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Kin-Fo, a well to do Chinese man living in Shang-Hai, is accused by his good friend Wang of not having had any discomforts in his life that would make him appreciate true happiness. When Kin-Fo, receives news that his fortune is lost, he arranges for an insurance policy to be taken out on his life that would cover his death, even by suicide; which he is planning on committing. When Kin-Fo can’t bring himself to end his own life, he contracts Wang to do it, by even giving him a letter that will exonerate him of the deed. Then Wang disappears and then Kin-Fo feels much discomfort, especially when he is informed that his fortunes are not lost. He travels around China, hoping to avoid being murdered before the contract expires. His discomfort increases when a note from Wang arrives saying that he regrets not being able to fulfill the contract, so he has turned it over to his old friend Lao-Shen, a notorious character.
172 pages, with a reading time of ~2.75 hours (43,176 words), and first published in 1879. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
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“It must be admitted that life has some good in it,” said one of the guests, leaning his elbow on the arm of his marble-backed chair, while he sat biting the root of a sugar water-lily.
“And some bad also,” answered another, between fits of coughing, occasioned by having swallowed the prickly part of the delicate fin of a shark which had nearly choked him.
“Be philosophical,” said an older man, who wore on his nose an enormous pair of wooden spectacles with large glasses. “To-day, one runs the risk of strangling, and tomorrow everything flows as smoothly as the sweet draughts of this nectar– such is life.”
After saying these words, this easy-going epicure swallowed a glass of warm wine, the steam of which slowly escaped from a metal teapot.
“For my part,” said a fourth guest, “life appears to be very acceptable when one does nothing, and has the means to afford to do nothing.”
“That is a mistake,” answered the fifth. “Happiness is to be found in study and work. To acquire the greatest amount of knowledge is the way to be happy.”
“And to learn at last that one knows nothing.”
“Is not that the commencement of wisdom?”
“What, then, is the end?”
“Wisdom has no end,” philosophically answered the man with the spectacles. “To have common sense should be supreme satisfaction.”
It was then that the first guest directly addressed the host, who occupied the upper end of the table– that is the worst place– as the laws of politeness exacted. Indifferent and inattentive the latter listened without saying anything during this discussion. “Come, let us hear what our host has to say? Does he find existence good or bad? Is he for or against it?”
The host carelessly cracked some melon seeds, and answered by disdainfully moving his lips like a man who takes no interest in anything. “Pooh!” said he.
This is the favorite word of indifferent people. It says everything, and means nothing. It is in every language, and has a place in every dictionary in the world. It is an articulated grimace.
The five guests who were entertained by this weary host pressed him with arguments, each in favor of his own proposition. They wanted his opinion. He tried to avoid answering, but replied by affirming that life had no good or bad in it. In his view, “It was an invention, insignificant enough, and having but little enjoyment in it.”
“Ah, now our friend speaks; but why should he thus speak, since the rustle of a rose has not even troubled his repose?”
“And he is young yet.”
“Young and rich.”
“Perhaps too rich.”
These remarks flew about like rockets from fireworks, without bringing a smile to the host’s impassable physiognomy. He was satisfied to shrug his shoulders slightly, like a man who had never wished to turn over the leaves in the book of his life, and who had not even cut the first pages.
And yet this indifferent man was at least thirty-one years of age; he possessed a large fortune, enjoyed good health, was not without culture, his intelligence was above the average, and he had everything, which so many want, to make him one of the happiest men in the world. And why was he not happy?
The grave voice of the philosopher was now heard, speaking like the leader of a chorus. “Friend,” he said, “if you are not happy here below it is because your happiness thus far has been only negative. It is with happiness as it is with health, to enjoy it one should sometimes be deprived of it. Now, have you never been ill? I mean to ask, rather, have you never been unfortunate? It is that which is wanting in your life. Who can appreciate happiness if misfortune has never, even for a moment, assailed him?”
And at this observation, full of wisdom, the philosopher, raising his glass full of the best champagne, said, “I wish that the sun of our host’s life may be a little darkened, and that he may experience some sorrows.” After which he emptied his glass.
The host made a nod of assent, and lapsed into his habitual apathy.
Where did this conversation take place? Was it in a European dining- room in Paris, London, Vienna, or St. Petersburg? Were these six guests assembled together in a restaurant in the Old or the New World? And who were they who, without having drunk to excess, were discussing these questions in the midst of a feast? They were not Frenchmen, you may rest assured, because they were not talking politics.
These six guests were seated in a medium-sized dining-room elegantly decorated. The last rays of the sun were streaming through the net-work of blue and orange window-glass, and past the open windows the breeze was full of the odor of natural flowers. A few lanterns mingled their variegated light with the dying light of day. Above the windows were sculptured and rich arabesques, representing celestial and terrestrial beauty, and animals and vegetables of a strange fauna and flora.