There was nothing to do but to pull the door tight upon its wooden hinges and fasten the iron hasp. All their clothes they had upon them. Into each child’s hands O-lan thrust a rice bowl and a pair of chopsticks and the two little boys grasped at them eagerly and held them tight as a promise of food to come. Thus they started across the fields, a dreary small procession moving so slowly that it seemed they would never be to the wall of the town.
The girl Wang Lung carried in his bosom until he saw that the old man would fall and then he gave the child to O-lan and stooping under his father he lifted him on his back and carried him, staggering under the old man’s dry, wind-light frame. They went on in complete silence past the little temple with the two small stately gods within, who never noticed anything that passed. Wang Lung was sweating with his weakness in spite of the cold and bitter wind. This wind never ceased to blow on them and against them, so that the two boys cried of its cold. But Wang Lung coaxed them saying,
“You are two big men and you are travellers to the south. There is warmth there and food every day, white rice every day for all of us and you shall eat and you shall eat.”
In time they reached the gate of the wall, resting continually every little way, and where Wang Lung had once delighted in its coolness now he clenched his teeth against the gust of wintry wind that swept furiously through its channel, as icy water will rush between cliffs. Beneath their feet the mud was thick and speared through with needles of ice and the little boys could make no headway and O-lan was laden with the girl and desperate under the weight of her own body. Wang Lung staggered through with the old man and set him down and then went back and lifted each child and carried him through, and then when it was over at last his sweat poured out of him like rain, spending all his strength with it, so that he had to lean for a long time against the damp wall, his eyes shut and his breath coming and going quickly, and his family stood shivering and waiting about him.
They were close to the gate of the great house now, but it was locked fast, the iron doors reared full to their height and the stone lions grey and windbitten on either side. Upon the doorsteps lay cowering a few dingy shapes of men and women who gazed, famished, upon the closed and barred gate, and when Wang Lung passed with his miserable little procession one cried out in a cracked voice,
“The hearts of these rich are hard like the hearts of the gods. They have still rice to eat and from the rice they do not eat they are still making wine, while we starve.”
And another moaned forth,
“Oh, if I had an instant’s strength in this hand of mine I would set fire to the gates and to those houses and courts within, even though I burned in the fire. A thousand curses to the parents that bore the children of Hwang!”
But Wang Lung answered nothing to all this and in silence they went on towards the south.
When they had passed through the town and had come out on the southern side, and this they did so slowly that it was evening and near to darkness, they found a multitude of people going toward the south. Wang Lung was beginning to think of what corner of the wall they had better choose for sleeping as well as they could huddled together, when he suddenly found himself and his family caught in a multitude, and he asked of one who pressed against him,
“Where is all this multitude going?”
And the man said,
“We are starving people and we are going to catch the firewagon and ride to the south. It leaves from yonder house and there are wagons for such as we for the price of less than a small silver piece.”
Firewagons! One had heard of them. Wang Lung in days past in the tea shop had heard men tell of these wagons, chained one to the other and drawn neither by man nor beast, but by a machine breathing forth fire and water like a dragon. He had said to himself many times then that on a holiday he would go and see it, but with one thing and another in the fields there was never time, he being well to the north of the city. Then there was always distrust of that which one did not know and understand. It is not well for a man to know more than is necessary for his daily living.
Now, however, he turned doubtfully to the woman and said,
“Shall we also then go on this firewagon?”
They drew the old man and the children a little away from the passing crowd and looked at each other anxiously and afraid. At the instant’s respite the old man sank upon the ground and the little boys lay down in the dust, heedless of the feet trampling everywhere about them. O-lan carried the girl child still, but the child’s head hung over her arm with such a look of death on its closed eyes that Wang Lung, forgetting all else, cried out,
“Is the little slave already dead?”
O-lan shook her head.
“Not yet. The breath flutters back and forth in her. But she will die this night and all of us unless—”
And then as if she could say no other word she looked at him, her square face exhausted and gaunt. Wang Lung answered nothing but to himself he thought that another day of walking like this one and they would all be dead by night, and he said with what cheer there was to be found in his voice,
“Up, my sons, and help the grandfather up. We will go on the firewagon and sit while we walk south.”
But whether or not they could have moved none knows, had there not come thundering out of the darkness a noise like a dragon’s voice and two great eyes puffing fire out, so that everyone screamed and ran. And pressing forward in the confusion they were pushed hither and thither, but always clinging desperately together, until they were pushed somehow in the darkness and in the yelling and crying of many voices into a small open door and into a box-like room, and then with an incessant roaring the thing in which they rode tore forth into the darkness, bearing them in its vitals.