? And where are the souls to be reborn?’
‘You will laugh when I tell you,’ said the monk. 'When this stone was left unused by the goddess, he found himself at a loose end and took to wandering about all over the place for want of better to do, until one day his wanderings took him to the place where the fairy Disenchantment lives.
‘Now Disenchantment could tell that there was something unusual about this stone, so she kept him there in her Sunset Glow Palace and gave him the honorary title of Divine Luminescent Stone-in-Waiting in the Court of Sunset Glow.
‘But most of his time he spent west of Sunset Glow ex?ploring the banks of the Magic River. There, by the Rock of Rebirth, he found the beautiful Crimson Pearl Flower, for which he conceived such a fancy that he took to watering her every day with sweet dew, thereby conferring on her the gift of life.
‘Crimson Pearl’s substance was composed of the purest cosmic essences, so she was already half-divine; and now, thanks to the vitalizing effect of the sweet dew, she was able to shed her vegetable shape and assume the form of a girl.
‘This fairy girl wandered about outside the Realm of Separation, eating the Secret Passion Fruit when she was hungry and drinking from the Pool of Sadness when she was thirsty. The consciousness that she owed the stone something for his kindness in watering her began to prey on her mind and ended by becoming an obsession.
‘ “I have no sweet dew here that I can repay him with,” she would say to herself. “The only way in which I could perhaps repay him would be with the tears shed during the whole of a mortal lifetime if he and I were ever to be reborn as humans in the world below.”
‘Because of this strange affair, Disenchantment has got together a group of amorous young souls, of which Crimson Pearl is one, and intends to send them down into the world to take part in the great illusion of human life. And as to?day happens to be the day on which this stone is fated to go into the world too, I am taking him with me to Disenchant?ment’s tribunal for the purpose of getting him registered and sent down to earth with the rest of these romantic creatures.’
‘How very amusing!’ said the Taoist. ‘I have certainly never heard of a debt of tears before. Why shouldn’t the two of us take advantage of this opportunity to go down into the world ourselves and save a few souls? It would be a work of merit.’
‘That is exactly what I was thinking,’ said the monk. ‘Come with me to Disenchantment's palace to get this absurd creature cleared. Then, when this last batch of romantic idiots goes down, you and I can go down with them. At present about half have already been born. They await this last batch to make up the number.’
‘Very good, I will go with you then,’ said the Taoist. Shi-yin heard all this conversation quite clearly, and curiosity impelled him to go forward and greet the two reverend gentlemen. They returned his greeting and asked him what he wanted.
‘It is not often that one has the opportunity of listening to a discussion of the operations of karma such as the one I have just been privileged to overhear,’said Shi-yin. ‘Unfortunately I am a man of very limited understanding and have not been able to derive the full benefit from your conversation. If you would have the very great kindness to enlighten my be?nighted understanding with a somewhat fuller account of what you were discussing, I can promise you the most devout attention. I feel sure that your teaching would have a salutary effect on me and—who knows—might save me from the pains of hell.’
The reverend gentlemen laughed. ‘These are heavenly mysteries and may not be divulged. But if you wish to escape from the fiery pit, you have only to remember us when the time comes, and all will be well.’
Shi-yin saw that it would be useless to press them. ‘Heavenly mysteries must not, of course, be revealed. But might one perhaps inquire what the “absurd creature” is that you were talking about? Is it possible that I might be allowed to see it?’
‘Oh, as for that,’said the monk: ‘I think it is on the cards for you to have a look at him,’and he took the object from his sleeve and handed it to Shi-yin.
Shi-yin took the object from him and saw that it was a clear, beautiful jade on one side of which were carved the words ‘Magic Jade’. There were several columns of smaller charac?ters on the back, which Shi-yin was lust going to examine more closely when the monk, with a cry of ‘Here we are, at the frontier of Illusion’, snatched the stone from him and disappeared, with the Taoist, through a big stone archway above which
THE LAND OF ILLUSION
was written in large characters. A couplet in smaller characters was inscribed vertically on either side of the arch:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-teal where the unreal’s real.
Shi-yin was on the point of following them through the archway when suddenly a great clap of thunder seemed to shake the earth to its very foundations, making him cry out in alarm.
And there he was sitting in his study, the contents of his dream already half forgotten, with the sun still blazing on the ever-rustling plantains outside, and the wet-nurse at the door with his little daughter Ying-lian in her arms. Her delicate little pink-and-white face seemed dearer to him than ever at that moment, and he stretched out his arms to take her and hugged her to him.
