By Yang Jiang[ 1 ]
Tr. by Judith M. Amory and Yaohua Shi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2014)
Though it was in fact autumn, Dr. Yu Bin felt like spring in his heart. Who said he was old! Forty is the prime of life, and the blood of youth flowed in his veins. Like the foam in an opened bottle of soda, his spirits bubbled upwards. He pushed aside the piles of books covering his desk, books by world famous authors on political science and social issues. Why do research? Why write books? He felt that his toes were possessed and wouldn’t be still. All of their own accord, they itched to dance. But Yu Bin had never had the time to learn dancing. He hummed a bit, but found the only tune he could hum—the first few bars of “Little Mouse,” which his younger son sang—was too simple. It couldn’t convey the surging life in his breast. He rushed to the window and looked down at a small square of grass by the front gate: the green had faded, but not yet withered. The orchids in the white flowerpots basked in the setting sun. In the sunlight, the green leaves seemed to smile at him knowingly. Yu Bin decided at once to go out for a walk.
Before he turned around, he heard his wife’s footsteps. He called, “Where’s my baby?”
Mrs. Yu quickly called her younger son, “Baby! Daddy wants you.”
When Yu Bin heard her come in, he turned his body in a sprightly dance step—for a forty-year old man who was putting on weight and never exercised, he was really much nimbler than anyone could expect. He turned and taking his wife by the waist, planted a big fat kiss on her plump cheek. Smiling he said, “Baby didn’t recognize herself!”
Mrs. Yu impatiently wriggled free, and looked at him with some annoyance. “What are you doing?” She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her cheek.
Yu Bin felt deflated. All right, so she pushed him away, but did she have to take out a handkerchief and wipe her face? Clearly he repelled her. But his big round face was still wreathed in smiles with no room for resentment. He just said brazenly, “I’m like Qiuhu in the old play, who tried to seduce his own wife by mistake.” He didn’t wait for a reply, but took her hand and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Go for a walk where? The tailor’s coming in a minute. I wanted to have him turn that silk-padded gown of yours. And there’s half a catty of silk padding, I don’t know where I put it.” She hurriedly opened cabinets, chests, and drawers—this room was their bedroom. Yu Bin liked working up here. It was brighter than his downstairs study, which doubled as the living room.
Clearly, his wife didn’t want to go out. Yu Bin made a point of complaining loudly, “All right! All right! I’m an old widower, no one wants to keep me company.” Then he sat down at his wife’s dressing table to adorn himself. He clumsily opened her jar of almond cream and the lid rolled far away.
“Ai! You want my almond cream!” Mrs. Yu picked up the lid and put it back on the jar. When she saw her husband lift his ten fingers and use his palms to spread cream on his cheeks, she couldn’t help laughing. “Some old widower! So good-looking!”
Yu Bin scrutinized himself in the mirror and said with satisfaction, “Not bad at all. And I wouldn’t call him old.”
His wife said, “Who ever said you were old!”
Yu Bin brushed his hair and sighed, “Still, I’m getting a little bald, just a little!” He winked at himself in the mirror to show off his sense of humor.
His wife laughed, “What do you mean, bald? It just shows off your lofty cranium!” She grabbed the brush impatiently, combed her husband’s hair until it was neat, gave him a clean handkerchief, and urged him to get going.
He went downstairs and before going out the door he looked up at the bedroom window. He called, “Huifen!” (He didn’t call her “Baby” this time). His wife stuck her head out and asked what the matter was. Yu Bin just laughed and waved to her, “See you soon!” Irritated, she replied, “I’ve got work to do,” and went back in. Yu Bin felt as if someone had dumped a glass of cold water on his head.
To demonstrate his resilience, his footsteps grew more bouncy. He didn’t care if passersby laughed at him. He stiffened his neck, stuck out his belly, and moved proudly and vigorously along. But after he turned a few corners, his mood deflated a bit, like a punctured ball that had fallen into the mud. As the air leaked out, the mud seeped in. Gradually Yu Bin began to feel his heart was so heavy he couldn’t lift it. What a drag! Of course, Huifen was a good wife, the best of wives. But why did a woman forget everything else once she became a wife? A wife was no longer a lover, no longer a friend. Such a drag! She was satisfied with things as they were. Now that she was a good wife, she could complacently grow fat and wait to grow old. Yu Bin felt that his own fatness was just an infectious disease he caught from his wife. Couldn’t fat be infectious? Her smugness and emotional laziness influenced him and made him fat. He didn’t want to get fat! Nobody knew how much he hated fat people. “I want thin ones! So thin that they’re all muscle!” he’d say of women. He didn’t like pale skin either. “What’s so good about pale skin? It looks like raw flour! I like the suntanned look. I’d rather have sunburned than raw!” Those were Yu Bin’s criteria when he chose a wife. Like all men with criteria for wives, he ended up choosing just the opposite. He wasn’t at all dissatisfied with his wife, even though she was the opposite of what he had had in mind. It was just that when reality disappointed him, he longed vaguely for something—right now, his thoughts wandered from fat to complexion. Pale is a color without emotion. But tan suggests the warmth of sunlight—or maybe a dark cloud pregnant with lightning. Yu Bin smiled a little, knowing whom he was admiring. Well, it was just random thoughts. It wasn’t as if he were praising Miss Hu Ruoqu to her face!
