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Liu Hai

The Silver Ingot

When Chin saw that two of his sons did not believe him, he was all the more eager to get at the truth. So he asked his way to the village he had been told of in the dream, and there sure enough lived a Mr Wang. Knocking at the door and entering, Chin saw that bright candles were lit in the hall and sacrifices had been set out for the gods. When he asked the reason for this, the servants went to find their master; and presently Mr Wang appeared, greeted the old man and invited him to be seated. Then he asked Chin what had brought him here.

“Something is puzzling me,” said Chin, “and I have come to see if you can shed any light on it. But I notice that you are offering sacrifices today. May I ask the reason?”

“Recently my wife fell ill,” replied Wang, “and I consulted a fortune-teller, who declared that she would get better if her bed were moved. Yesterday, still ailing, she thought she saw eight big fellows in white gowns and red belts. ‘We used to be in the Chin family,’ they told her, ‘but we have done with them now and come to you.’ Having said this they crawled under the bed; and my wife broke into a cold sweat, after which she felt better. When we moved the bed, there in the dust we found eight great silver ingots bound round the middle with red cord. We have no idea where these have come from; but since Heaven has been so kind to us we have bought offerings to sacrifice. Now you have come to question me, perhaps you know something about this?”

Stamping his feet, Chin answered, “It took me a lifetime to save up that silver. Last night I had a dream too, and when I woke the silver had vanished. But in the dream my ingots mentioned your name and address; that’s how I found my way here. It is the will of Heaven; I can’t complain. But if I could see them once more I should feel better.”

“That is easy,” said Mr Wang.

He left the room, smiling, and returned with four serving boys each of whom was carrying a tray bearing two ingots fastened with red cord – the selfsame ingots Chin had treasured.

The old man’s eyes nearly started from his head, but there was nothing he could do. Big tears rolled down his cheeks as he stroked the silver.

“Fate must be against me,” he said, “if I am not allowed to keep these.”

Though Wang ordered the boys to put the ingots away again, he felt rather sorry for the old man. So he got out three taels of loose silver, put them in a packet and offered it to Chin as a parting gift. Chin, however, was unwilling to take it.

“I have been too luckless to keep my own,” protested the old man, “how can I take yours?”

He declined again and again, until Wang pushed the silver up his sleeve. Wanting to give it back, Chin fumbled for the packet but could not find it. He blushed with confusion. And finally since Wang insisted that he accept it, he bowed and left.

Upon reaching home he told his sons what had happened, and they sighed. He also mentioned Mr Wang’s kindness in giving him three taels as a parting gift; but when he searched in his sleeve he could not find the silver, and was forced to conclude that he must have dropped it on the way home.

In fact, while Chin was modestly refusing the silver Wang had thrust the packet through a hole in the lining of his sleeve; and by the time the old man felt for it to return it, it had already dropped out and rolled under the door sill. Later when the floor was swept, Wang got it back.

So it seems that each bite or sup we take is preordained. Chin, who was not destined to possess money, could not even keep three taels, let alone eight hundred. But Wang, who was destined to possess it, could not get rid of three taels. Thus, regardless of either man’s intention, a have became a have-not and a have-not became a have.

Translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang

50 Great Oriental Stories,  Bantam Books, 1965

The Silver Ingot, from The Tangerines and the Tortoise Shell, is part of the Feng and Lin collection of hua pen literature written between the tenth and seventeenth centuries. During that period, professional storytellers improved upon traditional tales, later transcribed them and handed them down as hua pen or ‘storytellers scripts’.

Liu Haichan

Liu Hai (刘海), in the painting above, was a fabled 10th-century Chinese alchemist who learned the secret of immortality from the Chan Chu (蟾蜍) – the three legged money toad sitting upon his shoulder – and became an immortal.

According to Chinese legend, the Chan Chu, or, Jin Chan (金蟾), was the wife of one of the Eight Immortals. However, when she was caught stealing one of the peaches of immortality, she was punished and turned into a toad.

Greedy by nature, she has a constant craving for money, and whenever people see her in their dreams, there is always a bed of money surrounding her.

According to the Chinese philosophical system of Feng Shui, the Chan Chu helps to attract and protect wealth, and also guards against bad luck. Because the Chan Chu symbolizes the flow of money, a statue of the Chan Chu should never face the main door (“outward”), nor should it ever be kept “in the bathroom, bedroom, dining room or kitchen”.

