Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Kai Lung's Golden Hours
Author: Bramah, Ernest
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Kai Lung's Golden Hours" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS

By Ernest Bramah

First Published 1922.



                       KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS

                                  BY

                            ERNEST BRAMAH


                          With a Preface by
                            Hilaire Belloc



                               PREFACE

_Homo faber_. Man is born to make. His business is to construct: to
plan: to carry out the plan: to fit together, and to produce a
finished thing.

That human art in which it is most difficult to achieve this end (and
in which it is far easier to neglect it than in any other) is the art
of writing. Yet this much is certain, that unconstructed writing is at
once worthless and ephemeral: and nearly the whole of our modern
English writing is unconstructed.

The matter of survival is perhaps not the most important, though it is
a test of a kind, and it is a test which every serious writer feels
most intimately. The essential is the matter of excellence: that a
piece of work should achieve its end. But in either character, the
character of survival or the character of intrinsic excellence,
construction deliberate and successful is the fundamental condition.

It may be objected that the mass of writing must in any age neglect
construction. We write to establish a record for a few days: or to
send a thousand unimportant messages: or to express for others or for
ourselves something very vague and perhaps very weak in the way of
emotion, which does not demand construction and at any rate cannot
command it. No writer can be judged by the entirety of his writings,
for these would include every note he ever sent round the corner;
every memorandum he ever made upon his shirt cuff. But when a man sets
out to write as a serious business, proclaiming that by the nature of
his publication and presentment that he is doing something he thinks
worthy of the time and place in which he lives and of the people to
whom he belongs, then if he does not construct he is negligible.

Yet, I say, the great mass of men to-day do not attempt it in the
English tongue, and the proof is that you can discover in their
slipshod pages nothing of a seal or stamp. You do not, opening a book
at random, say at once: “This is the voice of such and such a one.” It
is no one’s manner or voice. It is part of a common babel.

Therefore in such a time as that of our decline, to come across work
which is planned, executed and achieved has something of the effect
like finding, as I once found, deep hidden in the tangled rank grass
of autumn in Burgundy, on the edge of a wood not far from Dijon, a
neglected statue of the eighteenth century. It is like coming round
the corner of some wholly desolate upper valley in the mountains and
seeing before one a well-cultivated close and a strong house in the
midst.

It is now many years--I forget how many; it may be twenty or more, or
it may be a little less--since _The Wallet of Kai Lung_ was sent me by
a friend. The effect produced upon my mind at the first opening of its
of that hidden statue in Burgundy, or the coming upon an unexpected
house in the turn of a high Pyrenean gorge. Here was something worth
doing and done. It was not a plan attempted and only part achieved
(though even that would be rare enough to-day, and a memorable
exception); it was a thing intended, wrought out, completed and
established. Therefore it was destined to endure and, what is more
important, it was a success.

The time in which we live affords very few of such moments of relief:
here and there a good piece of verse, in _The New Age_ or in the now
defunct _Westminster_: here and there a lapidary phrase such as a
score or more of Blatchford’s which remain fixed in my memory. Here
and there a letter written to the newspapers in a moment of
indignation when the writer, not trained to the craft, strikes out the
metal justly at white heat. But, I say, the thing is extremely rare,
and in the shape of a complete book rarest of all.

_The Wallet of Kai Lung_ was a thing made deliberately, in hard
material and completely successful. It was meant to produce a
particular effect of humour by the use of a foreign convention, the
Chinese convention, in the English tongue. It was meant to produce a
certain effect of philosophy and at the same time it was meant to
produce a certain completed interest of fiction, of relation, of a
short epic. It did all these things.

It is one of the tests of excellent work that such work is economic,
that is, that there is nothing redundant in order or in vocabulary,
and at the same time nothing elliptic--in the full sense of that word:
that is, no sentence in which so much is omitted that the reader is
left puzzled. That is the quality you get in really good statuary--in
Houdon, for instance, or in that triumph the archaic _Archer_ in the
Louvre. _The Wallet of Kai Lung_ satisfied all these conditions.

I do not know how often I have read it since I first possessed it. I
know how many copies there are in my house--just over a dozen. I know
with what care I have bound it constantly for presentation to friends.
I have been asked for an introduction to this its successor, _Kai
Lung’s Golden Hours_. It is worthy of its forerunner. There is the
same plan, exactitude, working-out and achievement; and therefore the
same complete satisfaction in the reading, or to be more accurate, in
the incorporation of the work with oneself.

All this is not extravagant praise, nor even praise at all in the
conventional sense of that term. It is merely a judgment: a putting
into as carefully exact words as I can find the appreciation I make of
this style and its triumph.

The reviewer in his art must quote passages. It is hardly the part of
a Preface writer to do that. But to show what I mean I can at least
quote the following:

    “Your insight is clear and unbiased,” said the gracious
    Sovereign. “But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked
    through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your
    mind from another subject of almost equal importance?”

Or again:

    “It has been said,” he began at length, withdrawing his eyes
    reluctantly from an unusually large insect upon the ceiling and
    addressing himself to the maiden, “that there are few
    situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and
    without any loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold, or
    by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a
    precipice on a dark night.”

Or again:

    “After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her
    movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province
    burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a
    trainer of performing elephants.”

You cannot read these sentences, I think, without agreeing with what
has been said above. If you doubt it, take the old test and try to
write that kind of thing yourself.

In connection with such achievements it is customary to-day to deplore
the lack of public appreciation. Either to blame the hurried millions
of chance readers because they have only bought a few thousands of a
masterpiece; or, what is worse still, to pretend that good work is for
the few and that the mass will never appreciate it--in reply to which
it is sufficient to say that the critic himself is one of the mass and
could not be distinguished from others of the mass by his very own
self were he a looker-on.

In the best of times (the most stable, the least hurried) the date at
which general appreciation comes is a matter of chance, and to-day the
presentation of any achieved work is like the reading of Keats to a
football crowd. It is of no significance whatsoever to English Letters
whether one of its glories be appreciated at the moment it issues from
the press or ten years later, or twenty, or fifty. Further, after a
very small margin is passed, a margin of a few hundreds at the most, it
matters little whether strong permanent work finds a thousand or fifty
thousand or a million of readers. Rock stands and mud washes away.

What is indeed to be deplored is the lack of communication between
those who desire to find good stuff and those who can produce it: it
is in the attempt to build a bridge between the one and the other that
men who have the privilege of hearing a good thing betimes write such
words as I am writing here.
                                                        HILAIRE BELLOC



                       KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS



                              CHAPTER I

                The Encountering of Six within a Wood

Only at one point along the straight earth-road leading from Loo-chow
to Yu-ping was there any shade, a wood of stunted growth, and here Kai
Lung cast himself down in refuge from the noontide sun and slept.

When he woke it was with the sound of discreet laughter trickling
through his dreams. He sat up and looked around. Across the glade two
maidens stood in poised expectancy within the shadow of a wild
fig-tree, both their gaze and their manner denoting a fixed intention
to be prepared for any emergency. Not being desirous that this should
tend towards their abrupt departure, Kai Lung rose guardedly to his
feet, with many gestures of polite reassurance, and having bowed
several times to indicate his pacific nature, he stood in an attitude
of deferential admiration. At this display the elder and less
attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of
apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight. The
other remained, however, and even moved a few steps nearer to Kai
Lung, as though encouraged by his appearance, so that he was able to
regard her varying details more appreciably. As she advanced she
plucked a red blossom from a thorny bush, and from time to time she
shortened the broken stalk between her jade teeth.

“Courteous loiterer,” she said, in a very pearl-like voice, when they
had thus regarded one another for a few beats of time, “what is your
honourable name, and who are you who tarry here, journeying neither to
the east nor to the west?”

“The answer is necessarily commonplace and unworthy of your polite
interest,” was the diffident reply. “My unbecoming name is Kai, to
which has been added that of Lung. By profession I am an incapable
relater of imagined tales, and to this end I spread my mat wherever my
uplifted voice can entice together a company to listen. Should my
feeble efforts be deemed worthy of reward, those who stand around may
perchance contribute to my scanty store, but sometimes this is judged
superfluous. For this cause I now turn my expectant feet from Loo-chow
towards the untried city of Yu-ping, but the undiminished li
stretching relentlessly before me, I sought beneath these trees a
refuge from the noontide sun.”

“The occupation is a dignified one, being to no great degree removed
from that of the Sages who compiled The Books,” remarked the maiden,
with an encouraging smile. “Are there many stories known to your
retentive mind?”

“In one form or another, all that exist are within my mental grasp,”
 admitted Kai Lung modestly. “Thus equipped, there is no arising
emergency for which I am unprepared.”

“There are other things that I would learn of your craft. What kind of
story is the most favourably received, and the one whereby your
collecting bowl is the least ignored?”

“That depends on the nature and condition of those who stand around,
and therein lies much that is essential to the art,” replied Kai Lung,
not without an element of pride. “Should the company be chiefly formed
of the illiterate and the immature of both sexes, stories depicting
the embarrassment of unnaturally round-bodied mandarins, the
unpremeditated flight of eccentrically-garbed passers-by into vats of
powdered rice, the despair of guardians of the street when assailed by
showers of eggs and overripe lo-quats, or any other variety of
humiliating pain inflicted upon the innocent and unwary, never fail to
win approval. The prosperous and substantial find contentment in
hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and
unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and
the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and
quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their
palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives.
Ordinary persons require stories dealing lavishly with all the
emotions, so that they may thereby have a feeling of sufficiency when
contributing to the collecting bowl.”

“These things being so,” remarked the maiden, “what story would you
consider most appropriate to a company composed of such as she who is
now conversing with you?”

“Such a company could never be obtained,” replied Kai Lung, with
conviction in his tone. “It is not credible that throughout the Empire
could be found even another possessing all the engaging attributes of
the one before me. But should it be my miraculous fortune to be given
the opportunity, my presumptuous choice for her discriminating ears
alone would be the story of the peerless Princess Taik and of the
noble minstrel Ch’eng, who to regain her presence chained his wrist to
a passing star and was carried into the assembly of the gods.”

“Is it,” inquired the maiden, with an agreeable glance towards the
opportune recumbence of a fallen tree, “is it a narration that would
lie within the passage of the sun from one branch of this willow to
another?”