Before he knew it he was in the park, walking slowly under the shadowy trees on quiet stone paths. He was dreaming, but it really wasn’t a dream. He was thinking of that lithe, nimble body, that thin face, the mobile features, the eyebrows plucked in a fine curve, the thick lashes, the laughing, shining black eyes—Yu Bin stumbled and nearly fell. He sat down on a stone bench under the trees and laughed at himself: You can’t think that way! It’s dangerous! Phew, thinking about her! She was so stuck-up; she didn’t care for any of her male classmates. She had once come modestly to his house and asked for private tutoring, but now she didn’t pay any attention to her professor. And what if she did pay attention? A bald old man. A gust of wind blew past and Yu Bin felt cold. Apparently the sun had set without his noticing it. The long shadows of the trees had disappeared and all that remained were the fallen leaves, half green and half yellow, bleak and pathetic. He sighed involuntarily. I’m old, I’m old, I’m old. With many sighs, he made his way home.
At dinner his wife suddenly said, “A girl student came looking for you.”
His younger son said at once, “Hu Ruoqu!”
Mrs. Yu said, “What do you know? Eat your dinner.”
The older boy said with an experienced air, “That’s who it was.”
Yu Bin felt a wave of warmth. He didn’t know if it was only in his mind or if it showed on his face. He feigned indifference. “What did she want?”
“Who knows?” his wife replied without interest.
“You didn’t ask?”
“I told her you just left,” she said blandly.
Yu Bin wanted to find out more, but he couldn’t think how to ask. He looked at his wife’s face but it was unreadable, so all he could do was ask his younger son, “How did you know who she was?” Both boys were busy chewing on duck wings. His wife said with a smile, “I never remember names; I just remember a face as black as the bottom of a wok, black down all over it, and a whiny voice as if she were about to cry.”
Yu Bin objected loudly. “Hu Ruoqu? She’s nothing like that!”
“I don’t know if it was Hu Ruoqu or someone else, but that’s the person who just came.” His wife calmly put down her chopsticks and went to wash her face.
Yu Bin was outraged. Miss Hu might be dark, but a far cry from the bottom of a wok. Perhaps she had a bit of facial hair but not black down all over her face! A refined young lady like that, how could you say she had “a whiny voice”? Women obviously were no judges of beauty; they just used themselves as models. Yu Bin stared at his wife’s mug behind the steaming hot towel: nose, mouth, cheeks, eyeballs, everything was smooth as butter and a soft pink, not a trace of hair, not even eyebrows. A naked fat pink face. Of course, Huifen’s face wasn’t usually all pink. Everybody agreed she was attractive. Of course “beauty” also takes a rest from time to time. Yu Bin wasn’t the sort of unreasonable man who expects his wife to look good every minute of the day. But if she said someone had black down all over her face, she was inviting scrutiny of her own hairless face. She should look in the mirror!
Just then the doorbell rang. The maid, Mrs. Zhang, answered and invited a young lady in. It was that girl with black down all over her face, Hu Ruoqu.
Yu Bin put down his bowl and sotto voce urged his two sons, “Quick, quick, upstairs. Go upstairs.” That was because their dining room was just a small square nook off the living room. He always felt it was not a fitting sight for polite guests. The children put down their bowls and wanted to run off, but Mrs. Yu insisted they sit and eat slowly. She invited Miss Hu to be seated, but she herself sat by the table to watch the children eat and select morsels for them.
Wiping his mouth with a damp towel, Yu Bin hastened to welcome the guest. Miss Hu stood under the lamp, and he saw that she was wearing a tight Chinese dress of deep red wool under a tailored dark gray coat. Her dark skin was calm, soft and warm, like a velvety dark red rosebud. She batted her thick lashes and said, half shyly and half flirtatiously, “I came back.”
Yu Bin quickly apologized for not being home to welcome her. He asked her to sit, asked if she wanted to remove her coat? And had she eaten dinner? His words tumbled over each other and became incoherent; embarrassed, he turned evasively and called, “Huifen!” But Mrs. Yu was chatting about something amusing with the children and taking them upstairs with talk and laughter.
Miss Hu slowly took off her coat, lifting her brows and pursing her small mouth. Looking at him respectfully but a bit reproachfully, she said, “I almost didn’t come. I’m really sorry to bother Mrs. Yu so often.” Yu Bin said, “Not at all, not at all,” but he couldn’t make out whether she was apologizing or complaining. She went on very formally, saying that she had been entrusted with a mission; otherwise she would never have dared to visit more than once. She was editing the class magazine, and they must have one of Professor Yu’s illustrious pieces to lend prestige and complete the publication. Yu Bin gave a flattered laugh and apologized, “I don’t have any good drafts right now.” Miss Hu made a face and said archly, “I think they’re probably too good.” Yu Bin went through his drawers, dithering. Miss Hu stood nearby and stole glances at the buried treasures. She said, even more mischievously: “If Professor Yu is reluctant to part with them, I’ll just steal one.” Yu Bin picked out an old essay and said modestly that it wasn’t very good. Miss Hu grabbed it and read it right away. She lowered herself onto the sofa as she read. But she knew Professor Yu was studying her face. Naughty Professor Yu! She took the manuscript and thanked him solemnly. Then they couldn’t think of anything else to say. Yu Bin asked her what books she’d been reading lately. What had she been doing? Miss Hu asked Professor Yu what he was working on? When all that was said, they felt there was nothing more to say. But Miss Hu didn’t want to get up, and Yu Bin was also afraid she would take her leave.
