Short Stories: Miss Quarta Hu

A tale from Pu Songling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. When three fox maidens vie for the attention of one scholar, he is beyond himself with joy, until that is a Taoist priest arrives, on the hunt...

Mr. Shang was a native of T'ai-shan, and lived quietly with his books alone. One autumn night when the Silver River was unusually distinct and the moon shining brightly in the sky, he was walking up and down under the shade, with his thoughts wandering somewhat at random, when lo! a young girl leaped over the wall, and, smiling, asked him, "What are you thinking about, Sir, all so deeply?" Shang looked at her, and seeing that she had a pretty face, asked her to walk in. She then told him her name was Hu, and that she was called Tertia; but when he wanted to know where she lived, she laughed and would not say. So he did not inquire any further; and by degrees they struck up a friendship, and Miss Tertia used to come and chat with him every evening. He was so smitten that he could hardly take his eyes off her, and at last she said to him, "What are you looking at?" "At you," cried he, "my lovely rose, my beautiful peach. I could gaze at you all night long." "If you think so much of poor me," answered she, "I don't know where your wits would be if you saw my sister Quarta."

Mr. Shang said he was sorry he didn't know her, and begged that he might be introduced; so next night Miss Tertia brought her sister, who turned out to be a young damsel of about fifteen, with a face delicately powdered and resembling the lily, or like an apricot-flower seen through the mist; and altogether as pretty a girl as he had ever seen. Mr. Shang was charmed with her, and inviting them in, began to laugh and talk with the elder, while Miss Quarta sat playing with her girdle, and keeping her eyes on the ground. By-and-by Miss Tertia got up and said she was going, whereupon her sister rose to take leave also; but Mr. Shang asked her not to be in a hurry, and requested that elder to assist in persuading her. "You needn't hurry," said she to Miss Quarta; and accordingly the latter remained chatting with Mr. Shang without reserve, and finally told him that she was a fox. However, Mr. Shang was so occupied with her beauty that he didn't pay any heed to that; but she added, "And my sister is very dangerous; she has already killed three people. Anyone bewitched by her has no chance of escape. Happily, you have bestowed your affections on me, and I shall not allow you to be destroyed. You must break off your acquaintance with her at once."

Mr. Shang was very frightened, and implored her to help him; to which she replied, "Although a fox, I am skilled in the arts of the Immortals; I will write out a charm for you which you must paste on the door, and thus you will keep her away." So she wrote down the charm, and in the morning when her sister came and saw it, she fell back, crying out, "Ungrateful minx! you've thrown me up for him, have you? You two being destined for each other, what have I done that you should treat me thus?" She then went away; and a few days afterwards Miss Quarta said she too would have to be absent for a day, so Shang went out for a walk by himself, and suddenly beheld a very nice-looking young lady emerge from the shade of an old oak that was growing on the hillside. "Why so dreadfully pensive?" said she to him; "those Hu girls can never bring you a single cent." She then presented Shang with some money, and bade him go on ahead and buy some good wine, adding, "I'll bring something to eat with me, and we'll have a jolly time of it." Shang took the money and went home, doing as the young lady had told him; and by-and-by in she herself came, and threw on the table a roast chicken and a shoulder of salt pork, which she at once proceeded to cut up. They now set to work to enjoy themselves, and had hardly finished when they heard someone coming in, and the next minute in walked Miss Tertia and her sister. The strange young lady didn't know where to hide, and managed to lose her shoes; but the other two began to revile her, saying, "Out upon you, base fox; what are you doing here?" They then chased her away after some trouble, and Shang began to excuse himself to them, until at last they all became friends again as before.

One day, however, a Shensi man arrived, riding on a donkey, and coming to the door said, "I have long been in search of these evil spirits; now I have them." Shang's father thought the man's remark rather strange, and asked him whence he had come. "Across much land and sea," replied he; "for eight or nine months out of every year I am absent from my native place. These devils killed my brother with their poison, alas! alas! and I have sworn to exterminate them; but I have travelled many miles without being able to find them. They are now in your house, and if you do not cut them off, you will die even as my brother." Now Shang and the young ladies had kept their acquaintanceship very dark; but his father and mother had guessed that something was up, and, much alarmed, bade the Shensi man walk in and perform his exorcisms. The latter then produced two bottles which he placed upon the ground, and proceeded to mutter a number of charms and cabalistic formulae; whereupon four wreaths of smoke passed two by two into each bottle. "I have the whole family," cried he, in an ecstasy of delight; as he proceeded to tie down the mouths of the bottles with pig's bladder, sealing them with the utmost care.

Shang's father was likewise very pleased, and kept his guest to dinner; but the young man himself was sadly dejected, and approaching the bottles unperceived, bent his ear to listen. "Ungrateful man," said Miss Quarta from within, "to sit there and make no effort to save me." This was more than Shang could stand, and he immediately broke the seal, but found he could not untie the knot. "Not so," cried Miss Quarta; "merely lay down the flag that now stands on the altar, and with a pin prick the bladder, and I can get out." Shang did as she bade him, and in a moment a thin streak of white smoke issued forth from the hole and disappeared in the clouds. When the Shensi man came out, and saw the flag lying on the ground, he started violently, and cried out, "Escaped! This must be your doing, young sir." He then shook the bottle and listened, finally exclaiming, "Luckily only one has got away. She was not fated to die, and may therefore be pardoned." Thereupon he took the bottles and went his way.

Some years afterwards Shang was one day superintending his reapers cutting the corn, when he descried Miss Quarta at a distance, sitting under a tree. He approached, and she took his hand, saying, "Ten years have rolled away since we last met. Since then I have gained the prize of immortality; but I thought that perhaps you had not quite forgotten me, and so I came to see you once more." Shang wished her to return home with him; to which she replied, "I am no longer what I was that I should mingle in the affairs of mortals. We shall meet again." And as she said this, she disappeared; but twenty years later, when Shang was one day alone, Miss Quarta walked in. Shang was overjoyed, and began to address her; but she answered him, saying, "My name is already enrolled in the register of the Immortals, and I have no right to return to earth. However, out of gratitude to you I determined to announce to you the date of your dissolution, that you might put your affairs in order. Fear nothing; I will see you safely through to the happy land." She then departed, and on the day named Shang actually died. A relative of a friend of mine, Mr. Li Wen-yu, frequently met the above-mentioned Mr. Shang.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on August 31, 2000.

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