Liu Hai and Jin Chan by a Waterfall

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Weigh This Well - Han Shan

Translated by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

Painting: A Beggar at Mt. Luofu (Detail) by Su Liupeng (1796 – 1892)

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June 6th

At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.

“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”

He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”

His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.

It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.

“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read more from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries: Leaves from a Chinese Diary, and, Chungking Diary – The Seal Carver.

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June 3rd

The blind old seal-carver still wears glasses. He sits behind the counter of his little shop, and sometimes he takes off his glasses and gazes up at the sun. He can see very faintly – the difference only between light and shade. The faint incisions which he makes on jade are for ever hidden from him, and perhaps it is not necessary to see, for the sensitivity of his fingers is three-dimensional. I have watched him pass his finger-tips over a seal-carving of my name and tell me exactly to what depth, and in what shape he had carved the letters. He has a long single strand of grey hair which trembles from his upper lip like the antennae of a moth. “These are in the characters of the old bronze seals,” he said, as he gave me the carving. “They are the best. China was great then.” I do not know why it is, but every peasant in China knows that his country was greatest in the Han Dynasty and speaks of past greatness with the terrible sincerity of those who know that it can never return again.

And as we walked down the dusty road in the broad sunlight, where everything dazzled and a clammy warmth came from the moist asphalt in the street, it was pleasant to touch and look at the jade carving done so delicately and with so much passion by a blind man who will never see his handiwork.

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read another entry from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries.

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Leaves from a Chinese Diary

China to Robert Payne is more than a country; it is a way of life, of thought, of feeling. Few Westerners have sensed or pictured its beauty and its people more keenly than this young novelist and scholar. This is a long, rich book of wide range and variety, an eminently sophisticated and intelligent book, written in prose which will be an exciting discovery to the discerning reader.”

(from the preface to Forever China)

March 4th

Why did I come to China? Why does anyone come to China? There are moments in China when the dirt and poverty of the people make one suddenly decide to take the next airplane to India, and then a moment later a girl on a white donkey passes slowly along a dusty road, or a pair of pigeons rise high in the sky, or at night a courtyard opens silently, lamps are lit, you hear the click of tiles and the whispers of women down some deserted alley-way; and then the amazing vitality and beauty of these people, whose arts are so ancient that they have long ago forgotten the origin of their simplest customs, surprise one with their fine excess…

… China was made for the night and the dawn. A few days ago we began to live in a house near the Canadian Mission Hospital far away from the main traffic of the river. You reached the house by a long winding path over the foot-hills, climbing among steep fields of rice, small battered whitewashed houses, duck-ponds, tombs. We would cross the river from the north bank under a full moon, and it was not always a pleasant journey, for the boatman would think nothing of stopping in mid-stream and refuse to take us to the other bank unless we paid another ten dollars, and sometimes, knowing that we would have to walk for miles along the rocky coast, he would allow the boat to drift down-stream. But always the nights were beautiful. The shape of a curving roof against the stars, the songs of the boatmen, the small red fires in the boats along the shore, and the great white cliffs of Chungking would console us for the solitary journey. And even the gravestones, so gloomy and white in the moonlight, and even the dogs grubbing the earth at the root of the recently-made graves, were not real – they were reality raised to a higher pitch of excitement. So we walked alone at night, listening to the children and old men breathing under their poor matchwood sheds, while the moon rose and the great sweep of the river disappeared into a silver distance. Sometimes, too, but very rarely, there occurred the happiness which a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty described in a long-forgotten poem:

 

I am old. Nothing pleases me any more. Moreover, I am not a great scholar and my ideas have rarely travelled further than my feet. I know only my forest, to which I always return.

The blue fingers of the moon caress my lute. The wind tosses the clouds and ungirds my silken robe.

You fool! You ask me what is the supreme happiness on earth. It is to listen to the song of a young girl as she passes along the road after having asked you the way.

 

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Note: Chungking Diary was also published as Forever China, and was followed by a second set of wartime diaries, China Awake in 1947. Both of these books were published in one volume as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946 in 1970.

 

Robert Payne (1911-1983) was a prolific British writer who wrote over a hundred books under a variety of pseudonyms. These include novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues and translations. He spent much of WWII in Asia working in British Army Intelligence as well as being a journalist and teacher. Payne edited The White Pony; An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1947. His colourful career and extensive writings are documented at the Stony Brook University Special Collections, to which he donated his manuscripts, correspondence and papers. Read a biblio-biographical piece on Robert Payne, entitled “Under Cover” (starts at page 35).