At that point, silence was more eloquent than speech! Yu Bin felt that right now, in his living room, that “dark cloud pregnant with lightning” was emitting electric flashes. And he himself was like a quivering copper wire, waiting to receive the charge. Suddenly, inspiration hit. He slapped his thighs and smiled, “Right! Miss Hu, please stay there for a moment.” He got up too quickly and nearly tripped over Miss Hu’s feet. As he tried to right himself, he fell over onto the sofa where she was sitting. She immediately put out both hands to steady him. Looking at each other they both burst out laughing. This time Yu Bin really did feel as if he’d received an electric charge, and he completely forgot to apologize. He was like a bashful little girl, and he ran up the stairs as if fleeing something.
He rushed into the room and called to Huifen, “Where’s the little one’s candy?” Mrs. Yu was sitting at her dressing table combing her hair. She saw her husband’s excited face in the mirror. Her hand stopped in midair, and without turning her head she just watched him in the mirror. Usually she didn’t put on makeup after dinner, but this evening she not only powdered her face and penciled her eyebrows; she even put on rouge. But Yu Bin didn’t notice. He didn’t wait for his wife’s reply, but opened the cupboard to take out his younger son’s candy box. He knew that both boys were playing on the third floor, and weren’t likely to come down and object. But his wife rushed over and pushed him away, closed the cupboard door, and stood in front of it. She said stubbornly, “It’s his.”
He never thought his wife could be so stingy. He smiled apologetically, “I’ll buy him another box.”
Her face was even more stony. “No need.” She locked the cupboard and went downstairs.
What was that about? Over a box of candy! He went down, indignant.
His wife’s face had changed very fast. She was all smiles now, apologizing to Miss Hu. “I’ve been a poor hostess; I just couldn’t get down earlier to keep you company.” Miss Hu smiled very sweetly and also apologized, “I’m so sorry to have disturbed you.” Yu Bin suddenly discovered that between her smiles, his wife was shooting glances like daggers. “You’re so accomplished, Miss Hu!” That was one dagger.
“Oh, not at all, Mrs. Yu!” she replied nonchalantly, lowering her thick eyelashes as a shield.
“You really work so hard.” A spear thrust.
“You’re making fun of me, Mrs. Yu.”
Oh! Yu Bin suddenly understood it all. No wonder! If Miss Hu had stopped coming, it was because his wife had offended her. He couldn’t help feeling resentful. Looking at that unsmiling face, he was embarrassed on Miss Hu’s behalf. And such a proud young lady, to be insulted for no reason, and over an essay by her teacher! Yu Bin felt ashamed, and even more, he felt sorry for Miss Hu. With her lashes covering those jet-black shining eyes, she was pretending she didn’t notice. How could she not notice! Such an intelligent, lively face! Compared to her, his wife’s face looked dull and gloomy, no light, no color—Yu Bin turned his attention to his wife’s face and noticed for the first time that the daggers and spears were aimed at him. Yu Bin had neither the capacity for battle, nor the thick eyelashes to shield himself. He just had to look down at the floor, and no longer dared to admire Miss Hu’s defense tactics. Listening to his wife and the young lady exchange skillful compliments, he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He sat there stupidly, now and then giving a silly laugh, with no idea how to rescue the situation.
Miss Hu prepared to leave, very slowly reaching out for her coat. They really had treated her badly!
Before she could get up, children’s voices called loudly from upstairs, one after the other, “Mama!” They grew louder and louder. Miss Hu stood up, “I really should be going.” His wife stood up too, and making no attempt to keep her, quickly said goodbye; she had to go up and see to those quarreling children. So she was the first to leave the scene. Yu Bin asked very apologetically, “Won’t you stay awhile?” Miss Hu just shook her head tiredly and put on her coat.
Yu Bin accompanied her to the door, sorry that he hadn’t helped her with the coat. He was also ashamed of his wife’s slight, and that he hadn’t explained himself. All he could do was borrow European etiquette, shaking her hand warmly before parting. Perhaps he shook it too warmly, so that he hurt her hand, or perhaps they just weren’t used to western ways, but they shook for too long. And somehow or other, when Miss Hu withdrew her hand, Yu Bin didn’t let go, so that she fell forward and by chance ended up against Yu Bin’s chest, and by accident Yu Bin kissed this dark red velvety rose of a girl.
Mrs. Yu sent the children to bed and waited and waited. Why didn’t her husband come up? She quietly tiptoed downstairs. She saw him under the bright living-room lamp, sitting foolishly there alone. He didn’t move for quite awhile.
When the clock struck ten, Yu Bin jumped up as if he’d just awakened from a dream. He felt as if he’d been given a shot of stimulant. The reaction had passed and the medicine had taken effect. He rushed vigorously into the bedroom, two steps at a time, humming “Little mouse, running up the candlestick . . .” His wife was sitting glumly at the dressing table. When she saw him come in, she quickly loosened her hair, picked up the brush and began to brush it slowly. Yu Bin was startled. What was going on? Did she know?
He faked a few yawns and then tried to explain. “I was reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
She paid no attention.