“Adequately set forth, the history of the Princess Taik and of the
virtuous youth occupies all the energies of an agile story-teller for
seven weeks,” replied Kai Lung, not entirely gladdened that she should
deem him capable of offering so meagre an entertainment as that she
indicated. “There is a much-flattened version which may be compressed
within the narrow limits of a single day and night, but even that
requires for certain of the more moving passages the accompaniment of
a powerful drum or a hollow wooden fish.”

“Alas!” exclaimed the maiden, “though the time should pass like a
flash of lightning beneath the allurement of your art, it is
questionable if those who await this one’s returning footsteps would
experience a like illusion. Even now--” With a magnanimous wave of her
well-formed hand she indicated the other maiden, who, finding that the
danger of pursuit was not sustained, had returned to claim her part.

“One advances along the westward road,” reported the second maiden.
“Let us fly elsewhere, O allurer of mankind! It may be--”

“Doubtless in Yu-ping the sound of your uplifted voice--” But at this
point a noise upon the earth-road, near at hand, impelled them both to
sudden flight into the deeper recesses of the wood.

Thus deprived, Kai Lung moved from the shadow of the trees and sought
the track, to see if by chance he from whom they fled might turn to
his advantage. On the road he found one who staggered behind a
laborious wheel-barrow in the direction of Loo-chow. At that moment he
had stopped to take down the sail, as the breeze was bereft of power
among the obstruction of the trees, and also because he was weary.

“Greeting,” called down Kai Lung, saluting him. “There is here
protection from the fierceness of the sun and a stream wherein to wash
your feet.”

“Haply,” replied the other; “and a greatly over-burdened one would
gladly leave this ill-nurtured earth-road even for the fields of hell,
were it not that all his goods are here contained upon an utterly
intractable wheel-barrow.”

Nevertheless he drew himself up from the road to the level of the wood
and there reclined, yet not permitting the wheel-barrow to pass beyond
his sight, though he must thereby lie half in the shade and half in
the heat beyond. “Greeting, wayfarer.”

“Although you are evidently a man of some wealth, we are for the time
brought to a common level by the forces that control us,” remarked Kai
Lung. “I have here two onions, a gourd and a sufficiency of millet
paste. Partake equally with me, therefore, before you resume your way.
In the meanwhile I will procure water from the stream near by, and to
this end my collecting bowl will serve.”

When Kai Lung returned he found that the other had added to their
store a double handful of dates, some snuff and a little jar of oil.
As they ate together the stranger thus disclosed his mind:

“The times are doubtful and it behoves each to guard himself. In the
north the banners of the ‘Spreading Lotus’ and the ‘Avenging Knife’
are already raised and pressing nearer every day, while the signs and
passwords are so widely flung that every man speaks slowly and with a
double tongue. Lately there have been slicings and other forms of
vigorous justice no farther distant than Loo-chow, and now the
Mandarin Shan Tien comes to Yu-ping to flatten any signs of
discontent. The occupation of this person is that of a maker of
sandals and coverings for the head, but very soon there will be more
wooden feet required than leather sandals in Yu-ping, and artificial
ears will be greater in demand than hats. For this reason he has got
together all his goods, sold the more burdensome, and now ventures on
an untried way.”

“Prosperity attend your goings. Yet, as one who has set his face
towards Yu-ping, is it not possible for an ordinary person of simple
life and unassuming aims to escape persecution under this same Shan
Tien?”

“Of the Mandarin himself those who know speak with vague lips. What is
done is done by the pressing hand of one Ming-shu, who takes down his
spoken word; of whom it is truly said that he has little resemblance
to a man and still less to an angel.”

“Yet,” protested the story-teller hopefully, “it is wisely written:
‘He who never opens his mouth in strife can always close his eyes in
peace.’”

“Doubtless,” assented the other. “He can close his eyes assuredly.
Whether he will ever again open them is another matter.”

With this timely warning the sandal-maker rose and prepared to resume
his journey. Nor did he again take up the burden of his task until he
had satisfied himself that the westward road was destitute of traffic.

“A tranquil life and a painless death,” was his farewell parting.
“Jung, of the line of Hai, wishes you well.” Then, with many
imprecations on the relentless sun above, the inexorable road beneath,
and on every detail of the evilly-balanced load before him, he passed
out on his way.

It would have been well for Kai Lung had he also forced his reluctant
feet to raise the dust, but his body clung to the moist umbrage of his
couch, and his mind made reassurance that perchance the maiden would
return. Thus it fell that when two others, who looked from side to
side as they hastened on the road, turned as at a venture to the wood
they found him still there.

“Restrain your greetings,” said the leader of the two harshly, in the
midst of Kai Lung’s courteous obeisance; “and do not presume to
disparage yourself as if in equality with the one who stands before
you. Have two of the inner chamber, attired thus and thus, passed this
way? Speak, and that to a narrow edge.”

“The road lies beyond the perception of my incapable vision,
chiefest,” replied Kai lung submissively. “Furthermore, I have slept.”

“Unless you would sleep more deeply, shape your stubborn tongue to a
specific point,” commanded the other, touching a meaning sword. “Who
are you who loiter here, and for what purpose do you lurk? Speak
fully, and be assured that your word will be put to a corroding test.”

Thus encouraged, Kai Lung freely disclosed his name and ancestry, the
means whereby he earned a frugal sustenance and the nature of his
journey. In addition, he professed a willingness to relate his most
recently-acquired story, that entitled “Wu-yong: or The Politely
Inquiring Stranger”, but the offer was thrust ungracefully aside.

“Everything you say deepens the suspicion which your criminal-looking
face naturally provokes,” said the questioner, putting away his
tablets on which he had recorded the replies. “At Yu-ping the matter
will be probed with a very definite result. You, Li-loe, remain about
this spot in case she whom we seek should pass. I return to speak of
our unceasing effort.”

“I obey,” replied the dog-like Li-loe. “What men can do we have done.
We are no demons to see through solid matter.”

When they were alone, Li-loe drew nearer to Kai Lung and, allowing his
face to assume a more pacific bend, he cast himself down by the
story-teller’s side.

“The account which you gave of yourself was ill contrived,” he said.
“Being put to the test, its falsity cannot fail to be discovered.”

“Yet,” protested Kai Lung earnestly, “in no single detail did it
deviate from the iron line of truth.”

“Then your case is even more desperate than before,” exclaimed Li-loe.
“Know now that the repulsive-featured despot who has just left us is
Ming-shu, he who takes down the Mandarin Shan Tien’s spoken word. By
admitting that you are from Loo-chow, where disaffection reigns, you
have noosed a rope about your neck, and by proclaiming yourself as one
whose habit it is to call together a company to listen to your word,
you have drawn it tight.”

“Every rope has two ends,” remarked Kai Lung philosophically, “and
to-morrow is yet to come. Tell me rather, since that is our present
errand, who is she whom you pursue and to what intent?”

“That is not so simple as to be contained within the hollow of an
acorn sheath. Let it suffice that she has the left ear of Shan Tien,
even as Ming-shu has the right, but on which side his hearing is
better it might be hazardous to guess.”

“And her meritorious name?”

“She is of the house of K’ang, her name being Hwa-mei, though from the
nature of her charm she is ofttime called the Golden Mouse. But
touching this affair of your own immediate danger: we being both but
common men of the idler sort, it is only fitting that when high ones
threaten I should stand by you.”

“Speak definitely,” assented Kai Lung, “yet with the understanding
that the full extent of my store does not exceed four or five strings
of cash.”

“The soil is somewhat shallow for the growth of deep friendship, but
what we have we will share equally between us.” With these auspicious
words Li-loe possessed himself of three of the strings of cash and
displayed an empty sleeve. “I, alas, have nothing. The benefits I have
in mind are of a subtler and more priceless kind. At Yu-ping my office
will be that of the keeper of the doors of the yamen, including that
of the prison-house. Thus I shall doubtless be able to render you
frequent service of an inconspicuous kind. Do not forget the name of
Li-loe.”

By this time the approaching sound of heavy traffic, heralded by the
beating of drums, the blowing of horns and the discharge of an
occasional firework, indicated the passage of some dignified official.
This, declared Li-loe, could be none other than the Mandarin Shan
Tien, resuming his march towards Yu-ping, and the doorkeeper prepared
to join the procession at his appointed place. Kai Lung, however,
remained unseen among the trees, not being desirous of obtruding
himself upon Ming-shu unnecessarily. When the noise had almost died
away in the distance he came forth, believing that all would by this
time have passed, and approached the road. As he reached it a single
chair was hurried by, its carriers striving by increased exertion to
regain their fellows. It was too late for Kai Lung to retreat, whoever
might be within. As it passed a curtain moved somewhat, a symmetrical
hand came discreetly forth, and that which it held fell at his feet.
Without varying his attitude he watched the chair until it was out of
sight, then stooped and picked something up--a red blossom on a thorny
stalk, the flower already parched but the stem moist and softened to
his touch.



                              CHAPTER II

           The Inexorable Justice of the Mandarin Shan Tien

“By having access to this enclosure you will be able to walk where
otherwise you must stand. That in itself is cheap at the price of
three reputed strings of inferior cash. Furthermore, it is possible to
breathe.”

“The outlook, in one direction, is an extensive one,” admitted Kai
Lung, gazing towards the sky. “Here, moreover, is a shutter through
which the vista doubtless lengthens.”

“So long as there is no chance of you exploring it any farther than
your neck, it does not matter,” said Li-loe. “Outside lies a barren
region of the yamen garden where no one ever comes. I will now leave
you, having to meet one with whom I would traffic for a goat. When I
return be prepared to retrace your steps to the prison cell.”

“The shadow moves as the sun directs,” replied Kai Lung, and with
courteous afterthought he added the wonted parting: “Slowly, slowly;
walk slowly.”

In such a manner the story-teller found himself in a highly-walled
enclosure, lying between the prison-house and the yamen garden, a few
days after his arrival in Yu-ping. Ming-shu had not eaten his word.

