The rat wife (1)
Hsi Shan was a native of Kao-mi, and a trader by occupation.
He used constantly to travel between Meng-yin and I-shui (in Shantung).
One day he was delayed on the road by rain, and when he
arrived at his usual quarters it was already late in the
night. He knocked at all the doors, but no one answered; and
he was walking backwards and forwards in the piazza when suddenly a door
flew open and an old man came out. He invited the traveler to
enter, an invitation to which Hsi Shan gladly responded; and
tying up his mule, he went in.
The place was totally unfurnished; and the old man began by
saying that it was only out of compassion that he had asked him
in, as his house was not an inn. "There are only three or four of
us," added he; "and my wife and daughter are fast asleep. We
have some of yesterday's food, which I will get ready for you;
you must not object to its being cold." He then went within, and
shortly afterwards returned with a low couch, which he placed on
the ground, begging his guest to be seated, at the same time
hurrying back for a low table, and soon for a number of other
things, until at last Hsi Shan was quite uncomfortable, and en-
treated his host to rest himself awhile.
By-and-by a young lady came out, bringing some wine; upon
which the old man said, "Oh, our A-chien has got up." She was
about sixteen or seventeen, a slender and pretty-looking girl; and
as Hsi Shan had an unmarried brother, he began to think directly
that she would do for him. So he inquired of the old man his
name and address, to which the latter replied that his name was
Ku, and that his children had all died save this one daughter. "I
didn't like to wake her just now, but I suppose my wife told her
to get up." Hsi Shan then asked the name of his son-in-law, and
was informed that the young lady was not yet engaged, - at
which he was secretly very much pleased.
A tray of food was now brought in, evidently the remains from
the day before; and when he had finished eating, Hsi Shan began
respectfully to address the old man as follows: - "I am only a
poor wayfarer, but I shall never forget the kindness with which
you have treated me. Let me presume upon it, and submit to your
consideration a plan I have in my head. My younger brother,
San-lang, is seventeen years old. He is a student, and by no
means unsteady or dull. May I hope that you will unite our
families together, and not think it presumption on my part?"
"I, too, am but a temporary sojourner," replied the old man,
rejoicing; "and if you will only let me have a part of your house,
I shall be very glad to come and live with you." Hsi Shan consented to this, and
got up and thanked him for the promise of his daughter; upon
which the old man set to work to make him comfortable for the night, and then went away.
At cockcrow he was outside, calling his guest to come and
have a wash; and when Hsi Shan had packed up ready to go, he
offered to pay for his night's entertainment. This, however, the
old man refused, saying, "I could hardly charge a stranger any-
thing for a single meal; how much less could I take money from
one who is to be a connection by marriage?"
They then separated, and in about a month Hsi Shan returned;
but when he was a short distance from the village he met an old
woman with a young lady, both dressed in deep mourning. As
they approached he began to suspect it was A-chien; and the
young lady, after turning round to look at him, pulled the old
woman's sleeve, and whispered something in her ear, which Hsi
Shan himself did not hear. The old woman stopped immediately,
and asked if she was addressing Mr. Hsi; and when informed that
she was, she said mournfully, "Alas! my husband has been killed
by the falling of a wall. We are going to bury him to-day. There is
no one at home; but please wait here, and we will we back by-and-by."
They then disappeared among the trees; and, returning after a
short absence, they walked along together in the dusk of the
evening. The old woman complained bitterly of their lonely and
helpless state, and Hsi Shan was moved to compassion by the
sight of her tears. She told him that the people of the neighborhood were a bad lot, and that if A-chien was to marry into his
family, no time should be lost. Hsi Shan said he was willing.