With his two pieces of silver Wang Lung paid for a hundred miles of road and the officer who took his silver from him gave him back a handful of copper pence, and with a few of these Wang Lung bought from a vendor, who thrust his tray of wares in at a hole in the wagon as soon as it stopped, four small loaves of bread and a bowl of soft rice for the girl. It was more than they had to eat at one time for many days, and although they were starved for food, when it was in their mouths desire left them and it was only by coaxing that the boys could be made to swallow. But the old man sucked perseveringly at the bread between his toothless gums.
“One must eat,” he cackled forth, very friendly to all who pressed about him as the firewagon rolled and rocked on its way. “I do not care that my foolish belly is growing lazy after all these days of little to do. It must be fed. I will not die because it does not wish to work.” And men laughed suddenly at the smiling, wizened little old man, whose sparse white beard was scattered all over his chin.
But not all the copper pence did Wang Lung spend on food. He kept back all he was able to buy mats to build a shed for them when they reached the south. There were men and women in the firewagon who had been south in other years; some who went each year to the rich cities of the south to work and to beg and thus save the price of food. And Wang Lung, when he had grown used to the wonder of where he was and to the astonishment of seeing the land whirl by the holes in the wagon, listened to what these men said. They spoke with the loudness of wisdom where others are ignorant.
“First you must buy six mats,” said one, a man with coarse, hanging lips like a camel’s mouth. “These are two pence for one mat, if you are wise and do not act like a country bumpkin, in which case you will be charged three pence, which is more than is necessary, as I very well know. I cannot be fooled by the men in the southern cities, even if they are rich.” He wagged his head and looked about for admiration. Wang Lung listened anxiously.
“And then?” he urged. He sat squatting upon his haunches on the bottom of the wagon, which was, after all, only an empty room made of wood and with nothing to sit upon, and the wind and the dust flying up through the cracks in the floor.
“Then,” said the man more loudly still, raising his voice above the din of the iron wheels beneath them, “then you bind these together into a hut and then you go out to beg, first smearing yourself with mud and filth to make yourselves as piteous as you can.”
Now Wang Lung had never in his life begged of any man and he disliked this notion of begging of strange people in the south.
“One must beg?” he repeated.
“Ah, indeed,” said the coarse-mouthed man, “but not until you have eaten. These people in the south have so much rice that each morning you may go to a public kitchen and for a penny hold as much as you can in your belly of the white rice gruel. Then you can beg comfortably and buy beancurd and cabbage and garlic.”
Wang Lung withdrew a little from the others and turned himself about to the wall and secretly with his hand in his girdle he counted out the pence he had left. There was enough for the six mats and enough each for a penny for rice and beyond that he had three pence left. It came over him with comfort that thus they could begin the new life. But the notion of holding up a bowl and begging of anyone who passed continued to distress him. It was very well for the old man and for the children and even for the women, but he had his two hands.
“Is there no work for a man’s hands?” he asked of the man suddenly, turning about.
“Aye, work!” said the man with contempt, and he spat upon the floor. “You can pull a rich man in a yellow ricksha if you like, and sweat your blood out with heat as you run and have your sweat freeze into a coat of ice on you when you stand waiting to be called. Give me begging!” And he cursed a round curse, so that Wang Lung would not ask anything of him further.
But still it was a good thing that he had heard what the man said, for when the firewagon had carried them as far as it would and had turned them out upon the ground, Wang Lung had ready a plan and he set the old man and the children against a long grey wall of a house, which stood there, and he told the woman to watch them, and he went off to buy the mats, asking of this one and that where the market streets lay. At first he could scarcely understand what was said to him, so brittle and sharp was the sound which these southerners made when they spoke, and several times when he asked and they did not understand, they were impatient, and he learned to observe what sort of man he asked of and to choose one with a kindlier face, for these southerners had tempers which were quick and easily ruffled.