After playing with her for a while at his desk, he carried her out to the front of the house to watch the bustle in the street. He was about to go in again when he saw a monk and a Taoist approaching, the monk scabby-headed and barefoot, the Taoist tousle-haired and limping. They were behaving like madmen, shouting with laughter and gesticulating wildly as they walked along.
When this strange pair reached Shi-yin’s door and saw him standing there holding Ying-lian, the monk burst into loud sobs. ‘Patron,’ he said, addressing Shi-yin, 'what are you doing, holding in your arms that ill-fated creature who is destined to involve both her parents in her own misfortune?'
Shi-yin realized that he was listening to the words of a madman and took no notice. But the monk persisted:
‘Give her to me! Give her to me!’
Shi-yin was beginning to lose patience and clasping his little girl tightly to him, turned on his heel and was about to re-enter the house when the monk pointed his finger at him, roared with laughter, and then proceeded to intone the following verses:
‘Fond man, your pampered child to cherish so—
That caltrop-glass which shines on melting snow!
Beware the high feast of the fifteenth day,
When all in smoke and fire shall pass away!’
Shi-yin heard all this quite plainly and was a little worried by it. He was thinking or asking the monk what lay behind these puzzling words when he heard the Taoist say, ‘We don’t need to stay tether. Why don’t we part company here and each go about his own business? Three kalpas from now I shall wait far you on Bei-mang Hill. Having joined forces again there, we can go together to the Land of Illusion to sign off.’
‘Excellent!’said the other. And the two if them went off and soon were both lost to sight.
'There must have been something behind all this, ‘thought Shi-yin to himself.’1 really ought to have asked him what he meant, but now it is too late.'
He was still standing outside his door brooding when Jia Yu-cun, the poor student who lodged at the Bottle-gourd Temple next door, came up to him. Yu-cun was a native of Hu-zhou and came from a family of scholars and bureaucrats which had, however, fallen on bad times when Yu-cun was born. The family fortunes on both his father’s and mother’s side had all been spent, and the members of the family had themselves gradually died off until only Yu-cun was left There were no prospects for him in his home town, so he had set off for the capital, in search of fame and fortune. Unfor?tunately he had got no further than Soochow when his funds ran out, and he had now been living there in poverty for a year, lodging in this temple and keeping himself alive by working as a copyist. For this reason Shi-yin saw a great deal of his company.
As soon as he caught sight of Shi-yin, Yu-cun clasped his hands in greeting and smiled ingratiatingly. ‘I could see you standing there gazing, sir. Has anything been happening in the street?’
‘No, no,’ said Shi-yin. ‘It just happened that my little girl was crying, so I brought her out here to amuse her. Your coming is most opportune, dear boy. I was beginning to feel most dreadfully bored. Won’t you come into my little den, and we can help each other to while away this tedious hot day?’
So saying, he called for a servant to take the child indoors, while he himself took Yu-cun by the hand and led him into his study, where his boy served them both with tea. But they had not exchanged half-a-dozen words before one of the servants rushed in to say that ‘Mr Yan had come to pay a call.’ Shi-yin hurriedly rose up and excused himself: ‘I seem to have brought you here under false pretences. I do hope you will forgive me. If you don’t mind sitting on your own here for a moment, I shall be with you directly.’
Yu-cun rose to his feet too. ‘Please do not distress yourself on my account, sir. I am a regular visitor here and can easily wait a bit.’ But by the time he had finished saying this, Shi-yin was already out of the study and on his way to the guest-room.
Left to himself, Yu-cun was flicking through some of Shi?-yin’s books of poetry in order to pass the time, when he heard a woman's cough outside the window. Immediately he jumped up and peered out to see who it was. The cough appeared to have come from a maid who was picking flowers in the garden. She was an unusually good-looking girl with a rather refined face: not a great beauty, by any means, but with something striking about her. Yu-cun gazed at her spellbound.
Having now finished picking her flowers, this anonymous member of the Zhen household was about to go in again when, on some sudden impulse, she raised her head and caught sight of a man standing in the window. His hat was frayed and his clothing threadbare; yet, though obviously poor, he had a fine, manly physique and handsome, well-proportioned features.
The maid hastened to remove herself from this male presence; but as she went she thought to herself, ‘What a fine-looking man! But so shabby! The family hasn’t got any friends or relations as poor as that. It must be that Jia Yu-cun the master is always on about. No wonder he says that he won’t stay poor long. I remember hearing him say that he’s often wanted to help him but hasn’t yet found an opportunity.’ And thinking these thoughts she could not forbear to turn back for another peep or two.
