19

Now if the waters had at this time receded from Wang Lung’s land, leaving it wet and smoking under the sun, so that in a few days of summer heat it would need to have been ploughed and harrowed and seed put in, Wang Lung might never have gone again to the great tea shop. Or if a child had fallen ill or the old man had reached suddenly to the end of his days, Wang Lung might have been caught up in the new thing and so forgotten the pointed face upon the scroll and the body of the woman slender as a bamboo.

But the waters lay placid and unmoved except for the slight summer wind that rose at sunset, and the old man dozed and the two boys trudged to school at dawn and were away until evening and in his house Wang Lung was restless and he avoided the eyes of O-lan who looked at him miserably as he went here and there and flung himself down in a chair and rose from it without drinking the tea she poured and without smoking the pipe he had lit. At the end of one long day, more long than any other, in the seventh month, when the twilight lingered murmurous and sweet with the breath of the lake, he stood at the door of his house, and suddenly without a word he turned abruptly and went into his room and put on his new coat, even the coat of black shining cloth, as shining almost as silk, that O-lan made for feast days, and with no word to anyone he went over the narrow paths along the water’s edge and through the fields until he came to the darkness of the city gate and through this he went and through the streets until he came to the new tea shop.

There every light was lit, bright oil lamps which are to be bought in the foreign cities of the coast, and men sat under the lights drinking and talking, their robes open to the evening coolness, and everywhere fans moved to and fro and good laughter flowed out like music into the street. All the gayety which Wang Lung had never had from his labor on the land was held here in the walls of this house, where men met to play and never to work.

Wang Lung hesitated upon the threshold and he stood in the bright light which streamed from the open doors. And he might have stood there and gone away, for he was fearful and timid in his heart still, although his blood was rushing through his body fit to burst his veins, but there came out of the shadows on the edge of the light a woman who had been leaning idly against the doorway and it was Cuckoo. She came forward when she saw a man’s figure, for it was her business to get customers for the women of the house, but when she saw who it was, she shrugged her shoulders and said,

“Ah, it is only the farmer!”

Wang was stung with the sharp carelessness in her voice, and his sudden anger gave him a courage he had not otherwise, so that he said,

“Well, and may I not come into the house and may I not do as other men?”

And she shrugged herself again and laughed and said,

“If you have the silver that other men have, you may do as they do.”

And he wished to show her that he was lordly and rich enough to do as he liked, and he thrust his hand into his girdle and brought it out full of silver and he said to her,

“Is it enough and is it not enough?”

She stared at the handful of silver and said then without further delay,

“Come and say which one you wish.”

And Wang Lung, without knowing what he said, muttered forth,

“Well, and I do not know that I want anything.” And then his desire overcame Mm and he whispered, “That little one—that one with the pointed chin and the little small face, a face like a quince blossom for white and pink, and she holds a lotus bud in her hand.”

The woman nodded easily and beckoning him she threaded her way between the crowded tables, and Wang Lung followed her at a distance. At first it seemed to him that every man looked up and watched him but when he took courage to see he saw that none paid him any heed, except for one or two who called out, “Is it too late enough, then, to go to the women?” and another called, “Here is a lusty fellow who needs must begin early!”

But by this time they were walking up the narrow straight stairway, and this Wang Lung did with difficulty, for it was the first time he had ever climbed steps in a house. Nevertheless, when they reached the top, it was the same as a house on the earth, except that is seemed a mighty way up when he passed a window and looked into the sky. The woman led the way down a close dark hall, then, and she cried as she went,

“Now here is the first man of the night!”

All along the hall doors opened suddenly and here and there girls’ heads showed themselves in patches of light, as flowers burst out of their sheaths in the sun, but, Cuckoo called cruelly,

“No, not you—and not you—no one has asked for any of you! This one is for the little pink-faced dwarf from Soochow—for Lotus!”

A ripple of sound ran down the hall, indistinct, derisive, and one girl, ruddy as a pomegranate, called out in a big voice,

“And Lotus may have this fellow—he smells of the fields and of garlic!”

This Wang Lung heard, although he disdained to answer, although her words smote him like a dagger thrust because he feared that he looked indeed what he was, a farmer. But he went on stoutly when he remembered the good silver in his girdle, and at last the woman struck a closed door harshly with the flat palm of her hand and went in without waiting and there upon a bed covered with a flowered red quilt, sat a slender girl.

If one had told him there were small hands like these he would not have believed it, hands so small and bones so fine and fingers so pointed with long nails stained the color of lotus buds, deep and rosy. And if one had told him that there could be feet like these, little feet thrust into pink satin shoes no longer than a man’s middle finger, and swinging childishly over the bed’s edge—if anyone had told him he would not have believed it.

