Many years ago there lived in the town of Ping Cheng an old maid named San. No one knew where she came from. All that her neighbourhood could say about her was that for the last thirty years she had kept the cake shop on the wooden bridge, and that during the whole of that time she had lived quite by herself, employing neither man-servant nor maid-servant, nor had any relative been known to visit her. But notwithstanding this, report pronounced her to be rich. Her house was a large one, and she had mules in abundance. In order to save her guests part of the local carriage tax, she made it a practice not to receive their equipages, a proceeding which was highly approved of by them, and in consequence of those who had once put up at her hostelry, many repeated their visits.
Now it happened that about this time the Emperor, “Great Harmony,” sent General Chaou, who was known as the “Slender and Kind One,” on an expedition to the eastern capital, and the General, passing through Ping Cheng with his six or seven servants, put up for the night at the shop on the wooden bridge. The servants were soon accommodated in a common room, and the “Slender and Kind One” was lodged in a separate apartment adjoining the dwelling-rooms of San.
San paid the greatest attention to her guests, and when night came on served them with wine and helped them to drink it, making merry with all. The “Slender and Kind One” alone abstained from tasting the wine, but joined in the talking and laughing. When the watchman announced the second watch, and when most of her guests were sleeping the sleep of drunkards, San betook herself to her room, barred the door, and put out the light.
In the middle of the night, as the “Slender and Kind One” lay tossing from this side to that, unable to sleep, he heard a noise in San”s room as though she were moving things about. His curiosity being excited, he peeped through a crevice and saw her light a candle and take out from a cloth-bound box a plough, a little wooden man, and a little wooden ox, each about six or seven inches high, and put them down in front of the fireplace. She then poured water on them and they instantly began to move and live. The little man harnessed the ox to the plough, and set to work ploughing up the part of the room in front of the bed. When he had prepared enough ground San gave him a sackful of wheat, which he sowed. In a very few minutes it sprouted through the ground and grew up until it flowered, brought forth fruit and ripened. The man then set to work to reap and thrash it, and presented to his mistress a crop of seven or eight pints of grain. This done, he was made to grind the corn in a small mill, and was then thrown, with his ox and his plough, into the box again.
San now began her share of the work, and having well kneaded the flour, transformed it into baked cakes. At cock-crow the soldiers began to bestir themselves, but San was up before them, and had lighted their lamp and laid out the hot cakes in tempting array on the table.
The “Slender and Kind One” was not very comfortable after what he had seen and heard, so he went outside the house; but, determined to 88see the end, he peeped through a crevice in the door. Suddenly, while he was watching his soldiers seated in a circle in the act of devouring the nice hot cakes, he heard a sound as of neighing, and, to his horror, he saw them in an instant all transformed into mules. The change was no sooner effected than San drove them into the yard at the back of the shop.
The “Slender and Kind One” told no one what he had seen, but pondered much over the adventure in secret, and when at the end of a month he was returning by the same road, he again put up at the shop on the wooden bridge. But before entering the inn he provided himself with a number of cakes in size and form exactly like those he has seen so miraculously made.
San professed herself delighted to see him, and, as he was the solitary guest, lavished attentions on him. When night came she diligently inquired his wishes.
“I have business before me,” said the “Slender and Kind One,” “therefore call me at daybreak.”
“Without fail,” said San, “but please to sleep soundly.”
About midnight the “Slender and Kind One” arose and witnessed a repetition of what he had seen on the previous occasion. In the morning San was up early, and having laid out her guest”s breakfast, she set before him the hot cakes he knew so well.
While, however, she was away getting other things, the “Slender and Kind One” managed to exchange one of the cakes he had brought with him for one of San”s, and, apologising to her, said he had supplied himself with cakes of his own, and therefore should not want any of hers. San waited attentively on her guest, and when he had finished eating brought him his tea.
The “Slender and Kind One,” then addressing her, said:
“Let me beg my hostess to try one of my cake,” at the same time handing the one he had taken in exchange for his own.
San accepted it with thanks, but had hardly tasted it when she fell down to the ground neighing, and was instantly transformed into a fine strong mule.
The “Slender and Kind One” saddled her, and then went to search for the little wooden man and ox. He found them, but, not knowing the spell, could do nothing with them. So he mounted the mule and returned home.
His new acquisition carried him remarkably well, and made nothing of going one hundred miles a day.
Four years after these events the “Slender and Kind One” was riding on his mule to the Huayan Temple; he passed an old man at the side of the road, who, on seeing him, clapped his hands and laughingly said:
“Why, San of the wooden bridge, how is it that you have come to this?”
Then, taking hold of the mule, he said to the “Slender and Kind One:” “Although she was originally very much to blame, she has done you good service. Have pity on her and allow me to set her free.”
With that he opened the mule”s cheek and out jumped the old maid, looking the same as ever.
Then, turning to the old man, she made him a grateful courtesy and walked off.
What became of her I don”t know.