Thursday, September 5, 2013

[Chinese Folktale] THE WIDOW HO

One day in the early dawn, a distinguished mandarin was leaving the
temple of the City God.  It was his duty to visit this temple on the
first and fifteenth of the moon, whilst the city was still asleep, to
offer incense and adoration to the stern-looking figure enshrined

This mandarin was Shih-Kung, and a juster or more upright official did
not exist in all the fair provinces of the Empire.  Wherever his name
was mentioned it was received with the profoundest reverence and
respect; for the Chinese people have never lost their ideal of Tien-Li,
or Divine Righteousness.  This ideal is still deeply embedded in the
hearts of high and low, rich and poor; and the homage of all classes,
even of the most depraved is gladly offered to any man who
conspicuously displays this heavenly virtue.

As Shih-Kung was being carried along in his sedan chair, with his
numerous retinue following closely behind him, he happened to notice a
young woman walking in the road in front of him, and began to wonder
what it was that had brought her out at such an unusually early hour.
She was dressed in the very deepest mourning, and so after a little
more thought he concluded that she was a widow who was on her way to
the grave of her late husband to make the usual offerings to his spirit.

All at once a sudden, furious whirlwind screamed about the woman and
seemed determined to spend its force upon her; but beyond her nothing
was touched by it.  Not a leaf on the trees near by was moved, and not
a particle of dust on the road, except just where she stood, was in the
least agitated by the fierce tempest that for the moment raged around

As Shih-Kung gazed at this strange occurrence, the woman's outer skirt
was blown up in the air, and he saw that underneath was another garment
of a rich crimson hue.  He then knew at once that there was something
radically wrong, for no woman of ordinary virtuous character would ever
dare to wear such a glaring colour, while she pretended to be in deep
mourning.  There was something suspicious, too, in the sudden tornado
that blew with such terrific violence round the woman only.  It was not
an accident that brought it there.  It was clearly the angry protest of
some spirit who had been foully misused, and who was determined that
the wrong-doer should not escape the penalty for the evil she had

Calling two of his runners to him, Shih-Kung ordered them to follow the
woman and to see where she was going and what she did there, and then
to report to him immediately.

[Transcriber's note: pages 3 and 4 missing from source book]

the coffin of the dead, and was to be solved there and there only.  His
course now seemed easy, and it was with a mind full of relief that he
entered his home.

He at once issued a warrant for the arrest of the widow, and at the
same time sent officers to bring the coffin that contained the body of
her husband from its burying-place.

When the widow appeared before the mandarin, she denied that she knew
anything of the cause of her husband's death.  He had come home drunk
one night, she declared, and had fallen senseless on the ground.  After
a great deal of difficulty, she had managed to lift him up on to the
bed, where he lay in a drunken slumber, just as men under the influence
of liquor often do, so that she was not in the least anxious or
disturbed about him.  During the night she fell asleep as she watched
by his side, and when she woke up she found to her horror that he was

"That is all that can be said about the case," she concluded, "and if
you now order an examination of the body, it simply means that you have
suspicions about me, for no other person was with him but myself when
he died.  I protest therefore against the body being examined.  If,
however, you are determined to do so, I warn you that if you find no
signs of violence on it, you expose yourself according to the laws of
China to the punishment of death."

"I am quite prepared to take the responsibility," replied the mandarin,
"and I have already ordered the Coroner to open the coffin and to make
a careful examination of the body."

This was accordingly done, but no trace of injury, not even the
slightest bruise, could be discovered on any part of the dead man's

The county magistrate was greatly distressed at this result of the
enquiry, and hastened to Shih-Kung in order to obtain his advice as to
what steps he should now take to escape the punishment of death which
he had incurred by his action.  The Viceroy agreed that the matter had
indeed assumed a most serious aspect.  "But you need not be anxious,"
he added, "about what you have done.  You have only acted by my orders,
and therefore I assume all responsibility for the proceedings which you
have adopted to discover the murderer."