“Miss Hu waved to you at the window. Did you see?” He probed a bit.
“I didn’t see anything,” she said coldly.
Yu Bin’s suspicions grew, but he didn’t dare inquire further. Guiltily he went to the bathroom, washed and rinsed his mouth, and waited for his wife’s anger. But all she said was, “It’s warm tonight. Take off one of the quilts.” Did that have a double meaning?
He lay down, closed his eyes, and pretended to be asleep. Half intoxicated, he soon fell into a deep slumber and slept well until dawn. His wife usually slept late, but when he opened his eyes she wasn’t in the room. He looked quickly at the clock, but it wasn’t yet seven. That was odd. The moment he began to wonder, he remembered everything that had happened the night before. Regret settled in like a hangover. If Huifen hadn’t slept all night because she was angry, how could he face her? Didn’t they marry for love? What was a middle-aged man doing getting involved with a young girl? His springtime had already passed. Spring was for other people.
Yu Bin put on his clothes, determined but melancholy. Springtime was for other people now. His own springtime had already passed. And he had never noticed it passing. He had struggled, struggled hard to make a living and pursue scholarship. Life really was like flowing water, flowing away night and day. Now he was the well-known, successful Dr. Yu. But by the time he was established and had the leisure to observe the world, that world was already yellow and withered; it had already lost its color.
Just then, his wife came in to get some things. Her face looked a bit swollen, but her makeup was bright. He asked solicitously, “Why did you get up so early?” She answered cheerfully, “I slept very well, so I woke up early.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
She replied with a smile, “I thought I’d let you have a few more sweet dreams!” She left without looking back.
Yu Bin called quickly, “Huifen! Huifen!” She came back, her face frozen. Apparently the smiles had been forced. Her cold eyes rested questioningly on his face. Yu Bin had never seen his wife so cold. He retreated uncomfortably and forced a smile, “I was going to say, if I had sweet dreams, and they weren’t about you . . .”
She waved her hand. “You’re a free man.”
“You’re not jealous?”
She was like a piece of dry ice giving off steam. Rage surged up in her cold eyes. “I’ve never been the jealous type.” That was all she said, and she shut her lips firmly, as if someone were really trying to force the vinegar of jealousy down her throat. Yu Bin felt rebuffed. He had meant to admit he was wrong and beg forgiveness, but if she insisted on keeping him at arm’s length like this, he could scarcely get intimate. And besides, he thought, Does she really care? Does she still love me? She’s just enforcing her territorial rights to her husband, forcing him to grow old with her! She won’t let me have a second springtime, or share someone else’s springtime!
“Well, don’t worry!” She saw that he didn’t speak for a long time, and she began to feel sorry. Quickly she put on a smile and added those words.
Yu Bin didn’t answer, and never saw his wife’s apologetic, smiling face. To himself he said, She doesn’t really care.
Irritated, she ignored him. When he wasn’t looking, she pulled out a balled-up handkerchief from under her pillow and soaked it in the hand basin.
Yu Bin didn’t go to the university that day. The next day he went, but he didn’t see Miss Hu. He was a little surprised—was she angry? Stupid of him! Now he had no hope that Miss Hu would come to his house again for tutoring. He’d have to seek her out himself. After two days of dreaming about the dark red velvety flower, he hungered and thirsted to see her again. He didn’t know how he should act when he saw her. Was she avoiding him? Was she annoyed? Yu Bin felt very upset. He decided he should take the liberty of going to her house.
Somehow, without realizing it, he had memorized Miss Hu’s address. He didn’t return home after his last class. Instead he went to the barber for a shave and a haircut. When he had perfected his appearance, he went to her house on a wave of nervous bravado. His excuse—if an excuse were needed—would be that he had to correct a few things in that manuscript. He found the right lane, found the back door, but the maid who answered said, “This is the Ding residence.” Yu Bin retreated quickly, thinking, “Damn. I got the number wrong,” but the maid sized up Yu Bin at once and said, “Are you looking for Miss Hu?”
Yu Bin replied eagerly, “Yes.”
Yu Bin said his name was Yu. The maid scrutinized him even more carefully from head to foot, then said with a smile, “You must be Professor Yu? Miss Hu isn’t home, but she left a letter for you.” She went in to get the letter, while Yu Bin, baffled, waited in the kitchen. It was addressed simply, “Professor Yu.”
“That’s you? Miss Hu isn’t home,” she repeated.
Yu Bin was very disappointed. The maid didn’t ask him to come in and sit down, and he couldn’t hang around the kitchen forever. He went out the back door and looked toward the upstairs window, hoping that he would catch Miss Hu sticking out her head to see him, confirming his suspicions. But if she wanted to watch covertly, she would scarcely let herself be seen. He quickly walked out of the lane.
He had long ago lost interest in love letters. Quite a few years before, he had chanced upon the letters he wrote to Huifen before they were married. His face grew hot and he broke out in goose pimples. He scarcely dared imagine anyone but Huifen sneaking a look at them. When Huifen was out of the house, he kindled a fire and burned them to ashes. He just didn’t have the capacity anymore for that kind of foolishness. On the other hand, he was afraid this letter from Hu Ruoqu wasn’t a love letter anyway. Eight out of ten, it was either reproaching him or breaking off relations.
