Chapter 04

A traveler bemoans his solitude while spending a night in the wilds,
And a thief discourses on sexual passion to pass the time.

Poem:
This puritan preaches morality,
The libertine his creed.
But both need listeners predisposed,
If they’re going to succeed.

After taking leave of his wife and father-in-law, Vesperus set out on his study tour. He had no particular destination in mind, but merely let his legs carry him wherever they would. So long as there was a beautiful girl somewhere, he thought, that was where he would settle down. At each prefectural or county town he came to, he stayed several months. As a brilliant young man of letters, he easily qualified for local society. He was fond of joining literary circles, had published a great deal, and was known by name to educated men for hundreds of miles around. Wherever he went, he found friends eager to take him off to join their groups.

For Vesperus, however, writing and the social life that went with it were of minor significance beside his quest for a beautiful girl. Every day at dawn, he would get up and patrol the town from its main streets to its back alleys. Unfortunately all the women he saw were quite ordinary, and he never came across another outstanding beauty, which was a disappointment that preyed on his mind and tongue; for whatever he was doing, he would mutter, “Such a fine place, yet not a single girl worth looking at!” Over and over he would mutter these words wherever he went, even on trips to the privy. His complaint ultimately became such a habit with him that he would blurt it out before acquaintances and strangers alike, a fact that led his fellow students to call him sex-crazy behind his back.

One day while he was staying at an inn in the countryside, both of his pages fell ill and were confined to bed. Vesperus wanted to go for a walk but feared it would detract from his dignity if some woman saw him without an escort, and so he remained alone in his room, bored beyond endurance. Just at the height of his boredom, a guest from the next room paid him a visit.

“You’re all on your own, sir,” said the visitor, “and I daresay you’re feeling lonely. I have a jar of wine in my room, and if you have no objection, I’d like to invite you for a drink.”

“Meeting by chance,” said Vesperus, “one mustn’t impose. If we’re going to drink together, you must let me be the host.”

“And I’ve always heard that educated men like to be unconventional! Why so formal? As the proverb says, ‘Within the four seas, all men are brothers.’ And there’s another one, too: “Many’s the time men meet by chance.’ I may have a humble station in life, but there is nothing I enjoy more than making friends. However, your prospercts are so grand that in the ordinary way I would never have presumed to make your acquaintance. So this is a rare encounter, our staying at the same inn! What harm would there be in your condescending to join me?”

In his state of acute boredom Besperus was only too eager to have someone to talk to and, on finding himself so earnestly invited, he promptly accepted. HIs host seated him in the place of honor, while he himself sate to one side, an arrangement over which Vesperus protested, insisting he take the seat opposite. After a few casual remarks, they exchanged their names. Vesperus revealed his sobriquet and asked his host’s.

“As an educated man, sir, you have a sobriquet,” said the other. “But I am a vulgar fellow and have no such elegant title, just the nickname A Match for the Knave of Kunlun. How ever, you’ll find that everyone within a hundred miles of here recognizes that name.”

“It’s most unusual. How did you come to choose it?”

“If I tell you, I’m afraid you’ll be scared. And even if you’re not scared, you’ll want to leave at once and not drink with me anymore.”

“I’m a man of some courage myself, you know, as well as a free spirit. I wouldn’t be scared even if it was an immortal or a ghost there in front of me. And as for such things as status and education, I pay them even less attention. As everybody knows, there was a barnyard mimic as well as a sneak thief among the heroes in the Lord of Mengchang’s entourage, and Jing Ke used to get drunk with a dogmeat butcher in the marketplace of Yan. So long as we get on together, why wouldn’t I drink with you?”

“In that case there’s no harm in telling you. I’m a professional thief, a specialist in braking and entering. A rich man’s tower may be thousands of feet high and his walls hundreds of courses thick; if I choose not to try, fine, but if I go there in search of money, I’ll get straight to his bedside with the greatest of ease, bundle up his valuables, and make my getaway so cleanly that he won’t know he’s been robbed until the next day. They say there used to be a Knave of Kunlun who got over the wall into General Guo’s palace and abducted a Girl in Red, but he did it only once, whereas I’ve done that kind of thing hundreds of times. Anyway that’s why I’m called a Match for the Knave.”

Vesperus was aghast. “But since you’ve been doing this for a long time and have earned a name for yourself that everyone knows, surely you must have fallen foul of the law?”

