Proofreaders: happyBuddha, Lee, Kai, m@o, Marcia
Till Death Do Us Part chapter 20
Ch’in Ching had come looking for Shen Liangsheng on a life-or-death matter, but it was for Hsiao-Liu rather than himself.
Hsiao-Liu had not actually done anything outrageous. The man was always grinning like Maitreya, but there was a side to him that was bold and loyal. It was only because of his mother’s old age and three unmarried sisters that he had to stay a “good citizen” and shoulder the weight of the family. Ch’in Ching never shared anything about what he had been doing with his friend and even stopped visiting the Lius so frequently out of fear that he would drag them into any trouble he might get into.
Word still managed to make its way into the occupied areas despite Japanese controls on the news and speech. The crimes of the Japanese army in Nanking were enough to make each and every one of them suffer a painful death a thousand times over. However, Hsiao-Liu couldn’t actually do anything, and he only kept the resentment inside. Later, he and several colleagues in the business decided to write a play to satirize the Japanese sinners and Chinese traitors. Both the performers and the audience knew what the “fictional story set in ancient times” really portrayed, but they kept it unsaid and instead cursed profanely out of anger.
Then, the “police” came to the teahouse the previous October and took Hsiao-Liu back to the station for questioning without any solid proof, obviously looking for a ransom. Frightened, Hsiao-Liu’s sisters asked Ch’in Ching for help, and Ch’in Ching rushed over with the money and got his friend out with a bunch of sweet talk and fake smiles. Hsiao-Liu was careful not to perform those dangerous plays, but unexpectedly, he was arrested again after two peaceful months.
This time the matter was more serious, and Hsiao-Liu was not the only one who was in trouble for no reason. The Japanese had detected the underground routes for supplies and medicine run by the Communist Party in the Peip’ing and Tientsin region, and demanded that the culprits’ hideout be found. In attempt to please their Japanese masters, the “police” began arresting people left and right, and the teahouse eventually came under their radar. Not even money was enough to buy his way out this time. After asking around, Ch’in Ching found that those arrested were all transported to the Japanese police headquarters. As soon as he ensured that his godmother was safe with the sisters, he came looking for Shen Liangsheng for ideas.
Ch’in Ching went to Cambridge Road early on the twenty-second, but when he saw the familiar metal gates, he stopped at the street corner feeling a bit guilty for doing this. He was the one who had drawn the line with Shen Liangsheng, not even paying the man a visit when his father passed away. He was only here now because he needed the man’s help. He didn’t know what Shen Liangsheng would think of him.
If it were Ch’in Ching’s own problem, he would never bother Shen Liangsheng about it, but it was his friend’s life on the line here. After moments of consideration, Ch’in Ching was just about to continue walking when the gates opened and a vehicle drove out. He did not know if Shen Liangsheng was inside or not, and was still thinking of what to do when the car slid to a sudden stop. The man got out of the car and looked over at him from his spot by the vehicle.
The streets were quiet. Ch’in Ching couldn’t see the other man’s face well from over a hundred yards away, but he traced every single detail of it in his mind.
There were no take-backs once choices were made. He never regretted it, but he knew very clearly that he still had feelings for the man. He shouldn’t but he did nonetheless.
The feelings did not seem like much because he never saw him. The busy routine of everyday life kept him from thinking about the man very much. On those rare occasions when he felt down, he would remind himself that he had personally chosen this and would feel all right again.
However, now that he was looking at him again…
Ch’in Ching felt a sudden pain in his chest. It wasn’t a figment of imagination but real pain that followed each beat of his heart. It made his head dizzy and his vision white like the sunlight on the day of their farewell, like the street in front of him paved with snow.
Ch’in Ching had been looking at the man for a minute or two when he finally came back to himself and started walking over.
Shen Liangsheng had already cleaned up his own panic from earlier when he stopped the car. As Ch’in Ching approached, he began walking too with his hands tucked into his coat pockets. His steps grew quicker than usual but remained very firm. When he reached the man, he greeted him properly.
“Long time no see.”
