CHAPTER XII. TONGCHUAN TO YUNNAN CITY.
From Tongchuan to Yunnan city, the provincial seat of Government and official residence of the Viceroy, whither I was now bound, is a distance of two hundred miles. My two carriers from Chaotong had been engaged to go with me only as far as Tongchuan, but they now re-engaged to go with Laohwan, my third man, as far as the capital. The conditions were that they were to receive 6s. 9d. each (2.25 taels), one tael (3s.) to be paid in advance and the balance on arrival, and they were to do the distance in seven days. The two taels they asked the missionary to remit to their parents in Chaotong, and he promised to receive the money from me and do so. There was no written agreement of any kind - none of the three men could read; they did not even see the money that the missionary was to get for them; but they had absolute confidence in our good faith.
I had a mule with me from Tongchuan to Yunnan, which saved me many miles of walking, and increased my importance in the eyes of the heathen. I was taking it to the capital for sale. It was a big-boned rough-hewn animal, of superior intelligence, and I was authorised to sell it, together with its saddle and bridle, for four pounds. Like most Chinese mules it had two corns on the forelegs, and thus could see at night. Every Chinaman knows that the corns are adventitious eyes which give the mule this remarkable power.
We were on our way early in the afternoon of the 7th going up the valley. Below the curiously draped pagoda which commands Tongchuan we met two pairs of prisoners who were being led into the city under escort. They were coupled by the neck; they were suffering cruelly, for their wrists were so tightly manacled that their hands were strangulated, a mode of torture to which, it will be remembered, the Chinese Government in 1860 subjected Bowlby, the Times correspondent, and the other prisoners seized with him "in treacherous violation of a flag of truce," till death ended their sufferings. These men were roadside robbers caught red-handed. Their punishment would be swift and certain. Found guilty on their own confession, either tendered voluntarily to escape torture, or under the compulsion of torture, "self-accusation wrested from their agony," they would be sentenced to death, carried in baskets without delay - if they had not previously "died in prison" - died, that is, from the torture having been pushed too far - to the execution ground, and there beheaded.
We stopped at an inn that was not the ordinary stage, where in consequence we had few comforts. In the morning my men lay in bed till late, and when I called them they opened the door and pointed to the road, clearly indicating that rain had fallen, and that the roads were too slippery for traffic. But what was my surprise on looking myself to find the whole country deeply under snow, and that it was still snowing. All day, indeed, it snowed. The track was very slippery, but my mule, though obstinate, was sure-footed, and we kept going.
We passed a huge coffin - borne by a dozen men with every gentleness, not to disturb the dead one's rest - preceded, not followed, by mourners, two of whom were carrying a paper sedan chair, which would be burnt, and so, rendered invisible, would be sent to the invisible world to bear the dead man's spirit with becoming dignity. All day we were in the mountains travelling up the bed of a creek with mountains on both sides of us. We passed Chehki, ninety li from Tongchuan, and thirty li further were glad to escape from the cold and snow to the shelter of a poor thatched mud inn, where we rested for the night.
A hump-back was in charge. The only bedroom was half open to the sky, but the main room was still whole, though it had seen better days. There was a shrine in this room with ancestral tablets, and a sheet of many-featured gods, conspicuous amongst them being the God of Riches, who had been little attentive to the prayers offered him in this poor hamlet. In a stall adjoining our bedroom the mule was housed, and jingled his bell discontentedly all through the night. A poor man, nearly blind with acute inflammation of the eyes, was shivering over the scanty embers of an open fire which was burning in a square hole scooped in the earthern floor near the doorway. He ate the humblest dishful of maize husks and meal strainings. That night I wondered did he sleep out in the open under a hedge, or did the inn people give him shelter with my mule in the next room. My men and I had to sleep in the same room. They were still on short rations. They ate only twice a day, and then sparingly, of maize and vegetables; they took but little rice, and no tea, and only a very small allowance of pork once in two days. Food was very dear, and, though they were receiving nearly double wages to carry half-loads, they must needs be careful. What admirable fellows they were! In all my wanderings I have never travelled with more good-natured companions. The attendant Laohwan was a powerful Chinese, solid and determined, but courteous in manner, voluble of speech, but with an amusing stammer; he had a wide experience of travel in Western China. He seemed to enjoy his journey - he never appeared lovesick; but, of course, I had no means of asking if he felt keenly the long separation from his bride.
At the inn there was no bedding for my men; they had to cover themselves, as best they could, with some pieces of felt brought them by the hunchback, and sleep all huddled together from the cold. They had a few hardships to put up with, but their lot was a thousand times better than that of hundreds of their countrymen who were dying from hunger as well as from cold.