20

And thus it might have gone forever until all the silver was spent had not that one, Wang Lung’s uncle, returned suddenly without explanation of where he had been or what he had done. He stood in the door as though he had dropped from a cloud, his ragged clothes unbuttoned and girdled loosely as ever about him, and his face as it always was but wrinkled and hardened with the sun and the wind. He grinned widely at them all as they sat about the table at their early morning meal, and Wang Lung sat agape, for he had forgotten that his uncle lived and it was like a dead man returning to see him. The old man his father blinked and stared and did not recognize the one who had come until he called out,

“Well, and Elder Brother and his son and his sons and my sister-in-law.”

Then Wang Lung rose, dismayed in his heart but upon the surface of his face and voice courteous.

“Well, and my uncle and have you eaten?”

“No,” replied his uncle easily, “but I will eat with you.”

He sat himself down, then, and he drew a bowl and chopsticks to him and he helped himself freely to rice and dried salt fish and to salted carrots and to the dried beans that were upon the table. He ate as though he were very hungry and none spoke until he supped down loudly three bowls of the thin rice gruel, cracking quickly between his teeth the bones of the fish and the kernels of the beans. And when he had eaten he said simply and as though it was his right,

“Now I will sleep, for I am without sleep these three nights.”

Then when Wang Lung, dazed and not knowing what else to do, led him to his father’s bed, his uncle lifted the quilts and felt of the good cloth and of the clean new cotton and he looke at the wooden bedstead and at the good table and at the great wooden chair which Wang Lung had bought for his father’s room, and he said,

“Well, and I heard you were rich but I did not know yot were as rich as this,” and he threw himself upon the bed an, drew the quilt about his shoulders, all warm with summer though it was, and everything he used as though it was his own and he was asleep without further speech.

Wang Lung went back to the middle room in great consternation for he knew very well that now his uncle would never be driven forth again, now that he knew Wang Lung had wherewith to feed him. And Wang Lung thought of this and thought of his uncle’s wife with great fear because he saw that they would come to his house and none could stop them.

As he feared so it happened. His uncle stretched himsel upon the bed at last after noon had passed and he yawned loudly three times and came out of the room, shrugging the clothes together upon his body and he said to Wang Lung,

“Now I will fetch my wife and my son. There are the three of us mouths, and in this great house of yours it will never be missed what we eat and the poor clothes we wear.”

Wang Lung could do nothing but answer with sullen looks, for it is a shame to a man when he has enough and to spare to drive his own father’s brother and son from the house. And Wang Lung knew that if he did this it would be a shame to him in the village where he was now respected because of his prosperity and so he did not dare to say anything. But he commanded the laborers to move altogether into the old house so that the rooms by the gate might be left empty and into these that very day in the evening his uncle came, bringing his wife and his son. And Wang Lung was exceedingly angry and the more angry because he must bury it all in his heart and answer with smiles and welcome his relatives. This, although when he saw the fat smooth face of his uncle’s wife he felt fit to burst with his anger and when he saw the scampish, impudent face of his uncle’s son, he could scarcely keep his hand down from slapping it. And for three days he did not go into the town because of his anger.

Then when they were all accustomed to what had taken place and when O-lan had said to him, “Cease to be angry. It is a thing to be borne,” and Wang Lung saw that his uncle and his uncle’s wife and son would be courteous enough for the sake of their food and their shelter, then his thoughts turned more violently than ever to the girl Lotus and he muttered to himself,

“When a man’s house is full of wild dogs he must seek peace elsewhere.”

And all the old fever and pain burned in him and he was still never satisfied of his love.

Now what O-lan had not seen in her simplicity nor the old pian because of the dimness of his age nor Ching because of his friendship, the wife of Wang Lung’s uncle saw at once and she cried out, the laughter slanting from her eyes,

“Now Wang Lung is seeking to pluck a flower somewhere.” And when O-lan looked at her humbly, not understanding, she laughed and said again, “The melon must always be split wide open before you can see the seeds, eh? Well, then, plainly, your man is mad over another woman!”

This Wang Lung heard his uncle’s wife say in the court outside his window as he lay dozing and weary in his room one early morning, exhausted with his love. He was quickly awake, and he listened further, aghast at the sharpness of this woman’s eyes. The thick voice rumbled on, pouring like oil from her fat throat.

