At twenty-five I was a teacher in a small town in the Northwest China. The town was sparsely populated and, being so remote, lacked modern means of communication. In the evenings the wolves howled in the nearby hills and occasionally entered the town in quest of prey.
I spent only one year there and, being unable to endure the isolation, packed my bags when the summer holidays arrived and prepared to return home.
A traveler had to take a donkey cart to the nearest railhead, some twenty-five miles away. On arriving at the departure point in the center of the town, I found that all the carts, being mostly engaged in carrying local products, had left. I began to despair.
“Sir,” a sibilant whisper came from a boy whom I knew slightly (he was from the tiny Moslem restaurant, “all the carts have gone out into the country districts.”
I left his remark unnoticed. As time passed, I began to feel tired and hungry. The boy approached me again, “Sir, why not come inside for rest? There may be a donkey cart somewhere else in the town. I’ll try to find one for you.”
“All right,” I agreed, “take my baggage inside.”
Having taken a table facing the street, I ordered as mall pot of wine and a dish of mutton which were promptly served. A stout, cheerful man, the owner of the restaurant must have learned of my problem and came up to me.
“Relax, my friend, and I’ll see what can be done,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
“It’s already four o’clock,” I complained, “and if I can’t find transport before five, my journey will have to be postponed.”
“Don’t worry said the innkeeper. “Dry weather like this is good for travelling at night.”
I sat there quietly, looking at my watch occasionally, hoping to see a cart through the open door. The entrance was suddenly barred by the figure of the boy who came shouting that business was good at the market and that all the carts had gone and were not expected to return until the morrow. He moved away revealing an empty donkey cart. I leaped up, hurried to the door, and was just about to hail the driver when I realized who he was. My hands dropped and I returned regretfully to my seat. The innkeeper gives me a sympathetic smile. The driver was Lin Ng, an old man with a most unsavory reputation. Among the drivers, he couldn’t be trusted. Even the children called the villain in their games Lin Ng. I had used his cart once when I arrived in the town and I remember him vividly as a melancholic with thick eyebrows, wide cheekbones and a pinch of white moustache.
The story goes that when he was young he had been a member of a gang. They had all been wiped out by the law but he escaped and returned to the town. He had taken the job of being a transport driver. Soon afterward there occurred an n event which seemed to confirm his reputation. He was employed to drive a local merchant who carried a substantial sum of money. The day after the journey, the merchant was found clubbed to death in a ditch below a stretch of plateau some miles from the town. Everyone was aware that Lin Ng was the driver who had been employed to drive the leather dealer home and there seemed little doubt of his guilt. He empathically denied this and asserted that at the halfway stage, the merchant had transferred to another cart, driven by Ngau Lo Tsun.
The local Magistrate made a formal investigation of the case but could find no definite evidence except for some bruises on Lin Ng’s arms. He was, of course, acquitted but the people of the town still considered him guilty. They avoided him and seldom made use of his services except for short journeys during the day and along well-frequented roads.
The clock struck five and I realized that there was little hope of catching my train now. Unless…?
“Ask old Lin Ng if it is still possible to catch the 9:45 train if we leave now.” The innkeeper looked sadly at me but went outside nevertheless to inquire for me.
Old Lin Ng, his shabby hat in hand, said with some confidence, “I’ll get you to the train in time, sir, but we must start at once.” I looked at the innkeeper, hesitant to leave, but obstinacy urged me to have faith in him. I had to make that trip.
“Is the weather suitable for the night journey?” I asked.
“It is perfect, sir,” was the reply. When I paused again he seemed to sense the cause of my worry. “You could always take another cart in the morning,” he went on.
“No,” I had decided, “I have to catch the train tonight.” I paid the bill and went outside with my baggage which Lin Ng lifted into the cart. As I climbed in he said, “We are ready to go now, sir. You can take a nap if you want to.”
Flatly I answered, I don’t want to,” and with a crack of his whip we lurched forward.
Some three hours had passed and we were traveling across a barren plain under the darkening sky; the only signs of life were the occasional barkings of the dogs as we passed near some habitations. The countryside seemed to be asleep with the night wind singing a lullaby. The feeble shadow of the cart was cast by the single lamp at the front. The driver rocked and swayed rhythmically now and again; giving a flick of the whip to the donkey. I leaned against the side of the cart grasping a large stone which I had picked up before climbing into the vehicle.
Lin Ng glanced at the sooty lamp and at the starry sky, then turned to me. My hand gripped the stone harder. “Are you dozing, sir?”