“If I did that,” replied the Knave, “I’d be no hero. As the proverb says, ‘You have to have the goods to catch the thief.‘ When the stolen goods can’t be found, I point that out, and no one dares lay a finger on me. In fact everyone around here tries to get into my good books, because they’re afraid I’ll ruin them if they so much as cross me. But I’m not without honor, you know. I do have my Five abstentions from Theft.”

“And what are they?”

“I don’t rob unlucky people, lucky people, people I know, people I’ve robbed once already, or people who take no precautions.”

“Those terms are rather intriguing. Won’t you please explain?”

“If people have suffered some blow such as an illness, a death in the family, or some natural disaster and are in terrible anguish over it, robbing them would be like pouring oil on the flames – too much for them to bear. That’s why I won’t do it.

“If a family has something to celebrate, such as a wedding, the birth of a son, or a new house, and I were to go and rob them in the midst of the festivities, the loss of property would be far less important than the ill fortune I’d be bringing them, ill fortune that would god them in the future. That’s why I won’t do it.

“I don’t consider it wrong to steal from people I’ve never met, people I know but who don’t know me, or people who know me but aren’t willing to associate with me. But in the case of people I meet and greet every day, if I were to rob them, they’d never suspect me and I’d feel a bit ashamed when I saw them next. For instance, I invited you to join me for a drink just now. If you’d refused, you’d have shown yourself to be a snob who looked down on me and, no matter where you lived, I’d never have let you get away with it. But you were happy to come over and sit here opposite me. Someone as congenial as that – how could I bring myself to rob him?

“In the case of a rich man  who has never been robbed despite all his wealth, I’ll condescend to pay him a call, to hit him up for a contribution, as it were. What’s wrong with that? But if I’ve robbed him once already and gotten my share, I’d have to be a monster of greed to go on plaguing him. So that, too, is something I won’t do.

“But those timid souls who worry about thieves all day and guard against them all night, who never stop talking about thieves, they treat me without any respect, so I do the same with them. I rob them a couple of times and show them I’m smarter than they are and all too easy to underestimate, just so that they won’t look down on us thieves anymore.

“But if it’s bighearted, generous man for whom money is just a matter of chance, anyway, the sort of man who will let you steal a little if you need it, either by neglecting to shut his gate or deliberately leaving his door open, if I stole from a man like that, I’d be a coward and a bully, a thieving rat or cur, as they say. it is not something that our great mentor, Robber Zhi, would ever have stooped to, so how can I do it?

“Those are my Five Abstentions from Theft. All my life I’ve benefited from them. People far and wide know about these qualities of mine, and although they realize I’m a thief, they don’t treat me as one and they take no precautions. Since they don’t consider it a disgrace to associate with me, I don’t consider it one either. If you have no objection, let’s take an oath of brotherhood. Should you ever need my help, I’ll do my level best to serve you, to the death if necessary. This is not one of those oaths of brotherhood you educated men swear, which amount to helping a brother in good times but begging off in bad. We thieves aren’t like that.”

As he listened to the other’s speech, Vesperus had been nodding in rapid succession. Now he heaved a sign.

I never expected to find such a hero among thieves, he mused. If I make friends with him, the once case in which I might need his help would be if I heard of some outstanding beauty-like the Girl in Red or Red Whisk – who was living in a great mansion where I mightn’t be able to communicate with her, let alone meet her. How marvelous if I could count on him to play the role of Kunlun! Perhaps meeting him today means that I have an exceptional destiny in store for me and Heaven has sent a supernatual being to help me achieve it.

At this prospect he began to jump for joy. But the Knave’s suggestion that they swear an oath of brotherhood gave him pause. Although he replied, “Capital,” his tone was less than enthusiastic.

The Knave guessed his thoughts. “You may say you agree, but in your heart you haven’t quite agreed. You’re not afraid, by any chance, that I’ll involve you in a lawsuit? Forget for the moment that my exceptional skills will keep me out of the courts; even if I got into trouble, I’d go to my death if need be, rather than drag an innocent person down with me. So don’t give it a second thought.”

Now that the Knave had answered his reservations, Vesperus readily accepted, not daring to make any excuses. They contributed to a three-animal sacrifice and then, after writing out their dates of birth, smeared their mouths with blood and took an oath to live or die together. Since the Knave was older than Vesperus, they addressed each other as younger brother and elder brother, respectively. Then they enjoyed what was left of the sacrificial meats and ate and drank until midnight, by which time the table was littered with cups and dished.

