16

One night as Wang lay with his wife he felt a hard lump the size of a man’s closed hand between her breasts and he said to her,

“Now what is this thing you have on your body?”

He put his hand to it and he found a cloth-wrapped bundle that was hard yet moved to his touch. She drew back violently at first and then when he laid hold of it to pluck it away from her she yielded and said,

“Well, look at it then, if you must,” and she took the string which held it to her neck and broke it and gave him the thing.

It was wrapped in a bit of rag and he tore this away. Then suddenly into his hand fell a mass of jewels and Wang Lung gazed at them stupefied. There were such a mass of jewels as one had never dreamed could be together, jewels red as the inner flesh of watermelons, golden as wheat, green as young leaves in spring, clear as water trickling out of the earth. What the names of them were Wang did not know, having never heard names and seen jewels together in his life. But holding them there in his hand, in the hollow of his brown hard hand, he knew from the gleaming and the glittering in the half-dark room that he held wealth. He held it motionless, drunk with color and shape, speechless, and together he and the woman stared at what he held. At last he whispered to her, breathless,

“Where—where—”

And she whispered back as softly,

“In the rich man’s house. It must have been a favorite’s treasure. I saw a brick loosened in the wall and I slipped there carelessly so no other soul could see and demand a share. I pulled the brick away, caught the shining, and put them into my sleeve.”

“Now how did you know?” he whispered again, filled with admiration, and she answered with the smile on her lips that was never in her eyes,

“Do you think I have not lived in a rich man’s house? The rich are always afraid. I saw robbers in a bad year once rush into the gate of the great house and the slaves and the concubines and even the Old Mistress herself ran hither and thither and each had a treasure that she thrust into some secret place already planned. Therefore I knew the meaning of a loosened brick.”

And again they fell silent, staring at the wonder of the stones. Then after a long time Wang Lung drew in his breath and said resolutely,

“Now treasure like this one cannot keep. It must be sold and put into safety—into land, for nothing else is safe. If any knew of this we should be dead by the next day and a robber would carry the jewels. They must be put into land this very day or I shall not sleep tonight.”

He wrapped the stones in the rag again as he spoke and tied them hard together with the string, and opening his coat to thrust them into his bosom, by chance he saw the woman’s face. She was sitting cross-legged upon the bed at its foot and her heavy face that never spoke of anything was moved with a dim yearning of open lips and face thrust forward.

“Well, and now what?” he asked, wondering at her.

“Will you sell them all?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.

“And why not then?” he answered, astonished. “Why should we have jewels like this in an earthen house?”

“I wish I could keep two for myself,” she said with such helpless wistfulness, as of one expecting nothing, that he was moved as he might be by one of his children longing for a toy or for a sweet.

“Well, now!” he cried in amazement.

“If I could have two,” she went on humbly, “only two small ones—two small white pearls even…”

“Pearls!” he repeated, agape.

“I would keep them—I would not wear them,” she said, “only keep them.” And she dropped her eyes and fell to twisting a bit of the bedding where a thread was loosened, and she waited patiently as one who scarcely expects an answer.

Then Wang Lung, without comprehending it, looked for an instant into the heart of this dull and faithful creature, who had labored all her life at some task at which she won no reward and who in the great house had seen others wearing jewels which she never even felt in her hand once.

“I could hold them in my hand sometimes,” she added, as if she thought to herself.

And he was moved by something he did not understand and he pulled the jewels from his bosom and unwrapped them and handed them to her in silence, and she searched among the glittering colors, her hard brown hand turning over the stones delicately and lingeringly until she found the two smooth white pearls, and these she took, and tying up the others again, she gave them back to him. Then she took the pearls and she tore a bit of the corner of her coat away and wrapped them and hid them between her breasts and was comforted.

But Wang Lung watched her astonished and only half understanding, so that afterwards during the day and on other days he would stop and stare at her and say to himself,

“Well now, that woman of mine, she has those two pearls between her breasts still, I suppose.” But he never saw her take them out or look at them and they never spoke of them at all.

As for the other jewels, he pondered this way and that, and at last he decided he would go to the great house and see if there were more land to buy.