But he found the mat shop at last on the edge of the city and he put his pennies down upon the counter as one who knew the price of the goods and he carried away his roll of mats. When he returned to the spot where he had left the others, they stood there waiting, although when he came the boys cried out at him in relief, and he saw that they had been filled with terror in this strange place. Only the old man watched everything with pleasure and astonishment and he murmured at Wang Lung,
“You see how fat they all are, these southerners, and how pale and oily are their skins. They eat pork every day, doubtless.”
But none who passed looked at Wang Lung and his family. Men came and went along the cobbled highway to the city, busy and intent and never glancing aside at beggars, and every little while a caravan of donkeys came pattering by, their small feet fitting neatly to the stones, and they were laden with baskets of brick for the building of houses and with great bags of grain crossed upon their swaying backs. At the end of each caravan the driver rode on the hindermost beast, and he carried a great whip, and this whip he cracked with a terrific noise over the backs of the beasts, shouting as he did so. And as he passed Wang Lung each driver gave him a scornful and haughty look, and no prince could have looked more haughty than these drivers in their rough work coats as they passed by the small group of persons, standing wondering at the edge of the roadway. It was the especial pleasure of each driver, seeing how strange Wang Lung and his family were, to crack his whip just as he passed them, and the sharp explosive cut of the air made them leap up, and seeing them leap the drivers guffawed, and Wang Lung was angry when this happened two and three times and he turned away to see where he could put his hut.
There were already other huts clinging to the wall behind them, but what was inside the wall none knew and there was no way of knowing. It stretched out long and grey and very high, and against the base the small mat sheds clung like fleas to a dog’s back. Wang Lung observed the huts and he began to shape his own mats this way and that, but they were stiff and clumsy things at best, being made of split reeds, and he despaired, when suddenly O-lan said,
“That I can do. I remember it in my childhood.”
And she placed the girl upon the ground and pulled the mats thus and thus, and shaped a rounded roof reaching to the ground and high enough for a man to sit under and not strike the top, and upon the edges of the mats that were upon the ground she placed bricks that were lying about and she sent the boys to picking up more bricks. When it was finished they went within and with one mat she had contrived not to use they made a floor and sat down and were sheltered.
Sitting thus and looking at each other, it seemed less than possible that the day before they had left, their own house and their land and that these were now a hundred miles away. It was a distance vast enough to have taken them weeks of walking and at which they must have died, some of them, before it was done.
Then the general feeling of plenty in this rich land, where no one seemed even hungered, filled them and when Wang Lung said, “Let us go and seek the public kitchens,” they rose up almost cheerfully and went out once more, and this time the small boys clattered their chopsticks against their bowls as they walked, for there would soon be something to put into them. And they found soon why the huts were built to that long wall, for a short distance beyond the northern end of it was a street and along the street many people walked carrying bowls and buckets and vessels of tin, all empty, and these persons were going to the kitchens for the poor, which were at the end of the street and not far away. And so Wang Lung and his family mingled with these others and with them they came at last to two great buildings made of mats, and everyone crowded into the open end of these buildings.
Now in the rear of each building were earthen stoves, but larger than Wang Lung had ever seen, and on them iron cauldrons as big as small ponds; and when the great wooden lids were pried up, there was the good white rice bubbling and boiling, and clouds of fragrant steam rose up. Now when the people smelled this fragrance of rice it was the sweetest in the world to their nostrils, and they all pressed forward in a great mass and people called out and mothers shouted in anger and fear lest their children be trodden upon and little babies cried, and the men who opened the cauldrons roared forth,
“Now there is enough for every man and each in his turn!”
But nothing could stop the mass of hungry men and women and they fought like beasts until all were fed. Wang Lung caught in their midst could do nothing but cling to his father and his two sons and when he was swept to the great cauldron he held out his bowl and when it was filled threw down his pence, and it was all he could do to stand sturdily and not be swept on before the thing was done.
Then when they had come to the street again and stood eating their rice, he ate and was filled and there was a little left in his bowl and he said,
“I will take this home to eat in the evening.”
But a man stood near who was some sort of a guard of the place for he wore a special garment of blue and red, and he said sharply,
“No, and you can take nothing away except what is in your belly.” And Wang Lung marvelled at this and said,
“Well, if I have paid my penny what business is it of yours if I carry it within or without me?”