The letter was very brief. “Professor Yu, I don’t know whether to be happy or afraid. Please instruct me.—Ruoqu. And the date. Beside the date, below the signature, a row of tiny characters read, “Last night this young lady didn’t wash her face before she went to sleep. Can you guess why?”
Why? Yu Bin paced the lane, and enlightenment suddenly struck. Ah! She was afraid of wiping off something she wanted to preserve . . . Embarrassed and grateful, Yu Bin wished he could take her in his arms and hold her tight. What an adorable girl. The line from the old poem, “A beautiful woman with talents too bright,” could have been written about her. Yu Bin pulled out the letter again and read the date. It was that very night. How stupid of him—he had been cold and aloof for two days. The girl must be furious. “Whether to be happy or afraid.” He didn’t like that way of putting it. “Please instruct me.” Was the tone severe, or was it flirtatious? It did seem a bit aggressive. And anyway, how did she know he would come to her house and collect the letter?
Yu Bin’s attitude toward love was like an old man’s attitude toward life: he hoped only for peace and comfort. He had no more appetite for anguish and turmoil. I have my own bright talents. But these days, to come up with something witty was just too much trouble. Nevertheless, the young lady’s letter must be answered. He had to set his mind to it and work out a proper reply.
He wasn’t very comfortable writing this letter in front of his wife. He found a pretext to sit downstairs by himself and write. Unfortunately, his wife tactlessly said they should save electricity. She picked up a skein of wool and sat opposite him. Facing the ceaseless click of his wife’s knitting needles, he couldn’t squeeze one word out of his pen.
Tossing and turning in bed, he felt that a letter would leave too much evidence. Better to write a poem. A light and witty poem that could wrap up all those emotions swirling in his breast, so hard to grasp. He closed his eyes and snatched this word, inserted that one, scribbled in his mind for half of that peaceful night, creating a muddled draft. Finally, what was in front of his closed eyes also grew muddled. The draft seemed like a film on a white screen: shut off the electricity and only the white screen remains. Yu Bin fell asleep.
As soon as he woke up he remembered that he hadn’t resolved the difficulty. Maybe he should speak to her directly and save the trouble of writing. But although he did manage to see Hu Ruoqu, he never managed to speak to her. In Yu Bin’s presence she never lifted her eyes. Obviously she was annoyed. So what should he do? He knew very well that he’d brought his troubles on himself. That night, he never should have—but that was just happenstance, he couldn’t have avoided it!
Yu Bin was a learned man, after all. He knew where to find reference books. Like a student writing an essay, he copied the words of others and revised them until he had pieced together quite a long love letter. Then he handed it in.
As the couple ate breakfast the next morning—the children had already eaten and left for school—the doorbell rang. The maid answered it and brought in a letter for Professor Yu. He recognized the handwriting at once and, anyway, she had written her name on the envelope. His heart sank, but then it started pounding wildly. That girl was just too reckless. Was she deliberately trying to stir up trouble? He tore open the letter and felt his face grow hot. He couldn’t think what to do, so he pretended to cough. Since he still didn’t know what to do, he just kept coughing until the coughs became genuine. His wife put down her chopsticks and asked, “What’s wrong? Did the rice go down the wrong way?” With this pretext he grabbed the letter, rushed upstairs, put it in an inside pocket and found an old letter with a similar envelope in his desk. He read it as he walked back, and said, “I was trying too hard to talk and the result was that I couldn’t talk at all! I breathed a bit of rice from the congee into my nose.”
“Who’s the letter from?” she asked casually.
“No one special.” He held the letter up and put it to one side.
His wife shot a glance sideways toward the letter, then asked, “What were you about to say?”
“I forget.” He pressed his fingers to his temples and smiled. “A complete blank.” He patted his chest to show that it still ached from the coughing.
His wife was going to say something, but after a pause she went on eating breakfast. Yu Bin was relieved, though still a bit doubtful.
Had he managed to fool her? He didn’t dare investigate, just quickly finished his breakfast, went upstairs to change, and left the house. He took the letter to a secluded part of the park and prepared to read it carefully before going to the university.
But the letter was so short, he read it at a glance. Just two sentences: “Thanks for your letter. I’ll be home this afternoon. Your—”
What came after “Your” kept him wondering. Any term of address could be inserted, and Yu Bin tried a few. He felt disappointed and ridiculous, as if he were fooling himself. He suspected even more that sending the letter to the house was a declaration of war on his wife. On the other hand, where would she send it, if not to his house?
That afternoon, Miss Hu received him in the Ding living room. She was composed and natural, not too cool and not too warm. She was wearing a soft silk dress that revealed all the contours of her body. On her exquisite feet were a pair of fairly new embroidered shoes. Such seductive clothing made Yu Bin uneasy, and he didn’t dare look at her. She, on the other hand, chatted away about all sorts of trivialities, while letting him boast and talk about himself. She talked, she laughed, she listened silently, she flattered him. It seemed that the events of the other night had never happened, that they were all in Yu Bin’s imagination, his secret little dream. But when they were parting and Hu Ruoqu put her thin little hand into Yu Bin’s meaty palm, he squeezed the poor, timid little hand with an intoxicated heart and re-entered that evening’s dream world. Footsteps outside the door shattered the dream. He stood there and awkwardly made his farewells. Miss Hu seemed perfectly at ease. She saw him to the door and asked him to come again.