To the great house he now went and there was in these days no gateman standing at the gate, twisting the long hairs of his mole, scornful of those who could not enter past him into the House of Hwang. Instead the great gates were locked and Wang Lung pounded against them with both fists and no one came. Men who passed in the streets looked up and cried out at him,

“Aye, you may pound now and pound again. If the Old Lord is awake he may come and if there is a stray dog of a slave about she may open, if she is inclined to it.”

But at last he heard slow footsteps coming across the threshold, slow wandering footsteps that halted and came on by fits, and then he heard the slow drawing of the iron bar that held the gate and the gate creaked and a cracked voice whispered,

“Who is it?”

Then Wang Lung answered, loudly, although he was amazed,

“It is I, Wang Lung!”

Then the voice said peevishly,

“Now who is an accursed Wang Lung?”

And Wang Lung perceived by the quality of the curse that it was the Old Lord himself, because he cursed as one accustomed to servants and slaves. Wang Lung answered, therefore, more humbly than before.

“Sir and lord, I am come on a little business, not to disturb your lordship, but to talk a little business with the agent who serves your honor.”

Then the Old Lord answered without opening any wider the crack through which he pursed his lips,

“Now curse him, that dog left me many months ago and he is not here.”

Wang Lung did not know what to do after this reply. It was impossible to talk of buying land directly to the Old Lord, without a middleman, and yet the jewels hung in his bosom hot as fire, and he wanted to be rid of them and more than that he wanted the land. With the seed he had he could plant as much land again as he had, and he wanted the good land of the House of Hwang.

“I came about a little money,” he said hesitatingly.

At once the Old Lord pushed the gates together.

“There is no money in this house,” he said more loudly than he had yet spoken. “The thief and robber of an agent—and may his mother and his mother’s mother be cursed for him—took all that I had. No debts can be paid.”

“No—no—” called Wang Lung hastily, “I came to pay out, not to collect debt.”

At this there was a shrill scream from a voice Wang Lung had not yet heard and a woman thrust her face suddenly out of the gates.

“Now that is a thing I have not heard for a long time,” she said sharply, and Wang Lung saw a handsome, shrewish, high-colored face looking out at him. “Come in,” she said briskly and she opened the gates wide enough to admit him and then behind his back, while he stood astonished in the court, she barred them securely again.

The Old Lord stood there coughing and staring, a dirty grey satin robe wrapped about him, from which hung an edge of bedraggled fur. Once it had been a fine garment, as anyone could see, for the satin was still heavy and smooth, although stains and spots covered it, and it was wrinkled as though it had been used as a bedgown. Wang Lung stared back at the Old Lord, curious, yet half-afraid, for all his life he half-feared the people in the great house, and it seemed impossible that the Old Lord, of whom he had heard so much, was this old figure, no more dreadful than his old father, and indeed less so for his father was a cleanly and smiling old man, and the Old Lord, who had been fat, was now lean, and his skin hung in folds about him and he was unwashed and unshaven and his hand was yellow and trembled as he passed it over his chin and pulled at his loose old lips.

The woman was clean enough. She had a hard, sharp face handsome with a sort of hawk’s beauty of high bridged nose and keen bright black eyes and pale skin stretched too tightly over her bones, and her cheeks and lips were red and hard. Her black hair was like a mirror for smooth shining blackness, but from her speech one could perceive she was not of the lord’s family, but a slave, sharp voiced and bitter tongued. And besides these two, the woman and the Old Lord, there was not another person in the court where before men and women and children had run to and fro on their business of caring for the great house.

“Now about money,” said the woman sharply. But Wang Lung hesitated. He could not well speak before the Old Lord and this the woman instantly perceived as she perceived everything more quickly than speech could be made about it, and she said to the old man shrilly, “Now off with you!”

And the aged lord, without a word, shambled silently away, his old velvet shoes flapping and off at his heels, coughing as he went. As for Wang Lung, left alone with this woman, he did not know what to say or do. He was stupefied with the silence everywhere. He glanced into the next court and still there was no other person, and about the court he saw heaps of refuse and filth and scattered straw and branches of bamboo trees and dried pine needles and the dead stalks of flowers, as though not for a long time had anyone taken a broom to sweep it.