The bits of Ch’in Ching that had come back became scattered again when he heard the man’s voice. He was dumbfounded and didn’t even think to say something fitting for the occasion.
“You’re looking for me?”
“Let’s talk inside.”
The clever secretary had followed his boss out of the car and was standing by the vehicle. He saw Shen Liangsheng wave his hand and got the message that the boss wanted them to leave without him. He ducked back into the car and said to Ts’ui Chao-ti,
“Miss Ts’ui, the boss has another guest. Let’s go on ahead so we don’t miss the train.”
“Um, could you hold on for just a second, please?”
The secretary thought the woman wanted to wait for Shen Liangsheng and wanted to advise against that idea, but she had already gotten out of the car. Then, after standing by the vehicle for perhaps half a minute, she got right back in without his reminder.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said quietly before lowering her head and falling silent.
She did not have the courage to love him. He was so high in the sky, in the light, that she dared not even harbour the notion. However, she knew that she would never again in this life have the chance to see him, so she found the rare burst of bravery to look at him one last time. She also had the tiniest hope that he might take a glance at her and wave goodbye.
Shen Liangsheng did see Ts’ui Chao-ti leave the car but had no desire to even uphold the most basic of manners. As he walked with Ch’in Ching back to the gates, he spotted the man’s hand hanging by his side and the fingers that were red from the cold. He felt an irritation that urged him to scold the man for not wearing gloves in the middle of winter, but then he realized it was not his place to say such things. Feeling such frustration, he didn’t care about anyone else.
Shen Liangsheng saw her, so Ch’in Ching naturally spotted her, too. He had never seen Ts’ui Chao-ti and didn’t know who she was to Shen Liangsheng, but he did see her leaving the car and looking over in their direction with a hand on her stomach. Her eyes were filled with tenderness, but she looked down shyly when their eyes met and got back into the car without a word.
Had he married? Probably not. If he had, the papers would have reported it. Perhaps he could not get married since his father had died less than a year ago. But if they were having a child, there would at least be a banquet later.
Ch’in Ching’s mind was spinning restlessly as he walked into the house with Shen Liangsheng. His chest had been hurting earlier, but now he felt fine, nothing at all.
When the two entered the lounge, the maid was shocked to see Ch’in Ching and couldn’t help but smile at the schoolmaster when serving tea. Ch’in Ching smiled back at her, and the smile had not left his face when he turned to face Shen Liangsheng, whose heart skipped a beat at the sight.
“What can I do for you?” The businessman lit a cigarette – more or less to hide this restiveness – and asked flatly.
Ch’in Ching explained the situation straightforwardly and studied Shen Liangsheng’s face for his reaction.
“I understand. Rest assured, and wait for good news.” Shen Liangsheng agreed to help without raising any conditions or stalling him with nonsense.
“Sorry for asking such a big favour.”
After the serious business, the room had fallen silent for a moment when the two men started speaking at the same time.
“Why don’t you stay for lunch?”
“No,” Ch’in Ching shook his head. “I should go now.”
Shen Liangsheng stared at the schoolmaster. Ch’in Ching looked back for a few seconds before repeating, “I’m going to go. Thanks again.”
“I won’t see you off then.” Shen Liangsheng stood up and gestured with a hand. “This way, please.”
Although Shen Liangsheng’s expectation when they broke up was “easy come easy go”, the reality was a bitterness that his pride would not allow him to admit. He would be lying if he said he had not hoped that he would be more important to Ch’in Ching than anyone or anything, and that the man would choose to stay with him.
Now, back to the present Shen Liangsheng did not blame the man for coming to him only to ask for help. He did not blame the man for wanting to leave right after business, either. He did not feel discontent. Rather, he felt delighted, for he had needed just one glance to tell that the man still had feelings for him. Afterwards, when Ch’in Ching saw Ts’ui Chao-ti when she got out of the car, Shen Liangsheng knew very well what misunderstanding would result from that. However, he did not explain anything so that the matter would weigh on the man’s mind for a few days.
“Ch’in Ching.” Shen Liangsheng had said he would not see the man out but still walked to the front door, even leaving him a kind reminder. “You look thinner. You take good care of yourself now.”