Late in the afternoon, as the sun began to disappear behind the
mountains of the west, Shih-Kung slipped out by a side door of his
yamen, dressed as a peddler of cloth, and with pieces of various kinds
of material resting on his shoulders.  His disguise was so perfect that
no one, as he passed down the street, dreamed of suspecting that
instead of being a wandering draper, he was in reality the
Governor-General of the Province, who was trying to obtain evidence of
a murder that had recently been committed in his own capital.

Travelling on down one street after another, Shih-Kung came at last to
the outskirts of the town, where the dwellings were more scattered and
the population was less dense.  By this time it was growing dark, so
when he came to a house that stood quite apart by itself, he knocked at
the door.  An elderly woman with a pleasant face and a motherly look
about her asked him in a kind and gentle voice what he wanted.

"I have taken the liberty," he replied, "of coming to your house to see
whether you would not kindly allow me to lodge with you for the night.
I am a stranger in this region," he continued, "and have travelled far
from my home to sell my cloth.  The night is fast falling, and I know
not where to spend it, and so I beg of you to take me in.  I do not
want charity, for I am quite able to pay you liberally for any trouble
I may cause you; and to-morrow morning, as early as you may desire, I
shall proceed on my wanderings, and you will be relieved of me."

"My good man," she replied, "I am perfectly willing that you should
lodge here for the night, only I am afraid you may have to endure some
annoyance from the conduct of my son when he returns home later in the

"My business leads me into all kinds of company," he assured her, "and
I meet people with a great variety of dispositions, but I generally
manage to get on with them all.  It may be so with your son."

With a good-natured smile, the old lady then showed him into a little
room just off the one which was used as a sitting room.  Shih-Kung was
very tired, so he threw himself down, just as he was, on a trestle bed
that stood in the corner, and began to think over his plans for solving
the mystery of the murder.  By-and-by he fell fast asleep.

About midnight he woke up at the sound of voices in the next room, and
heard the mother saying:--"I want you to be very careful how you treat
the peddler, and not to use any of your coarse language to him.
Although he looks only a common man, I am sure he is a gentleman, for
he has a refined way with him that shows he must have come from no mean
family.  I did not really want to take him in, as I knew you might
object; but the poor man was very tired, and it was getting dark, and
he declared he had no place to go to, so that at last I consented to
let him stay.  It is only for the night, and to-morrow at break of day
he says he must be on his travels again."

"I do most strongly dislike having a strange man in the house," replied
a voice which Shih-Kung concluded was the son's; "and I shall go and
have a look at him in order to satisfy myself about him."

Taking a lantern in his hand, he came close up to where Shih-Kung was
lying, and flashing the light upon his face, looked down anxiously at
him for a few moments.  Apparently he was satisfied, for he cried out
in a voice that could easily be heard in the other room: "All right,
mother, I am content.  The man has a good face, and I do not think I
have anything to fear from him.  Let him remain."

Shih-Kung now considered that it was time for him to act.  He stretched
himself and yawned as though he were just waking out of sleep, and
then, sitting up on the edge of the bed, he looked into the young man's
face and asked him who he was.

"Oh!" he replied in a friendly way, "I am the son of the old lady who
gave you permission to stay here for the night.  For certain reasons, I
am not at all anxious to have strangers about the house, and at first I
very much objected to have you here.  But now that I have had a good
look at you, my objections have all vanished.  I pride myself upon
being a good judge of character, and I may tell you that I have taken a
fancy to you.  But come away with me into the next room, for I am going
to have a little supper, and as my mother tells me that you fell asleep
without having had anything to eat, I have no doubt you will be glad to
join me."

As they sat talking over the meal, they became very friendly and
confidential with each other, and the sam-shu that the son kept
drinking from a tiny cup, into which it was poured from a steaming
kettle, had the effect of loosening his tongue and causing him to speak
more freely than he would otherwise have done.

From his long experience of the shady classes of society, Shih-Kung
very soon discovered what kind of a man his companion was, and felt
that here was a mine from which he might draw valuable information to
help him in reaching the facts he wished to discover.