“Now then, wooden head!” said the woman with exceeding sharpness, and Wang Lung jumped at the sound of her voice, so unexpected was its shrillness. “What is your business? If you have money, let me see it.”

“No,” said Wang Lung with caution, “I did not say that I had money. I have business.”

“Business means money,” returned the woman, “either money coming in or money going out, and there is no money to go out of his house.”

“Well, but I cannot speak with a woman,” objected Wang Lung mildly. He could make nothing of the situation in which he found himself, and he was still staring about him.

“Well, and why not?” retorted the woman with anger. Then she shouted at him suddenly, “Have you not heard, fool, that there is no one here?”

Wang Lung stared at her feebly, unbelieving, and the woman shouted at him again, “I and the Old Lord—there is no one else!”

“Where then?” asked Wang Lung, too much aghast to make sense in his words.

“Well, and the Old Mistress is dead,” retorted the woman. “Have you not heard in the town how bandits swept into the house and how they carried away what they would of the slaves and of the goods? And they hung the Old Lord up by his thumbs and beat him and the Old Mistress they tied in a chair and gagged her and everyone ran. But I stayed. I hid in a gong half full of water under a wooden lid. And when I came out they were gone and the Old Mistress sat dead in her chair, not from any touch they had given her but from fright. Her body was a rotten reed with the opium she smoked and she could not endure the fright.”

“And the servants and the slaves?” gasped Wang Lung. “And the gateman?”

“Oh, those,” she answered carelessly, “they were gone long ago—all those who had feet to carry them away, for there was no food and no money by the middle of the winter. Indeed,” her voice fell to a whisper, “there are many of the men servants among the bandits. I saw that dog of a gateman myself—he was leading the way, although he turned his face aside in the Old Lord’s presence, still I knew those three long hairs of his mole. And there were others, for how could any but those familiar with the great house know where jewels were hid and the secret treasure stores of things not to be sold? I would not put it beneath the old agent himself, although he would consider it beneath his dignity to appear publicly in the affair, since he is a sort of distant relative of the family.”

The woman fell silent and the silence of the courts was heavy as silence can be after life has gone. Then she said,

“But all this was not a sudden thing. All during the lifetime of the Old Lord and of his father the fall of this house has been coming. In the last generation the lords ceased to see the land and took the moneys the agents gave them and spent it carelessly as water. And in these generations the strength of the land has gone from them and bit by bit the land has begun to go also.”

“Where are the young lords?” asked Wang Lung, still staring about him, so impossible was it for him to believe these things.

“Hither and thither,” said the woman indifferently. “It is good fortune that the two girls were married away before the thing happened. The elder young lord when he heard what had befallen his father and his mother sent a messenger to take the Old Lord, his father, but I persuaded the old head not to go. I said, ‘Who will be in the courts, and it is not seemly for me, who am only a woman.’ “

She pursed her narrow red lips virtuously as she spoke these words, and cast down her bold eyes, and again she said, when she had paused a little, “Besides, I have been my lord’s faithful slave for these several years and I have no other house.”

Wang Lung looked at her closely then and turned quickly away. He began to perceive what this was, a woman who clung to an old and dying man because of what last thing she might get from him. He said with contempt,

“Seeing that you are only a slave, how can I do business with you?”

At that she cried out at him, “He will do anything I tell him.”

Wang Lung pondered over this reply. Well, and there was the land. Others would buy it through this woman if he did not.

“How much land is there left?” he asked her unwillingly, and she saw instantly what his purpose was.

“If you have come to buy land,” she said quickly, “there is land to buy. He has a hundred acres to the west and to the south two hundred that he will sell. It is not all in one piece but the plots are large. It can be sold to the last acre.”

This she said so readily that Wang Lung perceived she knew everything the old man had left, even to the last foot of land. But still he was unbelieving and not willing to do business with her.

“It is not likely the Old Lord can sell all the land of his family without the agreement of his sons,” he demurred.

