Chapter 18 continued

Now those who love snow are gentlemen of wealth and leisure in their big places, while those that detest it are the poor folks in their narrow spaces. Our down-and-out Squire Hu of the capital city Dongjing was once a man of great wealth and influence who had lost it all in that Heaven-sent fire that completely bankrupted him and forced him to move into solitary beggar's quarters. And just now to make matters worse Heaven sends a mid-winter blizzard! The three of them sat all night huddled round the stove with all six hands tending the fire and come daybreak they had no rice for breakfast. Mama pointed at her husband's head, causing him to nod and come over for a look.

"It's no big thing, Mama!" he said.

"A blizzard and no food on hand! All that food and fine clothing you provided us and now we're starving with you. Our account is even I guess!" She then pointed at Yong'r. "She'll be fourteen this year. What sort of parents can just sit by and let their daughter suffer like this!"

"It can't be helped! If you've got any ideas for me to try, please tell me!"

"You're the head of this family! It's been freezing like this for half a day now since sunrise and if you don't get going and do what you have to do, and fast, we three are all going to be facing death from starvation! If you can maybe corner just one or two of your old associates and hit them up for three or four hundred coins we'll be all right for a few days."

"Surely you know what things are like now! Nobody will even look me in the face!"

"Still," countered Mama, "one day's shame means three days' eating! If you don't go I will!"

Now nothing could ever force Squire Hu to live off of Mama.

"Better tighten up your belts a bit, cause this might take longer than a day!" he said, rising to his feet. "Today's world is all dazzled by luxurious trimmings and nobody cares about the poor. Trying to get sympathy these days is harder than taking on a tiger barehanded. You two wait here patiently and don't think for one moment this is going to be easy!"

And so having said his piece he opened the gate and went out, eyes brimming with tears. He seemed to slip and fall backwards three steps for every two he took. "It's really cold!" he muttered, that icey wind stabbing at his face like arrows and the cold air cutting like knives into his body! The northwesterly wind blew him back a few paces and when he tried to return home he found that Mama had already bolted the gate. He could only press on silently in the wind and snow, away from the shelter in hope of arousing pity in someone. And here is a poem:

From darkest clouds as thick as wool the snow just falls and flies
Everywhere concealing streets of jade from searching eyes.

He sought to beg some money for his daughter and his spouse
Where could he go to find the likes of Meng Changjun's guest house?

Squire Hu was desperately searching for an old associate and had no use for pride or shame. He just went right down a small street to the left of his old estate and as he was well known in the city many people recognized him at once. "There goes that ruined Squire Hu," they remarked cuttingly, "all washed up forever!"

And there were others who openly poked fun at him with rhymes like this:

"Old man Hu was once Esquire
Down from Heaven came a fire
Sent his good days up in smoke
Hard times now that he is broke!"

And there were those as well who had suffered losses in their dealings with his warehouses:

"Scales set light when paying out and heavy when receiving
Phony cash payed out but always real money in.

When Heaven made his cheating heart the mold was thrown away
Now he and all his kin must suffer to their dying day!"

Squire Hu was just walking along with his head bowed low when he suddenly found himself face to face with somebody holding a small umbrella.

"Why, Squire Hu! Where are you going in this snowy weather?" the man asked.

It was none other than that long-haired scholar Chen, the very same Chen Shan he had invited into his house in happier times to teach Yong'r the classics. Squire Hu's face flushed with embarrassment and shame as he bowed and spoke.

"To tell the truth, Professor, our household has taken a big fall and now we're starving. I've come here to find an acquaintance or two to help, that's how bad it is."

"If you're that hard up why don't you rush on over to see that fellow who lives below the gate to the Four Memorial Arches District?"

"Which one was he?"

The scholar leaned over and whispered a few words into his ear and Squire Hu beamed with happiness, clasping his hands together gratefully.

"You've been a support in my hour of deepest need and I'll never forget this!"

