Chinese Fairy Tales (H. Giles, 1920)/4
THE PAINTED SKIN
A certain Mr. Wang was out walking one day, when he saw a young lady who was carrying a bundle and trying to make as much haste as she could along the road. She couldn't really walk very fast, because her feet were all cramped and bound up; and as she didn't seem to know her way about, Mr. Wang asked her if he could be of any use. For she was a very pretty girl of about sixteen, so he was surprised to see her out by herself. "I'm very much afraid you can't help me," she answered, and went on to tell him that she had run away from her master and mistress, and had no home to go to, nor any friend to take her in. "My parents," she said, "sold me when I was quite young, and would certainly give me back to my cruel master and mistress." Mr. Wang felt so sorry for her, that he invited her to come and hide in his own house, and as he was afraid lest the servants and his wife would let out where she was, he hid her in his library, which was quite separate from the rest of the house, and into which nobody went but himself.
After a few days, when he thought matters were quite safe, Mr. Wang told his wife about the girl. Mrs. Wang didn't like the idea of keeping her at all, "because," she said, "this girl probably belongs to a very rich and great family; sha'n't we get into trouble if they find out she is here?" But her husband laughed at her, and said, they had better keep her a little longer. A short time afterwards, however, as Mr. Wang was walking about in the town, he met a priest, who looked at him very hard indeed "What have you met?" asked the priest. "Nothing in particular," answered Mr, Wang, "What do you mean?" "Why," the priest replied, "you are in the power of a witch; fancy telling me you have met nothing!" And away he walked, not listening to Mr. Wang, but only saying, "What a fool! what a fool! He doesn't know how close he is to dying." Mr. Wang felt frightened when he heard this, and then he remembered the strange girl at his home; but again it seemed to him absurd to think she could be a witch and want to harm him. By this time he had got to his house, and thought he would go to his library, and sit and think it over. But when he tried to open the outside door, he found it bolted; so he had to climb over the wall to get to the inside door, which he also found shut. However, the window was close by, and he crept very softly up to it, and looked through. And there, in full sight, was a hideous witch, with a green face and teeth as jagged as a saw! The witch had spread a girl's skin upon the couch, and she was painting it with a paint-brush. Next moment she threw the paint-brush into a corner, took up the skin and gave it a good shake, threw it over her shoulders, and Mr. Wang saw that it was the girl again!
Off ran Mr. Wang as fast as his shaking legs would allow him, and searched the town from end to end, until he found the priest. He threw himself upon his knees, and cried out "Save me! save me!" telling him what he had seen. The priest shook his head, and told Mr. Wang he was afraid he couldn't help him much. "At any rate," he added, "I will give you this fly-brush. Hang it at your bedroom door, and meet me by and by at the temple over there." So Mr. Wang went home with the fly-brush. He didn't dare to go into the library, but he hung up the brush at his bedroom door, and calling his wife, went into the room and told her the story. He had scarcely finished, when they heard footsteps outside. "Peep out," Mr. Wang whispered to his wife. She did so, and there stood the girl, looking at the fly-brush as though she was afraid of it, and grinding her teeth in a great rage. To Mrs. Wang's relief, she then went away; but almost directly back she came, stamping and crying out, "Don't think I'm frightened, you priest. Mr. Wang belongs to me, and I won't give him up!" Mrs. Wang had quickly bolted the door, but they heard the girl tearing the brush to pieces, and in a moment smash went the door, and in she walked. She marched straight up to the bed, on which Mr. Wang was lying, ripped open his body and tore out his heart, and went off with it, taking no notice of Mrs. Wang, who was screaming at the top of her voice. The servants, hearing the noise, ran in to see what was the matter, and found Mr. Wang lying dead with a most horrible gash in his body, and Mrs. Wang trembling all over with fright. "Fetch your master's brother," she said, for luckily Mr. Wang's brother lived in the same house, though he and his wife had their own servants and rooms. Mrs. Wang sent him off directly to see the priest and tell him what had happened. The story put the priest into a great rage, for the witch had got the better of him, so off he came to the house to punish her; but when he got there the girl had disappeared, no one knew where. However the priest, when he had taken a good look round, said, "She's quite close; she's in this house, in those rooms over there," pointing to Wang's brother's rooms. "No, no, surely not," said Wang's brother in a terrible fright; but when he went and asked his wife, she told him that while he had been away fetching the priest, a poor old woman had come to her, and offered to be their maid-of-all-work, and she had engaged her on the spot. "That old woman is the witch," said the priest, and out he went into the courtyard, where he stood with a wooden sword in his hand, and cried out, "O evil witch, give me back my fly-brush!" When she heard the priest's voice, the old woman shook all over with fear, and tried to run away past the priest; but he hit her with his sword and down she fell in a heap. The painted skin dropped off her, and they saw a hideous witch, grunting like a pig. Then the priest chopped off her head, and she turned into a thick column of smoke which seemed to curl up from the ground. Into the middle of the smoke the priest threw an uncorked gourd, and then they heard a curious noise, and saw the column of smoke being sucked into the gourd, the priest quickly corking it up. After this he rolled up the painted skin, and was quietly walking away, when Mr. Wang's wife rushed forward, and threw herself on the ground at his feet, crying "Pray, pray, help me! Bring my husband back to life!" The priest looked at her and said, "I can't help you, I'm sorry to say. I can't make a dead man live again, but I know someone who can. Only he must be asked properly." Mrs. Wang, weeping all the time, said she was ready to do anything. So the priest said, "Down in the worst part of the town, there lives a madman. He spends all his time rolling about in the mud. You must go to him, and kneel before him, and ask him to help you. Don't mind how rude he is, don't mind what he tells you to do; above all things, don't lose your temper." With these words, he went out of the gate, and was soon out of sight.
Mrs. Wang hurried off as fast as she could, and easily found the madman. He was a great deal more filthy and disgusting-looking than she had imagined, but she knelt down before him as she had been told to do, and begged him to help her. But instead of listening kindly, he treated her shamefully, saying all manner of rude and wicked things, until his loud shouting brought a crowd of people to see what was happening. They found the madman beating Mrs. Wang as hard as he could with his stick, while she stood still and didn't say a word. When he was tired of trying to make her angry, he gave her a perfectly loathsome pill, which she had very hard work to swallow, and then up he got, with a nasty last word, walked into a temple close by, and left her alone with the crowd. Nor could any of them find him again.
Now when Mrs. Wang saw that all her good temper and endurance had been useless, she ran home, feeling so ashamed of what her neighbours had seen that she wished she too were dead. This made her remember that Mr. Wang must be got ready for his funeral, and as the servants were too frightened to go into the bedroom, she went in, and began to try to close up the terrible gash in his body. But she couldn't help sobbing all the time, sobs that shook her whole body, and seemed to bring a lump right up into her throat. Not only into her throat, but into her mouth; then out of her mouth, pop! something fell right into Mr. Wang's wound. It was his heart! As she stooped down over it, she saw it begin to throb, as though it were coming to life. Trembling with joy and fear, she quickly closed the flesh over the heart, and then bound the wound up, heaping the bed-clothes over her husband, and rubbing his hands and feet to get him warm. By and by she heard a gentle breathing from his nose, and before long Mr. Wang opened his eyes, alive again and well, except for a slight pain in his heart, and a tiny scar where the frightful wound had been. In a few days even the scar disappeared.