“Well, and I have seen many a man, and when one smooths his hair and buys new clothes and will have his shoes velvet all of a sudden, then there is a new woman and that is sure.”

There came a broken sound from O-lan, what it was she said he could not hear, but his uncle’s wife said again,

“And it is not to be thought, poor fool, that one woman is enough for any man, and if it is a weary hard-working woman who has worn away her flesh working for him, it is less than enough for him. His fancy runs elsewhere the more quickly, and you, poor fool, have never been fit for a man’s fancy and little better than an ox for his labor. And it is not for you to repine when he has money and buys himself another to bring her to his house, for all men are so, and would my old do-nothing also, except the poor wretch has never had enough silver in his life to feed himself even.”

This she said and more, but no more than this did Wang Lung hear upon his bed, for his thought stopped at what she had said. Now suddenly did he see how to satisfy his hunger and his thirst after this girl he loved. He would buy her and bring her to his house and make her his own so that no other man could come in to her and so could he eat and be fed and drink and be satisfied. And he rose up at once from his bed and he went out and motioned secretly to the wife of his uncle and he said, when she had followed him outside the gate and under the date tree where none could hear what he had to say,

“I listened and heard what you said in the courts and you are right. I have need of more than that one and why should I not, seeing that I have land to feed us all?”

She answered volubly and eagerly,

“And why not, indeed? So have all men who have prospered. It is only the poor man who must needs drink from one cup,” Thus she spoke, knowing what he would say next, and he went on as she had planned,

“But who will negotiate for me and be the middleman? A man cannot go to a woman and say, ‘Come to my house.’ “

To this she answered instantly,

“Now do you leave this affair in my hands. Only tell me which woman it is and I will manage the affair.”

Then Wang Lung answered unwillingly and timidly, for he had never spoken her name aloud before to anyone,

“It is the woman called Lotus.”

It seemed to him that everyone must know and have heard of Lotus, forgetting how only a short two summers’ moons before he had not known she lived. He was impatient, therefore, when his uncle’s wife asked further,

“And where her home?”

“Now where,” he answered with asperity, “where except in the great tea shop on the main street of the town?”

“The one called the House of Flowers?”

“And what other?” Wang Lung retorted.

She mused awhile, fingering her pursed lower lip, and she said at last,

“I do not know anyone there. I shall have to find a way. Who is the keeper of this woman?”

And when he told her it was Cuckoo, who had been slave in the great house, she laughed and said,

“Oh, that one? Is that what she did after the Old Lord died in her bed one night! Well, and it is what she would do.”

Then she laughed again, a cackling “Heh—heh—heh—” and she said easily,

“That one! But it is a simple matter, indeed. Everything is plain. That one! From the beginning that one would do anything, even to making a mountain, if she could feel silver enough in her palm for it”

And Wang Lung, hearing this, felt his mouth suddenly dry and parched and his voice came from him in a whisper,

“Silver, then! Silver and gold! Anything to the very price of my land!”

Then from a strange and contrary fever of love Wang Lung would not go again to the great tea house until the affair was arranged. To himself he said,

“And if she will not come to my house and be for me only, cut my throat and I will not go near her again.”

But when he thought the words, “if she will not come,” his heart stood still with fear, so that he continually ran to his uncle’s wife saying,

“Now, lack of money shall not close the gate.” And he said again, “Have you told Cuckoo that I have silver and gold for my will?” and he said, “Tell her she shall do no work of any kind in my house but she shall wear only silken garments and eat shark’s fins if she will every day,” until at last the fat woman grew impatient and cried out at him, rolling her eyes back and forth,

“Enough and enough! Am I a fool, or is this the first time I have managed a man and a maid? Leave me alone and I will do it. I have said everything many times.”

Then there was nothing to do except to gnaw his fingers and to see the house suddenly as Lotus might see it and he hurried O-lan into this and that, sweeping and washing and moving tables and chairs, so that she, poor woman, grew more and more terror stricken for well she knew by now, although he said nothing, what was to come to her.

Now Wang Lung could not bear to sleep any more with O-lan and he said to himself that with two women in the house there must be more rooms and another court and there must be a place where he could go with his love and be separate. So while he waited for his uncle’s wife to complete the matter, he called his laborers and commanded them to build another court to the house behind the middle room, and around the court three rooms, one large and two small on either side. And the laborers stared at him, but dared not reply and he would not tell them anything, but he superintended them himself, so that he need not talk with Ching even of what he did. And the men dug the earth from the fields and made the walls and beat them down, and Wang Lung sent to the town and bought tiles for the roof.

