THE TRUE STORY OF AH Q (Chapter 6)
FROM RESTORATION TO DECLINE
Weichuang did not see Ah Q again till just after the Moon Festival that year. Everybody was surprised to hear of his return, and this made them think back and wonder where he had been all that time. The few previous occasions on which Ah Q had been to town, he had usually informed people in advance with great gusto; but since he had not done so this time, no one had noticed his going. He might have told the old man in charge of the Tutelary God’s Temple, but according to the custom of Weichuang it was only when Mr. Chao, Mr. Chien, or the successful county candidate went to town that it was considered important. Even the Imitation Foreign Devil’s going was not talked about, much less Ah Q’s. This would explain why the old man had not spread the news for him, with the result that the villagers had had no means of knowing.
Ah Q’s return this time was very different from before, and in fact quite enough to occasion astonishment. The day was growing dark when he appeared blinking sleepily before the door of the wine shop, walked up to the counter, pulled a handful of silver and coppers from his belt and tossed them on the counter. “Cash!” he said. “Bring the wine!” He was wearing a new, lined jacket, and at his waist evidently hung a large purse, the great weight of which caused his belt to sag in a sharp curve. It was the custom in Weichuang that when there seemed to be something unusual about anyone, he should be treated with respect rather than insolence, and now, although they knew quite well that this was Ah Q, still he was very different from the Ah Q of the ragged coat. The ancients say, “A scholar who has been away three days must be looked at with new eyes.” So the waiter, innkeeper, customers and passers-by, all quite naturally expressed a kind of suspicion mingled with respect. The innkeeper started by nodding, then said:
“Hullo, Ah Q, so you’re back!”
“Yes, I’m back.”
“You’ve made money . . . er . . . where. . .?”
“I went to town.”
By the next day this piece of news had spread through Weichuang. And since everybody wanted to hear the success story of this Ah Q of the ready money and the new lined jacket, in the wine shop, tea-house, and under the temple eaves, the villagers gradually ferreted out the news. The result was that they began to treat Ah Q with a new deference.
According to Ah Q, he had been a servant in the house of a successful provincial candidate. This part of the story filled all who heard it with awe. This successful provincial candidate was named Pai, but because he was the only successful provincial candidate in the whole town there was no need to use his surname: whenever anyone spoke of the successful provincial candidate, it meant him. And this was so not only in Weichuang but everywhere within a radius of thirty miles, as if everybody imagined his name to be Mr. Successful Provincial Candidate. To have worked in the household of such a man naturally called for respect; but according to Ah Q’s further statements, he was unwilling to go on working there because this successful candidate was really too much of a “turtle’s egg.” This part of the story made all who heard it sigh, but with a sense of pleasure, because it showed that Ah Q was actually not fit to work in such a man’s household, yet not to work was a pity.
According to Ah Q, his return was also due to the fact that he was not satisfied with the townspeople because they called a long bench a straight bench, used shredded shallots to fry fish, and—a defect he had recently discovered—the women did not sway in a very satisfactory manner as they walked. However, the town had its good points too; for instance, in Weichuang everyone played with thirty-two bamboo counters, and only the Imitation Foreign Devil could play mah-jong, but in town even the street urchins excelled at mah-jong. You had only to place the Imitation Foreign Devil in the hands of these young rascals in their teens, for him straightway to become like “a small devil before the King of Hell.” This part of the story made all who heard it blush.
“Have you seen an execution?” asked Ah Q. “Ah, that’s a fine sight. . . . When they execute the revolutionaries. . . . Ah, that’s a fine sight, a fine sight. . . . .” ” As he shook his head, his spittle flew on to the face of Chao Szu-chen who stood directly opposite. This part of the story made all who heard it tremble. Then with a glance around, he suddenly raised his right hand and dropped it on the neck of Whiskers Wang, who, his head thrust forward, was listening with rapt attention.
“Kill!” shouted Ah Q.
Whiskers Wang gave a start, and drew in his head as fast as lightning or a spark struck from a flint, while the bystanders shivered with pleasurable apprehension. After this, Whiskers Wang went about in a daze for many days, and dared not go near Ah Q, nor did the others.
Although we cannot say that in the eyes of the inhabitants of Weichuang Ah Q’s status at this time was superior to that of Mr. Chao, we can at least affirm without any danger of inaccuracy that it was about the same.
Not long after, Ah Q’s fame suddenly spread into the women’s apartments of Weichuang too. Although the only two families of any pretensions in Weichuang were those of Chien and Chao, and nine-tenths of the rest were poor, still women’s apartments are women’s apartments, and the way Ah Q’s fame spread into them was something of a miracle. When the womenfolk met they would say to each other, “Mrs. Tsou bought a blue silk skirt from Ah Q. Although it was old, it only cost ninety cents. And Chao Pai-yen’s mother (this has yet to be verified, because some say it was Chao Szu-chen’s mother) bought a child’s costume of crimson foreign calico, which was nearly new, for only three hundred cash, less eight per cent discount.”