Ch’in Ching was a step ahead of the businessman, and his footsteps faltered at the gentle utterance. However, he did not look back and only hummed in reply.
Shen Liangsheng said no more and thought merrily as the other man walked across the garden towards the gates,
Ch’in Ching, you’re only causing yourself pain if you try to move on when it’s obvious you cannot.
Ch’in Ching left the manor behind and kept walking along the quiet street, not even stopping when he passed the intersection that would take him to the tram stop.
The leftover snow from yesterday was still hanging in the gloomy clouds above, filtering the sun so that only a bluish light showed through. It loomed over the snowy earth like a gigantic overturned bowl, suffocating those trapped under it.
Ch’in Ching had not felt too bad. His logic had been clear and his head not muddied when he was speaking with Shen Liangsheng earlier.
It was only now when he put some distance behind him and let his nerves relax that he felt a bit disoriented. It had been a year or so since they last met, and now the man had a wife and a child. After all, they were at that age. He should’ve seen it coming and not been surprised when presented with the news directly. How idiotic of him.
Then he remembered the man reminding him to take good care of himself, as though…as though….
The next thing Ch’in Ching thought of was his mother telling him, back when she still was able to recognize him, “My dear, you’re on your own now.” Afterwards, she forgot who he was and fell into unconsciousness. She passed away without having taken another look at him.
Ch’in Ching suddenly felt aggrieved. However, it was not because of Shen Liangsheng. He was the one who had left the man in the first place, and it would be absurd to expect the man to keep missing him. He just felt aggrieved, and since he couldn’t blame Shen Liangsheng, he went crying to his mother like a fussy child.
“How do you expect me to manage on my own when both you and Dad are leaving me?”
Aggrieved he was, but his heart did not ache at all. He had walked some more when he suddenly felt sick to his stomach. It was not the usual pains that he experienced. He had not had much to eat that morning, but he felt more and more nauseous.
He hurried to a tree on the side, and just as he touched the bark, he puked. There was neither food nor acid in his stomach. What came out was a mouthful of brownish glob. It took Ch’in Ching a moment to realize that it was blood.
It was not fresh, scarlet blood, but rather an old rusty lump nestled in the previously undisturbed snow under the tree.
It was as though something inside him had died and vanished from sight, and only now did the moldering corpse meet the light of day.
Ch’in Ching had felt a little dizzy earlier, but after throwing up, his head was clear again.
Holding onto the tree, he looked at the blood for a moment. He spread the stain out with the tip of his shoe, covered it with some snow nearby and then continued along his way.
Although Shen Liangsheng planned to leave Ch’in Ching hanging on account of his bitterness, he did not delay in the more serious matter – Hsiao-Liu was released early Tuesday morning.
Ch’in Ching didn’t want his friend to feel indebted and did not tell him he had gotten help from Shen Liangsheng. He only told his friend that money had worked wonders. Hsiao-Liu thought his friend had given up his entire life savings for him since he was still in a state of shock and could not think properly. Face red with shame, the shorter man kept apologizing and even said he would sell the teahouse to pay back the debt. Ch’in Ching stopped him with one rhetorical question.
“How are you going to manage without the teahouse?”
“Believe me when I say I didn’t have to pay that much.” Ch’in Ching knew his friend would not believe it if he said it was his godmother’s money, so he told his friend an average sum while flicking him on the forehead. “I only have one mouth to feed, and I didn’t have any use for the money lying around. I don’t need it back anytime soon. You can worry about it after your sisters get married and you find yourself a wife.”
The conversation did remind Ch’in Ching that although he could not return the favour that he owed Shen Liangsheng, he had to try to compensate financially. He had no idea how the man managed to get his friend out, but he was sure more was needed than just a few connections. He didn’t know what the exact amount was, and the man probably would not be honest about it either, but he thought he had to return as much as he could.