They were about to go to their rooms, when Vesperus said, “We’ll be lonely sleeping in separate rooms. Why not come and share my bed and we’ll pass the night in heart-to-heart talk?”

“Good idea,” said the Knave, and they undressed and got into bed.

Vesperus had been so preoccupied with drinking and talking that he had quite forgotten the complaint that was normally on his lips. But now, with the drinking and talking over, as he got into bed and was about to drop off to sleep, he reverted to form. He came out with his grievance and repeated it several times.

“There are beautiful women everywhere,” protested the Knave, “What makes you say that? Are you still unmarried, by any chance, and traveling about in search of a wife?”

“No, no, I already have a wife. But how can a man be expected to depend on just one woman for company all his life? After all, he needs a few women besides his wife just for the change of scenery! To be quite candid, brother, I have an exceptionally amorous nature. Wealth and honor are within my grasp, but they don’t interest me at all. This is the one thing that matters. The journey I’m on is nominally to advance my studies but actually to look for women. I’ve been to many cities and towns, but all the women I’ve seen have either been larded with makeup to hide their dark complexions or covered in jewels to hide their brown hair. I’ve not met a single natural beauty, one who didn’t need to adorn herself. I’ve lost heart, and that’s why I say this all the time, to vent my frustration and despair.”

“You’re quite wrong there, brother. Good women never themselves be seen, or rather, the only ones who do are not good women. Even among prostitutes, not to mention girls of good family, it is only the ugliest ones that nobody wants who will stand in doorways and try to sell you their wares. Those with any reputation at all sit inside and wait for the man to call on them, and even then they play hard to get and only come out after you’ve asked for them several times. You surely don’t imagine that an unmarried girl of good family or a wife or concubine from a great household is going to stand in her doorway and display herself, do you? If you really want to know whether there are any good women about, you ought to come and ask me.”

At this suggestion Vesperus’s head jerked up involuntarily. “Now, that’s a surprise! Since you don’t take the state yourself where love is concerned, how would you know anything about it?”

“I may not take the stage, ” said the Knave, “but I have a better view of the action than anyone else. Even the principals have only a general idea of what’s going on. They’re in no position to know all the details.”

“Why is that?”

“Tell me, are beautiful girls more plentiful in rich and eminet households or in poor and bumble ones?”

“Oh, in rich and eminent households, of course. Poor men can’t afford them.”

“Well, then, can you get a more accurate view of the beautiful girls in the rich and eminent households when they’re fully dressed and made up or when they’re undressed and have washed off all their makeup?”

“Of course, it’s only after they’ve washed off their makeup that you see their natural beauty. When they’re dressed and made up, how can you tell anything?”

“You see my point,” said the Knave, “We thieves, of course, don’t choose to go near the houses of the poor and humble. The houses we frequent are full of girls hung with jewels and dressed in the finest silks, and so naturally we get to see them in great numbers. Moreover, we time our visits, not for the daytime but for the dead of night, when they may be sitting undressed in the moonlight or else sleeping beside a lamp with the bedcurtains open. For fear the girl may not be asleep, I don’t dare take anything at first, but hide in some dark corner with my eyes riveted on her body to make sure she’s not stirring. Only when she’s asleep do I set to work. Thus for the better part of an hour I have my eyes on her, and during that time nothing escapes me, not her eyes or face or figure or complexion, not even the depth of her vagina or the growth of her pubic hair. I have a mental record of which women are good-looking and which aren’t in the houses of all the rich men and officials within in hundred miles of here. If you want to go in for this, you’ll need my advice.”

At this point Vesperus, who had been lying inside the bedclothes, suddenly sat bolt upright, exposing his chest and back.

“That’s right!” he exclaimed, “You can’t see the women in a great household, no matter who you are. Or if you do see them, it’s never a good view that you get. You thieves are the only ones who are able to see them properly! If you hadn’t brought this up, I’d have missed a glorious opportunity. Bit it raises another question in my mind: when you see such beautiful women, with such well-developed vulvas, what happens if your excitement gets too much for you and you can’t control yourself?”

“When I first saw such sights as a young man, I couldn’t control myself and would often sit there in the darkness and shoot my handgun at the woman, making believe I was doing it with her. Later, as I saw more of them, they came to mean less and less. Gradually a vulva came to resemble some kitchen utensils and aroused about as much feeling in me. Only when I saw a woman doing it with her husband and heard the moans coming from their mouths and the pomping sound from down below did I get a little excited.”