But the woman met his words eagerly.

“As for that, the sons have told him to sell when he can. The land is where no one of the sons wishes to live and the country is run over with bandits in these days of famine, and they have all said, ‘We cannot live in such a place. Let us sell and divide the money.’ “

“But into whose hand would I put the money?” asked Wang Lung, still unbelieving.

“Into the Old Lord’s hand, and whose else?” replied the woman smoothly. But Wang Lung knew that the Old Lord’s hand opened into hers.

He would not, therefore, talk further with her, but turned away saying, “Another day—another day—” and he went to the gate and she followed him, shrieking after him into the street,

“This time tomorrow—this time or this afternoon—all times are alike!”

He went down the street without answer, greatly puzzled and needing to think over what he had heard. He went into the small tea shop and ordered tea of the slavey and when the boy had put it smartly before him and with an impudent gesture had caught and tossed the penny he paid for it, Wang Lung fell to musing. And the more he mused the more monstrous it seemed that the great and rich family, who all his own life and all his father’s and grandfather’s lives long had been a power and a glory in the town, were now fallen and scattered.

“It comes of their leaving the land,” he thought regretfully, and he thought of his own two sons, who were growing like young bamboo shoots in the spring, and he resolved that on this very day he would make them cease playing in the sunshine and he would set them to tasks in the field, where they would early take into their bones and their blood the feel of the soil under their feet, and the feel of the hoe hard in their hands.

Well, but all this time here were these jewels hot and heavy against his body and he was continually afraid. It seemed as though their brilliance must shine through his rags and someone cry out,

“Now here is a poor man carrying an emperor’s treasure!”

And he could not rest until they were changed into land. He watched, therefore, until the shopkeeper had a moment of idleness and he called to the man and said,

“Come and drink a bowl at my cost, and tell me the news of the town, since I have been a winter away.”

The shopkeeper was always ready for such talk, especially if he drank his own tea at another’s cost, and he sat down readily at Wang Lung’s table, a small weasel-faced man with a twisted and crossed left eye. His clothes were solid and black with grease down the front of his coat and trousers, for besides tea he sold food also, which he cooked himself, and he was fond of saying, “There is a proverb, ‘A good cook has never a clean coat,’&nsp;” and so he considered himself justly and necessarily filthy. He sat down and began at once,

“Well, and beyond the starving of people, which is no news, the greatest news was the robbery at the House of Hwang.”

It was just what Wang Lung hoped to hear and the man went on to tell him of it with relish, describing how the few slaves left had screamed and how they had been carried off and how the concubines that remained had been raped and driven out and some even taken away, so that now none cared to live in that house at all. “None,” the man finished, “except the Old Lord, who is now wholly the creature of a slave called Cuckoo, who has for many years been in the Old Lord’s chamber, while others came and went, because of her cleverness.”

“And has this woman command, then?” asked Wang Lung, listening closely.

“For the time she can do anything,” replied the man. “And so for the time she closes her hand on everything that can be held and swallows all that can be swallowed. Some day, of course, when the young lords have their affairs settled in other parts they will come back and then she cannot fool them with her talk of a faithful servant to be rewarded, and out she will go. But she has her living made now, although she live to a hundred years.”

“And the land?” asked Wang Lung at last, quivering with his eagerness.

“The land?” said the man blankly. To this shopkeeper land meant nothing at all.

“Is it for sale?” said Wang Lung impatiently.

“Oh, the land!” answered the man with indifference, and then as a customer came in he rose and called as he went, “I have heard it is for sale, except the piece where the family are buried for these six generations,” and he went his way.

Then Wang Lung rose also, having heard what he came to hear, and he went out and approached again the great gates and the woman came to open to him and he stood without entering and he said to her,

“Tell me first this, will the Old Lord set his own seal to the deeds of sale?”

And the woman answered eagerly, and her eyes were fastened on his,

“He will—he will—on my life!”

Then Wang Lung said to her plainly,

“Will you sell the land for gold or for silver or for jewels?”

And her eyes glittered as she spoke and she said,

“I will sell it for jewels!”

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