Ch’in Ching went to the Shen manor to express his gratitude in the evening of the same day. He purposely chose to go right before suppertime when he thought Shen Liangsheng was most likely to be home. However, it turned out that the businessman had plans and would not be home for some time. The servants wanted to serve supper for Ch’in Ching while he was waiting, but Ch’in Ching thought it would be inappropriate to dine in the absence of the owner. Thus, he declined the idea and waited until half past nine.
The first thing that Shen Liangsheng saw when he arrived home was Ch’in Ching sitting on the couch with a maid with whom the schoolmaster was close. The two were chatting merrily.
The maid’s attention was drifting away from the conversation, and then she noticed Shen Liangsheng in the lounge. She immediately stood up and backed to the edge of the room. “Young master.”
The schoolmaster stood up along with her and nodded at the other man with a smile.
“When did you get here?” The chilly air from outdoors still clung to Shen Liangsheng, but he felt something warm inside. As he was inquiring, he stepped closer to the other man, and his tone was not as distant as the previous time they had met.
“Have you eaten?”
“What did you eat?”
Shen Liangsheng did not actually believe the schoolmaster’s words and only wanted to play with him. He shot a questioning look at the maid on the side who understood his inquiry and in turn shook her head honestly.
“Let us have some more. I didn’t eat much for supper myself.” Not bursting the lie, Shen Liangsheng proceeded to ask the servants to prepare a meal. Meanwhile, he sat down on the couch nearby.
Ch’in Ching did not want to eat with the man, nor did he want to sit so close to him, but he did not switch seats since he had to speak with the man.
“Let’s leave that for after the food,” Shen Liangsheng interrupted. He then took a glance over at the man and made a seemingly casual remark. “Is it me, or did you get thinner since I last saw you?”
“I don’t know….” The comment made Ch’in Ching more and more uncomfortable, and he finally edged away and got some distance between them.
Shen Liangsheng was not bothered by this. After all, there was still the misunderstanding between them, and considering the schoolmaster’s temperament, it would have been strange if he had not moved away. Furthermore, Shen Liangsheng really did think Ch’in Ching looked unwell and began regretting having purposely teased him. Shen Liangsheng now wanted to tell the man everything so he wouldn’t over-think things and be sad by himself.
“Last year my dad…. I’m sure you saw it in the papers.”
Thus, he began from the passing of his father and talked about his brother’s death. He was obviously not going to be honest about it and told Ch’in Ching his brother had died smoking opium. Then, he talked about the unborn child that his brother left behind, explaining everything about Ts’ui Chao-ti.
“Shen Liangsheng….” Ch’in Ching did not doubt his words. There were many opium dens in Nanshih, and occasionally there would be a body lying on the side of the road. He offered his sincere condolences. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
Ch’in Ching sounded very genuine, but Shen Liangsheng was not too content – this wasn’t the reaction he had been looking for. There was no change in the schoolmaster’s face after hearing that Ts’ui Chao-ti had nothing to do with him, and it was even harder to tell whether the man was glad or not.
“Ch’in Ching–” Shen Liangsheng started but was cut off by the maid serving the meal. “Let’s eat.”
Ch’in Ching had gone to the doctor for his stomach and had taken medicine. He had followed the physician’s directions to stay empty-stomached for half a day before easing back in with plain congee. He was hesitant to start eating the various dishes on the table, but he didn’t want Shen Liangsheng to know that his stomach was unwell. He ate a bit here and there but quit when he began feeling sick.
Seeing the man stop with a pale face, Shen Liangsheng thought the food was upsetting his stomach because he had stayed hungry for too long. He did not push the man to eat, but rather fetched a bowl of soup for him. He asked softly as he watched the man finish the soup, “Does it still hurt?”
“Not anymore.” Realizing the other man had seen through his act, Ch’in Ching nodded as he replaced the bowl and stood up. He had made up his mind to say what needed to be said and leave. “Thank you again for what you’ve done for Hsiao-Liu. I can’t possibly return this favour, and this isn’t the only one I owe you….”
“Ch’in Ching.” Shen Liangsheng stood up too and walked around the table, his eyes focused on the man the entire time. “I told you before. You don’t need to return anything.”
The previous time he had said this was meant as a farewell, but this time, it was said with some intention of getting back together.
