Romance of Three Kingdoms Chapter 50


Zhuge Liang Foresees The Huarong Valley Episode;
Guan Yu Lifts His Saber To Release Cao Cao.

The last chapter closed with Huang Gai in the water wounded, Cao Cao rescued from immediate danger, and confusion rampant among the soldiers. Pressing forward to attack the naval camp, Han Dang was told by his soldiers that someone was clinging to the rudder of his boat and shouting to him by his familiar name. Han Dang listened carefully and in the voice at once he recognized that Huang Gai was calling to him for help.

“That is my friend Huang Gai!” cried he, and they quickly pulled the wounded leader out of the water.

Then they saw Huang Gai was wounded for the arrow still stuck. Han Dang bit out the shaft of the arrow but the point was deeply buried in the flesh. They hastily pulled off his wet garments and cut out the metal arrowhead with a dagger, tore up one of the flags, and bound up the wound. Then Han Dang gave Huang Gai his own fighting robe to put on and sent him off in a small boat back to camp.

Huang Gai’s escape from drowning must be taken as proof of his natural affinity for, or sympathy with, water. Although it was the period of great cold and he was heavy with armor when he fell into the river, yet he escaped with life.

In this great battle at the junction of the three rivers, the Three Gorges, when fire seemed to spread wide over all the wide surface of the water, when the earth quaked with the roar of battle, when land forces closed in on both wings and four battle squadrons advanced on the front, when the ferocity of fire answered the clash of weapons and weapons were aided by fire, under the thrusts of spears and the flights of arrows, burnt by fire and drowned by water, Cao Cao lost an incalculable number of troops. And a poet wrote:

[hip, hip, hip]
When Wei and Wu together strove
For the mastery,
In the Red Cliffs fight the tall ships
Vanished from the sea,
For there the fierce flames, leaping high.
Burned them utterly.
So Zhou Yu for his liege lord
Got the victory.
[yip, yip, yip]

And another poem runs:

[hip, hip, hip]
The hills are high, the moon shines faint.
The waters stretch afar;
I sigh to think how oft this land
Has suffered stress of war;
And I recall how southerners
Shrank from the northern army’s might,
And how a favoring eastern gale
Helped them to win the fight.
[yip, yip, yip]

While fire was consuming the naval base of Cao Cao, Gan Ning made Cai Zhong guide him into the innermost recesses of Cao Cao’s camp. Then Gan Ning slew Cai Zhong with one slash of his sword. After this Gan Ning set fire to the jungle; and at this signal, Lu Meng put fire to the grass in ten places near to each other. Then other fires were started, and the noise of battle was on all sides.

Cao Cao and Zhang Liao, with a small party of horsemen, fled through the burning forest. They could see no road in front; all seemed on fire. Presently Mao Jie and Wen Ping, with a few more horsemen, joined them. Cao Cao bade the soldiers seek a way through.

Zhang Liao pointed out, saying, “The only suitable road is through the Black Forest.”

And they took it.

They had gone but a short distance when they were overtaken by a small party of the enemy, and a voice cried, “Cao Cao, stop!”

It was Lu Meng, whose ensign soon appeared against the fiery background. Cao Cao urged his small party of fugitives forward, bidding Zhang Liao defend him from Lu Meng.

Soon after Cao Cao saw the light of torches in front, and from a gorge there rushed out another force. And the leader cried, “Ling Tong is here!”

Cao Cao was scared. His liver and gall both seemed torn from within.

But just then on his half right, he saw another company approach and heard a cry, “Fear not, O Prime Minister, I am here to rescue you!”

The speaker was Xu Huang, and he attacked the pursuers and held them off.

A move to the north seemed to promise escape, but soon they saw a camp on a hill top. Xu Huang went ahead to reconnoiter and found the officers in command were Cao Cao’s Generals Ma Yan and Zhang Zi, who had once been in the service of Yuan Shao. They had three thousand of northern soldiers in camp. They had seen the sky redden with the flames, but knew not what was afoot so dared make no move.

This turned out lucky for Cao Cao who now found himself with a fresh force. He sent Ma Yan and Zhang Zi, with a thousand troops, to clear the road ahead while the others remained as guard. And he felt much more secure.

The two went forward, but before they had gone very far, they heard a shouting and a party of soldiers came out, the leader of them shouting, “I am Gan Ning of Wu!”

Nothing daunted the two leaders, but the redoubtable Gan Ning cut down Ma Yan. And when his brother warrior Zhang Zi set his spear and dashed forward, he too fell beneath a stroke from the fearsome sword of Gan Ning. Both leaders dead, the soldiers fled to give Cao Cao the bad news.