Yu-cun saw her turn back and, at once assuming that she had taken a fancy to him, was beside himself with delight. What a perceptive young woman she must be, he thought, to have seen the genius underneath the rags! A real friend in trouble!
After a while the boy came in again and Yu-cun elicited from him that the visitor in the front room was now staying to dinner. It was obviously out of the question to wait much longer, so he slipped down the passage-way at the side of the house and let himself out by the back gate. Nor did Shi-yin invite him round again when, having at last seen off his visitor, he learned that Yu-cun had already left.
But then the Mid Autumn festival arrived and, after the family convivialities were over, Shi-yin had a little dinner for two laid out in his study and went in person to invite Yu-cun, walking to his temple lodgings in the moonlight.
Ever since the day the Zhens’ maid had, by looking back twice over her shoulder, convinced him that she was a friend, Yu-cun had had the girl very much on his mind, and now that it was festival time, the full moon of Mid Autumn lent an inspiration to his romantic impulses which finally resulted in the following octet:
‘Ere on ambition's path my feet are set,
Sorrow comes often this poor heart to fret.
Yet, as my brow contracted with new care,
Was there not one who, parting, turned to stare?
Dare I, that grasp at windows in the wind,
Hope, underneath the moon, a friend to find?
Bright orb, if with my plight you sympathize,
Shine first upon the chamber where she lies.’
Having delivered himself of this masterpiece, Yu-cun’s thoughts began to run on his unrealized ambitions and, after much head-scratching and many heavenward glances ac?companied by heavy sighs, he produced the following couplet, reciting it in a loud, ringing voice which caught the ear of Shi-yin, who chanced at that moment to be arriving:
‘The jewel in the casket bides till one shall come to buy.
The jade pin in the drawer hides, waiting its time to fly.’
Shi-yin smiled. ‘You are a man of no mean ambition, Yu-cun.’
‘Oh no!’Yu-cun smiled back deprecatingly. ‘You are too flattering. I was merely reciting at random from the lines of some old poet. But what brings you here, sir?’
‘Tonight is Mid Autumn night,’said Shi-yin. ‘People call it the Festival of Reunion. It occurred to me that you might be feeling rather lonely here in your monkery, so I have arranged for the two of us to take a little wine together in my study. I hope you will not refuse to join me.’
Yu-cun made no polite pretence of declining. ‘Your kind?ness is more than I deserve,’ he said. ‘I accept gratefully.’ And he accompanied Shi-yin back to the study next door.
Soon they had finished their tea. Wine and various choice dishes were brought in and placed on the table, already laid out with cups, plates, and so forth, and the two men took their places and began to drink. At first they were rather slow and ceremonious; but gradually, as the conversation grew more animated, their potations too became more reckless and un?inhibited. The sounds of music and singing which could now be heard from every house in the neighbourhood and the full moon which shone with cold brilliance overhead seemed to increase their elation, so that the cups were emptied almost as soon as they touched their lips, and Yu-cun, who was already a sheet or so in the wind, was seized with an irrepressible excitement to which he presently gave expression in the form of a quatrain, ostensibly on the subject of the moon, but really about the ambition he had hitherto been at some pains to conceal:
‘In thrice five nights her perfect O is made,
Whose cold light bathes each marble balustrade.
As her bright wheel starts on its starry ways,
On earth ten thousand heads look up and gaze.’
‘Bravo!’said Shi-yin loudly. 'I have always insisted that you were a young fellow who would go up in the world, and now, in these verses you have just recited, I see an augury of your ascent. In no time at all we shall see you up among the clouds! This calls for a drink!' And, saying this, he poured Yu-cun a large cup of wine.
Yu-cun drained the cup, then, surprisingly, sighed:
‘Don't imagine the drink is making me boastful, but I really do believe that if it were just a question of having the sort of qualifications now in demand, I should stand as good a chance as any of getting myself on to the list of candidates. The trouble is that I simply have no means of laying my hands on the money that would be needed for lodgings and travel expenses. The journey to the capital is a long one, and the sort of money I can earn from my copying is not enough—’
‘Why ever didn't you say this before?’ said Shi-yin inter?rupting him. ‘I have long wanted to do something about this, but on all the occasions I have met you previously, the con?versation has never got round to this subject, and I haven't liked to broach it for fear of offending you. Well, now we know where we are. I am not a very clever man, but at least I know the right thing to do when I see it. Luckily, the next Triennial is only a few months ahead. You must go to the capital without delay. A spring examination triumph will make you feel that all your studying has been worth while. I shall take care of all your expenses. It is the least return I can make for your friendship.’ And there and then he instructed his boy to go with all speed and make up a parcel of fifty tales of the best refined silver and two suits of winter clothes.
