THE TRUE STORY OF AH Q (Chapter 9)
THE GRAND FINALE
After the Chao family was robbed most of the people in Weichuang felt pleased yet fearful, and Ah Q was no exception. But four days later Ah Q was suddenly dragged into town in the middle of the night. It happened to be a dark night. A squad of soldiers, a squad of militia, a squad of police and five secret servicemen made their way quietly to Weichuang, and, after posting a machine-gun opposite the entrance, under cover of darkness they surrounded the Tutelary God’s Temple. Ah Q did not rush out. For a long time nothing stirred in the temple. The captain grew impatient and offered a reward of twenty thousand cash. Only then did two militiamen summon up courage to jump over the wall and enter. With their co-operation from within, the others rushed in and dragged Ah Q out. But not until he had been carried out of the temple to somewhere near the machine-gun did he begin to sober up.
It was already midday by the time they reached town, and Ah Q found himself carried to a dilapidated yamen where, after taking five or six turnings, he was pushed into a small room. No sooner had he stumbled inside than the door, made of wooden bars to form a grating, closed upon his heels. The rest of the room consisted of three blank walls, and when he looked round carefully he saw two other men in a corner of the room.
Although Ah Q was feeling rather uneasy, he was by no means too depressed, because the room where he slept in the Tutelary God’s Temple was in no way superior to this. The two other men also seemed to be villagers. They gradually fell into conversation with him, and one of them told him that the successful provincial candidate wanted to dun him for the rent owed by his grandfather; the other did not know why he was there. When they questioned Ah Q, he answered quite frankly, “Because I wanted to revolt.”
That afternoon he was dragged out through the barred door and taken to a big hall, at the far end of which sat an old man with a cleanly shaven head. Ah Q took him for a monk at first, but when he saw soldiers standing guard and a dozen men in long coats on both sides, some with their heads cleanshaven like this old man and some with a foot or so of hair hanging over their shoulders like the Imitation Foreign Devil, all glaring furiously at him with grim faces, he knew this man must be someone important. At once the joints of his knees relaxed of their own accord, and he sank down.
“Stand up to speak! Don’t kneel!” shouted all the men in the long coats.
Although Ah Q understood, he felt incapable of standing up: his body had involuntarily dropped to a squatting position, and improving on it he finally knelt down.
“Slave!” exclaimed the long-coated men contemptuously. They did not insist on his getting up, however.
“Tell the truth and you will receive a lighter sentence,” said the old man with the shaven head, in a low but clear voice, fixing his eyes on Ah Q. “I know everything already. When you have confessed, I will let you go.”
“Confess!” repeated the long-coated men loudly.
“The fact is I wanted … to come . . .” muttered Ah Q disjointedly, after a moment’s confused thinking.
“In that case, why didn’t you come?” asked the old man gently.
“The Imitation Foreign Devil wouldn’t let me!”
“Nonsense! It is too late to talk now. Where are your accomplices?”
“What? . . .”
“The people who robbed the Chao family that night.”
“They didn’t come to call me. They moved the things away themselves.” Mention of this made Ah Q indignant.
“Where did they go? When you have told me I will let you go,” repeated the old man even more gently.
“I don’t know . . . they didn’t come to call me. . . .”
Then, at a sign from the old man, Ah Q was dragged back through the barred door. The following morning he was dragged out once more.
Everything was unchanged in the big hall. The old man with the clean-shaven head was still sitting there, and Ah Q knelt down again as before.
“Have you anything else to say?” asked the old man gently.
Ah Q thought, and decided there was nothing to say, so he answered, “Nothing.”
Then a man in a long coat brought a sheet of paper and held a brush in front of Ah Q, which he wanted to thrust into his hand. Ah Q was now nearly frightened out of his wits, because this was the first time in his life that his hand had ever come into contact with a writing brush. He was just wondering how to hold it when the man pointed out a place on the paper, and told him to sign his name.
“I—I—can’t write,” said Ah Q, shamefaced, nervously holding the brush.
“In that case, to make it easy for you, draw a circle!”
Ah Q tried to draw a circle, but the hand with which he grasped the brush trembled, so the man spread the paper on the ground for him. Ah Q bent down and, as painstakingly as if his life depended on it, drew a circle. Afraid people would laugh at him, he determined to make the circle round; however, not only was that wretched brush very heavy, but it would not do his bidding. Instead it wobbled from side to side; and just as the line was about to close it swerved out again, making a shape like a melon seed.
While Ah Q was ashamed because he had nor been able to draw a round circle, the man had already taken back the paper and brush without any comment. A number of people then dragged him back for the third time through the barred door.
This time he did not feel particularly irritated. He supposed that in this world it was the fate of everybody at some time to be dragged in and out of prison, and to have to draw circles on paper; it was only because his circle had not been round that he felt there was a stain on his reputation. Presently, however, he regained composure by thinking, “Only idiots can make perfect circles.” And with this thought he fell asleep.