At this time Cao Cao expected aid from Hefei, for he knew not that Sun Quan was barring the road. But when Sun Quan saw the fires and so knew that his soldiers had won the day, he ordered Lu Xun to give the answering signal. Taishi Ci seeing this came down and his force joined up with that of Lu Xun, and they went against Cao Cao.

As for Cao Cao, he could only get away toward Yiling. On the road Cao Cao fell in with Zhang He and ordered him to protect the retreat. Cao Cao pressed on as quickly as possible.

At the fifth watch he was a long way from the glare and he felt safer. He asked, “What is this place?”

They told him, “It is west of the Black Forest and north of Yidu.”

Seeing the thickly crowded trees all about him, and the steep hills and narrow passes, Cao Cao threw up his head and laughed.

Those about him asked, “Why are you, Sir, so merry?”

And he said, “I am only laughing at the stupidity of Zhou Yu and the ignorance of Zhuge Liang. If they have only set an ambush there, as I would have done, why, there is no escape.”

Cao Cao had scarcely finished his explanation when from both sides came a deafening roll of drums and flames sprang up to heaven. Cao Cao nearly fell off his horse—he was so startled.

And from the side dashed in a troop, with Zhao Yun leading, who cried, “I am Zhao Yun, and long have I been waiting here!”

Cao Cao ordered Xu Huang and Zhang He to engage this new opponent, and he himself rode off into the smoke and fire. Zhao Yun did not pursue; he only captured the banners, and Cao Cao escaped.

The faint light of dawn showed a great black cloud all around, for the southeast wind had not ceased. Suddenly began a heavy downpour of rain, wetting everyone to the skin, but still Cao Cao maintained his headlong flight till the starved faces of the soldiers made a halt imperative. He told the men to forage in the villages about for grain and the means of making a fire. But when these had been found and they began to cook a meal, another pursuing party came along, and Cao Cao again was terrified. However, these proved to be Li Dian and Xu Chu escorting some of his advisers whom he saw with joy.

When giving the order to advance again, Cao Cao asked, “What places lay ahead?”

They told him, “There are two roads. One was the highway to South Yiling, and the other a mountain road to North Yiling.”

“Which is the shorter way to Jiangling?” asked Cao Cao.

“The best way is to take the south road through Hulu Valley,” was the reply.

So Cao Cao gave orders to march that way. By the time Hulu Valley was reached, the soldiers were almost starving and could march no more; horses too were worn out. Many had fallen by the roadside. A halt was then made, food was taken by force from the villagers, and as there were still some boilers left, they found a dry spot beside the hills where they could rest and cook. And there they began to prepare a meal, boiling grain, and roasting strips of horse flesh. Then they took off their wet clothes and spread them to dry. The beasts, too, were unsaddled and turned out to graze.

Seated comfortably in a somewhat open spot, Cao Cao suddenly looked up and began to laugh loud and long.

His companions, remembering the sequel of his last laugh, said, “Not long since, Sir, you laughed at Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang. That resulted in the arrival of Zhao Yun and great loss of troops to us. Why do you now laugh?”

“I am laughing again at the ignorance of the same two men. If I were in their place, and conducting their campaign, I should have had an ambush here, just to meet us when we were tired out. Then, even if we escaped with our lives, we should suffer very severely. They did not see this, and therefore I am laughing at them.”

Even at that moment behind them rose a great yell. Thoroughly startled, Cao Cao threw aside his breastplate and leaped upon his horse. Most of the soldiers failed to catch theirs, and then fires sprang up on every side and filled the mouth of the valley. A force was arrayed before them and at the head was the man of ancient Yan, Zhang Fei, seated on his steed with his great spear leveled.

“Whither would you flee, O rebel?” shouted he.

The soldiers grew cold within at the sight of the terrible warrior. Xu Chu, mounted on a bare-backed horse, rode up to engage him, and Zhang Liao and Xu Huang galloped up to his aid. The three gathered about Zhang Fei and a melee began, while Cao Cao made off at top speed. The other leaders set off after him, and Zhang Fei pursued. However, Cao Cao by dint of hard riding got away, and gradually the pursuers were out-distanced. But many had received wounds.

As they were going. the soldiers said, “There are two roads before us. Which shall we take?”

“Which is the shorter?” asked Cao Cao.

“The high road is the more level, but it is fifteen miles longer than the bye road which goes to Huarong Valley. Only the latter road is narrow and dangerous, full of pits and difficult.”

Cao Cao sent men up to the hill tops to look around.