The yard itself possessed no attraction for Kai Lung. Almost before
Li-loe had disappeared he was at the shutter in the wall, had forced
it open and was looking out. Thus long he waited, motionless, but
observing every leaf that stirred among the trees and shrubs and
neglected growth beyond. At last a figure passed across a distant
glade and at the sight Kai Lung lifted up a restrained voice in song:

    “At the foot of a bleak and inhospitable mountain
    An insignificant stream winds its uncared way;
    Although inferior to the Yangtze-kiang in every detail
    Yet fish glide to and fro among its crannies
    Nor would they change their home for the depths of the widest
        river.

    The palace of the sublime Emperor is made rich with hanging
        curtains.
    While here rough stone walls forbid repose.
    Yet there is one who unhesitatingly prefers the latter;
    For from an open shutter here he can look forth,
    And perchance catch a glimpse of one who may pass by.

    The occupation of the Imperial viceroy is both lucrative and
        noble;
    While that of a relater of imagined tales is by no means
        esteemed.
    But he who thus expressed himself would not exchange with the
        other;
    For around the identity of each heroine he can entwine the
        personality of one whom he has encountered.
    And thus she is ever by his side.”

“Your uplifted voice comes from an unexpected quarter, minstrel,” said
a melodious voice, and the maiden whom he had encountered in the wood
stood before him. “What crime have you now committed?”

“An ancient one. I presumed to raise my unworthy eyes--”

“Alas, story-teller,” interposed the maiden hastily, “it would seem
that the star to which you chained _your_ wrist has not carried you
into the assembly of the gods.”

“Yet already it has borne me half-way--into a company of malefactors.
Doubtless on the morrow the obliging Mandarin Shan Tien will arrange
for the journey to be complete.”

“Yet have you then no further wish to continue in an ordinary
existence?” asked the maiden.

“To this person,” replied Kai Lung, with a deep-seated look,
“existence can never again be ordinary. Admittedly it may be short.”

As they conversed together in this inoffensive manner she whom Li-loe
had called the Golden Mouse held in her delicately-formed hands a
priceless bowl filled with ripe fruit of the rarer kinds which she had
gathered. These from time to time she threw up to the opening, rightly
deciding that one in Kai Lung’s position would stand in need of
sustenance, and he no less dexterously held and retained them. When
the bowl was empty she continued for a space to regard it silently, as
though exploring the many-sided recesses of her mind.

“You have claimed to be a story-teller and have indeed made a boast
that there is no arising emergency for which you are unprepared,” she
said at length. “It now befalls that you may be put to a speedy test.
Is the nature of this imagined scene”--thus she indicated the
embellishment of the bowl--“familiar to your eyes?”

“It is that known as ‘The Willow,’” replied Kai Lung. “There is a
story--”

“There is a story!” exclaimed the maiden, loosening from her brow the
overhanging look of care. “Thus and thus. Frequently have I importuned
him before whom you will appear to explain to me the meaning of the
scene. When you are called upon to plead your cause, see to it well
that your knowledge of such a tale is clearly shown. He before whom
you kneel, craftily plied meanwhile by my unceasing petulance, will
then desire to hear it from your lips . . . At the striking of the
fourth gong the day is done. What lies between rests with your
discriminating wit.”

“You are deep in the subtler kinds of wisdom, such as the weak
possess,” confessed Kai Lung. “Yet how will this avail to any length?”

“That which is put off from to-day is put off from to-morrow,” was the
confident reply. “For the rest--at a corresponding gong-stroke of each
day it is this person’s custom to gather fruit. Farewell, minstrel.”

When Li-loe returned a little later Kai Lung threw his two remaining
strings of cash about that rapacious person’s neck and embraced him as
he exclaimed:

“Chieftain among doorkeepers, when I go to the Capital to receive the
all-coveted title ‘Leaf-crowned’ and to chant ceremonial odes before
the Court, thou shalt accompany me as forerunner, and an agile tribe
of selected goats shall sport about thy path.”

“Alas, manlet,” replied the other, weeping readily, “greatly do I fear
that the next journey thou wilt take will be in an upward or a
downward rather than a sideway direction. This much have I learned,
and to this end, at some cost admittedly, I enticed into loquacity one
who knows another whose brother holds the key of Ming-shu’s
confidence: that to-morrow the Mandarin will begin to distribute
justice here, and out of the depths of Ming-shu’s malignity the name
of Kai Lung is the first set down.”

“With the title,” continued Kai Lung cheerfully, “there goes a
sufficiency of taels; also a vat of a potent wine of a certain kind.”

“If,” suggested Li-loe, looking anxiously around, “you have really
discovered hidden about this place a secret store of wine, consider
well whether it would not be prudent to entrust it to a faithful
friend before it is too late.”

It was indeed as Li-loe had foretold. On the following day, at the
second gong-stroke after noon, the order came and, closely guarded,
Kai Lung was led forth. The middle court had been duly arranged, with
a formidable display of chains, weights, presses, saws, branding irons
and other implements for securing justice. At the head of a table
draped with red sat the Mandarin Shan Tien, on his right the secretary
of his hand, the contemptible Ming-shu. Round about were positioned
others who in one necessity or another might be relied upon to play an
ordered part. After a lavish explosion of fire-crackers had been
discharged, sonorous bells rung and gongs beaten, a venerable
geomancer disclosed by means of certain tests that all doubtful
influences had been driven off and that truth and impartiality alone
remained.

“Except on the part of the prisoners, doubtless,” remarked the
Mandarin, thereby imperilling the gravity of all who stood around.

“The first of those to prostrate themselves before your enlightened
clemency, Excellence, is a notorious assassin who, under another name,
has committed many crimes,” began the execrable Ming-shu. “He
confesses that, now calling himself Kai Lung, he has recently
journeyed from Loo-chow, where treason ever wears a smiling face.”

“Perchance he is saddened by our city’s loyalty,” interposed the
benign Shan Tien, “for if he is smiling now it is on the side of his
face removed from this one’s gaze.”

“The other side of his face is assuredly where he will be made to
smile ere long,” acquiesced Ming-shu, not altogether to his chief’s
approval, as the analogy was already his. “Furthermore, he has been
detected lurking in secret meeting-places by the wayside, and on
reaching Yu-ping he raised his rebellious voice inviting all to gather
round and join his unlawful band. The usual remedy in such cases
during periods of stress, Excellence, is strangulation.”

“The times are indeed pressing,” remarked the agile-minded Mandarin,
“and the penalty would appear to be adequate.” As no one suffered
inconvenience at his attitude, however, Shan Tien’s expression assumed
a more unbending cast.

“Let the witnesses appear,” he commanded sharply.

“In so clear a case it has not been thought necessary to incur the
expense of hiring the usual witnesses,” urged Ming-shu; “but they are
doubtless clustered about the opium floor and will, if necessary,
testify to whatever is required.”

“The argument is a timely one,” admitted the Mandarin. “As the result
cannot fail to be the same in either case, perhaps the accommodating
prisoner will assist the ends of justice by making a full confession
of his crimes?”

“High Excellence,” replied the story-teller, speaking for the first
time, “it is truly said that that which would appear as a mountain in
the evening may stand revealed as a mud-hut by the light of day. Hear
my unpainted word. I am of the abject House of Kai and my inoffensive
rice is earned as a narrator of imagined tales. Unrolling my
threadbare mat at the middle hour of yesterday, I had raised my
distressing voice and announced an intention to relate the Story of
Wong Ts’in, that which is known as ‘The Legend of the Willow Plate
Embellishment,’ when a company of armed warriors, converging upon
me--”

“Restrain the melodious flow of your admitted eloquence,” interrupted
the Mandarin, veiling his arising interest. “Is the story, to which
you have made reference, that of the scene widely depicted on plates
and earthenware?”

“Undoubtedly. It is the true and authentic legend as related by the
eminent Tso-yi.”

“In that case,” declared Shan Tien dispassionately, “it will be
necessary for you to relate it now, in order to uphold your claim.
Proceed.”

“Alas, Excellence,” protested Ming-shu from a bitter throat, “this
matter will attenuate down to the stroke of evening rice. Kowtowing
beneath your authoritative hand, that which the prisoner only had the
intention to relate does not come within the confines of his
evidence.”

“The objection is superficial and cannot be sustained,” replied Shan
Tien. “If an evilly-disposed one raised a sword to strike this person,
but was withheld before the blow could fall, none but a leper would
contend that because he did not progress beyond the intention thereby
he should go free. Justice must be impartially upheld and greatly do I
fear that we must all submit.”

With these opportune words the discriminating personage signified to
Kai Lung that he should begin.


      The Story of Wong T’sin and the Willow Plate Embellishment

Wong Ts’in, the rich porcelain maker, was ill at ease within himself.
He had partaken of his customary midday meal, flavoured the repast by
unsealing a jar of matured wine, consumed a little fruit, a few
sweetmeats and half a dozen cups of unapproachable tea, and then
retired to an inner chamber to contemplate philosophically from the
reposeful attitude of a reclining couch.

But upon this occasion the merchant did not contemplate restfully. He
paced the floor in deep dejection and when he did use the couch at all
it was to roll upon it in a sudden access of internal pain. The cause
of his distress was well known to the unhappy person thus concerned,
nor did it lessen the pangs of his emotion that it arose entirely from
his own ill-considered action.

When Wong Ts’in had discovered, by the side of a remote and obscure
river, the inexhaustible bed of porcelain clay that ensured his
prosperity, his first care was to erect adequate sheds and
labouring-places; his next to build a house sufficient for himself and
those in attendance round about him.

So far prudence had ruled his actions, for there is a keen edge to the
saying: “He who sleeps over his workshop brings four eyes into the
business,” but in one detail Wong T’sin’s head and feet went on
different journeys, for with incredible oversight he omitted to secure
the experience of competent astrologers and omen-casters in fixing the
exact site of his mansion.

The result was what might have been expected. In excavating for the
foundations, Wong T’sin’s slaves disturbed the repose of a small but
rapacious earth-demon that had already been sleeping there for nine
hundred and ninety-nine years. With the insatiable cunning of its
kind, this vindictive creature waited until the house was completed
and then proceeded to transfer its unseen but formidable presence to
the quarters that were designed for Wong Ts’in himself. Thenceforth,
from time to time, it continued to revenge itself for the trouble to
which it had been put by an insidious persecution. This frequently
took the form of fastening its claws upon the merchant’s digestive
organs, especially after he had partaken of an unusually rich repast
(for in some way the display of certain viands excited its unreasoning
animosity), pressing heavily upon his chest, invading his repose with
dragon-dreams while he slept, and the like. Only by the exercise of an
ingenuity greater than its own could Wong Ts’in succeed in baffling
its ill-conditioned spite.