It turned out that Miss Hu lodged with the Ding family. Her own family lived in the country. She got along very well with her landlords and had full use of the living room. After that, Yu Bin was a frequent guest in that living room. Here imagination became reality, dreams came true, water became wine, talking and laughing became poetry. You ordinary people, faithful husbands, law-abiding citizens, what do you know of life! What do you know of love! Yu Bin triumphantly concluded that he wasn’t ordinary. Not only was he young again, he had tasted the true savor of life. He was often at the library “writing essays,” and the “essays” he received from Miss Hu were kept in the shirt pocket closest to his body. The pile got thicker and thicker.
Yu Bin himself was transformed from prose into poetry. He often regretted that his “essays” (Mrs. Yu marveled that her husband had so much inspiration lately, and wrote so many essays) were not equal to his feelings. Even poetry failed the task, weighed down as it was by the dregs of words. Better to use music. But he couldn’t wrap up a pile of music to give as a present, so he went to the flower shop, picked out a thick bunch of purplish-red roses and bought a large box of high-class chocolates. He just couldn’t wait for Miss Hu to name a time, but set out eagerly to seek his “dream,” his “enchantment.”
As usual, he went in through the back door, which was often left open. He walked through the kitchen to the living room. But he froze in the doorway. On the sofa with its blue slipcover, Hu Ruoqu was sitting with turned waist and uplifted face, just as he usually saw her. But three inches from her face was another face, and it wasn’t Yu Bin’s. It belonged to another of Yu Bin’s prize students, Chen Qian.
Miss Hu ran over at once and covering the flowers with both hands, nestled her face in them and sniffed. “What beautiful flowers!”
Chen Qian completely forgot his manners. He just sat there woodenly, his face severe, his eyes furious, reducing Yu Bin to a petty thief he could catch with one hand.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Yu Bin clutched the flowers and didn’t let go. “Nice, aren’t they? I bought them for my wife’s birthday.”
Miss Hu immediately slipped into her new rôle. “It’s Mrs. Yu’s birthday? Aiya, Professor Yu, why didn’t you invite us to eat longevity noodles? Chen Qian, let’s buy some birthday presents for Professor Yu to take home!” Chen Qian muttered something incomprehensible. Yu Bin nervously grasped the flowers and put the chocolate box under his arm. He didn’t sit down, just mumbled,
“I was passing by and stopped in to tell you that if the manuscript is typeset, I’ll proofread it myself.”
Miss Hu kicked Chen Qian’s foot. “You heard that?”
Chen Qian indolently moved his seat, eyes on the floor. “Good.”
Miss Hu very politely saw her teacher out. Chen Qian went along, dragging his feet. Clutching the flowers, chocolate box under his arm, Yu Bin made his farewells with an awkward smile.
Poor Yu Bin was like a rain-drenched rooster. He quickly headed home, but then remembered the things he was carrying. How could he explain? Should he throw them away? He couldn’t bear to. Give them to someone else? There wasn’t anyone else. Luckily he hadn’t written Hu Ruoqu’s name on the presents. He could just make the best of it and give them to his wife. The only problem was that a gift of flowers was rather out of the blue for an old married couple. Moreover, his frugal wife was likely to criticize him for buying expensive roses instead of cheap chrysanthemums, an expensive box of chocolates instead of bulk goods. She would definitely scold him and keep the chocolates to give as a present to someone else.
Not only did Mrs. Yu not complain that the gift was out of the blue, she didn’t even blame him for wasting money. Foolish woman, more foolish than he had ever imagined. If he treated her as a lover, she considered herself one. She accepted the roses as a treasure, smelled them, broke one off and put it in her hair. She held the box of chocolates, her face as happy as the candy was sweet. This must be an apology, an admission that he was wrong! She regretted being cold to him for days on end and keeping her distance. In fact, he felt it all, he still loved her, she was the one who was too petty and wrongly accused him of rejecting her. Actually, she was the one who had mistreated him! Mrs. Yu looked at her husband meaningfully, opened the box of chocolates, and ate a piece—not like a wife, not like a mother, but like a little girl. She bit into the candy—Yu Bin stole a glance and saw that she really wasn’t angry. Only then did he relax, take a piece himself, and call the children to share the treat.
Hu Ruoqu had made a date to meet Yu Bin the next morning in a secluded part of the park. She hadn’t canceled that date, so he still had to go and meet her. He was eager to hear her explanation. Yu Bin already knew that she had many boyfriends. But he never felt jealous, because Hu Ruoqu’s feelings for him consoled him and bolstered his self-confidence until he was sure he was number one. But was she fooling him? Or maybe she was using him to fool Chen Qian? Did she mistake the true intent of his flowers and candy? Yu Bin felt as if ants were crawling all over his heart. He got up before daybreak, startling his wife.
“You’re already up?”
“The weather’s good and I’m going for a walk in the park—do you want to come and look at the chrysanthemums?” Yu Bin was sure she would refuse. But contrary to his expectations, eating a lover’s candy had turned her into a lover. She leapt out of bed in one motion. Yu Bin hastily stopped her and urged her to sleep a bit more. But the more solicitous he was, the more she strove to please him, rising at once, washing and combing her hair, getting dressed, putting on makeup. Yu Bin didn’t have a moment’s grace to figure out a plan of action. Before the children had eaten their breakfast, the couple left the house side by side.