He sat stiffly on the bed beside her, staring at her, and he saw that she was like the picture and having seen the picture he would have known her if he had met her. But most of all her hand was like the painted hand, curling and fine and white as milk. Her two hands lay curling into each other upon the pink and silken lap of her robe, and he would not have dreamed that they were to be touched.

He looked at her as he had looked at the picture and he saw the figure slender as bamboo in its tight short upper coat; he saw the small pointed face set in its painted prettiness above the high collar lined with white fur; he saw the round eyes, the shape of apricots, so that now at last he understood what the story-tellers meant when they sang of the apricot eyes of the beauties of old. And for him she was not flesh and blood but the painted picture of a woman.

Then she lifted that small curling hand and put it upon his shoulder and she passed it slowly down the length of his arm, very slowly. And although he had never felt anything so light, so soft as that touch, although if he had not seen it, he would not have known that it passed, he looked and saw the small hand moving down his arm, and it was as though fire followed it and burned under through his sleeve and into the flesh of his arm, and he watched the hand until it reached the end of his sleeve and then it fell with an instant’s practiced hesitation upon his bare wrist and then into the loose hollow of his hard dark hand. And he began to tremble, not knowing how to receive it.

Then he heard laughter, light, quick, tinkling as the silver bell upon a pagoda shaking in the wind, and a little voice like laughter said,

“Oh, and how ignorant you are, you great fellow? Shall we sit here the night through while you stare?”

And at that he seized her hand between both of his, but carefully, because it was like a fragile dry leaf, hot and dry, and he said to her imploringly and not knowing what he said,

“I do not know anything—teach, me!”

And she taught him.

Now Wang Lung became sick with the sickness which is greater than any a man can have. He had suffered under labor in the sun and he had suffered under the dry icy winds of the bitter desert and he had suffered from starvation when the fields would not bear and he had suffered from the despair of laboring without hope upon the streets of a southern city. But under none of these did he suffer as he now did under this slight girl’s hand.

Every day he went to the tea shop; every evening he waited until she would receive him, and every night he went in to her. Each night he went in and each night again he was the country fellow who knew nothing, trembling at the door, sitting stiffly beside her, waiting for her signal of laughter, and then fevered, filled with a sickened hunger, he followed slavishly, bit by bit, her unfolding, until the moment of crisis, when, like a flower that is ripe for plucking, she was willing that he should grasp her wholly.

Yet never could he grasp her wholly, and this it was which kept him fevered and thirsty, even if she gave him his will of her. When O-lan had come to his house it was health to his flesh and he lusted for her robustly as a beast for its mate and he took her and was satisfied and he forgot her and did his work content. But there was no such content now in his love for this girl, and there was no health in her for him. At night when she would have no more of him, pushing him out of the door petulantly, with her small hands suddenly strong on his shoulders, his silver thrust into her bosom, he went away hungry as he came. It was as though a man, dying of thirst, drank the salt water of the sea which, though it is water, yet dries his blood into thirst and yet greater thirst so that in the end he dies, maddened by his very drinking. He went in to her and he had his will of her again and again and he came away unsatisfied.

All during that hot summer Wang Lung loved thus this girl. He knew nothing of her, whence she came or what she was; when they were together he said not a score of words and he scarcely listened to the constant running of her speech, light and interspersed with laughter like a child’s. He only watched her face, her hands, the postures of her body, the meaning of her wide sweet eyes, waiting for her. He had never enough of her, and he went back to his house in the dawn, dazed and unsatisfied.

The days were endless. He would not sleep any more upon his bed, making a pretense of heat in the room, and he spread a mat under the bamboos and slept there fitfully, lying awake to stare into the pointed shadows of the bamboo leaves, his breast filled with a sweet sick pain he could not understand.

And if any spoke to him, his wife or his children, or if Ching came to him and said, “The waters will soon recede and what is there we should prepare of seed?” he shouted and said,

“Why do you trouble me?”

And all the time his heart was like to burst because he could not be satisfied of this girl.

Thus as the days went on and he lived only to pass the day, until the evening came, he would not look at the grave faces of O-lan and of the children, suddenly sober in their play when he approached, nor even at his old father who peered at him and asked,

“What is this sickness that turns you full of evil temper and your skin as yellow as clay?”

And as these days went past to the night, the girl Lotus did what she would with him. When she laughed at the braid of his hair, although part of every day he spent in braiding and in brushing it, and said, “Now the men of the south do not have these monkey tails!” he went without a word and had it cut off, although neither by laughter or scorn had anyone been able to persuade him to it before.

When O-lan saw what he had done she burst out in terror,

“You have cut off your life!”