Shen Liangsheng thought that this incident involving Hsiao-Liu was an impetus. The flames in his heart were roaring once more as though new wood had been thrown onto a dying fire. Now that he had the intention, the problem was getting his thoughts across. He was hesitating as to how to start when the other man spoke.
“I know ‘thank you’ isn’t worth much, but I don’t have anything else to offer…. Anyway, thank you for saying I don’t have to return the favour. And well, there’s the money, too…I could….”
“No, it’s fine.”
“No, it’s not. I can’t let you spend your money on this.”
“Why….” Shen Liangsheng wanted to explain that he did not spend a penny getting Hsiao-Liu out, but it frustrated him very much that Ch’in Ching insisted on drawing the boundary between them. In the end, he questioned directly, “Why are you acting like a stranger with me?”
But Ch’in Ching only shook his head, the meaning of which was not clear to Shen Liangsheng. The two fell silent for a few seconds before Ch’in Ching spoke first. “It’s late. I should go.”
“No, thank you.”
“No, it’s fine.”
Shen Liangsheng wasn’t sure what to say anymore, and he became a little anxious. He walked with the man to the front door like last time and wanted to keep going, but Ch’in Ching spoke again.
The boiler was on, but the lounge was large and was not very hot. Despite this, a thin layer of sweat had gathered on Ch’in Ching’s forehead after staying for so long in his cotton robe. Shen Liangsheng didn’t want him to rush out into the cold like this and grabbed him by the arm.
“At least go after you dry off,” he said, trying to be as patient as possible.
“I’ll just use my scarf.” Ch’in Ching only wrapped his scarf around his neck twice and nodded curtly at the other man before continuing his way out.
The winter night was cold. The snow-covered street was the same, but this time Ch’in Ching did not have such a hard time walking down it.
He had recognized Shen Liangsheng’s intentions to get back together, and he realized Ts’ui Chao-ti was a misunderstanding. However, he had made up his mind not to turn back. The misunderstanding served as a preview for Ch’in Ching. Sooner or later, Shen Liangsheng would have to get married and have children. He had thought in the midst of fervent romance that he could disregard that and turn a blind eye to things, but this illusion was dispelled by the sneak peek.
As for Shen Liangsheng’s relationship with the Japanese, Ch’in Ching realized he was no longer one to judge since he himself had taken advantage of it. However, he was determined not to stop his current work. In the end, it all came down to the fact that they were from different worlds.
They were never the same to begin with. Indeed, they had been in love, but it was a love that had no future to speak of. In the end, it quietly died from within, and its corpse was expelled along with a mouthful of blood the colour of old murky rust.
Ch’in Ching ambled along the street, his body warm and his head as clear as day. The scarf around his neck was knitted by his mother for him before he left Tientsin for school. It was made out of the best yarn and was still thick and warm after many years of use.
In reality, his family had never been far. They were still holding him dearly, keeping him warm.
Since Ch’in Ching wanted to pay Shen Liangsheng back financially, he decided to sell his house. He actually did not have much savings, and what he had saved he had already donated. Now that he wanted to amass this fund, there was no other way but to sell the house.
The school was on winter holiday, but there was still socialization amongst the staff. After hearing the news, his colleagues began asking around for buyers. Ch’in Ching also thought it would be best to sell through a mutual acquaintance. He might even be able to go back and visit the house in the future.
In early February, Fang Hua got married to the tactless, yet persistent, colleague. As they say, “all things come to those who wait,” and the man finally got what he strove for for so long.
The guests at the wedding consisted mainly of family, friends, and of course, colleagues who formed one table on their own. Ch’in Ching joined in the merriment but did not touch alcohol. He knew that he could not aggravate his stomach any further.
“Ch’in Ching, you won’t drink to the others’ toasts, but you have to drink to mine.”
After several rounds, the groom came up to Ch’in Ching and put an arm around him. “Thank you…. I really need to thank you. If it weren’t for you–”
“You stop right there.” Ch’in Ching could tell the man was drunk and what he was about to say. He quickly interrupted and clinked their glasses together. “Just keep it to yourself while I take this.”