Then when the rooms were finished and the earth smoothed and beaten down for a floor, he had bricks bought and the men set them closely together and welded them with lime and there was a good brick floor to the three rooms for Lotus. And Wang Lung bought red cloth to hang at the doors for curtains and he bought a new table and two carved chairs to put on either side and two painted scrolls of pictured hills and water to hang upon the wall behind the table. And he bought a round red lacquered comfit dish with a cover, and in this he put sesame cakes and larded sweets and he put the box on the table. Then he bought a wide and deep carven bed, big enough for a small room in itself, and he bought flowered curtains to hang about it But in all this he was ashamed to ask O-lan anything, and so in the evenings his uncle’s wife came in and she hung the bed curtains and did the things a man is too clumsy for doing.

Then all was finished and there was nothing to do, and a moon of days had passed and the thing was not yet complete. So Wang Lung dallied alone in the little new court he had built for Lotus and he thought of a little pool to make in the center of the court, and he called a laborer and the man dug a pool three feet square and set it about with tiles, and Wang Lung went into the city and bought five goldfish for it. Then he could think of nothing more to be done, and again he waited impatient and fevered.

During all this time he said nothing to anyone except to scold the children if they were filthy at their noses or to roar out at O-lan that she had not brushed her hair for three days and more, so that at last one morning O-lan burst into tears and wept aloud, as he had never seen her weep before, even when they starved, or at any other time. He said harshly, therefore,

“Now what, woman? Cannot I say comb out your horse’s tail of hair without this trouble over it?”

But she answered nothing except to say over and over, moaning,

“I have borne you sons—I have borne you sons—”

And he was silenced and uneasy and he muttered to himself for he was ashamed before her and so he let her alone. It was true that before the law he had no complaint against his wife, for she had borne him three good sons and they were alive, and there was no excuse for him except his desire.

Thus it went until one day his uncle’s wife came and said,

“The thing is complete. The woman who is keeper for the master of the tea house will do it for a hundred pieces of silver on her palm at one time, and the girl will come for jade earrings and a ring of jade and a ring of gold and two suits of satin clothes and two suits of silk clothes and a dozen pairs of shoes and two silken quilts for her bed.”

Of all this Wang Lung heard only this part, “The thing is complete—” and he cried out,

“Let it be done—let it be done—” and he ran into the inner room and he got out silver and poured it into her hands, but secretly still, for he was unwilling that anyone should see the good harvests of so many years go thus, and to his uncle’s wife he said, “And for yourself take a good ten pieces of silver.”

Then she made a feint of refusal, drawing up her fat body and rolling her head this way and that and crying in a loud whisper,

“No, and I will not. We are one family and you are my son and I am your mother and this I do for you and not for silver.” But Wang Lung saw her hand outstretched as she denied, and into it he poured the good silver and he counted it well spent.

Then he bought pork and beef and mandarin fish and bamboo sprouts and chestnuts, and he bought a snarl of dried birds’ nests from the south to brew for soup, and he bought dried shark’s fins and every delicacy he knew he bought and then he waited, if that burning, restless impatience within him could be called a waiting.

On a shining glittering fiery day in the eighth moon, which is the last end of summer, she came to his house. From afar Wang Lung saw her coming. She rode in a closed sedan chair of bamboo borne upon men’s shoulders and he watched the sedan moving this way and that upon the narrow paths skirting the fields, and behind it followed the figure of Cuckoo. Then for an instant he knew fear and he said to himself,

“What am I taking into my house?”

And scarcely knowing what he did he went quickly into the room where he had slept for these many years with his wife and he shut the door and there in the darkness of the room he waited in confusion until he heard his uncle’s wife calling loudly for him to come out, for one was at the gate.

Then abashed and as though he had never seen the girl before he went slowly out, hanging his head over his fine clothes, and his eyes looking here and there, but never ahead. But Cuckoo hailed him merrily,

“Well, and I did not know we would be doing business like this!”

Then she went to the chair which the men had set down and she lifted the curtain and clucked her tongue and she said,

“Come out, my Lotus Flower, here is your house and here your lord.”