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In travelling through Ireland a stranger is very frequently puzzled by the singular ways, and especially by the idiomatic equivocation characteristic of every Irish peasant. Some years back, more particularly, these men were certainly originals quite unlike any other people whatever. Many an hour of curious entertainment has been afforded me by their eccentricities; yet though always fond of prying into the remote sources of these national peculiarities, I must frankly confess that, with all my pains, I never was able to develop half of them, except by one sweeping observation namely, that the brains and tongues of the Irish are somehow differently formed or furnished from those of other people.

One general hint which I beg to impress upon all travellers in Hibernia, is the following: that if they shew a disposition towards kindness, together with a moderate familiarity, and affect to be inquisitive, whether so or not, the Irish peasant will outdo them tenfold in every one of these dispositions. But if a man is haughty and overbearing, he had better take care of himself.

I have often heard it remarked and complained of by travellers and strangers, that they never could get a true answer from any Irish peasant as to distances when on a journey. For many years I myself thought it most unaccountable. If you meet a peasant on your journey and ask him how far, for instance, to Ballinrobe? he will probably say it is “three short miles.” You travel on, and are informed by the next peasant you meet, that it is “five long miles.” On you go, and the next will tell “your honour” it is “four miles, or about that same.” The fourth will swear “if your honour stops at three miles you’ll never get there!” But on pointing to a town just before you, and inquiring what place that is, he replies,

Oh! plaze your honour, that’s Ballinrobe, sure enough!”

Why, you said it was more than three miles off!”

Oh yes! to be sure and sartain, that’s from my own cabin, plaze your honour. We’re no scholards in this country. Arrah! how can we tell any distance, plaze your honour, but from our own little cabins? Nobody but the schoolmaster knows that, plaze your honour.”

Thus is the mystery unravelled. When you ask any peasant the distance of the place you require, he never computes it from where you then are, but from his own cabin; so that if you asked 20, in all probability you would have as many different answers, and not one of them correct. But it is to be observed, that frequently you can get no reply at all, unless you understand Irish.

In parts of Kerry and Mayo, however, I have met with peasants who speak Latin not badly. On the election of Sir John Brown for the County of Mayo, Counsellor Thomas Moore and I went down as his counsel. The weather was desperately severe. At a solitary inn, where we were obliged to stop for horses, we requested dinner, upon which the waiter laid a cloth that certainly exhibited every species of dirt ever invented. We called, and remonstrating with him, ordered a clean cloth. He was a low, fat fellow, with a countenance perfectly immovable, and seeming to have scarcely a single muscle in it. He nodded, and on our return to the room, which we had quitted during the interval, we found, instead of a clean cloth, that he had only folded up the filthy one into the thickness of a cushion. We now scolded away in good earnest. He looked at us with the greatest sang froid; and said sententiously: “Nemo me impune lacessit.

He kept his word; when we had proceeded about four miles in deep snow, and through a desperate night, on a bleak road, one of the wheels came off the carriage and down we went! We were at least two miles from any house. The driver cursed in Irish Michael the waiter, who, he said, had put a new wheel upon the carriage, which had turned out to be an old one, and had broken to pieces. We had to march through the snow to a wretched cottage, and sit up all night to get a genuine new wheel ready for the morning.

The Irish peasant also never answers any question directly: in some districts, if you ask him where such a gentleman’s house is, he will point and reply, “Does your honour see that large house there all amongst the trees, with a green field before it?” You answer, “Yes.” “Well,says he, “plaze your honour that’s not it. But do you see the big brick house with the cowhouses by the side of that same, and a pond of water?” “Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it. But, if you plaze, look quite to the right of that same house, and you’ll see the top of a castle amongst the trees there, with a road going down to it betune the bushes.”

Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it neither; but if your honour will come down this bit of a road a couple of miles I’ll shew it you sure enough and if your honour’s in a hurry I can run on hot foot and tell the squire your honour’s galloping after me. Ah! who shall I tell the squire, plaze your honour, is coming to see him? He’s my own landlord, God save his honour day and night!”

Read more from the Personal Sketches and Recollections of Jonah Barrington (1827) here.

Download a PDF file from the Internet Archive here.