The man said then,
“We must have this rule, for there are those whose hearts are so hard that they will come and buy this rice that is given for the poor—for a penny will not feed any man like this—and they will carry the rice home to feed to their pigs for slop. And the rice is for men and not for pigs.”
Wang Lung listened to this in astonishment and he cried,
“Are there men as hard as this!” And then he said, “But why should any give like this to the poor and who is it that gives?”
The man answered then,
“It is the rich and the gentry of the town who do it, and some do it for a good deed for the future, that by saving lives they may get merit in heaven, and some do it for righteousness that men may speak well of them.”
“Nevertheless it is a good deed for whatever reason,” said Wang Lang, “and some must do it out of a good heart.” And then seeing that the man did not answer him, he added in his own defense, “At least there are a few of these?”
But the man was weary of speaking with him and he turned his back, and he hummed an idle tune. The children tugged at Wang Lung then, and Wang Lung led them all back to the hut they had made, and there they laid themselves down and they slept until the next morning, for it was the first time since summer they had been filled with food, and sleep overcame them with fullness.
The next morning it was necessary that there be more money for they spent the last copper coin upon the morning’s rice. Wang Lung looked at O-lan, doubtful as to what should be done. But it was not with the despair with which he had looked at her over their blank and empty fields. Here with the coming and going of well-fed people upon the streets, with meat and vegetables in the markets, with fish swimming in the tubs in the fish market, surely it was not possible for a man and his children to starve. It was not as it was in their own land, where even silver could not buy food because there was none. And O-lan answered him steadily, as though this were the life she had known always,
“I and the children can beg and the old man also. His grey hairs will move some who will not give to me.”
And she called the two boys to her, for, like children, they had forgotten everything except that they had food again and were in a strange place, and they ran to the street and stood staring at all that passed, and she said to them,
“Each of you take your bowls and hold them thus and cry out thus—”
And she took her empty bowl in her hand and held it out and called piteously,
“A heart, good sir—a heart, good lady! Have a kind heart—a good deed for your life in heaven! The small cash—the copper coin you throw away—feed a starving child!”
The little boys stared at her, and Wang Lung also. Where had she learned to cry thus? How much there was of this woman he did not know! She answered his look saying,
“So I called when I was a child and so I was fed. In such a year as this I was sold a slave.”
Then the old man, who had been sleeping, awoke, and they gave him a bowl and the four of them went out on the road to beg. The woman began to call out and to shake her bowl at every passerby. She had thrust the girl child into her naked bosom, and the child slept and its head bobbed this way and that as she moved, running hither and thither with her bowl outstretched before her. She pointed to the child as she begged and she cried loudly,
“Unless you give, good sir, good lady—this child dies—we starve—we starve—” And indeed the child looked dead, its head shaking this way and that, and there were some, a few, who tossed her unwillingly a small cash.
But the boys after a while began to take the begging as play and the elder one was ashamed and grinned sheepishly as he begged, and then their mother perceiving it dragged them into the hut and she slapped them soundly upon their jaws and she scolded them with anger.
“And do you talk of starving and then laugh at the same time! You fools, starve then!” And she slapped them again and again until her own hands were sore and until the tears were running freely down their faces and they were sobbing and she sent them out again saying,
“Now you are fit to beg! That and more if you laugh again!”
As for Wang Lung, he went into the streets and asked hither and thither until he found a place where jinrickshas were for hire and he went in and hired one for the day for the price of half a round of silver to be paid at night and then dragged the thing after him out to the street again.
Pulling this rickety, wooden wagon on its two wheels behind him, it seemed to him that everyone looked at him for a fool. He was as awkward between its shafts as an ox yoked for the first time to the plow, and he could scarcely walk; yet must he run if he were to earn his living, for here and there and everywhere through the streets of this city men ran as they pulled other men in these. He went into a narrow side street where there were no shops but only doors of homes closed and private, and he went up and down for a while pulling to accustom himself, and just as he said to himself in despair that he had better beg, a door opened, and an old man, spectacled and garbed as teacher, stepped forth and hailed him.