On this occasion, recognizing from the nature of his pangs what was
taking place, Wong Ts’in resorted to a stratagem that rarely failed
him. Announcing in a loud voice that it was his intention to refresh
the surface of his body by the purifying action of heated vapour, and
then to proceed to his mixing-floor, the merchant withdrew. The demon,
being an earth-dweller with the ineradicable objection of this class
of creatures towards all the elements of moisture, at once
relinquished its hold, and going direct to the part of the works
indicated, it there awaited its victim with the design of resuming its
discreditable persecution.

Wong Ts’in had spoken with a double tongue. On leaving the inner
chamber he quickly traversed certain obscure passages of his house
until he reached an inferior portal. Even if the demon had suspected
his purpose it would not have occurred to a creature of its narrow
outlook that anyone of Wong Ts’in’s importance would make use of so
menial an outway. The merchant therefore reached his garden
unperceived and thenceforward maintained an undeviating face in the
direction of the Outer Expanses. Before he had covered many li he was
assured that he had indeed succeeded for the time in shaking off his
unscrupulous tormentor. His internal organs again resumed their
habitual calm and his mind was lightened as from an overhanging cloud.

There was another reason why Wong Ts’in sought the solitude of the
thinly-peopled outer places, away from the influence and distraction
of his own estate. For some time past a problem that had once been
remote was assuming dimensions of increasing urgency. This detail
concerns Fa Fai, who had already been referred to by a person of
literary distinction, in a poetical analogy occupying three written
volumes, as a pearl-tinted peach-blossom shielded and restrained by
the silken net-work of wise parental affection (and recognizing the
justice of the comparison, Wong Ts’in had been induced to purchase the
work in question). Now that Fa Fai had attained an age when she could
fittingly be sought in marriage the contingency might occur at any
time, and the problem confronting her father’s decision was this:
owing to her incomparable perfection Fa Fai must be accounted one of
Wong Ts’in’s chief possessions, the other undoubtedly being his secret
process of simulating the lustrous effect of pure gold embellishment
on china by the application of a much less expensive substitute. Would
it be more prudent to concentrate the power of both influences and let
it become known that with Fa Fai would go the essential part of his
very remunerative clay enterprise, or would it be more prudent to
divide these attractions and secure two distinct influences, both
concerned about his welfare? In the first case there need be no
reasonable limit to the extending vista of his ambition, and he might
even aspire to greet as a son the highest functionary of the
province--an official of such heavily-sustained importance that when
he went about it required six chosen slaves to carry him, and of late
it had been considered more prudent to employ eight.

If, on the other hand, Fa Fai went without any added inducement, a
mandarin of moderate rank would probably be as high as Wong Ts’in
could look, but he would certainly be able to adopt another of at
least equal position, at the price of making over to him the ultimate
benefit of his discovery. He could thus acquire either two sons of
reasonable influence, or one who exercised almost unlimited authority.
In view of his own childlessness, and of his final dependence on the
services of others, which arrangement promised the most regular and
liberal transmission of supplies to his expectant spirit when he had
passed into the Upper Air, and would his connection with one very
important official or with two subordinate ones secure him the greater
amount of honour and serviceable recognition among the more useful
deities?

To Wong Ts’in’s logical mind it seemed as though there must be a
definite answer to this problem. If one manner of behaving was right
the other must prove wrong, for as the wise philosopher Ning-hy was
wont to say: “Where the road divides, there stand two Ning-hys.” The
decision on a matter so essential to his future comfort ought not to
be left to chance. Thus it had become a habit of Wong Ts’in’s to
penetrate the Outer Spaces in the hope of there encountering a
specific omen.

Alas, it has been well written: “He who thinks that he is raising a
mound may only in reality be digging a pit.” In his continual search
for a celestial portent among the solitudes Wong Ts’in had of late
necessarily somewhat neglected his earthly (as it may thus be
expressed) interests. In these emergencies certain of the more
turbulent among his workers had banded themselves together into a
confederacy under the leadership of a craftsman named Fang. It was the
custom of these men, who wore a badge and recognized a mutual oath and
imprecation, to present themselves suddenly before Wong Ts’in and
demand a greater reward for their exertions than they had previously
agreed to, threatening that unless this was accorded they would cast
down the implements of their labour in unison and involve in idleness
those who otherwise would have continued at their task. This menace
Wong Ts’in bought off from time to time by agreeing to their
exactions, but it began presently to appear that this way of appeasing
them resembled Chou Hong’s method of extinguishing a fire by directing
jets of wind against it. On the day with which this related story has
so far concerned itself, a band of the most highly remunerated and
privileged of the craftsmen had appeared before Wong Ts’in with the
intolerable Fang at their head. These men were they whose skill
enabled them laboriously to copy upon the surfaces of porcelain a
given scene without appreciable deviation from one to the other, for
in those remote cycles of history no other method was yet known or
even dreamed of.

“Suitable greetings, employer of our worthless services,” remarked
their leader, seating himself upon the floor unbidden. “These who
speak through the mouth of the cringing mendicant before you are the
Bound-together Brotherhood of Colour-mixers and Putters-on of
Thought-out Designs, bent upon a just cause.”

“May their Ancestral Tablets never fall into disrepair,” replied Wong
Ts’in courteously. “For the rest--let the mouth referred to shape
itself into the likeness of a narrow funnel, for the lengthening
gong-strokes press round about my unfinished labours.”

“That which in justice requires the amplitude of a full-sized cask
shall be pressed down into the confines of an inadequate vessel,”
 assented Fang. “Know then, O battener upon our ill-requited skill, how
it has come to our knowledge that one who is not of our Brotherhood
moves among us and performs an equal task for a less reward. This is
our spoken word in consequence: in place of one tael every man among
us shall now take two, and he who before has laboured eight gongs to
receive it shall henceforth labour four. Furthermore, he who is
speaking shall, as their recognized head and authority, always be
addressed by the honourable title of ‘Polished,’ and the dog who is
not one of us shall be cast forth.”

“My hand itches to reward you in accordance with the inner prompting
of a full heart,” replied the merchant, after a well-sustained pause.
“But in this matter my very deficient ears must be leading my
threadbare mind astray. The moon has not been eaten up since the day
when you stood before me in a like attitude and bargained that every
man should henceforth receive a full tael where hitherto a half had
been his portion, and that in place of the toil of sixteen
gong-strokes eight should suffice. Upon this being granted all bound
themselves by spoken word that the matter should stand thus and thus
between us until the gathering-in of the next rice harvest.”

“That may have been so at the time,” admitted Fang, with dog-like
obstinacy, “but it was not then known that you had pledged yourself to
Hien Nan for tenscore embellished plates of porcelain within a stated
time, and that our services would therefore be essential to your
reputation. There has thus arisen what may be regarded as a new vista
of eventualities, and this frees us from the bondage of our spoken
word. Having thus moderately stated our unbending demand, we will
depart until the like gong-stroke of to-morrow, when, if our claim be
not agreed to, all will cast down their implements of labour with the
swiftness of a lightning-flash and thereby involve the whole of your
too-profitable undertaking in well-merited stagnation. We go,
venerable head; auspicious omens attend your movements!”

“May the All-Seeing guide your footsteps,” responded Wong Ts’in, and
with courteous forbearance he waited until they were out of hearing
before he added--“into a vat of boiling sulphur!”

Thus may the position be outlined when Wei Chang, the unassuming youth
whom the black-hearted Fang had branded with so degrading a
comparison, sat at his appointed place rather than join in the
discreditable conspiracy, and strove by his unaided dexterity to
enable Wong Ts’in to complete the tenscore embellished plates by the
appointed time. Yet already he knew that in this commendable ambition
his head grew larger than his hands, for he was the slowest-working
among all Wong Ts’in’s craftsmen, and even then his copy could
frequently be detected from the original. Not to overwhelm his memory
with unmerited contempt it is fitting now to reveal somewhat more of
the unfolding curtain of events.

Wei Chang was not in reality a worker in the art of applying coloured
designs to porcelain at all. He was a student of the literary
excellences and had decided to devote his entire life to the engaging
task of reducing the most perfectly matched analogy to the least
possible number of words when the unexpected appearance of Fa Fai
unsettled his ambitions. She was restraining the impatience of a
powerful horse and controlling its movements by means of a leather
thong, while at the same time she surveyed the landscape with a
disinterested glance in which Wei Chang found himself becoming
involved. Without stopping even to consult the spirits of his revered
ancestors on so important a decision, he at once burned the greater
part of his collection of classical analogies and engaged himself, as
one who is willing to become more proficient, about Wong Ts’in’s
earth-yards. Here, without any reasonable intention of ever becoming
in any way personally congenial to her, he was in a position
occasionally to see the distant outline of Fa Fai’s movements, and
when a day passed and even this was withheld he was content that the
shadow of the many-towered building that contained her should obscure
the sunlight from the window before which he worked.

While Wei Chang was thus engaged the door of the enclosure in which he
laboured was thrust cautiously inwards, and presently he became aware
that the being whose individuality was never completely absent from
his thoughts was standing in an expectant attitude at no great
distance from him. As no other person was present, the craftsmen
having departed in order to consult an oracle that dwelt beneath an
appropriate sign, and Wong Ts’in being by this time among the Outer
Ways seeking an omen as to Fa Fai’s disposal, Wei Chang did not think
it respectful to become aware of the maiden’s presence until a
persistent distress of her throat compelled him to recognize the
incident.

“Unapproachable perfection,” he said, with becoming deference, “is it
permissible that in the absence of your enlightened sire you should
descend from your golden eminence and stand, entirely unattended, at
no great distance from so ordinary a person as myself?”

“Whether it be strictly permissible or not, it is only on like
occasions that she ever has the opportunity of descending from the
solitary pinnacle referred to,” replied Fa Fai, not only with no
outward appearance of alarm at being directly addressed by one of a
different sex, but even moving nearer to Wei Chang as she spoke. “A
more essential detail in the circumstances concerns the length of time
that he may be prudently relied upon to be away?”