Yu Bin’s mind was in turmoil. Damn! Damn! but he kept up a steady stream of conversation with his wife. Today she was unusually talkative and in good spirits. She wanted to go to the pond and see the fish; she wanted to stand on the bridge and look at her reflection in the water; she wanted to walk down that path and see how thick the moss was . . .
Miss Hu saw them from a distance and couldn’t believe her eyes. They walked toward each other. It really was Professor Yu, with a glowing, cheerful Mrs. Yu on his arm! Obviously, he was trying to humiliate her. She met them with a smile.
“Professor Yu, Mrs. Yu, you’re up early!”
Mrs. Yu never dreamed that when they went to the park, “she” would happen to see them. It was just too gratifying! With pride in her expression, she replied, “You’re early too!”
“I’m meeting someone,” Miss Hu said.
Mrs. Yu didn’t want to delay for Miss Hu’s sake, so she smiled and nodded, holding her husband’s sleeve. Yu Bin didn’t say a word, just led his wife away with a foolish smile. When they were a few steps away, Mrs. Yu said contemptuously, “What lover could she be meeting so early?” She turned involuntarily and looked back. As it happened, Miss Hu had also turned her head just then. Mrs. Yu hastily turned back and laughed maliciously. “She’s looking at you.”
Yu Bin pulled out his large handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face. “Let’s go over there and see the chrysanthemums.”
“Oh, open your eyes! She’s meeting someone.” Mrs. Yu’s felt her victory was magnified a hundredfold.
She didn’t realize that a misunderstanding between lovers is like a match thrown onto firewood; it makes the flames burn even more fiercely. A few tears, a kiss, and the passion between Yu Bin and Hu Ruoqu had progressed to a new stage. Mrs. Yu, however, just sat complacently on her marital throne.
Happiness constructed on a misunderstanding follows the old rule of cyclical progression, waxing and waning, growing and withering. In other words, pride cometh before a fall. That very day she went through the pockets of her husband’s soiled shirts, in case he had left any banknotes there. To her surprise she found a thick wad of papers—Miss Hu’s “essays.” Like a hungry eagle descending on a small bird, she snatched up this pile of love letters and read them one after another. She just could not believe it. She was afraid her husband might come back and seize them, or that Mrs. Zhang would see. She hid in the bathroom and locked the door.
If it had been her husband’s love letters she were reading, her heart might have broken. But reading Miss Hu’s letters to him she felt only contempt. Sometimes she spat viciously on the paper. Shameless slut! Talking about divine love! Talking about her heart! Her soul! It takes a foolish, degenerate man like him to think she’s genuine, to deceive his wife for her. She sat angrily on the edge of the bathtub. Gradually the realization sank in. In one instant she had discovered that she was completely alone, that she’d been deceived, that she’d been deserted. She’d become a superfluous item, something no one wanted. No tears moistened the withered desert of her heart. She felt she was a discarded nutshell, the dregs left in the barrel after the wine is drunk.
All right then! You can just go with that hairy woman. See if I care. Really, he had such a good wife and didn’t know her value—he was only fit to consort with that hairy woman! But Mrs. Yu’s practical mind took that back at once. Why? Give in to her! Not so soon! I’m the deserted wife, and she gets to be the mistress? Just to deny her the satisfaction, she would refuse to surrender. She was going to be a dog in the manger, like the one in Aesop. And besides, she had to think of the children!
Suddenly, her sharp ears caught the sound of a door opening. Did her husband remember the love letters and rush home? Mrs. Yu warned herself to be careful. Pretend you don’t know; don’t get into a fight with him. Let Miss Hu think she was a mindless housewife. She had a brain. She wouldn’t get a divorce just to satisfy that slut. She quickly stuffed the letters back into the same pocket, turned on the faucet, and plunged the dirty shirt with its love letters into the water again and again. At the same time she kneaded and soaked the letters in the pocket and dissolved that disgusting mass into a black pudding. That was really satisfying. With a malicious smile, she wiped her hands and opened the bathroom door.
While she waited, she made a point of picking up her wool and doing some leisurely knitting. She heard Mrs. Zhang’s slow footsteps climb the stairs to say that the soy sauce vendor had come to ask if they needed any sauce. When she sent Mrs. Zhang back down, Mrs. Yu felt the letdown that comes after excitement. She was full of boundless resentment. What was the point of being a wife? Always being afraid that someone else will invade your territory? Occupying that territory meant losing herself in the trivialities of food and fuel. She couldn’t enter her husband’s world. She couldn’t enter the children’s world. She was used up, nothing but a burden. Mrs. Yu couldn’t swallow it. Where did she go wrong? Maybe the wrong was in herself, maybe just being a woman was wrong.
But Mrs. Yu didn’t have the energy for analysis. She just felt miserable and tired. The smell of food was floating up from the kitchen. Soon the children would be coming home, and her husband too. She felt suddenly that she didn’t want to see them. She wanted to be alone. It was already eleven o’clock. She didn’t put on makeup, just took her coat and handbag and went downstairs to tell Mrs. Zhang that she wouldn’t be home for lunch. Then she left the house by herself.