Then those who had no silk skirt or needed foreign calico were most anxious to see Ah Q in order to buy from him. Far from avoiding him now, they sometimes followed him when he passed, calling to him to stop.
“Ah Q, have you any more silk skirts?” they would ask. “No? We want foreign calico too. Do you have any?”
This news later spread from the poor households to the rich ones, because Mrs. Tsou was so pleased with her silk skirt that she took it to Mrs. Chao for her approval, and Mrs. Chao told Mr. Chao, speaking very highly of it.
Mr. Chao discussed the matter that evening at dinner with his son, the successful county candidate, suggesting that there must be something queer about Ah Q, and that they should be more careful about their doors and windows. They did not know, though, whether Ah Q had any things left or not, and thought he might still have something good. Since Mrs. Chao happened to want a good, cheap, fur jacket, after a family council it was decided to ask Mrs. Tsou to find Ah Q for them at once. For this a third exception was made to the rule, special permission being given that evening for a lamp to be lit.
A considerable amount of oil had been burned, but still there was no sign of Ah Q. The whole Chao household was yawning with impatience, some of them resented Ah Q’s undisciplined ways, others angrily blamed Mrs. Tsou for not trying harder to get him there. Mrs. Chao was afraid that Ah Q dared not come because of the terms agreed upon that spring, but Mr. Chao did nor think this anything to worry about, because, as he said, “This time I sent for him.” Sure enough, Mr. Chao proved himself a man of insight, for Ah Q finally arrived with Mrs. Tsou.
“He keeps saying he has nothing left,” panted Mrs. Tsou as she came in. “When I told him to come and tell you so himself he went on talking. I told him. . . .”
“Sir!” said Ah Q with an attempt at a smile, coming to a halt under the eaves.
“I hear you got rich out there, Ah Q,” said Mr. Chao, going up to him and looking him over carefully. “Very good. Now . . . they say you have some old things. . . . Bring them all here for us to look at. . . . This is simply because I happen to want. . . .”
“I told Mrs. Tsou—there is nothing left.”
“Nothing left?” Mr. Chao could not help sounding disappointed. “How could they go so quickly?”
“They belonged to a friend, and there was not much to begin with. People bought some. . . . .”
“There must be something left.”
“There is only a door curtain left.”
“Then bring the door curtain for us to see,” said Mrs. Chao hurriedly.
“Well, it will be all right if you bring it tomorrow,” said Mr. Chao without much enthusiasm. “When you have anything in future, Ah Q, you must bring it to us first. . . . .”
“We certainly will not pay less than other people!” said the successful county candidate. His wife shot a hasty glance at Ah Q to see his reaction.
“I need a fur jacket,” said Mrs. Chao.
Although Ah Q agreed, he slouched out so carelessly that they did not know whether he had taken their instructions to heart or not. This made Mr. Chao so disappointed, annoyed and worried that he even stopped yawning. The successful candidate was also far from satisfied with Ah Q’s attitude, and said, “People should be on their guard against such a turtle’s egg. It might be best to order the bailiff to forbid him to live in Weichuang.”
Mr. Chao did not agree, saying that he might bear a grudge, and that in a business like this it was probably a case of “the eagle does not prey on its own nest”: his own village need not worry, and they need only be a little more watchful at night. The successful candidate, much impressed by this parental instruction, immediately withdrew his proposal for driving Ah Q away, but cautioned Mrs. Tsou on no account to repeat what he had said.
The next day, however, when Mrs. Tsou took her blue skirt to be dyed black she repeated these insinuations about Ah Q, although not actually mentioning what the successful candidate had said about driving him away. Even so, it was most damaging to Ah Q. In the first place, the bailiff appeared at his door and took away the door curtain. Although Ah Q protested that Mrs. Chao wanted to see it, the bailiff would not give it back, and even demanded a monthly payment of hush-money. In the second place, the villagers’ respect for him suddenly changed. Although they still dared not take liberties, they avoided him as much as possible. While this differed from their previous fear of his “Kill!”, it closely resembled the attitude of the ancients to spirits: they kept a respectful distance.
Some idlers who wanted to get to the bottom of the business went to question Ah Q carefully. And with no attempt at concealment, Ah Q told them proudly of his experiences. They learned that he had merely been a petty thief, not only unable to climb walls, but even unable to go through openings: he simply stood outside an opening to receive the stolen goods.
One night he had just received a package and his chief had gone in again, when he heard a great uproar inside, and took to his heels as fast as he could. He fled from the town that same night, back to Weichuang; and after this he dared not return to such a business. This story, however, was even more damaging to Ah Q, since the villagers had been keeping a respectful distance because they did not want to incur his enmity; for who could have guessed that he was only a thief who dared not steal again? Now they knew he was really too low to inspire fear.