“No, I insist. You listen now….” The man was not discouraged at all, evidence of his drunkenness. He grabbed Ch’in Ching’s hand after drinking his glass and said wholeheartedly, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have had the chance to marry her.”
“You need to stop drinking, mister,” Ch’in Ching chuckled as he patted the man on the back.
Indeed, Fang Hua had noticed after he left Shen Liangsheng and made another attempt only for Ch’in Ching to reject her again. She finally gave up after that.
Ch’in Ching had felt sorry but did not want to ruin her future either. Despite having already decided not to go back again, Ch’in Ching still thought he probably could not fall in love with another person again in this lifetime.
If he couldn’t fall in love with her, then he shouldn’t get in the way of her happiness. This man she was marrying now was in fact a good one. Men were proud creatures, and regardless of the man’s drunken state, it took sincere love for him to say what he had said.
Towards the end of the banquet, a group of guests were planning to storm the newlyweds’ chamber. Ch’in Ching did not want to participate and chose to stand by, watching them in amusement.
“Not going to join them?” Lao-Wu asked amusingly. The man was on friendly terms with the rest of the staff, but he was a generation older after all and did not participate.
“No. ‘A beautiful night is worth a thousand gold.’ I’ve always been an observant man myself, so I won’t get in the way of their riches.”
Lao-Wu chuckled before asking another question. “I heard you’re looking to sell your house.”
“Yeah, it’d be great if you could help me ask around.”
“Fine, but where are you going to live afterwards?”
“Hsiao-Li said his friend has a room attached to his house available for rent. I’m just one person, so it’s no big deal.”
“Ch’in Ching….” Lao-Wu started hesitantly and quietly. “Well, I wanted to ask you this for a long time.”
“I know about your parents, and I know I shouldn’t be asking you this when you’re the only son, but….”
“Yes, yes. Get to the point, please.”
“Hsiao-Ch’in, how would you like to go to Shanpei ?”
“Huh?” Surprised, Ch’in Ching turned to look at the older man. He opened his mouth but closed it again.
“I have friends over there,” Lao-Wu dropped his voice lower and continued. “They were thinking to build a few more schools, but there aren’t enough teachers to staff the place. And you know the situation now. The war is not going to end any time soon, and the logistics–”
“Sold,” Ch’in Ching interrupted and began nodding his head. “I want to go.”
“You really do?”
Lao-Wu looked Ch’in Ching in the eye and found genuineness. He nodded back with a smile. “I just wanted to get your opinion. The earliest will have to be September or October later this year. A few students of mine in Peip’ing also want to go. You can keep each other company and keep each other safe on the road.”
A smile appeared on Ch’in Ching’s face too, and he was suddenly filled with a feeling of delight and freedom.
That’s right; he would go to support the logistics. He could teach, or he could do something else. There would surely be lots he could do.
There were no more shackles holding him down. The world was his to explore.
He had once been in love, and perhaps he would have loved only that one time, but he had long since buried this love in the winter snow, abandoned under the tree in his hometown.
And with the thousands of others fighting for their home, he would devote the rest of his life to this vast and glorious motherland that provided him with life and sustenance.
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Significance of Shanpei:Shanpei, or literally the north of Shaanxi province, is known for its association with the Long March and as the headquarters of Mao's communist activities as described briefly in this article. This is also where Yan'an is located, where the Communist Party call the birthplace of the revolution.
For more information:
The Long March
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ayszhang: I've officially started to study French again after 6 long years XD
Any francophones out there who wants to do language exchange with me, feel free to add me on LINE, Skype, Wechat or Kakaotalk. I speak Mandarin (Standard), Cantonese (Standard and dialect) and English (Canadian) at a native level, and Korean (Standard) and Japanese (Standard) fluently.
As for the story, we are nearing the end (almost there!). I'm just as anxious to finish translate this as you all are to know the ending. The following chapters are all comparatively shorter except for the last one, ch 27, but don't worry. They are all action-packed(?) and full of cliff-hangers...or are they? XD
Till Death Do Us Part - English Translation by ayszhang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.