‘The almanac gives the nineteenth as a good day for travel?ling,’ he went on, addressing Yu-cun again. ‘You can set about hiring a boat for the journey straight away. How de?lightful it will be to meet again next winter when you have distinguished yourself by soaring to the top over all the other candidates!’
Yu-cun accepted the silver and the clothes with only the most perfunctory word of thanks and without, apparently, giving them a further moment’s thought, for he continued to drink and laugh and talk as if nothing had happened. It was well after midnight before they broke up.
After seeing Yu-cun off, Shi-yin went to bed and slept without a break until the sun was high in the sky next morn?ing. When he awoke, his mind was still running on the con?versation of the previous night. He thought he would write a couple of introductory letters for Yu-cun to take with him to the capital, and arrange for him to call on the family of an official he was acquainted with who might be able to put him up; but when he sent a servant to invite him over, the servant brought back word from the temple as follows:
'The monk says that Mr Jia set out for the capital at five o'clock this morning, sir. He says he left a message to pass on to you. He said to tell you, “A scholar should not concern himself with almanacs, but should act as the situation de?mands,”and he said there wasn't time to say good-bye.'
So Shi-yin was obliged to let the matter drop.
It is a true saying that ‘time in idleness is quickly spent’. In no time at all it was Fifteenth Night, and Shi-yin sent little Ying-lian out, in the charge of one of the servants called Calamity, to see the mummers and the coloured lanterns. It was near midnight when Calamity, feeling an urgent need to relieve his bladder, put Ying-lian down on someone’s doorstep while he went about his business, only to find, on his return, that the child was nowhere to be seen. Frantically he searched for her throughout the rest of the night; but when day dawned and he had still not found her, he took to his heels, not daring to face his master and mistress, and made off for another part of the country.
Shi-yin and his wife knew that something must be wrong when their little girl failed to return home all night. Then a search was made; but all those sent out were obliged in the end to report that no trace of her could be found.
The shock of so sudden a loss to a middle-aged couple who had only ever had the one daughter can be imagined. In tears every day and most of the night, they almost lost the will to go on living, and after about a month like this first Shi-yin and then his wife fell ill, so that doctors and diviners were in daily attendance on them.
Then, on the fifteenth of the third month, while frying cakes for an offering, the monk of Bottle-gourd Temple carelessly allowed the oil to catch alight, which set fire to the paper window. And, since the houses in this area all had wooden walls and bamboo fences—though also, doubtless, because they were doomed to destruction anyway-the fire leaped from house to house until the whole street was blazing away like a regular Fiery Mountain; and though the firemen came to put it out, by the time they arrived the fire was well under way and long past controlling, and roared away all night long until it had burnt itself out, rendering heaven knows how many families homeless in the process.
Poor Zhens! Though they and their handful of domestics escaped unhurt, their house, which was only next door to the temple, was soon reduced to a heap of rubble, while Shi-yin stood by helpless, groaning and stamping in despair.
After some discussion with his wife, Shi-yin decided that they should move to their farm in the country; but a series of crop failures due to flooding and drought had led to wide?spread brigandage in those parts, and government troops were out everywhere hunting down the mutinous peasants and making arrests. In such conditions it was impossible to settle on the farm, so Shi-yin sold the land and, taking only two of the maids with them, went with his wife to seek refuge with his father-in-law, Feng Su.
This Feng Su was a Ru-zhou man who, though only a farmer by calling, had a very comfortable sufficiency. He was somewhat displeased to see his son-in-law arriving like a refugee on his doorstep; but fortunately Shi- yin had on him the money he had realized from the sale of the farm, and this he now entrusted to his father-in-law to buy for him, as and when he could, a house and land on which he could depend for his future livelihood. Feng Su embezzled about half of this sum and used the other half to provide him with a ruinous cottage and some fields of poor, thin soil.
A scholar, with no experience of business or agricultural matters, Shi-yin now found himself poorer after a year or two of struggle than when he had started. Feng Su would treat him to a few pearls of rustic wisdom whenever they met, but behind his back would grumble to all and sundry about 'incompetents' and 'people who liked their food but were too lazy to work for it', which caused Shi-yin great bitterness when it came to his ears. The anxieties and injustices which now beset him, coming on top of the shocks he had suffered a year or two previously, left a man of his years with little resistance to the joint onslaught of poverty and ill-health, and gradually he began to betray the unmistakable symptoms of a decline.