The cart began to slow down and the driver made the whip sound loudly in the night air. The poor beast stretched its neck but to little avail. We were having difficulties climbing the hill from the plain. “Get on, damn you!” yelled Lin Ng, jumping down from the seat and moving to rear of the cart. I felt nervous now, wondering if this was a calculated move to get behind me.
“I’ll have to push from the back if you will shout at the donkey.”
“Shall I get down to make the cart lighter?”
“No. Just sit there, please”, he replied.
“I’d better get down for a while if only to stretch my legs.”
I jumped down and walked behind the cart while the driver strained until we reached the crest of the hill.
“Thank you. You are very kind to help my donkey. He is almost as old as I am now and he has not been doing short journeys around the town and has forgotten this hill.”
I resumed my seat and by then the night had grown even darker, the way more rugged. The wheels creaked and groaned as though in protest at the rough terrain. Suddenly he put his whip down in the cart and fumbled at his waist.
“Would he attack me now?” I wondered. I put one foot on the seat and held the stone, ready to defend myself. There was a rustle and he half turned in his seat. He struck a match and the familiar smell of tobacco smoke drifted by me.
“You want to smoke, sir?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I have not been so far out of town a long time, it seems very strange to me now.”
“It’s certainly strange!” I replied.
“You are a Southerner, sir. I wonder if things are strange in the South?”
I replied that things were strange in any part of this world.
He laughed. “Things are all strange under the sun.” The smoke drifted over his shoulder toward me. “Have you heard strange rumors about me in the town?” he continued, dispassionately.
“Probably.” I tried to appear indifferent, slightly afraid even as I wondered all the more why he had asked that particular question.
“I have had no long journeys for years because the townsfolk are afraid of me. They say I was a robber once.”
“Are there such rumors?” I pretended to be ignorant of the story.
“That’s why I say this world is strange. Rumor is more vicious than an angry serpent. Once you are bitten by it you seldom recover. When I was a young man and trying to earn a living, I tried many jobs. I was a soldier for a while, worked in a vineyard later where I was so unhappy that I decided to return home. Just before I arrived a large gang of robbers was arrested near the town. People suspected that I had been one of the gang and had escaped.”
“But how could they suspect with no evidence?” I interrupted.
“Everyone has two lips,” he went on.
“We can’t stop them from talking. Sir, you may have heard a much stronger rumor about me.”
“Well… vaguely,” I answered.
“Let me tell you the truth. It was a night such as this and on this same road when I was taking a leather dealer to the station. He was as friendly as you, sir. He kept talking about the business situation while smoking one cigarette after another. Midway we met an empty cart going slowly in the same direction. I knew the driver, Ngau Lo Tsun, and asked him if he would like to take my passenger the rest of the way to the station as I was very tired and wanted to be home early. He explained that he had lost his whip and that his lamp had run out of oil. I loaned him my whip and filled his lamp. My passenger gives me the half fee and I took leave of them, glad that I could go home.
“The next day it was reported that the merchant had been found dead in the ditch below the road and, several people knowing that he had been my passenger, I was arrested. But there was no proof, so I was eventually released. I went to see Lo Tsun, who told me that his cart had been ambushed by three robbers who demanded money from the merchant. When he refused to pay they clubbed him to death and chased him away. Lo Tsun went on to say that as long as we remained poor, people would not suspect us of robbing the merchant, but then, in spite of my poverty, sir, no one believes me.”
I contemplated his trouble. It seemed rather unfair. I loosened my grip on the stone and lit a cigarette.
“Look, sir, he pointed out, “there is the very spot where I handed over my passenger. There by that date tree which has grown up so well.”
I saw the shadow of a date tree. “I believe you.”
“I can’t really blame you for not doing so,” he continued. “Once a rumor has begun it is difficult to stop it.”
We remained silent for a long time. The singular sound of the revolving wheels emphasized the loneliness of the autumn night. In Northern China the evenings are usually quiet.
“Are you sleeping, sir? What time is it? now?”
“I wasn’t asleep.” I replied, bending toward the lamp to look at my watch. “It’s almost nine.”
“If only my donkey were more energetic, I would be on my way back now.” I cautiously dropped the stone over the side and Lin Ng stopped the cart. “Did you dropped something, sir?’
“No; perhaps it was a stone thrown up by the wheels.”
He waved his whip and the cart advanced once again. We could see some lights in the distance. A locomotive whistle could be heard and I realized that my journey was almost over.
“Sir, write if you please to your friends back in the town so that I have more long distance journeys.”
“I will,” I assured him.
We entered the city and I gave the old man a double fee. He made his farewell and left to get a drink at the inn. His shadow soon disappeared. I must write that letter. It may help the poor man.