“Doubtless several gong-strokes will intervene before his returning
footsteps gladden our expectant vision,” replied Wei Chang. “He is
spoken of as having set his face towards the Outer Ways, there
perchance to come within the influence of a portent.”

“Its probable object is not altogether unknown to the one who stands
before you,” admitted Fa Fai, “and as a dutiful and affectionate
daughter it has become a consideration with her whether she ought not
to press forward, as it were, to a solution on her own account. . . .
If the one whom I am addressing could divert his attention from the
embellishment of the very inadequate claw of a wholly superfluous
winged dragon, possibly he might add his sage counsel on that point.”

“It is said that a bull-frog once rent his throat in a well-meant
endeavour to advise an eagle in the art of flying,” replied Wei Chang,
concealing the bitterness of his heart beneath an easy tongue. “For
this reason it is inexpedient for earthlings to fix their eyes on
those who dwell in very high places.”

“To the intrepid, very high places exist solely to be scaled; with
others, however, the only scaling they attempt is lavished on the
armour of preposterous flying monsters, O youth of the House of Wei!”

“Is it possible,” exclaimed Wei Chang, moving forward with so sudden
an ardour that the maiden hastily withdrew herself several paces from
beyond his enthusiasm, “is it possible that this person’s hitherto
obscure and execrated name is indeed known to your incomparable lips?”

“As the one who periodically casts up the computations of the sums of
money due to those who labour about the earth-yards, it would be
strange if the name had so far escaped my notice,” replied Fa Fai,
with a distance in her voice that the few paces between them very
inadequately represented. “Certain details engrave themselves upon the
tablets of recollection by their persistence. For instance, the name
of Fang is generally at the head of each list; that of Wei Chang is
invariably at the foot.”

“It is undeniable,” admitted Wei Chang, in a tone of well-merited
humiliation; “and the attainment of never having yet applied a design
in such a manner that the copy might be mistaken for the original has
entirely flattened-out this person’s self-esteem.”

“Doubtless,” suggested Fa Fai, with delicate encouragement, “there are
other pursuits in which you would disclose a more highly developed
proficiency--as that of watching the gyrations of untamed horses, for
example. Our more immediate need, however, is to discover a means of
defeating the malignity of the detestable Fang. With this object I
have for some time past secretly applied myself to the task of
contriving a design which, by blending simplicity with picturesque
effect, will enable one person in a given length of time to achieve
the amount of work hitherto done by two.”

With these auspicious words the accomplished maiden disclosed a plate
of translucent porcelain, embellished in the manner which she had
described. At the sight of the ingenious way in which trees and
persons, stream and buildings, and objects of a widely differing
nature had been so arranged as to give the impression that they all
existed at the same time, and were equally visible without undue
exertion on the part of the spectator who regarded them, Wei Chang
could not restrain an exclamation of delight.

“How cunningly imagined is the device by which objects so varied in
size as an orange and an island can be depicted within the narrow
compass of a porcelain plate without the larger one completely
obliterating the smaller or the smaller becoming actually invisible by
comparison with the other! Hitherto this unimaginative person had not
considered the possibility of showing other than dragons, demons,
spirits, and the forces which from their celestial nature may be
regarded as possessing no real thickness of substance and therefore
being particularly suitable for treatment on a flat surface. But this
engaging display might indeed be a scene having an actual existence at
no great space away.”

“Such is assuredly the case,” admitted Fa Fai. “Within certain
limitations, imposed by this new art of depicting realities as they
are, we may be regarded as standing before an open window. The
important-looking building on the right is that erected by this
person’s venerated father. Its prosperity is indicated by the
luxurious profusion of the fruit-tree overhanging it. Pressed somewhat
to the back, but of dignified proportion, are the outer buildings of
those who labour among the clay.”

“In a state of actuality, they are of measurably less dignified
dimensions,” suggested Wei Chang.

“The objection is inept,” replied Fa Fai. “The buildings in question
undoubtedly exist at the indicated position. If, therefore, the
actuality is to be maintained, it is necessary either to raise their
stature or to cut down the trees obscuring them. To this gentle-minded
person the former alternative seemed the less drastic. As, however, it
is regarded in a spirit of no-satisfaction--”

“Proceed, incomparable one, proceed,” implored Wei Chang. “It was but
a breath of thought, arising from a recollection of the many times
that this incapable person has struck his unworthy head against the
roof-beams of those nobly-proportioned buildings.”

“The three stunted individuals crossing the bridge in undignified
attitudes are the debased Fang and two of his mercenary accomplices.
They are, as usual, bending their footsteps in the direction of the
hospitality of a house that announces its purpose beneath the sign of
a spreading bush. They are positioned as crossing the river to a set
purpose, and the bridge is devoid of a rail in the hope that on their
return they may all fall into the torrent in a helpless condition and
be drowned, to the satisfaction of the beholders.”

“It would be a fitting conclusion to their ill-spent lives,” agreed
Wei Chang. “Would it not add to their indignity to depict them as
struggling beneath the waves?”

“It might do so,” admitted Fa Fai graciously, “but in order to express
the arisement adequately it would be necessary to display them
twice--first on the bridge with their faces turned towards the west,
and then in the flood with their faces towards the east; and the
superficial might hastily assume that the three on the bridge would
rescue the three in the river.”

“You are all-wise,” said Wei Chang, with well-marked admiration in his
voice. “This person’s suggestion was opaque.”

“In any case,” continued Fa Fai, with a reassuring glance, “it is a
detail that is not essential to the frustration of Fang’s malignant
scheme, for already well on its way towards Hien Nan may be seen a
trustworthy junk, laden with two formidable crates, each one
containing fivescore plates of the justly esteemed Wong Ts’in
porcelain.”

“Nevertheless,” maintained Wei Chang mildly, “the out-passing of Fang
would have been a satisfactory detail of the occurrence.”

“Do not despair,” replied Fa Fai. “Not idly is it written: ‘Destiny
has four feet, eight hands and sixteen eyes: how then shall the
ill-doer with only two of each hope to escape?’ An even more
ignominious end may await Fang, should he escape drowning, for,
conveniently placed by the side of the stream, this person has
introduced a spreading willow-tree. Any of its lower branches is
capable of sustaining Fang’s weight, should a reliable rope connect
the two.”

“There is something about that which this person now learns is a
willow that distinguishes it above all the other trees of the design,”
 remarked Wei Chang admiringly. “It has a wild and yet a romantic
aspect.”

“This person had not yet chanced upon a suitable title for the
device,” said Fa Fai, “and a distinguishing name is necessary, for
possibly scores of copies may be made before its utility is exhausted.
Your discriminating praise shall be accepted as a fortunate omen, and
henceforth this shall be known as the Willow Pattern Embellishment.”

“The honour of suggesting the title is more than this commonplace
person can reasonably carry,” protested Wei Chang, feeling that very
little worth considering existed outside the earth-shed. “Not only
scores, but even hundreds of copies may be required in the process of
time, for a crust of rice-bread and handful of dried figs eaten from
such a plate would be more satisfying than a repast of many-coursed
richness elsewhere.”

In this well-sustained and painless manner Fa Fai and Wei Chang
continued to express themselves agreeably to each other, until the
lengthening gong-strokes warned the former person that her absence
might inconvenience Wong Ts’in’s sense of tranquillity on his return,
nor did Wei Chang contest the desirability of a great space
intervening between them should the merchant chance to pass that way.
In the meanwhile Chang had explained many of the inner details of his
craft so that Fa Fai should the better understand the requirements of
her new art.

“Yet where is the Willow plate itself?” said the maiden, as she began
to arrange her mind towards departure. “As the colours were still in a
receptive state this person placed it safely aside for the time. It
was somewhat near the spot where you--”

During the amiable exchange of shafts of polished conversation Wei
Chang had followed Fa Fai’s indication and had seated himself upon a
low bench without any very definite perception of his movements. He
now arose with the unstudied haste of one who has inconvenienced a
scorpion.

“Alas!” he exclaimed, in a tone of the acutest mental distress; “can
it be possible that this utterly profane outcast has so desecrated--”

“Certainly comment of an admittedly crushing nature has been imposed
on this one’s well-meant handiwork,” said Fa Fai. With these
lightly-barbed words, which were plainly devised to restore the other
person’s face towards himself, the magnanimous maiden examined the
plate which Wei Chang’s uprising had revealed.

“Not only has the embellishment suffered no real detriment,” she
continued, after an adequate glance, “but there has been imparted to
the higher lights--doubtless owing to the nature of the fabric in
which your lower half is encased--a certain nebulous quality that adds
greatly to the successful effect of the various tones.”

At the first perception of the indignity to which he had subjected the
entrancing Fa Fai’s work, and the swift feeling that much more than
the coloured adornment of a plate would thereby be destroyed, all
power of retention had forsaken Wei Chang’s incapable knees and he
sank down heavily upon another bench. From this dejection the maiden’s
well-chosen encouragement recalled him to a position of ordinary
uprightness.

“A tombstone is lifted from this person’s mind by your
gracefully-placed words,” he declared, and he was continuing to
indicate the nature of his self-reproach by means of a suitable
analogy when the expression of Fa Fai’s eyes turned him to a point
behind himself. There, lying on the spot from which he had just risen,
was a second Willow plate, differing in no detail of resemblance from
the first.

“Shadow of the Great Image!” exclaimed Chang, in an awe-filled voice.
“It is no marvel that miracles should attend your footsteps, celestial
one, but it is incredible that this clay-souled person should be
involved in the display.”

“Yet,” declared Fa Fai, not hesitating to allude to things as they
existed, in the highly-raised stress of the discovery, “it would
appear that the miracle is not specifically connected with this
person’s feet. Would you not, in furtherance of this line of
suggestion, place yourself in a similar attitude on yet another plate,
Wei Chang?”

Not without many protests that it was scarcely becoming thus to sit
repeatedly in her presence, Chang complied with the request, and upon
Fa Fai’s further insistence he continued to impress himself, as it
were, upon a succession of porcelain plates, with a like result. Not
until the eleventh process was reached did the Willow design begin to
lose its potency.

“Ten perfect copies produced within as many moments, and not one
distinguishable from the first!” exclaimed Wei Chang, regarding the
array of plates with pleasurable emotion. “Here is a means of baffling
Fang’s crafty confederacy that will fill Wong Ts’in’s ears with waves
of gladness on his return.”