Now that the Knave as touching on such fascinating subject matter, Vesperus, who was sitting up in bed not far away, feared that even the remaining two or three feet would lessen the impact of what was being said, so he flipped over and lay beside the Knave.

“If you’re not too bored with such trivialities,” the Knave went on, “let me tell you one or two of the things I’ve seen and heard, so you’ll appreciate that, although I may be a thief, I am also a spy in the camp of love and a chronicler of women’s ways, not some dumb know-nothing who can’t even write the word LOVE.”

“Splendid! If you’ll do that, one night of talk with you will be worth more than ten years of study. Do go ahead.”

“I’ve seen so many things, I hardly know where to begin. Ask me anything you like and I’ll try to answer.”

“Fine. Well, then, which are more common, the women who like it or the ones who don’t?”

“Oh, the women who like it, of course. Still, there are those who don’t. In general, out of every hundred women you’ll find only one or two who don’t like it. But even among those who do, there are two kinds: those who like doing it and say so, and those who try to give the impression they don’t like it even though they do. Only after their husbands have forced them on stage do these latter ones show their true dolors.

“Of the two kinds, it is the former that is the easier to dispatch. At first, as I watched from a dark corner while a wife brazenly urged her husband to do it, I thought she must be a real wanton whose energy would last all night, but, lo and behold, she spent after just a few thrusts and then felt drowsy and only wanted to sleep. She no longer cared if her husband did it or not, and she gave up trying to spur him into action or keep him up to the mark. By contrast, the woman who really wants it but pretends she doesn’t is terribly hard to live with. I was robbing a house once and saw the husband trying to get his unwilling wife to do it. When he mounted her, she pushed him off, so he concluded she genuinely didn’t want to and went to sleep and began snoring. But then she set herself to tossing and turning in bed in order to get him to wake up. When he didn’t wake up, she shook him. But he was sound asleep and still didn’t wake up. So she started screaming, “Thief! Thief!” Anyone else in my position would have been frightened off at that point, but I realized she wasn’t really crying thief, she just wanted her husband to wake up and have sex with her. And so it proved. He woke up with a start, and she was ready with a clever excuse: “The cat was chasing a mouse and it jumped down and made a noise that I mistook for a burglar. Actually it wasn’t anything.’  She clasped him tightly and rubbed her vulva beside his penis until he got excited and mounted her. At first, when he thrust, she managed to refrain from uttering any cries of passion, but after several hundred strokes she started to moan and her fluid came in a steady stream. She let him thrust a while and the wipe up, in constant attendance on her. At midnight her husband spent, but her own passions were still at their height. She was greatly distressed at his wanting to stop, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask him to continue. Her only solution was to start sighing and groaning as if she were ill in order to get him to rub her chest and stomach, thus preventing him from sleeping. It was too much for the husband, who couldn’t help mounting her and beginning all over again. This went on until cockcrow, keeping me up all night. Then, just as I was about to gather up their valuables, dawn broke and I had to sneak away, and I never did manage to rob them. But that is how I know that this kind of woman is hard to live with.”

“Indeed. But let me ask you this, are most women capable of passionate cries while they’re having sex?”

“Most are, of course. Still, there are those who aren’t, probably one or two in every ten. but women have three kinds of cries, which sound very different even when expressed in the same words. We thieves are the only ones who can tell the difference. Even the men having sex with them don’t know.”

“What are they?”

“When they start, the women aren’t feeling any pleasure and have no desire to cry out. They’re just putting on an act to get their husbands excited. You can tell that from the sound they make; in general, although they cry out, they don’t move at all and their words are distinct rather than garbled. When they begin to feel pleasure, not only are their minds and mouths full of sensuality, every part of their bodies is starting to feel the same way. The cries are audible, but the words come out incoherent and disjointed. When their pleasure reaches its climax, their energies flag, their arms and legs go limp, and they couldn’t utter any cries even if they wanted to. Now the sound comes from their throats rather than their mouths and is barely audible.