That night, however, the successful provincial candidate was unable to go to sleep, because he had quarrelled with the captain. The successful provincial candidate had insisted that the most important thing was to recover the stolen goods, while the captain said the most important thing was to make a public example. Recently the captain had come to treat the successful provincial candidate quite disdainfully. So, banging his fist on the table, he said, “Punish one to awe one hundred! See now, I have been a member of the revolutionary party for less than twenty days, but there have been a dozen cases of robbery, none of them solved yet; and think how badly that reflects on me. Now this one has been solved, you come and argue like a pedant. It won’t do! This is my affair.”
The successful provincial candidate was very upset, but he still persisted, saying that if the stolen goods were nor recovered, he would resign immediately from his post as assistant civil administrator. “As you please!” said the captain.
In consequence the successful provincial candidate did not sleep that night, but happily he did not hand in his resignation the next day after all.
The third time that Ah Q was dragged out of the barred door, was the morning following the night on which the successful provincial candidate had been unable to sleep. When he reached the big ball, the old man with the clean-shaven head was still sitting there as usual, and Ah Q also knelt down as usual.
Very gently the old man questioned him: “Have you anything more to say?”
Ah Q thought, and decided there was nothing to say, so he answered, “Nothing.”
A number of men in long coats and short jackets put a white vest of foreign cloth on him. It had some black characters on it. Ah Q felt considerably disconcerted, because this was very like mourning dress, and to wear mourning was unlucky. At the same time his hands were bound behind his back, and he was dragged out of the yamen.
Ah Q was lifted on to an uncovered cart, and several men in short jackets sat down with him. The cart started off at once. In front were a number of soldiers and militiamen shouldering foreign rifles, and on both sides were crowds of gaping spectators, while what was behind Ah Q could not see. Suddenly it occurred to him—”Can I be going to have my head cut off?” Panic seized him and everything turned dark before his eyes, while there was a humming in his ears as if he had fainted. But he did not really faint. Although he felt frightened some of the time, the rest of the time he was quite calm. It seemed to him that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to have his head cur off.
He still recognized the road and felt rather surprised: why were they not going to the execution ground? He did not know that he was being paraded round the streets as a public example. But if he had known, it would have been the same; he would only have thought that in this world probably it was the fate of everybody at some time to be made a public example of.
Then he realized that they were making a detour to the execution ground, so, after all, he must be going to have his head cut off. He looked round him regretfully at the people swarming after him like ants, and unexpectedly in the crowd of people by the road he caught sight of Amah Wu. So that was why he had not seen her for so long: she was working in town.
Ah Q suddenly became ashamed of his lack of spirit, because he had not sung any lines from an opera. His thoughts revolved like a whirlwind: The Young Widow at Her Husband’s Grave was not heroic enough. The words of “I regret to have killed” in The Battle of Dragon and Tiger were too poor. I’ll thrash you with a steel mace was still the best. But when he wanted to raise his hands, he remembered that they were bound together; so he did not sing I’ll thrash you either.
“In twenty years I shall be another . . . .” In his agitation Ah Q uttered half a saying which he had picked up himself but never used before. The crowd’s roar “Good!!!” sounded like the growl of a wolf.
The cart moved steadily forward. During the shouting Ah Q’s eyes turned in search of Amah Wu, but she did not seem to have seen him for she was looking intently at the foreign rifles carried by the soldiers.
So Ah Q took another look at the shouting crowd.
At that instant his thoughts revolved again like a whirlwind. Four years before, at the foot of the mountain, he had met a hungry wolf which had followed him at a set distance, wanting to eat him. He had nearly died of fright, but luckily he happened to have an axe in his hand, which gave him the courage to get back to Weichuang. He had never forgotten that wolf’s eyes, fierce yet cowardly, gleaming like two will-o’-the-wisps, as if boring into him from a distance. Now he saw eyes more terrible even than the wolf’s: dull yet penetrating eyes that, having devoured his words, still seemed eager to devour something beyond his flesh and blood. And these eyes kept following him at a set distance.
These eyes seemed to have merged into one, biting into his soul.
But Ah Q never uttered these words. All had turned black before his eyes, there was a buzzing in his ears, and he felt as if his whole body were being scattered like so much light dust.
As for the after-effects of the robbery, the most affected was the successful provincial candidate, because the stolen goods were never recovered. All his family lamented bitterly. Next came the Chao household; for when the successful county candidate went into town to report the robbery, nor only did he have his pigtail cut off by bad revolutionaries, but he had to pay a reward of twenty thousand cash into the bargain; so all the Chao family lamented bitterly too. From that day forward they gradually assumed the air of the survivors of a fallen dynasty.
As for any discussion of the event, no question was raised in Weichuang. Naturally all agreed that Ah Q had been a bad man, the proof being that he had been shot; for if he had not been bad, how could he have been shot? But the consensus of opinion in town was unfavourable. Most people were dissatisfied, because a shooting was nor such a fine spectacle as a decapitation; and what a ridiculous culprit he had been too, to pass through so many streets without singing a single line from an opera They had followed him for nothing.
[Note: twenty years] “In twenty years I shall be another stout young fellow” was a phrase often used by criminals before execution, to show their scorn of death.