For three days my caravan was preceded by twelve men, headed by a sort of gaffer with a gong, carrying a corpse in a massive black coffin, elaborate in red and blue silk drapings and with the inevitable white cock presiding, one leg tied with a couple of strands of straw to the cover, on which it crowed lustily. Their mission was an honorable one, carrying the honored dead to its last bed of rest eternal; for this dead man had secured the fulfillment of the highest in human destiny—to have his bones buried near the scene of his youth, near his home. This is a simple custom the Chinese cherish and reverence, of highest honor to the dead and of no mean value to the living. To the dead, because buried near the home of his fathers he would not be subject to those delusive temptations in the future state of that confused and complex life; to the living, because it gave work to a dozen men for several days, and enabled them to have a good time at the expense of the departed. A perpetual and excruciatingly unmusical chant, in keeping with the occasion’s sadness, rent the mountain air, interrupted only when the bearers lowered the coffin and left the remains of the great dead on a pair of trestles in the roadway, whilst they drank to his happiness above and smoked tobacco which the relatives had given them. Once this heaper-up of Chinese merit[AM] was dumped unceremoniously on the turf while the headman entered into a blackguarding contest with one of the fellows who was alleged to be constantly out of step with his brethren, because he was a much smaller man. The gaffer gave him a bit of a drubbing for his insolence.
Rain came on at Chennan-chou, a small town of about three hundred houses, where I sought shelter in the last house of the street. The householder, a shrivelled, goitrous humpback, received me kindly, removed his pot of cabbage from the fire to brew tea for his uninvited guest, and showed great gratitude (to such an extent that he nearly fell into the fire as he moved to push the children forward towards me) when I gave a few cash to three kiddies, who gaped open-mouthed at the apparition thus found unexpectedly before their parent’s hearth. More came in, my beneficent attention being modestly directed towards them; others followed, and still more, and more, whilst the man, removing from his mouth his four-foot pipe, and wiping the mouthpiece with his soiled coat-sleeve before offering it to me to smoke, smiled as I distributed more cash.
“They are all mine,” he said cutely.
Poor fellow! There must have been a dozen nippers there, and I sighed at the thought of what some men come to as the last of half a string of cash slipped through my fingers.[AN]
Outside the town, on the lee side of a triumphal arch—erected, maybe, to the memory of one of the virtuous widows of the district—I untied my pukai and donned my mackintosh and wind-cap. A gale blew, my fingers ached with the cold, breathing was rendered difficult by the rarefied air. As we were thus engaged and discussing the prospects of the storm, yelling from under a gigantic straw hat, a fellow said—