“But even this barely audible sound is too much for the listener. I was robbing a house once and saw a husband and wife having sex. At first as they tumbled about, the noise she made was deafening, but it had not the slightest effect on me. Then she fell silent and stopped moving, as if her husband had done her to death. I cocked an ear and drew closer. All I could hear was a wheezing and gasping from her throat that sounded like something between speech and a sigh, and I knew she had reached her climax. A wave of excitement swept over me, I began to tingle all over, and my semen came of its own accord without resort to the handgun. That is how I know women are capable of this sort of cry as well.”

At this point Vesperus heard in his imagination the most wanton of women uttering her cries of passion in his ear, and his body began to tingle all over, too, and before he knew it his long-suppressed semen was spreading over the mat.

There were more questions he wanted to ask, but it was now broad daylight. The two men got up, washed, and then sate down again to continue their talk, which was full of the same kind of fascinating information. The lecturer may occasionally have shown signs of fatigue, but his listener’s interest never flagged, and after several days of intimate conversation an even close bond had formed between them.

“I’ve seen many women since I left home,” said Vesperus at this stage, “but none who has taken my fancy, and I’d come to the conclusion that there are no beautiful girls left in the world. From what you say, though, you’ve seen girls like that not once but many times. Since I’m devoting my life to sex, I feel thrice blessed in getting to know you, and I’d be missing a golden opportunity if I failed to entrust you with this concern of mine. I beg you, brother, to pick out the most beautiful girl from among those you’ve seen and think up some way for me to get a look at her. If she really is strikingly beautiful, well, to be candid, I was born under the lucky star of love. All my life it’s been the same way. Once I meet a woman, I don’t need to seek her out, she comes looking for me. When the time is right, I’ll ask you to pull off one of your miracles and arrange a rendezvous. Who knows, perhaps you as the reincarnation of the Knave of Kunlun may come to my aid as a latter-day Master Cui?”

The Knave shook his head. “No, I can’t do that, because I’ve vowed never to rob any people I’ve robbed before. Having robbed them once, I couldn’t bring myself to rob them of their property again, let alone of their womenfolk’s chastity! But I’ll make a point of watching out from now on. When I enter someone’s house and see a beautiful girl, I won’t necessarily take anything, I’ll come back and consult you about a rendezvous. That’s something I can do for you.”

“I failed to give a gallant man dis due,” said Vesperus, “My suggestion was presumptuous, I now realize. There is one thing I must mention, though: I am grateful for your offer, but if you find a strikingly beautiful girl, whatever you do, don’t steal anything. Don’t let the sight of her valuables tempt you into forgetting your promise. If you can arrange something for me, I’ll make a point of rewarding you.”

“Now you really have failed to give a gallant man his due! If I were looking for a reward, I’d do better to take what you have on you right now. Why shouldn’t I be tempted by the sight of your valuables? Even if you make a point of rewarding me, the reward will be just the promise of a contribution or two after you’re in office. I can well imagine what those contributions will be worth; ten of them together wouldn’t equal what I make from a single robbery. That kind of reward you can forget about. I’m promising you a beautiful girl. Of course, when I find one for you, the onus of seducing her will be on you. I can’t guarantee everything!”

“I’m a specialist in the art of seduction,” said Vesperus, “You can set your mind at rest.”

“Now that you’ve met me,” said the Knave, “there’s no need to go off anywhere else. Why not rent some rooms here and get on with your studies? But don’t depend solely on me. If you see someone good you should go ahead on your own. If I find someone, I’ll come and report. With both of us on the lookout, we’re sure to find one or two. We can hardly draw a complete blank.”

Jubilant, Vesperus told his servants to look for lodgings. Then, before letting the Knave take his leave he insisted on bowing another four times in friendship. With sworn brothers in the past, his friendships had been cemented with eight bows; only in the Knave’s cse had he given as many as twelve. In later times someone wrote a poem pointing out the error of Vesperus’s ways, namely, his lechery and his consorting with a criminal. The poem ran,

Since lust misleads us, dims our sight, 
He took thief for hero in lust’s despair.
Then swearing an oath, he forged a bond
With the lowliest creatures of earth and air.

Having bent the knee to a humble thief,
How should he answer the emperor’s grace?
Your views, good sir, are enlightened indeed;
In the world today we honor the base.

Critique

The Knave’s character is ten times better than Vesperus’s. It was not Vesperus, but the Knave, who swore brotherhood with a thief.

Lone Peak’s three abstentions and the Knave’s five are the most remarkable and delightful writing of all time, something quite unparalleled in fiction. Even if you tried, you couldn’t prevent them from enjoying a wide circulation!

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