But he shouted at her,

“And shall I look an old-fashioned fool forever? All the young men of the city have their hair cut short.”

Yet he was afraid in his heart of what he had done, and yet so he would have cut off his life if the girl Lotus had commanded it or desired it, because she had every beauty which had ever come into his mind to desire in a woman.

His good brown body that he washed but rarely, deeming the clean sweat of his labor washing enough for ordinary times, his body he now began to examine as if it were another man’s, and he washed himself every day so that his wife said, troubled,

“You will die with all this washing!”

He bought sweet-smelling soap in the shop, a piece of red scented stuff from foreign parts, and he rubbed it on his flesh, and not for any price would he have eaten a stalk of garlic, although it was a thing he had loved before, lest he stink before her.

And none in his house knew what to make of all these things.

He bought also new stuffs for clothes, and although O-lan had always cut his robes, making them wide and long for good measure and sewing them stoutly this way and that for strength, now he was scornful of her cutting and sewing and he took the stuffs to a tailor in the town and he had his clothes made as the men in the town had theirs, light grey silk for a robe, cut neatly to his body and with little to spare, and over this a black satin sleeveless coat And he bought the first shoes he had had in his life not made by a woman, and they were black velvet shoes such as the Old Lord had worn flapping at his heels.

But these fine clothes he was ashamed to wear suddenly before O-lan and his children. He kept them folded in sheets of brown oiled paper and he left them at the tea shop with a clerk he had come to know, and for a price the clerk let him go into an inner room secretly and put them on before he went up the stairs. And beyond this he bought a silver ring washed with gold for his finger, and as hair grew where it had been shaved above his forehead, he smoothed it with a fragrant foreign oil from a small bottle for which he had paid a whole piece of silver.

But O-lan looked at him in astonishment and did not know what to make from all this, except that one day after staring at him for a long time as they ate rice at noon, she said heavily,

“There is that about you which makes me think of one of the lords in the great house.”

Wang Lung laughed loudly then and he said,

“And am I always to look like a hind when we have enough and to spare?”

But in his heart he was greatly pleased and for that day he was more kindly with her than he had been for many days.

Now the money, the good silver, went streaming out of his hands. There was not only the price he must pay for his hours with the girl, but there was the pretty demanding of her desires. She would sigh and murmur, as though her heart were half broken with her desire,

“Ah me—ah me!”

And when he whispered, having learned at last to speak in her presence, “What now, my little heart?” she answered, “I have no joy today in you because Black Jade, that one across the hall from me, has a lover who gave her a gold pin for her hair, and I have only this old silver thing, which I have had forever and a day.”

And then for his life’s sake he could not but whisper to her, pushing aside the smooth black curve of her hair that he might have the delight of seeing her small long-lobed ears,

“And so will I buy a gold pin for the hair of my jewel.”

For all these names of love she had taught him, as one teaches new words to a child. She had taught him to say them to her and he could not say them enough for his own heart, even while he stammered them, he whose speech had all his life been only of planting and of harvests and of sun and rain.

Thus the silver came out of the wall and out of the sack, and O-lan, who in the old days might have said to him easily enough, “And why do you take the money from the wall,” now said nothing, only watching him in great misery, knowing well that he was living some life apart from her and apart even from the land, but not knowing what life it was. But she had been afraid of him from that day on which he had seen clearly that she had no beauty of hair or of person, and when he had seen her feet were large, and she was afraid to ask him anything because of his anger that was always ready for her now.

There came a day when Wang Lung returned to his house over the fields and he drew near to her as she washed his clothes at the pool. He stood there silent for a while and then he said to her roughly, and he was rough because he was ashamed and would not acknowledge his shame in his heart,

“Where are those pearls you had?”

And she answered timidly, looking up from the edge of the pool and from the clothes she was beating upon a smooth flat stone,

“The pearls? I have them.”

And he muttered, not looking at her but at her wrinkled, wet hands,

“There is no use in keeping pearls for nothing.”

Then she said slowly,

“I thought one day I might have them set in earrings,” and fearing his laughter she said again, “I could have them for the younger girl when she is wed.”

And he answered her loudly, hardening his heart,

“Why should that one wear pearls with her skin as black as earth? Pearls are for fair women!” And then after an instant’s silence he cried out suddenly, “Give them to me—I have need of them!”

Then slowly she thrust her wet wrinkled hand into her bosom and she drew forth the small package and she gave it to him and watched him as he unwrapped it; and the pearls lay in his hand and they caught softly and fully the light of the sun, and he laughed.

But O-lan returned to the beating of his clothes and when tears dropped slowly and heavily from her eyes she did not put her hand to wipe them away; only she beat the more steadily her wooden stick upon the clothes spread over the stone.

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