45. The Faithful Girl
AMONG the savages in the south there are a great many tribes. There are the Hui, the Li, the Yao, the Babesifu and many others. In Kwangsi they have eighty-three settlements. But the most numerous are the Li. Among them there is a custom that when a girl reaches marriageable age a temporary husband is first of all chosen for her and taken into the house. After a few months the man then gets leprosy or some other bad skin trouble and is sent away. Only then is a proper marriage contracted with a respected family of the same tribe. This practice is known as transferring the leprosy. Unless this is done the girl herself falls ill. For that reason, it is impossible to find a proper husband for a girl who has not yet thus transferred her leprosy to someone else.
Once there was a young man in Kweilin. He came from a rich family. And because his teachers treated him too strictly and from time to time his father would punish him he could no longer bear it at home and ran away. He lost his Way and Came to a settlement of savages and there asked for food. There was an old man who took pity on the youth, invited him to his home and generously feasted him with food and wine.
Then he said to him: ‘You do not seem to be an Ordinary vagabond. I have a daughter who is just looking out for a husband; I would like to give her to you for a wife.’ The young man reflected that there was already a girl betrothed to him back home. But faced with hunger and cold he agreed to everything. The old man then called the whole household together. A bridal chamber was pre- pared and the young man led in. The bride was in it already. She Was exceedingly beautiful and seemed a good girl.
The night was still and everyone had gone to bed. The two sat side by side in embarrassment, not knowing What to Say. The girl sat a little way apart, her face in her hands, sighing bitterly and ceaselessly. The young man was tired from his journey and soon fell asleep. At the first crowing of the cock he woke and saw the girl still sitting there as before.
‘It is late and the night is cold,’ he said. ‘Do you not want to lie down?’
The girl blushed with shame and said among tears: ‘This is a wicked marriage. You must not pity me.’
Then she explained to him how things were and added: ‘When I Saw how young and handsome you were I could not bear the idea of causing your death. I would rather die She then asked his name and Wanted to know details of his native village. When day began to dawn she gave him some money and urged him to leave. And So he returned home. After about two years the girl fell sick with leprosy. Her parents were angry and thrust her out. The girl thought ta herself: ‘I want to see the young man once more, and then I will die.’ So she bore her sickness and set out on her journey. During the day she begged for food in villages and hamlets, at night she rested in caves and ravines. She climbed over mountains and waded across rivers. Wearily she dragged herself on week after week. Then she reached Kweilin. She searched out the house of the young man and called his name, demanding to see him. But the guard at the door upbraided her and turned her away. Then she collapsed by the door, sobbing.
When the young man had returned home he had applied himself earnestly to his studies and had by now passed his first examination. His parents had already chosen a lucky day for his marriage which was to take place the following day. Friends and relations had already arrived to attend the festivities. The father was just then giving a banquet for the guests.
As the young man was sitting down at the table he heard some noise and shouting outside the door. He went out to see what the matter was. And there was the girl, her face covered with festering boils about to burst, her eyebrows gone, her nose fallen in, her lips cracked and her voice hoarse. He stared at her in horror but did not recognize her.
The girl said: ‘Do you not remember the time you stayed at our house, two years ago? Now the disease has broken out in me and my parents have cast me out. Now that I have seen you once more I shall die happily.’
Then his memory came back and he said to her amidst tears: ‘You were as beautiful as a flower and now you have become like this! However, you did me great kindness and I swear that I shall not abandon you.’ So he the girl by her hand and led her upstairs to the hall to meet his parents and relations.
There he knelt down, asked permission to speak and said: ‘Had I not met this girl I should have long died in some ditch. Our happiness today is her gift alone.’
Generously his father said: ‘Let her be my son’s wife too When we celebrate the wedding tomorrow it shall be a double wedding. The two women shall be sisters to each Other, neither being the principal wife and neither the second wife!’
The friends and relations all agreed and poured out wine to wish them happiness and all the talk at table was about this girl’s virtue.
But the girl bowed deep and said amidst tears: ‘An evil disease clings to me and I shall die today or tomorrow. How could I bear to be this gentleman’s companion and celebrate a marriage to him? All I ask is to be granted a room where can die in peace.’
The father furtively glanced at the girl and saw that her disease really was evil and that she was not fit for wedding festivities. He ordered a room to be prepared for her to live in, off the back courtyard. A maidservant swept the floor, led her in and spread blankets and cushions on the couch.
That room normally served as a Wine Store. All round the walls and in the corners stood jars of wine. The girl asked the maidservant about them.
She replied: “This is good Old Wine, and whenever you are thirsty you are free to help yourself.’
The following day the wedding took place. The sound of the drums rose up to the sky. Flutes and pipes deafened the ear. The girl heard the merry noise and was sad. Then she remembered the wine. She opened one of the jars to ladle some out. Suddenly she saw a poisonous snake, with white markings all down its body, coiled up in the jar. She recoiled in fright. Probably the jar had not been tightly closed and the snake, searching for food, had crawled in and drowned in the wine.
The girl thought to herself: ‘l have heard that snake poison kills humans. Rather than waiting to perish by my disease I will drink the poison and die now.’ She ladled some wine out with a cup and drank as much as she could. Overcome, she fell back on her couch, pulled her blankets over her and fell asleep.
At midnight the sweat burst out from her skin and trickled down in droplets. There was a strange itching in all her limbs. Much as she scratched herself she could hardly bear it. But gradually her sores disappeared, scabs formed, and as they fell off there was fresh healthy skin underneath. Her hair and eyebrows grew again and before a week was passed she had once more turned from a hideous sight into a beauty. Indeed, she was just as beautiful as she had been before her illness.
When they heard the news the whole household came to congratulate her. The son of the house was beside himself with happiness. Another wedding day was chosen and once more he entered the bonds of marriage with the girl. His first wife, too, was very fond of the girl. They loved one another like sisters, and there was neither envy nor strife between them from beginning to end. The foreign wife bore her husband three sons, all of whom rose to high office and distinction so that the mother was decorated by the emperor on account of her sons. Her fame spread throughout the neighbourhood and everyone said: ‘That is the reward of virtue.’