"It's nothing, just what anyone would do!" said the scholar humbly. He then tugged at Squire Hu's to come and share his umbrella. This helped renew his strength as they turned out of his old street and headed for the gateway of the Four Arches District to search for this fellow named Mi Bida, a former loafer who had won the heart and support of a Privy Councillor who sponsored him for an official post. Three years earlier he had been angling for a promotion but didn't have enough cash on hand to make it happen. He knew however that his old friend Chen Shan was teaching in Squire Hu's home and made use of his trust to help in securing a loan of 300 ounces of silver which he made available to the yamen to take care of things. As a result of this he rose to the rank of Superintendant for Jizhou District, where he served for a bit over two years before disputes with his associates got him reposted to office in Qingzhou. He was now conveniently stopping off at home to pick up his wife and children on his way to taking up his new posting, and as we look in on him he has been home for two days. Now Chen Shan had originally signed for his loan as guarantor, so although Squire Hu's contract had been burned in the fire he was delighted to have the original co-signer with him as a witness. Moreover as it was a loan granted as a special favor there was no refusing to pay it back.

Professor Chen was really going to pay this call on behalf of Squire Hu, ever so tactfully going in first to greet his old friend. Squire Hu was filled with glee as they approached the gate where a few lower officials and servant folk were coming and going, none too busily. But there was also a burly guard inside the gate who caught sight of Squire Hu's tattered gown and took him at once for a beggar, shouting a stern warning. Who would want to go forth and defy such a character? And so Chen handed Squire Hu the umbrella, expaining that they had arrived unexpected but that everything would be all right once he'd gotten in to see Superintendent Mi and raise the matter as he surely would, and telling him to wait outside in the street until he was called. After the professor entered, however, a number of people began to taunt Squire Hu, saying that a beggar was defiling an official's presence and so he drew himself away to the outside of the gate and only bowed his head in shame as he waited. Chen Shan entered the official's residence and met with District Superintendant Mi, exchanging formal pleasantries over tea before being invited into the study to sit at ease. He felt it the right time to raise the matter.

"I've got a friend of ours outside waiting to see you" he said.


"A man you once visited named Hu Dahong."

"Isn't that the Squire Hu with the banking business and warehouses in Pingan Street?"

"Indeed it is."

"Well, let's call him in at once!" said the official. A page boy was hurriedly instructed to run out and fetch him.

"I haven't seen the likes of any Squire Hu," said the guard. But the squire, hanging down his head at the outside opening of the gateway tunnel overheard and came over.

"I'm Squire Hu" he announced to the astonished laughter of the onlookers.

"Well, in all my days!" said one of the crowd. "I've set foot in four hundred district commanderies all around this land and never seen a "squire" like you! Hah! If you're a Squire, I'm a Grand Secretary"!

The guard blocked him from entering. Squire Hu then shouted loudly for Professor Chen, but at that moment who should appear coming out of the dwelling but an old man by the name of Liu Yi, Mi Bida's trusted servant long known for his loyalty. He had accompanied Mi on his last assignment and just recently returned. He had been present on that day three years before when Mi Bida borrowed the silver and it was he who received it and carried it home, making a few journeys there and back in the process. Although the Squire had been through some changes the old servant still recognized his face at once. Telling the guard to stand aside he came forth and welcomed Squire Hu, who then explained in brief the disaster that had befallen him and the reason for that day's visit.

"Our master has called for you, so I'm sure there'll be some good news!" said Liu Yi. He then led the Squire into the residence, where our local scholar Chen spotted him and hurriedly stood. Now when Superintendant Mi first caught sight of that poor fellow dressed in rags he felt deceived for a moment and did a double-take. Squire Hu walked over and bowed ever so respectfully and deeply, clasping his hands before him.

"Your excellency, it's been a long time!" he said dramatically.

The official wave his hand lightly as if to dismiss him, then sat as before.

"Who is this man?" he asked Professor Chen.

"Why, it's Squire Hu Dahong!" answered Chen Shan.