Looking across the table at the son, whose face was by this time
flushed with the spirit he had been drinking, and with a hasty glance
around the room, as though he were afraid that some one might overhear
him, he said in a low voice, "I want to tell you a great secret.  You
have opened your heart a good deal to me, and now I am going to do the
same with you.  I am not really a peddler of cloth, as I have pretended
to be.  I have been simply using that business to disguise my real
occupation, which I do not want anyone to know."

"And what, may I ask, may be the trade in which you are engaged, and of
which you seem to be so ashamed that you dare not openly confess it?"
asked the son.

"Well, I am what I call a benevolent thief," replied Shih-Kung.

"A benevolent thief!" exclaimed the other in astonishment.  "I have
never heard of such a thing before, and I should very much like to know
what is meant by it."

"I must tell you," explained the guest, "that I am not a common thief
who takes the property of others for his own benefit.  I never steal
for myself.  My practice is to find out where men have made money
unjustly, and then by certain means at my command I deprive them of
some of their unlawful gains and distribute them amongst the people
they have wronged.  In this way I have been the means of bringing
suitable punishment on the heads of the guilty, and at the same time of
relieving the necessities of those who have suffered at their hands."

"I am astonished at what you tell me," replied the son, "though I do
not believe all you say about not taking a share in the plunder you
get.  But now that you have opened your heart to me, I shall repay your
confidence by telling you what I am.  I am a real thief, and I support
my mother, who does not suspect the truth, and keep the home together,
simply by what I steal from others."

He then proceeded to give an account of some of the adventures he had
met with in the course of his expeditions by night to rooms and houses
which, as he always found out beforehand by careful spying, contained
valuables that could be easily carried away.

While he was relating these stories, Shih-Kung's eyes gleamed with
delight, for he saw that the man had fallen into the trap which had
been laid for him, and felt confident that before the night was over he
would be in possession of some clue to the mystery he was endeavouring
to solve.  He was disgusted with the sordid details of the criminal
life of which the man before him seemed to be proud; yet with wonderful
patience this mandarin, with his large powers of mind, and with a
genius for statesmanship which had made him famous throughout the
Empire, sat for hours enduring the wretched talk of this common thief.
But his reward came in due time.

"By the way," exclaimed this man whose business it was to break into
homes when the small hours of the morning found their inmates wrapped
in slumber, "some time ago I had a most remarkable experience, and as
you have shown yourself such a good fellow, I will tell you about it,
if you do not think it too late to do so."

"I shall be most delighted to hear you relate it," said his guest.  "I
have been greatly entertained by your vivid way of describing the
adventures through which you have passed.  You deserve to be classed
amongst the great heroes of old, who have made their names famous by
their deeds of daring.  Go on, I pray you, and tell me the particulars
of this unusual experience."

"Well," proceeded the man, "I had very carefully planned to pay a visit
to a certain house just outside the walls of the city.  It was an easy
one to get in to without any danger of being observed, for it was in a
quiet street, where passers-by are very few after dark.  It was a
gloomy place after sunset, for the high walls that looked down upon it
threw deep and heavy shadows, which faint-hearted people declare are
really unhappy and restless ghosts prowling about to harass and
distress the unwary.

"It was a little after midnight, when with stealthy footsteps I crept
along the narrow streets, keeping as much as I could under cover of the
houses, where the darkness lay deepest.  Every home was hushed in
slumber.  The only things that really troubled me were the dogs, which,
with an intelligence far greater than that of their masters, suspected
me of some evil purpose, and barked at me and made wild snaps at my
legs.  I managed, however, to evade them and finally to arrive at the
house I intended to rob.

"When I got close up to it, I was surprised to find a light burning
inside.  There was another thing, too, that I could not understand, and
this was that a little side door by which I had planned to enter had
not been bolted, but had been left ajar so that any prowling robber
could easily gain admittance through it.  Taking off my shoes, I walked
on tiptoe along the stone-paved courtyard in the direction of the room
where the light was burning, and

[Transcriber's note: pages 13 and 14 missing from source book]

have had his heart lightened of the load that was weighing it down if I
could only have had the opportunity of whispering a single sentence
into his ear."

"It is your duty," interposed his guest, "to proceed to-morrow morning
to the mandarin's yamen, and tell your story to the county magistrate,
so that a great wrong may not go unpunished."