Sir Jonah Barrington (1760-1834) was an Irish judge, politician and writer. His memoirs contain “scathing but humorous thumbnail portraits of contemporary Irish lawyers, judges and politicians during the last years of the Protestant Ascendancy. His Personal sketches also includes vignettes on Irish people from every background.” However, they must be taken with a large grain of salt…

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LIFE in the quarter. Our bistro, for instance, at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort’; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives; and Madame F., a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman with the face of a strong-minded cow, drinking Malaga all day ‘for her stomach’; and games of dice for apéritifs; and songs about ‘Les Fraises et Les Framboises’, and about Madelon, who said, ‘Comment épouser un soldat, moi qui aime tout le régiment?’; and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.

One heard queer conversations in the bistro. As a sample I give you Charlie, one of the local curiosities, talking.

Charlie was a youth of family and education who had run away from home and lived on occasional remittances. Picture him very pink and young, with the fresh cheeks and soft brown hair of a nice little boy, and lips excessively red and wet, like cherries. His feet are tiny, his arms abnormally short, his hands dimpled like a baby’s. He has a way of dancing and capering while he talks, as though he were too happy and too full of life to keep still for an instant. It is three in the afternoon, and there is no one in the bistro except Madame F. and one or two men who are out of work; but it is all the same to Charlie whom he talks to, so long as he can talk about himself. He declaims like an orator on a barricade, rolling the words on his tongue and gesticulating with his short arms. His small, rather piggy eyes glitter with enthusiasm. He is, somehow, profoundly disgusting to see.

He is talking of love, his favourite subject.

Ah, l’Amour, L’Amour! Ah, que les femmes m’ont tué! Alas, Messieurs et dames, women have been my ruin, beyond all hope my ruin. At twenty-two I am utterly worn out and finished. But what things I have learned, what abysses of wisdom have I not plumbed! How great a thing it is to have acquired the true wisdom, to have become in the highest sense of the word a civilized man, to have become raffiné, vicieux,’ etc. etc.

Messieurs et dames, I perceive that you are sad. Ah mais la vie est belle – you must not be sad. Be more gay, I beseech you!

Fill high ze bowl vid Samian vine,

Ve vill not sink of semes like zese!

Ah, que la vie est belle! Listen, messieurs et dames, out of the fullness of my experience I will discourse to you of love. I will explain to you what is the true meaning of love – what is the true sensibility, the higher, more refined pleasure which is known to civilized men alone. I will tell you of the happiest day of my life. Alas, but I am past the time when I could know such happiness as that. It is gone for ever – the very possibility, even the desire for it, are gone.

Listen, then. It was two years ago; my brother was in Paris – he is a lawyer – and my parents had told him to find me and take me out to dinner. We hate each other, my brother and I, but we preferred not to disobey my parents. We dined, and at dinner he grew very drunk upon three bottles of Bordeaux. I took him back to his hotel, and on the way I bought a bottle of brandy, and when we had arrived I made my brother drink a tumblerful of it – I told him it was something to make him sober. He drank it, and immediately he fell down like somebody in a fit, dead drunk. I lifted him up and propped his back against the bed; then I went through his pockets. I found eleven hundred francs, and with that I hurried down the stairs, jumped into a taxi, and escaped. My brother did not know my address – I was safe.

Where does a man go when he has money? To the bordels, naturally. But you do not suppose that I was going to waste my time on some vulgar debauchery fit only for navvies? Confound it, one is a civilized man! I was fastidious, exigeant, you understand, with a thousand francs in my pocket. It was midnight before I found what I was looking for. I had fallen in with a very smart youth of eighteen, dressed en smoking and with his hair cut a l’américaine, and we were talking in a quiet bistro away from the boulevards. We understood one another well, that youth and I. We talked of this and that, and discussed ways of diverting oneself. Presently we took a taxi together and were driven away.

The taxi stopped in a narrow, solitary street with a single gas-lamp flaring at the end. There were dark puddles among the stones. Down one side ran the high, blank wall of a convent. My guide led me to a tall, ruinous house with shuttered windows, and knocked several times at the door. Presently there was a sound of footsteps and a shooting of bolts, and the door opened a little. A hand came round the edge of it; it was a large, crooked hand, that held itself palm upwards under our noses, demanding money.

My guide put his foot between the door and the step. “How much do you want?” he said.

‘“A thousand francs,” said a woman’s voice. “Pay up at once or you don’t come in.”

