17

Now Wang Lung had more land than a man with an ox can plough and harvest, and more harvest than one man can garner and so he built another small room to his house and he bought an ass and he said to his neighbor Ching,

“Sell me the little parcel of land that you have and leave your lonely house and come into my house and help me with my land.” And Ching did this and was glad to do it.

The heavens rained in season then; and the young rice grew and when the wheat was cut and harvested in heavy sheaves, the two men planted the young rice in the flooded fields, more rice than Wang Lung had ever planted he planted this year, for the rains came in abundance of water, so that lands that were before dry were this year fit for rice. Then when this harvest came he and Ching alone could not harvest it, so great it was, and Wang Lung hired two other men as laborers who lived in the village and they harvested it.

He remembered also the idle young lords of the fallen great house as he worked on the land he had bought from the House of Hwang, and he bade his two sons sharply each morning to come into the fields with him and he set them at what labor their small hands could do, guiding the ox and the ass, and making them, if they could accomplish no great labor, at least to know the heat of the sun on their bodies and the weariness of walking back and forth along the furrows.

But O-lan he would not allow to work in the fields for he was no longer a poor man, but a man who could hire his labor done if he would, seeing that never had the land given forth such harvests as it had this year. He was compelled to build yet another room to the house to store his harvests in, or they would not have had space to walk in the house. And he bought three pigs and a flock of fowls to feed on the grains spilled from the harvests.

Then O-lan worked in the house and made new clothes for each one and new shoes, and she made coverings of flowered cloth stuffed with warm new cotton for every bed, and when all was finished they were rich in clothing and in bedding as they had never been. Then she laid herself down upon her bed and gave birth again, although still she would have no one with her; even though she could hire whom she chose, she chose to be alone.

This time she was long at labor and when Wang Lung came home at evening he found his father standing at the door and laughing and saying,

“An egg with a double yolk this time!”

And when Wang Lung went into the inner room there was O-lan upon the bed with two new-born children, a boy and a girl as alike as two grains of rice. He laughed boisterously at what she had done and then he thought of a merry thing to say,

“So this is why you bore two jewels in your bosom!”

And he laughed again at what he had thought of to say, and O-lan, seeing how merry he was, smiled her slow, painful smile.

Wang Lung had, therefore, at this time no sorrow of any kind, unless it was this sorrow, that his eldest girl child neither spoke nor did those things which were right for her age, but only smiled her baby smile still when she caught her father’s glance. Whether it was the desperate first year of her life or the starving or what it was, month after month went past and Wang Lung waited for the first words to come from her lips, even for his name which the children called him, “da-da.” But no sound came, only the sweet, empty smile, and when he looked at her he groaned forth,

“Little fool—my poor little fool—”

And in his heart he cried to himself,

“If I had sold this poor mouse and they found her thus they would have killed her!”

And as if to make amends to the child he made much of her and took her into the field with him sometimes and she followed him silently about, smiling when he spoke and noticed her there.

In these parts, where Wang Lung had lived all his life and his father and his father’s father had lived upon the land, there were famines once in five years or so, or if the gods were lenient, once in seven or eight or even ten years. This was because the heavens rained too much or not at all, or because the river to the north, because of rains and winter snows in distant mountains, came swelling into the fields over the dykes which had been built by men for centuries to confine it.

Time after time men fled from the land and came back to it, but Wang Lung set himself now to build his fortunes so securely that through the bad years to come he need never leave his land again but live on the fruits of the good years, and so subsist until another year came forth. He set himself and the gods helped him and for seven years there were harvests, and every year Wang Lung and his men threshed far more than could be eaten. He hired more laborers each year for his fields until he had six men and he built a new house behind his old one, a large room behind a court and two small rooms on each side of the court beside the large room. The house he covered with tiles, but the walls were still made of the hard tamped earth from the fields, only he had them brushed with lime and they were white and clean. Into these rooms he and his family moved, and the laborers, with Ching at their head, lived in the old house in front.

By this time Wang Lung had thoroughly tried Ching, and he found the man honest and faithful, and he set Ching to be his steward over the men and over the land and he paid him well, two silver pieces a month besides his food. But with all Wang Lung’s urging Ching to eat and eat well, the man still put no flesh on his bones, remaining always a small, spare, lean man of great gravity. Nevertheless he labored gladly, pottering silently from dawn until dark, speaking in his feeble voice if there was anything to be said, but happiest and liking it best if there were nothing and he could be silent; and hour after hour he lifted his hoe and let it fall, and at dawn and sunset he would carry to the fields the buckets of water or of manure to put upon the vegetable rows.

But still Wang Lung knew that if any one of the laborers slept too long each day under the date trees or ate more than his share of the beancurd in the common dish or if any bade his wife or child come secretly at harvest time and snatch handfuls of the grain that was being beaten out under the flails, Ching would, at the end of the year when master and man feast together after the harvest, whisper to Wang Lung,

“Such an one and such an one do not ask back for the next year.”

And it seemed that the handful of peas and of seed which had passed between these two men made them brothers, except that Wang Lung, who was the younger, took the place of the elder, and Ching never wholly forgot that he was hired and lived in a house which belonged to another.