“Doubtless,” agreed Fa Fai, with a dark intent. She was standing by
the door of the enclosure in the process of making her departure, and
she regarded Wei Chang with a set deliberation. “Yet,” she continued
definitely, “if this person possessed that which was essential to Wong
Ts’in’s prosperity, and Wong Ts’in held that which was necessary for
this one’s tranquillity, a locked bolt would be upon the one until the
other was pledged in return.”

With these opportune words the maiden vanished, leaving Wei Chang
prostrating himself in spirit before the many-sidedness of her wisdom.

Wong T’sin was not altogether benevolently inclined towards the
universe on his return a little later. The persistent image of Fang’s
overthreatening act still corroded the merchant’s throat with
bitterness, for on his right he saw the extinction of his business as
unremunerative if he agreed, and on his left he saw the extinction of
his business as undependable if he refused to agree.

Furthermore, the omens were ill-arranged.

On his way outwards he had encountered an aged man who possessed two
fruit-trees, on which he relied for sustenance. As Wong Ts’in drew
near, this venerable person carried from his dwelling two beaten cakes
of dog-dung and began to bury them about the root of the larger tree.
This action, on the part of one who might easily be a disguised
wizard, aroused Wong Ts’in’s interest.

“Why,” he demanded, “having two cakes of dung and two fruit-trees, do
you not allot one to each tree, so that both may benefit and return to
you their produce in the time of your necessity?”

“The season promises to be one of rigour and great need,” replied the
other. “A single cake of dung might not provide sufficient nourishment
for either tree, so that both should wither away. By reducing life to
a bare necessity I could pass from one harvest to another on the fruit
of this tree alone, but if both should fail I am undone. To this end I
safeguard my existence by ensuring that at least the better of the two
shall thrive.”

“Peace attend your efforts!” said Wong Ts’in, and he began to retrace
his footsteps, well content.

Yet he had not covered half the distance back when his progress was
impeded by an elderly hag who fed two goats, whose milk alone
preserved her from starvation. One small measure of dry grass was all
that she was able to provide them with, but she divided it equally
between them, to the discontent of both.

“The season promises to be one of rigour and great need,” remarked
Wong Ts’in affably, for the being before him might well be a creature
of another part who had assumed that form for his guidance. “Why do
you not therefore ensure sustenance to the better of the two goats by
devoting to it the whole of the measure of dry grass? In this way you
would receive at least some nourishment in return and thereby
safeguard your own existence until the rice is grown again.”

“In the matter of the two goats,” replied the aged hag, “there is no
better, both being equally stubborn and perverse, though one may be
finer-looking and more vainglorious than the other. Yet should I
foster this one to the detriment of her fellow, what would be this
person’s plight if haply the weaker died and the stronger broke away
and fled! By treating both alike I retain a double thread on life,
even if neither is capable of much.”

“May the Unseen weigh your labours!” exclaimed Wong Ts’in in a
two-edged voice, and he departed.

When he reached his own house he would have closed himself in his own
chamber with himself had not Wei Chang persisted that he sought his
master’s inner ear with a heavy project. This interruption did not
please Wong Ts’in, for he had begun to recognize the day as being
unlucky, yet Chang succeeded by a device in reaching his side, bearing
in his hands a guarded burden.

Though no written record of this memorable interview exists, it is now
generally admitted that Wei Chang either involved himself in an
unbearably attenuated caution before he would reveal his errand, or
else that he made a definite allusion to Fa Fai with a too sudden
conciseness, for the slaves who stood without heard Wong Ts’in clear
his voice of all restraint and express himself freely on a variety of
subjects. But this gave place to a subdued murmur, ending with the
ceremonial breaking of a plate, and later Wong Ts’in beat on a silver
bell and called for wine and fruit.

The next day Fang presented himself a few gong-strokes later than the
appointed time, and being met by an unbending word he withdrew the
labour of those whom he controlled. Thenceforth these men, providing
themselves with knives and axes, surrounded the gate of the
earth-yards and by the pacific argument of their attitudes succeeded
in persuading others who would willingly have continued at their task
that the air of Wong Ts’in’s sheds was not congenial to their health.
Towards Wei Chang, whose efforts they despised, they raised a cloud of
derision, and presently noticing that henceforth he invariably clad
himself in lower garments of a dark blue material (to a set purpose
that will be as crystal to the sagacious), they greeted his appearance
with cries of: “Behold the sombre one! Thou dark leg!” so that this
reproach continues to be hurled even to this day at those in a like
case, though few could answer why.

Long before the stipulated time the tenscore plates were delivered to
Hien Nan. So greatly were they esteemed, both on account of their
accuracy of unvarying detail and the ingenuity of their novel
embellishment, that orders for scores, hundreds and even thousands
began to arrive from all quarters of the Empire. The clay enterprise
of Wong Ts’in took upon itself an added lustre, and in order to deal
adequately with so vast an undertaking the grateful merchant adopted
Wei Chang and placed him upon an equal footing with himself. On the
same day Wong Ts’in honourably fulfilled his spoken word and the
marriage of Wei Chang and Fa Fai took place, accompanied by the most
lavish display of fireworks and coloured lights that the province had
ever seen. The controlling deities approved, and they had seven sons,
one of whom had seven fingers upon each hand. All these sons became
expert in Wei Chang’s process of transferring porcelain embellishment,
for some centuries elapsed before it was discovered that it was not
absolutely necessary to sit upon each plate to produce the desired
effect.

This chronicle of an event that is now regarded as almost classical
would not be complete without an added reference to the ultimate end
of the sordid Fang.

Fallen into disrepute among his fellows owing to the evil plight
towards which he had enticed them, it became his increasing purpose to
frequent the house beyond the river. On his return at nightfall he
invariably drew aside on reaching the bridge, well knowing that he
could not prudently rely upon his feet among so insecure a crossing,
and composed himself to sleep amid the rushes. While in this position
one night he was discovered and pushed into the river by a devout ox
(an instrument of high destinies), where he perished incapably.

Those who found his body, not being able to withdraw so formidable a
weight direct, cast a rope across the lower branch of a convenient
willow-tree and thus raised it to the shore. In this striking manner
Fa Fai’s definite opinion achieved a destined end.



                             CHAPTER III

           The Degraded Persistence of the Effete Ming-shu

At about the same gong-stroke as before, Kai Lung again stood at the
open shutter, and to him presently came the maiden Hwa-mei, bearing in
her hands a gift of fruit.

“The story of the much-harassed merchant Wong Ts’in and of the
assiduous youth Wei Chang has reached this person’s ears by a devious
road, and though it doubtless lost some of the subtler qualities in
the telling, the ultimate tragedy had a convincing tone,” she remarked
pleasantly.

“It is scarcely to be expected that one who has spent his life beneath
an official umbrella should have at his command the finer analogies of
light and shade,” tolerantly replied Kai Lung. “Though by no means
comparable with the unapproachable history of the Princess Taik and
the minstrel Ch’eng as a means for conveying the unexpressed
aspirations of the one who relates towards the one who is receptive,
there are many passages even in the behaviour of Wei Chang into which
this person could infuse an unmistakable stress of significance were
he but given the opportunity.”

“The day of that opportunity has not yet dawned,” replied the Golden
Mouse; “nor has the night preceding it yet run its gloomy course.
Foiled in his first attempt, the vindictive Ming-shu now creeps
towards his end by a more tortuous path. Whether or not dimly
suspecting something of the strategy by which your imperishable life
was preserved to-day, it is no part of his depraved scheme that you
should be given a like opportunity again. To-morrow another will be
led to judgment, one Cho-kow, a tribesman of the barbarian land of
Khim.”

“With him I have already conversed and shared rice,” interposed Kai
Lung. “Proceed, elegance.”

“Accused of plundering mountain tombs and of other crimes now held in
disrepute, he will be offered a comparatively painless death if he
will implicate his fellows, of whom you will be held to be the chief.
By this ignoble artifice you will be condemned on his testimony in
your absence, nor will you have any warning of your fate until you are
led forth to suffer.”

Then replied Kai Lung, after a space of thought: “Not ineptly is it
written: ‘When the leading carriage is upset the next one is more
careful,’ and Ming-shu has taken the proverb to his heart. To
counteract his detestable plot will not be easy, but it should not be
beyond our united power, backed by a reasonable activity on the part
of our protecting ancestors.”

“The devotional side of the emergency has had this one’s early care,”
 remarked Hwa-mei. “From daybreak to-morrow six zealous and
deep-throated monks will curse Ming-shu and all his ways unceasingly,
while a like number will invoke blessings and success upon your
enlightened head. In the matter of noise and illumination everything
that can contribute has been suitably prepared.”

“It is difficult to conjecture what more could be done in that
direction,” confessed Kai Lung gratefully.

“Yet as regards a more material effort--?” suggested the maiden, amid
a cloud of involving doubt.

“If there is a subject in which the imagination of the Mandarin Shan
Tien can be again enmeshed it might be yet accomplished,” replied Kai
Lung. “Have you a knowledge of any such deep concern?”

“Truly there is a matter that disturbs his peace of late. He has
dreamed a dream three times, and its meaning is beyond the skill of
any man to solve. Yet how shall this avail you who are no geomancer?”

“What is the nature of the dream?” inquired Kai Lung. “For remember,
‘Though Shen-fi has but one gate, many roads lead to it.’”

“The substance of the dream is this: that herein he who sleeps walks
freely in the ways of men wearing no robe or covering of any kind, yet
suffering no concern or indignity therefrom; that the secret and
hidden things of the earth are revealed to his seeing eyes; and that
he can float in space and project himself upon the air at will. These
three things are alien to his nature, and being three times repeated,
the uncertainty assails his ease.”

“Let it, under your persistent care, assail him more and that
unceasingly,” exclaimed Kai Lung, with renewed lightness in his voice.
“Breathe on the surface of his self-repose as a summer breeze moves
the smooth water of a mountain lake--not deeply, but never quite at
rest. Be assured: it is no longer possible to doubt that powerful
Beings are interested in our cause.”

“I go, oppressed one,” replied Hwa-mei. “May this period of your
ignoble trial be brought to a distinguished close.”