One day, wishing to take his mind off his troubles for a bit, he had dragged himself, stick in hand, to the main road, when it chanced that he suddenly caught sight of a Taoist with a limp—a crazy, erratic figure in hempen sandals and tattered clothes, who chanted the following words to himself as he advanced towards him:
‘Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with ambition won't have done, have done.
Where are the famous ones of days gone by?
In grassy graves they lie now, every one.
Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with their riches won't have done, have done.
Each day they grumble they've not made enough.
When they've enough, it's goodnight everyone!
Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with their loving wives they won't have done.
The darlings every day protest their love:
But once you're dead, they're off with another one.
Men all know that salvation should be won,
But with their children won't have done, have done.
Yet though of patents fond there is no lack,
Of grateful children saw I ne’er a one.’
Shi-yin approached the Taoist and questioned him. ‘What is all this you are saying? All I can make out is a lot of “won” and “done”.’
‘If you can make out “won” and “done”,’ replied the Taoist with a smile, ‘you may be said to have understood; for in all the affairs of this world what is won is done, and what is done is won; for whoever has not yet done has not yet won, and in order to have won, one must first have done. I shall call my song the “Won-Done Song”.’
Shi-yin had always been quick-witted, and on hearing these words a flash of understanding had illuminated his mind. He therefore smiled back at the Taoist: ‘Wait a minute! How would you like me to provide your “Won-Done Song” with a commentary?’
‘Please do!’ said the Taoist; and Shi-yin proceeded as follows:
‘Mean hovels and abandoned halls
Where courtiers once paid daily calls:
Bleak haunts where weeds and willows scarcely thrive
Were once with mirth and revelry alive.
Whilst cobwebs shroud the mansion’s gilded beams,
The cottage casement with choice muslin gleams.
Would you of perfumed elegance recite?
Even as you speak, the raven locks turn white.
Who yesterday her lord’s bones laid in clay,
On silken bridal-bed shall lie today.
Coffers with gold and silver filled:
Now, in a trice, a tramp by all reviled.
One at some other’s short life gives a sigh,
Not knowing that he, too, goes home—to die!
The sheltered and well-educated lad,
In spite of all your care, may turn out bad;
And the delicate, fastidious maid
End in a foul stews, plying a shameful trade.
The judge whose hat is too small for his head
Wears, in the end, a convict's cangue instead.
Who shivering once in rags bemoaned his fate,
Today finds fault with scarlet robes of state.
In such commotion does the world’s theatre rage:
As each one leaves, another takes the stage.
In vain we roam:
Each in the end must call a strange land home.
Each of us with that poor girl may compare
Who sews a wedding-gown for another bride to wear.'
‘A very accurate commentary!' cried the mad, lame Taoist, clapping his hands delightedly.
But Shi-yin merely snatched the satchel that hung from the other’s shoulder and slung it from his own, and with a shout of ‘Let's go!’ and without even waiting to call back home, he strode off into the wide world in the company of the madman.
This event made a great uproar in the little town, and news of it was relayed from gossip to gossip until it reached the ears of Mrs Zhen, who cried herself into fits when she heard it. After consulting her father, she sent men out to inquire everywhere after her husband; but no news of him was to be had.
It was now imperative that she should move in with her parents and look to them for support. Fortunately she still had the two maids who had stayed on with her from the Soochow days, and by sewing and embroidering morning, noon and night, she and her women were able to make some contribution to her father's income. The latter still found daily occasion to complain, but there was very little he could do about it.
One day the elder of the two maids was purchasing some silks at the door when she heard the criers clearing the street and all the people began to tell each other that the new man?darin had arrived. She hid in the doorway and watched the guards and runners marching past two by two. But when the mandarin in his black hat and scarlet robe of office was borne past in his great chair, she stared for some time as though puzzled. ‘Where have I seen that mandarin before?’she wondered. ‘His face looks extraordinarily familiar.’ But presently she went into the house again and gave the matter no further thought.
That night, just as they were getting ready for bed, there was suddenly a great commotion at the door and a confused hubbub of voices shouting that someone was wanted at the yamen for questioning, which so terrified Feng Su that he was momentarily struck dumb and could only stare.
If you wish to know what further calamity this portended, you will have to read the following chapter.