"That I can never do," promptly replied the man.  "What do you think
would happen were I to do what you suggest?  I am a thief.  I get my
living by thieving.  I was in the house on the night of the murder for
the purpose of robbery.  That would all come out when I give my
evidence.  After I had proved the murder, what would become of me?  I
should be cast into prison, and I might have to lie there for years,
for who would ever bail out a thief?  And then my poor mother would
starve, for she has to depend on me entirely for her living, and she
would be compelled to go on the streets and beg for charity from door
to door.  No, it is impossible for me ever to interfere in this case."

Shih-Kung recognized the difficulty in which the man was placed, and
yet without his evidence it would be impossible to convict the woman of
the crime she had committed.  He accordingly thought out a plan which
he felt would remove the obstacles that stood in the way of securing
him as a witness.

Turning to the man, he said, "I have had a very pleasant evening with
you, and I thank you for your courtesy and hospitality.  I feel my
heart moved with a desire for a deeper friendship than mere words can
ever express, and so I propose that you and I become sworn brothers, so
that whatever may befall us in the future we shall stand by each other
to the very death."

The young man looked up with astonishment at this unexpected proposal,
but the sudden flash in his eyes and the smile that overspread his
countenance showed that it was very pleasing to him.

"I shall be delighted to agree," he quickly replied, "but when shall we
have an opportunity of appearing in the temple, and of registering our
vow in the presence of the god?"

"There is no need to go to any temple," Shih-Kung replied.  "Your
family idol, which sits over there enshrined before us, will be quite
sufficient for our purpose.  Give me a pen and paper, and I will write
out the articles of our brotherhood and present them to the god."

In a few minutes the document was written out according to the minute
rules laid down by the law which binds two men in a sworn brotherhood.
By the most solemn oaths Shih-Kung and this thief agreed to assist each
other in any extremity in which either might be placed in the future.
Any call from one to the other must be instantly responded to.  No
danger and no peril to life or limb must be allowed to deter either of
them when the cry for help or deliverance was heard.  Each was to
regard the interests of the other as identical with his own, and as
long as life lasted, the obligation to succour in every time of need
could never be relaxed or annulled.

To prove that this solemn engagement was no mere passing whim of the
moment, it had to be read in the hearing of the household god, who
happened to be the Goddess of Mercy.  She would then be an everlasting
witness of the transaction, and with the invisible forces at her
command would visit pains and penalties on the one who broke his oath.
Standing in front of her shrine, Shih-Kung read out the articles of
agreement, word by word, in a slow and measured tone suited to the
solemnity of the occasion.  He then lighted the paper at the lamp, and
both men gazed at it until nothing was left but ashes, when each of
them knew that the Goddess had received the document and had placed it
in her archives in the far-off Western Heaven as a record of the vows
made in her presence in those early hours of the morning.

When they sat down again, Shih-Kung looked with a strong and masterful
gaze at his newly-created brother and said to him:--"You and I are now
sworn brothers, and of course we must be frank with each other.  I do
not wish to deceive you any longer, so I must tell you that I am
neither a peddler of cloth, nor a benevolent thief in the sense in
which you understood the term.  I am in fact Shih-Kung, the Viceroy of
this Province."

No sooner did the man hear the name of this great mandarin, who was a
profound source of terror to the criminals and evil-doers within his
jurisdiction, than he fell on his knees before him in the most abject
fright, and repeatedly knocking his head on the ground, besought him to
have mercy on him.

Raising him up gently with his hand, Shih-Kung told him to lay aside
all his fears.  "You are my brother now," he said, "and we have just
sworn in the presence of the Goddess to defend each other with our
lives.  I shall certainly perform my part of the oath.  From this
moment your fortune is made; and as for your mother, who received me
with such gracious courtesy, it shall be my privilege to provide for
her as long as she lives."

Emboldened by these words of the great statesman, the young man
appeared at the second inquest, which Shih-Kung ordered to be held, and
gave such testimony that the guilt of the wretched wife was clearly
established, and due punishment meted out to her.

folktales, tales, lores, Chinese

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