On the following day at the appointed hour Cho-kow was led before the
Mandarin Shan Tien, and the nature of his crimes having been explained
to him by the contemptible Ming-shu, he was bidden to implicate Kai
Lung and thus come to an earlier and less painful end.

“All-powerful,” he replied, addressing himself to the Mandarin, “the
words that have been spoken are bent to a deceptive end. They of our
community are a simple race and doubtless in the past their ways were
thus and thus. But, as it is truly said, ‘Tian went bare, his eyes
could pierce the earth and his body float in space, but they of his
seed do but dream the dream.’ We, being but the puny descendants--”

“You have spoken of one Tian whose attributes were such, and of those
who dream thereof,” interrupted the Mandarin, as one who performs a
reluctant duty. “That which you adduce to uphold your cause must bear
the full light of day.”

“Alas, omnipotence,” replied Cho-kow, “this concerns the doing of the
gods and those who share their line. Now I am but an ill-conditioned
outcast from the obscure land of Khim, and possess no lore beyond what
happens there. Haply the gods that rule in Khim have a different
manner of behaving from those in the Upper Air above Yu-ping, and this
person’s narration would avoid the semblance of the things that are
and he himself would thereby be brought to disrepute.”

“Suffer not that apprehension to retard your impending eloquence,”
 replied Shan Tien affably. “Be assured that the gods have exactly the
same manner of behaving in every land.”

“Furthermore,” continued Cho-kow, with patient craft, “I am a man of
barbarian tongue, the full half of my speech being foreign to your
ear. The history of the much-accomplished Tian and the meaning of the
dreams that mark those of his race require for a full understanding
the subtle analogies of an acquired style. Now that same Kai Lung whom
you have implicated to my band--”

“Excellence!” protested Ming-shu, with a sudden apprehension in his
throat, “yesterday our labours dissolved in air through the very
doubtful precedent of allowing one to testify what he had had the
intention to relate. Now we are asked to allow a tomb-haunter to call
a parricide to disclose that which he himself is ignorant of. Press
down your autocratic thumb--”

“Alas, instructor,” interposed Shan Tien compassionately, “the
sympathetic concern of my mind overflows upon the spectacle of your
ill-used forbearance, yet you having banded together the two in a
common infamy, it is the ancient privilege of this one to call the
other to his cause. We are but the feeble mouthpieces of a benevolent
scheme of all-embracing justice and greatly do I fear that we must
again submit.”

With these well-timed words the broad-minded personage settled himself
more reposefully among his cushions and signified that Kai Lung should
be led forward and begin.


          The Story of Ning, the Captive God, and the Dreams
                          that mark his Race

                   i. THE MALICE OF THE DEMON, LEOU

When Sun Wei definitely understood that the deities were against him
(for on every occasion his enemies prospered and the voice of his own
authority grew less), he looked this way and that with a
well-considering mind.

He did nothing hastily, but when once a decision was reached it was as
unbending as iron and as smoothly finished as polished jade. At about
the evening hour when others were preparing to offer sacrifice he took
the images and the altars of his Rites down from their honourable
positions and cast them into a heap on a waste expanse beyond his
courtyard. Then with an axe he unceremoniously detached their
incomparable limbs from their sublime bodies and flung the parts into
a fire that he had prepared.

“It is better,” declared Sun Wei, standing beside the pile, his hands
buried within his sleeves--“it is better to be struck down at once,
rather than to wither away slowly like a half-uprooted cassia-tree.”

When this act of defiance was reported in the Upper World the air grew
thick with the cries of indignation of the lesser deities, and the
sound of their passage as they projected themselves across vast
regions of space and into the presence of the supreme N’guk was like
the continuous rending of innumerable pieces of the finest silk.

In his musk-scented heaven, however, N’guk slept, as his habit was at
the close of each celestial day. It was with some difficulty that he
could be aroused and made to understand the nature of Sun Wei’s
profanity, for his mind was dull with the smoke of never-ending
incense.

“To-morrow,” he promised, with a benignant gesture, turning over again
on his crystal throne, “some time to-morrow impartial justice shall be
done. In the meanwhile--courteous dismissal attend your opportune
footsteps.”

“He is becoming old and obese,” murmured the less respectful of the
demons. “He is not the god he was, even ten thousand cycles ago. It
were well--”

“But, omnipotence,” protested certain conciliatory spirits, pressing
to the front, “consider, if but for a short breath of time. A day here
is as threescore of their years as these mortals live. By to-morrow
night not only Sun Wei, but most of those now dwelling down below,
will have Passed Beyond. But the story of his unpunished infamy will
live. We shall become discredited and our altar fires extinct.
Sacrifice of either food or raiment will cease to reach us. The Season
of White Rain is approaching and will find us ill provided. We who
speak are but Beings of small part--”

“Peace!” commanded N’guk, now thoroughly disturbed, for the voices of
the few had grown into a tumult; “how is it possible to consider with
a torrent like the Hoang-Ho in flood pouring through my very ordinary
ears? Your omniscient but quite inadequate Chief would think.”

At this rebuke the uproar ceased. So deep became the nature of N’guk’s
profound thoughts that they could be heard rolling like thunder among
the caverns of his gigantic brain. To aid the process, female slaves
on either side fanned his fiery head with celestial lotus leaves. On
the earth, far beneath, cyclones, sand-storms and sweeping
water-spouts were forced into being.

“Hear the contemptible wisdom of my ill-formed mouth,” said N’guk at
length. “If we at once put forth our strength, the degraded Wun Sei is
ground--”

“Sun Wei, All-knowing One,” murmured an attending spirit beneath his
breath.

“--the unmentionable outcast whom we are discussing is immediately
ground into powder,” continued the Highest, looking fixedly at a
distant spot situated directly beyond his painstaking attendant. “But
what follows? Henceforth no man can be allowed to whisper ill of us
but we must at once seek him out and destroy him, or the obtuse and
superficial will exclaim: ‘It was not so in the days of--of So-and-So.
Behold’”--here the Great One bent a look of sudden resentment on the
band of those who would have reproached him--“‘behold the gods become
old and obese. They are not the Powers they were. It would be better
to address ourselves to other altars.’”

At this prospect many of the more venerable spirits began to lose
their enthusiasm. If every mortal who spoke ill of them was to be
pursued what leisure for dignified seclusion would remain?

“If, however,” continued the dispassionate Being, “the profaner is
left to himself he will, sooner or later, in the ordinary course of
human intelligence, become involved in some disaster of his own
contriving. Then they who dwell around will say: ‘He destroyed the
alters! Truly the hands of the Unseen are slow to close, but their
arms are very long. Lo, we have this day ourselves beheld it. Come,
let us burn incense lest some forgotten misdeed from the past lurk in
our path.’”

When he had finished speaking all the more reputable of those present
extolled his judgment. Some still whispered together, however,
whereupon the sagacious N’guk opened his mouth more fully and shot
forth tongues of consuming fire among the murmurers so that they fled
howling from his presence.

Now among the spirits who had stood before the Pearly Ruler without
taking any share in the decision were two who at this point are drawn
into the narration, Leou and Ning. Leou was a revengeful demon, ever
at enmity with one or another of the gods and striving how he might
enmesh his feet in destruction. Ning was a better-class deity,
voluptuous but well-meaning, and little able to cope with Leou’s
subtlety. Thus it came about that the latter one, seeing in the
outcome a chance to achieve his end, at once dropped headlong down to
earth and sought out Sun Wei.

Sun Wei was reclining at his evening rice when Leou found him.
Becoming invisible, the demon entered a date that Sun Wei held in his
hand and took the form of a stone. Sun Wei recognized the doubtful
nature of the stone as it passed between his teeth, and he would have
spat it forth again, but Leou had the questionable agility of the
serpent and slipped down the other’s throat. He was thus able to
converse familiarly with Sun Wei without fear of interruption.

“Sun Wei,” said the voice of Leou inwardly, “the position you have
chosen is a desperate one, and we of the Upper Air who are well
disposed towards you find the path of assistance fringed with
two-edged swords.”

“It is well said: ‘He who lacks a single tael sees many bargains,’”
 replied Sun Wei, a refined bitterness weighing the import of his
words. “Truly this person’s friends in the Upper Air are a
never-failing lantern behind his back.”

At this justly-barbed reproach Leou began to shake with disturbed
gravity until he remembered that the motion might not be pleasing to
Sun Wei’s inner feelings.

“It is not that the well-disposed are slow to urge your claims, but
that your enemies number some of the most influential demons in all
the Nine Spaces,” he declared, speaking with a false smoothness that
marked all his detestable plans. “Assuredly in the past you must have
led a very abandoned life, Sun Wei, to come within the circle of their
malignity.”

“By no means,” replied Sun Wei. “Until driven to despair this person
not only duly observed the Rites and Ceremonies, but he even avoided
the Six Offences. He remained by the side of his parents while they
lived, provided an adequate posterity, forbore to tread on any of the
benevolent insects, safeguarded all printed paper, did not consume the
meat of the industrious ox, and was charitable towards the needs of
hungry and homeless ghosts.”

“These observances are well enough,” admitted Leou, restraining his
narrow-minded impatience; “and with an ordinary number of written
charms worn about the head and body they would doubtless carry you
through the lesser contingencies of existence. But by, as it were,
extending contempt, you have invited the retaliatory propulsion of the
sandal of authority.”

“To one who has been pushed over the edge of a precipice, a rut across
the path is devoid of menace; nor do the destitute tremble at the
departing watchman’s cry: ‘Sleep warily; robbers are about.’”

“As regards bodily suffering and material extortion, it is possible to
attain such a limit as no longer to excite the cupidity of even the
most rapacious deity,” admitted Leou. “Other forms of flattening-out a
transgressor’s self-content remain however. For instance, it has come
within the knowledge of the controlling Powers that seven generations
of your distinguished ancestors occupy positions of dignified
seclusion in the Upper Air.”

For the first time Sun Wei’s attitude was not entirely devoid of an
emotion of concern.

“They would not--?”