They returned, saying: “There are several columns of smoke rising from the hills along the bye road. The high road seems quiet.”

Then Cao Cao bade them lead the way along the bye road.

“Where smoke arises there are surely soldiers,” remarked the officers. “Why go this way?”

“Because the ‘Book of War’ says that the hollow is to be regarded as solid, and the solid as hollow. That fellow Zhuge Liang is very subtle and has sent people to make those fires so that we should not go that way. He has laid an ambush on the high road. I have made up my mind, and I will not fall a victim to his wiles.”

“O Prime Minister, your conclusions are most admirable. None other can equal you,” said the officers.

And the soldiers were sent along the bye road. They were very hungry and many almost too weak to travel. The horses too were spent. Some had been scorched by the flames, and they rode forward resting their heads on their whips. The wounded struggled on to the last of their strength. All were soaking wet and all were feeble. Their arms and accouterments were in a deplorable state, and more than half had been left upon the road they had traversed. Few of the horses had saddles or bridles, for in the confusion of pursuit they had been left behind. It was the time of greatest winter cold, and the suffering was indescribable.

Noticing that the leading party had stopped, Cao Cao sent to ask the reason.

The messenger returned, saying, “The rain water collected in the pits makes the ground a mire, and the horses cannot not move.”

Cao Cao raged. He said, “When soldiers come to hills, they cut a road; when they happen upon streams, they bridge them. Such a thing as mud cannot stay an army.”

So he ordered the weak and wounded to go to the rear and come on as they could, while the robust and able were to cut down trees, and gather herbage and reeds to fill up the holes. And it was to be done without delay, or death would be the punishment of the disobedient or remiss.

So the soldiers dismounted and felled trees and cut bamboos, and they leveled the road. And because of the imminence and fear of pursuit, a party of one hundred under Zhang Liao, Xu Chu, and Xu Huang was told off to hasten the workers and slay any that idled.

The soldiers made their way along the shallower parts, but many fell, and cries of misery were heard the whole length of the way.

“What are you howling for?” cried Cao Cao. “The number of your days is fixed by fate. Anyone who howls shall be put to death.”

The remnant of the army, now divided into three, one to march slowly, a second to fill up the waterways and hollows, and a third to escort Cao Cao, gradually made its way over the precipitous road. When the going improved a little and the path was moderately level, Cao Cao turned to look at his following and saw he had barely three hundred soldiers. And these lacked clothing and armor and were tattered and disordered.

But he pressed on, and when the officers told him the horses were quite spent and must rest, he replied, “Press on to Jingzhou, and there we shall find repose.”

So they pressed on. But they had gone only one or two miles when Cao Cao flourished his whip and broke once again into loud laughter.

“What is there to laugh at?” asked the officers.

“People say those two, Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, are able and crafty. I do not see it. They are a couple of incapables. If an ambush had been placed here, we should all be prisoners.”

Cao Cao had not finished this speech when the explosion of a bomb broke the silence, and a company of five hundred troops with swords in their hands appeared and barred the way. The leader was Guan Yu, holding his green-dragon saber, bestriding the Red Hare. At this sight, the spirits of Cao Cao’s soldiers left them, and they gazed into each others’ faces in panic.

“Now we have but one course,” said Cao Cao. “We must fight to the death.”

“How can we?” said the officers. “Though the leaders may have some strength left, the horses are spent.”

Cheng Yu said, “I have always heard that Guan Yu is haughty to the proud but kindly to the humble; he despises the strong, but is gentle with the weak. He discriminates between love and hate and is always righteous and true. You, O Prime Minister, have shown him kindness in the past. If you will remind him of that, we shall escape this evil.”

Cao Cao agreed to try. He rode out to the front, bowed low and said, “General, I trust you have enjoyed good health.”

“I had orders to await you, O Prime Minister,” replied Guan Yu, bowing in return, “and I have been expecting you these many days.”

“You see before you one Cao Cao—defeated and weak. I have reached a sad pass, and I trust you, O General, will not forget the kindness of former days.”

“Though indeed you were kind to me in those days, yet I slew your enemies for you and relieved the siege of Baima. As to the business of today, I cannot allow private feelings to outweigh public duty.”

“Do you remember my six generals, slain at the five passes? The noble person values righteousness. You are well versed in the histories and must recall the action of Yu Gong, the archer, when he released his master Zi Zhuo, for he determined not to use Zi Zhuo’s teaching to kill Zi Zhuo.”