By the end of the fifth year Wang Lung worked little in his fields himself, having indeed to spend his whole time, so increased were his lands, upon the business and the marketing of his produce, and in directing his workmen. He was greatly hampered by his lack of book knowledge and of the knowledge of the meaning of characters written upon a paper with a camel’s hair brush and ink. Moreover, it was a shame to him when he was in a grain shop where grain was bought and sold again, that when a contract was written for so much and for so much of wheat or rice, he must say humbly to the haughty dealers in the town,

“Sir, and will you read it for me, for I am too stupid.”

And it was a shame to him that when he must set his name to the contract another, even a paltry clerk, lifted his eyebrows in scorn and, with his brush pointed on the wet ink block, brushed hastily the characters of Wang Lung’s name; and greatest shame that when the man called out for a joke,

“Is it the dragon character Lung or the deaf character Lung, or what?” Wang Lung must answer humbly,

“Let it be what you will, for I am too ignorant to know my own name.”

It was on such a day one harvest time after he had heard the shout of laughter which went up from the clerks in the grain shop, idle at the noon hour and all listening to anything that went on, and all lads scarcely older than his sons, that he went home angrily over his own land saying to himself,

“Now, not one of those town fools has a foot of land and yet each feels he can laugh a goose cackle at me because I cannot tell the meanings of brush strokes over paper.” And then as his indignation wore away, he said in his heart, “It is true that this is a shame to me that I cannot read and write. I will take my elder son from the fields and he shall go to a school in the town and he shall learn, and when I go into the grain markets he will read and write for me so that there may be an end of this hissing laughter against me, who am a landed man.”

This seemed to him well and that very day he called to him his elder son, a straight tall lad of twelve years now, looking like his mother for his wide face bones and his big hands and feet but with his father’s quickness of eye, and when the boy stood before him Wang Lung said,

“Come out of the fields from this day on, for I need a scholar in the family to read the contracts and to write my name so that I shall not be ashamed in the town.”

The lad flushed a high dark red and his eyes shone.

“My father,” he said, “so have I wished for these last two years that I might do, but I did not dare to ask it.”

Then the younger boy when he heard of it came in crying and complaining, a thing he was wont to do, for he was a wordy, noisy lad from the moment he spoke at all, always ready to cry out that his share was less than that of others, and now he whined forth to his father,

“Well, and I shall not work in the fields, either, and it is not fair that my brother can sit at leisure in a seat and learn something and I must work like a hind, who am your son as well as he!”

Then Wang Lung could not bear his noise and he would give him anything if he cried loudly enough for it, and he said hastily,

“Well and well, go the both of you, and if Heaven in its evil take one of you, there will be the other one with knowledge to do the business for me.”

Then he sent the mother of his sons into the town to buy cloth to make a long robe for each lad and he went himself to a paper and ink shop and he bought paper and brushes and two ink blocks, although he knew nothing of such things, and being ashamed to say he did not, was dubious at everything the man brought forward to show him. But at last all was prepared and arrangements made to send the boys to a small school near the city gate kept by an old man who had in past years gone up for government examinations and failed. In the central room of his house therefore he had set benches and tables and for a small sum at each feast day in the year he taught boys in the classics, beating them with his large fan, folded, if they were idle or if they could not repeat to him the pages over which they pored from dawn until sunset.

Only in the warm days of spring and summer did the pupils have a respite for then the old man nodded and slept after he had eaten at noon, and the dark small room was filled with the sound of his slumber. Then the lads whispered and played and drew pictures to show each other of this naughty thing and that, and snickered to see a fly buzzing about the old man’s hanging, open jaw, and laid wagers with each other as to whether the fly would enter the cavern of his mouth or not But when the old teacher opened his eyes suddenly—and there was no telling when he would open them as quickly and secretly as though he had not slept—he saw them before they were aware and then laid about him with his fan, cracking this skull and that. And hearing the cracks of his stout fan and the cries of the pupils, the neighbors said,

“It is a worthy old teacher, after all.” And this is why Wang Lung chose the school for the one where his sons should go to learn.

On the first day when he took them there he walked ahead of them, for it is not meet that father and son walk side by side, and he carried a blue kerchief filled with fresh eggs and these eggs he gave to the old teacher when he arrived. And Wang Lung was awed by the old teacher’s great brass spectacles and by his long loose robe of black and by his immense fan, which he held even in winter, and Wang Lung bowed before him and said,

“Sir, here are my two worthless sons. If anything can be driven into their thick brass skulls it is only by beating them, and therefore if you wish to please me, beat them to make them learn.” And the two boys stood and stared at the othe boys on benches, and these others stared back at the two.

But going home again alone, having left the two lads, Wanj Lung’s heart was fit to burst with pride and it seemed to him that among all the lads in the room there were none equal to his two lads for tallness and robustness and bright brown faces. Meeting a neighbor coming from the village as he passed through the town gate, he answered the man’s inquiry,

“This day I am back from my sons’ school.” And to the man’s surprise he answered with seeming carelessness, “Now I do not need them in the fields and they may as well learn a stomachful of characters.”

But to himself he said, passing by,

“It would not surprise me at all if the elder one should become a prefect with all this learning!”

And from that time on the boys were no longer called Elder and Younger, but they were given school names by the old teacher, and this old man, after inquiring into the occupation of their father, erected two names for the sons; for the elder, Nung En, and for the second Nung Wen, and the first word of each name signified one whose wealth is from the earth.

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