Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The press-gang

Translation of 石壕吏 ("Shihao press-gang") by Du Fu.


The summer sun was sinking low
As I went up and down,
To find a place where I might rest
Within Chekäo’s town.

The Royal Press-gang, at that hour,
Came up the self-same way,
Who in the time of darkness make
The sons of men their prey.

An old man saw, and fled in haste,
Vaulting the village gate;
From the same house an aged crone
Marched out to meet them straight.

Their leader shouted in his wrath,—
How savage were his tones!
The woman poured her sorrow forth
With shrill and bitter moans:—

Quoth she—“Mark well the words of her
Who cometh at your call:
Three sons I had, the Emperor’s camp
Has now devoured them all.

From the last left a letter came,
To say his brothers twain
On the same battle-field were laid,
Among the heaps of slain.

Not long can he elude Death’s grasp,
Who liveth yet in gloom;
And for the two, their lot is fixed
Unchanging in the tomb.

In our sad house no male is left
For war to claim and kill,
Except my little grandson, whom
His mother suckles still.

That mother would have fled long since,—
Fled to return no more,—
But that she has not fitting clothes
To pass beyond the door.

I have grown very old, my limbs
Are wasted now and weak;
Still I can follow in your track,
And join the camp ye seek.

Among the troops I shall not be
Idle or useless there;
For I can cook them rice, and well
The morning meal prepare.”

On rolled the night—both shouts and screams
Died off to silence deep;
Still, ever and anon, I heard
Choked sobbings round me creep.

But when the morning dawned, and I
My journey thence began,
Nought living did I leave behind
But that forlorn old man.

F. H. Doyle.