Guan Yu was indeed a very mountain of goodness and could not forget the great kindness he had received at Cao Cao’s hands, and the magnanimity Cao Cao had shown over the deeds at the five passes. He saw the desperate straits to which his benefactor was reduced, and tears were very near to the eyes of both. He could not press Cao Cao hard.

He pulled at the bridle of his steed and turned away saying to his followers, “Break up the formation!”

From this it was evident that his design was to release Cao Cao, who then went on with his officers. When Guan Yu turned to look back, they had all passed. He uttered a great shout, and Cao Cao’s soldiers jumped off their horses and knelt on the ground crying for mercy. But he also had pity for them. Then Zhang Liao, whom he knew well, came along and was allowed to go free also.

[hip, hip, hip]
Cao Cao, his army lost, fled to the Huarong Valley;
There in the throat of the gorge met he Guan Yu.
Grateful was Guan Yu, and mindful of former kindness,
Wherefore slipped he the bolt and freed the imprisoned dragon.
[yip, yip, yip]

Having escaped this danger, Cao Cao hastened to get out of the valley. As the throat opened out, he glanced behind him and saw only forty-seven horsemen. As evening fell, they reached Jiangling, and they came upon an army that they took to be more enemies.

Cao Cao thought the end had surely come, but to his delight they were his own soldiers and he regained all his confidence.

Cao Ren, who was the leader, said, “I heard of your misfortunes, my lord, but I was afraid to venture far from my charge, else I would have met you before.”

“I thought I would never see you again,” said Cao Cao.

The fugitives found repose in the city, where Zhang Liao soon joined them. He also praised the magnanimity of Guan Yu.

When Cao Cao mustered the miserable remnant of his officers, he found nearly all were wounded and he bade them rest. Cao Ren poured the wine of consolation whereby his master might forget his sorrows.

As Cao Cao drank among his familiars, he became exceedingly sad.

Wherefore they said, “O Prime Minister, when you were in the cave of the tiger and trying to escape, you showed no sign of sorrow. Now that you are safe in a city, where you have food and the horses have forage, where all you have to do is to prepare for revenge, suddenly you lose heart and grieve. Why thus?”

Replied Cao Cao, “I am thinking of my friend Guo Jia: Had he been alive, he would not have let me suffer this loss.”

He beat his breast and wept, saying, “Alas for Guo Jia! I grieve for Guo Jia! I sorrow for Guo Jia!”

The reproach shamed the advisers, who were silent.

Next day Cao Cao called Cao Ren and said, “I am going to the capital to prepare another army for revenge. You are to guard this region and, in case of necessity, I leave with you a sealed plan. You are only to open the cover when hard-pressed, and then you are to act as directed. The South Land will not dare to look this way.”

“Who is to guard Hefei and Xiangyang?”

“Jingzhou is particularly your care, and Xiahou Dun is to hold Xiangyang. As Hefei is most important, I am sending Zhang Liao thither with good aids of Li Dian and Yue Jing. If you get into difficulties, send at once to tell me.”

Having made these dispositions, Cao Cao set off at once with a few followers. He took with him the officers who had come over to his side when Jingzhou fell into his hands.

Cao Ren placed Cao Hong in charge of Yiling and Jiangling.

After having allowed the escape of Cao Cao, Guan Yu found his way back to headquarters. By this time the other detachments had returned bringing spoil of horses and weapons and supplies of all kinds. Only Guan Yu came back empty-handed. When he arrived, Zhuge Liang was with his brother congratulating him on his success. When Guan Yu was announced, Zhuge Liang got up and went to welcome him, bearing a cup of wine.

“Joy! O General,” said Zhuge Liang. “You have done a deed that overtops the world. You have removed the empire’s worst foe and ought to have been met at a distance and felicitated.”

Guan Yu muttered inaudibly, and Zhuge Liang continued, “I hope it is not because we have omitted to welcome you on the road that you seem sad.”

Turning to those about him, Zhuge Liang said, “Why did you not tell us Guan Yu was coming?”

“I am here to ask for death,” said Guan Yu.

“Surely Cao Cao came through the valley?”

“Yes; he came that way, and I could not help it. I let him go.”

“Then whom have you captured?”

“No one.”

“Then you remembered the old kindness of Cao Cao and so allowed him to escape. But your acceptance of the task with its conditions is here. You will have to suffer the penalty.”

Zhuge Liang called in the lictors and told them to take away Guan Yu and put him to death.

[hip, hip, hip]
Guan Yu risked life when he spared
Cao Cao in direst need,
And age-long admiration gained
For kindly deed.
[yip, yip, yip]

What actually befell will he seen in the next chapter.

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