Wang Lung at first began to tell him that he was too new at it to run, but the old man was deaf, for he heard nothing of what Wang Lung said, only motioning to him tranquilly to lower the shafts and let him step in, and Wang Lung obeyed, not knowing what else to do, and feeling compelled to it by the deafness of the old man and by his well-dressed and learned looks. Then the old man, sitting erect, said,
“Take me to the Confucian temple,” and there he sat, erect and calm, and there was that in his calmness which allowed no question, so that Wang started forward as he saw others do, although he had no faintest knowledge of where the Confucian temple stood.
But as he went he asked, and since the road lay along crowded streets, with the vendors passing back and forth with their baskets and women going out to market, and carriages drawn by horses, and many other vehicles like the one he pulled, and everything pressing against another so that there was no possibility of running, he walked as swiftly as he was able, conscious always of the awkward bumping of his load behind him. To loads upon his back he was used, but not to pulling, and before the walls of the temple were in sight his arms were aching and his hands blistered, for the shafts pressed spots where the hoe did not touch.
The old teacher stepped forth out of the riksha when Wang Lung lowered it as he reached the temple gates, and feeling in the depths of his bosom he drew out a small silver coin and gave it to Wang Lung saying,
“Now I never pay more than this, and there is no use in complaint.” And with this he turned away and went into the temple.
Wang Lung had not thought to complain for he had not seen this coin before, and he did not know for how many pence it could be changed. He went to a rice shop near by where money is changed, and the changer gave him for the coin twenty-six pence, and Wang Lung marvelled at the ease with which money comes in the south. But another ricksha puller stood near and leaned over as he counted and he said to Wang Lung,
“Only twenty-six. How far did you pull that old head?” And when Wang told him, the man cried out, “Now there is a small-hearted old man! He gave you only half the proper fare. How much did you argue for before you started?”
“I did not argue,” said Wang Lung. “He said ‘Come’ and I came.”
The other man looked at Wang Lung pityingly.
“Now there is a country lout for you, pigtail and all!” he called out to the bystanders. “Someone says come and he comes, and he never asks, this idiot born of idiots, ‘How much will you give me if I come!’ Know this, idiot, only white foreigners can be taken without argument! Their tempers are like quick lime, but when they say ‘Come’ you may come and trust them, for they are such fools they do not know the proper price of anything, but let the silver run out of their pockets like water.” And everyone listening, laughed.
Wang Lung said nothing. It was true that he felt very humble and ignorant in all this crowd of city people, and he pulled his vehicle away without a word in answer.
“Nevertheless, this will feed my children tomorrow,” he said to himself stubbornly, and then he remembered that he had the rent of the vehicle to pay at night and that indeed there was not yet half enough to do that.
He had one more passenger during the morning and with this one he argued and agreed upon a price and in the afternoon two more called to him. But at night, when he counted out all his money in his hand he had only a penny above the rent of the ricksha, and he went back to his hut in great bitterness, saying to himself that for labor greater than the labor of a day in a harvest field he had earned only one copper penny. Then there came flooding over him the memory of his land. He had not remembered it once during this strange day, but now the thought of it lying back there, far away, it is true, but waiting and his own, filled him with peace, and so he came to his hut.
When he entered there he found that O-lan had for her day’s begging received forty small cash, which is less man five pence, and of the boys, the elder had eight cash and the younger thirteen, and with these put together there was enough to pay for the rice in the morning. Only when they put the younger boy’s in with all, he howled for his own, and he loved the money he had begged, and slept with it that night in his hand and they could not take it from him until he gave it himself for his own rice.
But the old man had received nothing at all. All day long he had sat by the roadside obediently enough, but he did not beg. He slept and woke and stared at what passed him, and when he grew weary he slept again. And being of the older generation, he could not be reproved. When he saw that his hands were empty he said merely,
“I have plowed and I have sown seed and I have reaped harvest and thus have I filled my rice bowl. And I have beyond this begotten a son and son’s sons.”
And with this he trusted like a child that now he would be fed, seeing that he had a son and grandsons.