Where could she go? She hesitated at the door. A gust of very cold wind hit her. Mrs. Yu looked up at the sky and saw that rain was likely. The chilly, dim morning sun was now entirely hidden by clouds. She walked aimlessly for a while and bought a few things, feeling weary. When she reached the restaurant where her husband often took her for a snack, she decided angrily to treat herself to some lunch there. But after reading the menu for a long time, she just ordered one bowl of noodles. For some reason when she saw that one bowl, she suddenly felt broken-hearted and tears filled her eyes. She didn’t want to cry just then but the tears would not stop. With great effort, she roused herself to go all alone to the theatre. Bored and dispirited, she strolled down the street and went into the theatre, waiting listlessly. When the play started, she watched half of it, decided it was really uninteresting, and left without staying to the end. Outdoors, it was already dark and rainy. The light, slanting rain fell steadily. Mrs. Yu had to hire a rickshaw, and during the drive she shivered with cold.
The children had already eaten their hot snack and were playing. Her husband? “He just got home,” said Mrs. Zhang, smiling. “He was soaked through.” She hurried off to get some hot water.
Yu Bin was sitting barefoot on the bed, his wet socks on the floor. His hair was soaked. He sat looking dazedly at his big toes.
“What are you doing! You’ll catch cold!” Out of habit, Mrs. Yu was concerned for her husband.
Yu Bin looked up through his rain-smeared glasses. The sight of his wife was like seeing flowers through a mist. He felt very guilty, but put a bold face on it. “Huifen, I think we should go to Hangzhou.”
“Hangzhou?” She stared at him wide-eyed. She wanted to swear at him and tell him he was crazy, but restrained herself. Hiding her suspicions, she asked with feigned calm, “Why?”
“For a holiday.” Yu Bin stole a glance at his wife, knocking his two big toes together.
“Hangzhou? For a holiday? With whom?”
“Just the two of us!”
Mrs. Yu smiled coldly. “The two of us! To Hangzhou! To see the chrysanthemums, maybe?” At that thought her stomach churned with anger. She couldn’t stand it any longer. “You thought I didn’t know! That I’d go to Hangzhou with you! To listen to you two talk of stars, moons, souls, divine love!”
Yu Bin smiled awkwardly. He had discovered that mess of black pudding when he came home for lunch. Holding his feet, he fell over backwards, his legs sticking up like an overturned turtle’s.
Mrs. Yu got even angrier. She dumped her plan of faking deafness and stupidity, and laughed coldly a few times.
“Go and enjoy yourself! If you’re taking your brand-new bimbo bride for a honeymoon, why drag me along for your pleasure?”
Yu Bin sat up on the bed, “Who are you talking about?”
“Who? Do I have to say your sweetie’s darling name over and over? Who? I know there are red lotuses, white lotuses, blue lotuses, purple lotuses, but I never heard of a black lotus!” (Ruoqu means lotuslike, and Mrs. Yu couldn’t resist).
Yu Bin laughed uproariously. “You’re talking about Hu Ruoqu? Don’t worry, she’s already engaged.”
“Engaged to whom? To you?”
“To Chen Qian.”
Mrs. Yu said nothing, just looked at her husband suspiciously. Then she suddenly spoke, “So she got you so upset that you were in despair, rushed out and got drenched in the rain.”
Yu Bin had his pride. “Upset! I was the one who encouraged her to do it.”
“What right did you have to encourage her? What are you to her?”
“I, I . . . I didn’t want to wrong you. How could I do something like that?” He drew his wife to him. “You don’t believe me? I—”
His wife pushed away his hand and turned her head. He stood up in his bare feet and pulled her back.
“She wanted to discuss it with me herself, she told me how much Chen Qian liked her, and so I urged her—I—urged her—” He remembered the emotion in Miss Hu’s eyes as she questioned him, how when he urged her, she bent over the table sobbing, how it made him feel he was a real coward who had wronged Miss Hu. Thank Heaven it was all in the past. He never wanted to think of it again. He yelled out loud to Mrs. Zhang to ask why the hot water still hadn’t arrived.
Mrs. Zhang had been waiting for the storm between the couple to die down. Now she came in at once with the hot water. Yu Bin’s fingers were shaking a bit and he was looking at the floor. He straightened his clothes and sat upright to soak his feet. His wife hung up her coat and stood there, exhaling a long breath. Mrs. Zhang went out. Yu Bin asked with a strained smile, “Well?”
“I said let’s go to Hangzhou for a holiday. Only young people are allowed to have fun, and we’re not?”
Mrs. Yu’s smile was also strained. “All right.”
“We’ll go tomorrow, or the day after.”
Mrs. Yu sighed. “All right.” But she knew they would never go.
Because, after all, it was already late autumn. That October Indian summer had passed in a flash. Time doesn’t want to grow old without a struggle, and as usual eked out a few last springlike days. But after all, it wasn’t springtime. The wind and rain blew into the room. Mrs. Yu felt cold. Hugging her shoulders, she went to close the window.
[ 1 ] The title was translated from “Xiao yangchun” (小陽春). First published in Wenyi fuxing 文藝復興 vol. 2, no. 1 (1947). Edition used: Yang Jiang zuopin jing xuan, xiaoshuo xiju 杨绛作品精选,小说戏剧 (Selected works of Yang Jiang: fiction, drama). Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 2004, pp. 13-33.