Mi Bida deliberately rubbed his eyes and stared repeatedly. "Three years since we last parted and already I don't recognize you." Not bowing and looking away from the visitor, Mi Bida told him to be seated. This left Chen Shan as a sort of go-between, half guest and half host, and Mi seated himself facing them both. Squire Hu was uneasy with Superintendant Mi's long silence and stated his business.

"Your lowly subject has a matter to discuss that he's been unsure about raising with your excellency."

Mi Bida feigned ignorance. "And what might that business be?"

"To start at the beginning, three years ago when I had my warehouses and my family was in good straits your excellency contracted with me to borrow three hundred ounces of silver at twenty percent interest. When your excellency took up official duties in Jizhou I, your subject, didn't dare mention it. I'm here today only because my fate has taken such a bitter turn. My warehouses, home and land have been wiped out or else made worthless by a fire sent by Heaven's own lightning. It burnt everything and left not a blade of grass, leaving us hungry and dressed in rags. We live from hand to mouth in constant hardship, from day to day. As your excellency has now returned for a visit I've come just to plead for your understanding with this matter. I don't dare ask for the interest, only the principal so that I may have it available as capital to reconstruct my life, with your excellency's usual kindness and grace."

"When I needed funds to gain office I only borrowed a hundred ounces for the purpose, certainly not as much as you claim. I paid it back with interest a year after I arrived in Jizhou. What's all this talk of so many ounces of silver?"

"Your highness doesn't remember well, as it was indeed three hundred ounces and it hasn't yet been repaid!"

"If I haven't paid it back you must still have the contract. Why don't you produce it so we can have a look and know for sure?"

"The contract was burnt up in the fire too." Squire Hu then pointed at scholar Chen. "The witness and guarantor of the contract is here to back me up."

"I handled everything, and I can say it hasn't been repayed," said Chen Shan; "I think that maybe your excellency doesn't recall correctly..."

"That's why common sense dictates to get it in writing!"exclaimed Mi, his face changing. "That's the only way to prevent these disputes. Without the original contract you two can say I owe you three hundred, three thousand or whatever you like!"

Chen Shan knew that the official had simply forgotten all about it. "I beg your honor to reconsider!" he pleaded. "I swear by Heaven that our reckoning is correct. Please take your time to think about the matter!"

"Look!" said Squire Hu, laughing, I'don't dare insist on three hundred or even two hundred for that matter. Anything your excellency can offer would be fine!"

Mi Bida was furious and rose in a huff. "You two wheedle and whine the same beggar's act, just after my cash for no good reason. If you came by with a contract of mine I'd even give you three thousand if that's what it said. Without a contract don't even think about getting your hands on one broken copper coin of mine!"

Having spoken he turned and went back into his quarters. Old Liu Yi heard that the master sounded unhappy and just tried to be agreable, although he knew the truth of the matter from the beginning and still had a bit of a conscience. So he waited for the pair at the main gate where Squire Hu and Scholar Chen angrily exited.

"Squire, please relax, let me take care of everything and get the master to reconsider. It's sure to come out all right in the end. Anyway, I guess you're hungry after half a day here so if you don't mind I'd like to treat you both to noodles at my favorite shop. Come on, Professor, how about joining us?"

Now Chen Shan was filled with anger and had no desire to eat Liu Yi's food. But seeing the hunger on Squire Hu's face he feared that declining the invitation might cause his friend to to miss this meal. He had no choice but to go along with them for Squire Hu's sake. And so Liu Yi led the squire and the scholar both down a sidestreet and into a secluded nearby restaurant where Squire Hu was really to be rescued from his dire straits, to be saved in fact from the clutches of death. It was like this:

A wealthy man unsatisfied with three fine meals in sight
Will find it hard when hunger has him scavenging a bite.

To find out just how Squire Hu gets home to save the day
Look and see just what the coming chapter has to say!

Conclusion of Chapter 18 Click to Continue to Chapter 19 Table of Contents Homepage