And Wang Lung was in an agony because he saw upon the faces of the chair men wide grins of laughter and he thought to himself,

“Now these are loafers from the town streets and they are worthless fellows,” and he was angry that he felt his face hot and red and so he would not speak aloud at all.

Then the curtain was lifted and before he knew what he did he looked and he saw sitting in the shadowy recess of the chair, painted and cool as a lily, the girl Lotus. He forgot everything, even his anger against the grinning fellows from the town, everything but that he had bought this woman for his own and she had come to his house forever, and he stood stiff and trembling, watching as she rose, graceful as though a wind had passed over a flower. Then as he watched and could not take his eyes away, she took Cuckoo’s hand and stepped out, keeping her head bowed and her eyelids drooped as she walked, tottering and swaying upon her little feet, and leaning upon Cuckoo. And as she passed him she did not speak to him, but she whispered only to Cuckoo, faintly,

“Where is my apartment?”

Then his uncle’s wife came forward to her other side and between them they led the girl into the court and into the new rooms that Wang Lung had built for her. And of all Wang Lung’s house there was none to see her pass, for he had sent the laborers and Ching away for the day to work on a distant field, and O-lan had gone somewhere he knew not and had taken the two little ones with her and the boys were in school and the old man slept against the wall and heard and saw nothing, and as for the poor fool, she saw no one who came and went and knew no face except her father’s and her mother’s. But when Lotus had gone in Cuckoo drew the curtains after her.

Then after a time Wang Lung’s uncle’s wife came out, laughing a little maliciously, and she dusted her hands together as though to free them of something that clung to them.

“She reeks of perfume and paint, that one,” she said sti laughing. “Like a regular bad one she smells.” And then she said with a deeper malice, “She is not so young as she looks, my nephew! I will dare to say this, that if she had not been on the edge of an age when men will cease soon to look at her, it is doubtful whether jade in her ears and gold on her fingers and even silk and satin would have tempted her to the house of a farmer, and even a well-to-do farmer.” And then seeing the anger on Wang Lung’s face at this too plain speaking she added hastily, “But beautiful she is and I have never seen another more beautiful and it will be as sweet as the eight-jeweled rice at a feast after your years with the thick-boned slave from the House of Hwang.”

But Wang Lung answered nothing, only he moved here and there through the house and he listened and he could not be still. At last he dared to lift the red curtain and to go into the court he had built for Lotus and then into the darkened room where she was and there he was beside her for the whole day until night.

All this time O-lan had not come near the house. At dawn she had taken a hoe from the wall and she called the children and she took a little cold food wrapped up in a cabbage leaf and she had not returned. But when night came on she entered, silent and earth-stained and dark with weariness, and the children silent behind her, and she said nothing to anyone, but she went into the kitchen and prepared food and set it upon the table as she always did, and she called the old man and put the chopsticks in his hand and she fed the poor fool and then she ate a little with the children. Then when they slept and Wang Lung still sat at the table dreaming she washed herself for sleeping and at last she went into her accustomed room and slept alone upon her bed.

Then did Wang Lung eat and drink of his love night and day. Day after day he went into the room where Lotus lay indolent upon her bed and he sat beside her and watched her at all she did. She never came forth in the heat of the early autumn days, but she lay while the woman Cuckoo bathed her slender body with lukewarm water and rubbed oil into her flesh and perfume and oil into her hair. For Lotus had said wilfully that Cuckoo must stay with her as her servant and she paid her prodigally so that the woman was willing enough to serve one instead of a score, and she and Lotus, her mistress, dwelt apart from the others in the new court that Wang Lung had made.

All day the girl lay in the cool darkness of her room, nibbling sweetmeats and fruits, and wearing nothing but single garments of green summer silk, a little tight coat cut to her waist and wide trousers beneath, and thus Wang Lung found her when he came to her and he ate and drank of his love.

Then at sunset she sent him away with her pretty petulance, and Cuckoo bathed and perfumed her again and put on her fresh clothes, soft white silk against her flesh and peach-colored silk outside, the silken garments that Wang Lung had given, and upon her feet Cuckoo put small embroidered shoes, and then the girl walked into the court and examined the little pool with its five gold fish, and Wang Lung stood and stared at the wonder of what he had. She swayed upon her little feet and to Wang Lung there was nothing so wonderful for beauty in the world as her pointed little feet and her curling helpless hands.

And he ate and drank of his love and he feasted alone and he was satisfied.

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