I put a thousand francs into the hand and gave the remaining hundred to my guide: he said good night and left me. I could hear the voice inside counting the notes, and then a thin old crow of a woman in a black dress put her nose out and regarded me suspiciously before letting me in. It was very dark inside: I could see nothing except a flaring gas-jet that illuminated a patch of plaster wall, throwing everything else into deeper shadow. There was a smell of rats and dust. Without speaking, the old woman lighted a candle at the gas-jet, then hobbled in front of me down a stone passage to the top of a flight of stone steps.

‘“Voila!” she said; “go down into the cellar there and do what you like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you understand – perfectly free.”

Ha, messieurs, need I describe to youforcément, you know it yourselves – that shiver, half of terror and half of joy, that goes through one at these moments? I crept down, feeling my way; I could hear my breathing and the scraping of my shoes on the stones, otherwise all was silence. At the bottom of the stairs my hand met an electric switch. I turned it, and a great electrolier of twelve red globes flooded the cellar with a red light. And behold, I was not in a cellar, but in a bedroom, a great, rich, garish bedroom, coloured blood red from top to bottom. Figure it to yourselves, messieurs et dames! Red carpet on the floor, red paper on the walls, red plush on the chairs, even the ceiling red; everywhere red, burning into the eyes. It was a heavy, stifling red, as though the light were shining through bowls of blood. At the far end stood a huge, square bed, with quilts red like the rest, and on it a girl was lying, dressed in a frock of red velvet. At the sight of me she shrank away and tried to hide her knees under the short dress.

I had halted by the door. “Come here, my chicken,” I called to her.

She gave a whimper of fright. With a bound I was beside the bed; she tried to elude me, but I seized her by the throat – like this, do you see? – tight! She struggled, she began to cry out for mercy, but I held her fast, forcing back her head and staring down into her face. She was twenty years old, perhaps; her face was the broad, dull face of a stupid child, but it was coated with paint and powder, and her blue, stupid eyes, shining in the red light, wore that shocked, distorted look that one sees nowhere save in the eyes of these women. She was some peasant girl, doubtless, whom her parents had sold into slavery.

Without another word I pulled her off the bed and threw her on to the floor. And then I fell upon her like a tiger! Ah, the joy, the incomparable rapture of that time! There, messieurs et dames, is what I would expound to you; voila l’amour! There is the true love, there is the only thing in the world worth striving for; there is the thing beside which all your arts and ideals, all your philosophies and creeds, all your fine words and high attitudes, are as pale and profitless as ashes. When one has experienced love – the true love – what is there in the world that seems more than a mere ghost of joy?

More and more savagely I renewed the attack. Again and again the girl tried to escape; she cried out for mercy anew, but I laughed at her.

‘“Mercy!” I said, “do you suppose I have come here to show mercy? Do you suppose I have paid a thousand francs for that?” I swear to you, messieurs et dames, that if it were not for that accursed law that robs us of our liberty, I would have murdered her at that moment.

Ah, how she screamed, with what bitter cries of agony. But there was no one to hear them; down there under the streets of Paris we were as secure as at the heart of a pyramid. Tears streamed down the girl’s face, washing away the powder in long, dirty smears. Ah, that irrecoverable time! You, messieurs et dames, you who have not cultivated the finer sensibilities of love, for you such pleasure is almost beyond conception. And I too, now that my youth is gone – ah, youth! – shall never again see life so beautiful as that. It is finished.

Ah yes, it is gone – gone for ever. Ah, the poverty, the shortness, the disappointment of human joy! For in reality – car en réalité, what is the duration of the supreme moment of love. It is nothing, an instant, a second perhaps. A second of ecstasy, and after that – dust, ashes, nothingness.

And so, just for one instant, I captured the supreme happiness, the highest and most refined emotion to which human beings can attain. And in the same moment it was finished, and I was left – to what? All my savagery, my passion, were scattered like the petals of a rose. I was left cold and languid, full of vain regrets; in my revulsion I even felt a kind of pity for the weeping girl on the floor. Is it not nauseous, that we should be the prey of such mean emotions? I did not look at the girl again; my sole thought was to get away. I hastened up the steps of the vault and out into the street. It was dark and bitterly cold, the streets were empty, the stones echoed under my heels with a hollow, lonely ring. All my money was gone, I had not even the price of a taxi fare. I walked back alone to my cold, solitary room.

But there, messieurs et dames, that is what I promised to expound to you. That is Love. That was the happiest day of my life.’

He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter.

 

An extract from

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell,

Victor Gollancz, 1933

 


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