“To mark their sense of your really unsupportable behaviour it has
been decided that all seven shall return to the humiliating scenes of
their former existences in admittedly objectionable forms,” replied
the outrageous Leou. “Sun Chen, your venerated sire, will become an
agile grasshopper; your incomparable grandfather, Yuen, will have the
similitude of a yellow goat; as a tortoise your leisurely-minded
ancestor Huang, the high public official--”

“Forbear!” exclaimed the conscience-stricken Sun Wei; “rather would
this person suffer every imaginable form of torture than that the
spirit of one of his revered ancestors should be submitted to so
intolerable a bondage. Is there no amiable form of compromise whereby
the ancestors of some less devoted and liberally-inspired son might be
imperceptibly, as it were, substituted?”

“In ordinary cases some such arrangement is generally possible,”
 conceded Leou; “but not idly is it written: ‘There is a time to
silence an adversary with the honey of logical persuasion, and there
is a time to silence him with the argument of a heavily-directed
club.’ In your extremity a hostage is the only efficient safeguard.
Seize the person of one of the gods themselves and raise a strong wall
around your destiny by holding him to ransom.”

“‘Ho Tai, requiring a light for his pipe, stretched out his hand
towards the great sky-lantern,’” quoted Sun Wei.

“‘Do not despise Ching To because his armour is invisible,’” retorted
Leou, with equal point. “Your friends in the Above are neither feeble
nor inept. Do as I shall instruct you and no less a Being than Ning
will be delivered into your hand.”

Then replied Sun Wei dubiously: “A spreading mango-tree affords a
pleasant shade within one’s courtyard, and a captive god might for a
season undoubtedly confer an enviable distinction. But presently the
tree’s encroaching roots may disturb the foundation of the house so
that the walls fall and crush those who are within, and the head of a
restrained god would in the end certainly displace my very inadequate
roof-tree.”

“A too-prolific root can be pruned back,” replied Leou, “and the
activities of a bondaged god may be efficiently curtailed. How this
shall be accomplished will be revealed to you in a dream: take heed
that you do not fail by the deviation of a single hair.”

Having thus prepared his discreditable plot, Leou twice struck the
walls enclosing him, so that Sun Wei coughed violently. The demon was
thereby enabled to escape, and he never actually appeared in a
tangible form again, although he frequently communicated, by means of
signs and omens, with those whom he wished to involve in his sinister
designs.


              ii. THE PART PLAYED BY THE SLAVE-GIRL, HIA

Among the remaining possessions that the hostility of the deities
still left to Sun Wei at the time of these happenings was a young
slave of many-sided attraction. The name of Hia had been given to her,
but she was generally known as Tsing-ai on account of the extremely
affectionate gladness of her nature.

On the day following that in which Sun Wei and the demon Leou had
conversed together, Hia was disporting herself in the dark shades of a
secluded pool, as her custom was after the heat of her labours, when a
phoenix, flying across the glade, dropped a pearl of unusual size and
lustre into the stream. Possessing herself of the jewel and placing it
in her mouth, so that it should not impede the action of her hands,
Hia sought the bank and would have drawn herself up when she became
aware of the presence of one having the guise of a noble commander. He
was regarding her with a look in which well-expressed admiration was
blended with a delicate intimation that owing to the unparalleled
brilliance of her eyes he was unable to perceive any other detail of
her appearance, and was, indeed, under the impression that she was
devoid of ordinary outline. At the same time, without permitting her
glance to be in any but an entirely opposite direction, Hia was able
to satisfy herself that the stranger was a person on whom she might
prudently lavish the full depths of her regard if the necessity arose.
His apparel was rich, voluminous and of colours then unknown within the
Empire; his hair long and abundant; his face placid but sincere. He
carried no weapons, but wherever he trod there came a yellow flame
from below his right foot and a white vapour from beneath his left.
His insignia were those of a royal prince, and when he spoke his voice
resembled the noise of arrows passing through the upper branches of a
prickly forest. His long and pointed nails indicated the high and
dignified nature of all his occupations; each nail was protected by a
solid sheath, there being amethyst, ruby, topaz, ivory, emerald, white
jade, iron, chalcedony, gold and malachite.

When the distinguished-looking personage had thus regarded Hia for
some moments he drew an instrument of hollow tubes from a fold of his
garment and began to sing of two who, as the outcome of a romantic
encounter similar to that then existing, had professed an agreeable
attachment for one another and had, without unnecessary delay, entered
upon a period of incomparable felicity. Doubtless Hia would have
uttered words of high-minded rebuke at some of the more detailed
analogies of the recital had not the pearl deprived her of the power
of expressing herself clearly on any subject whatever, nor did it seem
practicable to her to remove it without withdrawing her hands from the
modest attitudes into which she had at once distributed them. Thus
positioned, she was compelled to listen to the stranger’s
well-considered flattery, and this (together with the increasing
coldness of the stream as the evening deepened) convincingly explains
her ultimate acquiescence to his questionable offers.

Yet it cannot be denied that Ning (as he may now fittingly be
revealed) conducted the enterprise with a seemly liberality; for upon
receiving from Hia a glance not expressive of discouragement he at
once caused the appearance of a suitably-furnished tent, a train of
Nubian slaves offering rich viands, rare wine and costly perfumes,
companies of expert dancers and musicians, a retinue of discreet
elderly women to robe her and to attend her movements, a carpet of
golden silk stretching from the water’s edge to the tent, and all the
accessories of a high-class profligacy.

When the night was advanced and Hia and Ning, after partaking of a
many-coursed feast, were reclining on an ebony couch, the Being freely
expressed the delight that he discovered in her amiable society,
incautiously adding: “Demand any recompense that is within the power
of this one to grant, O most delectable of water-nymphs, and its
accomplishment will be written by a flash of lightning.” In this,
however, he merely spoke as the treacherous Leou (who had enticed him
into the adventure) had assured him was usual in similar
circumstances, he himself being privately of the opinion that the
expenditure already incurred was more than adequate to the occasion.

Then replied Hia, as she had been fully instructed against the
emergency: “The word has been spoken. But what is precious metal after
listening to the pure gold of thy lips, or who shall again esteem gems
while gazing upon the full round radiance of thy moon-like face? One
thing only remains: remove the various sheaths from off thy hands, for
they not only conceal the undoubted perfection of the nails within,
but their massive angularity renders the affectionate ardour of your
embrace almost intolerable.”

At this very ordinary request a sudden flatness overspread Ning’s
manner and he began to describe the many much more profitable rewards
that Hia might fittingly demand. As none of these appeared to entice
her imagination, he went on to rebuke her want of foresight, and,
still later, having unsuccessfully pointed out to her the inevitable
penury and degradation in which her thriftless perversity would
involve her later years, to kick the less substantial appointments
across the tent.

“The night thickens, with every indication of a storm,” remarked Hia
pleasantly. “Yet that same impending flash of promised lightning
tarries somewhat.”

“Truly is it written: ‘A gracious woman will cause more strife than
twelve armed men can quell,’” retorted Ning bitterly.

“Not, perchance, if one of them bares his nails?” Thus she lightly
mocked him, but always with a set intent, as a poised dragon-fly sips
water yet does not wet his wings. Whereupon, finally, Ning tore the
sheaths from off his fingers and cast them passionately about her
feet, immediately afterwards sinking into a profound sleep, for both
the measure and the potency of the wine he had consumed exceeded his
usual custom. Otherwise he would scarcely have acted in this incapable
manner, for each sheath was inscribed with one symbol of a magic charm
and in the possession of the complete sentence resided the whole of
the Being’s authority and power.

Then Hia, seeing that he could no longer control her movements, and
that the end to which she had been bending was attained, gathered
together the fruits of her conscientious strategy and fled.

When Ning returned to the condition of ordinary perceptions he was
lying alone in the field by the river-side. The great sky-fire made no
pretence of averting its rays from his uncovered head, and the lesser
creatures of the ground did not hesitate to walk over his once sacred
form. The tent and all the other circumstances of the quest of Hia had
passed into a state of no-existence, for with a somewhat narrow-minded
economy the deity had called them into being with the express
provision that they need only be of such a quality as would last for a
single night.

With this recollection, other details began to assail his mind. His
irreplaceable nail-sheaths--there was no trace of one of them. He
looked again. Alas! his incomparable nails were also gone, shorn off
to the level of his finger-ends. For all their evidence he might be
one who had passed his days in discreditable industry. Each moment a
fresh point of degradation met his benumbed vision. His profuse and
ornamental locks were reduced to a single roughly-plaited coil; his
sandals were inelegant and harsh; in place of his many-coloured
flowing robes a scanty blue gown clothed his form. He who had been a
god was undistinguishable from the labourers of the fields. Only in
one thing did the resemblance fail: about his neck he found a weighty
block of wood controlled by an iron ring: while they at least were
free he was a captive slave.

A shadow on the grass caused him to turn. Sun Wei approached, a
knotted thong in one hand, in the other a hoe. He pointed to an
unweeded rice-field and with many ceremonious bows pressed the hoe
upon Ning as one who confers high honours. As Ning hesitated, Sun Wei
pressed the knotted thong upon him until it would have been obtuse to
disregard his meaning. Then Ning definitely understood that he had
become involved in the workings of very powerful forces, hostile to
himself, and picking up the hoe he bent his submissive footsteps in
the direction of the laborious rice-field.


                iii. THE IN-COMING OF THE YOUTH, TIAN

It was dawn in the High Heaven and the illimitable N’guk, waking to
his labours for the day, looked graciously around on the assembled
myriads who were there to carry his word through boundless space. Not
wanting are they who speak two-sided words of the Venerable One from
behind fan-like hands, but when his voice takes upon it the authority
of a brazen drum knees become flaccid.

“There is a void in the unanimity of our council,” remarked the
Supreme, his eye resting like a flash of lightning on a vacant place.
“Wherefore tarries Ning, the son of Shin, the Seed-sower?”

For a moment there was an edging of N’guk’s inquiring glance from each
Being to his neighbour. Then Leou stood audaciously forth.

“He is reported to be engaged on a private family matter,” he replied
gravely. “Haply his feet have become entangled in a mesh of hair.”

N’guk turned his benevolent gaze upon another--one higher in
authority.

“Perchance,” admitted the superior Being tolerantly. “Such things are.
How comes it else that among the earth-creatures we find the faces of
the deities--both the good and the bad?”

“How long has he been absent from our paths?”

They pressed another forward--keeper of the Outer Path of the West
Expanses, he.

“He went, High Excellence, in the fifteenth of the earth-ruler Chun,
whom your enlightened tolerance has allowed to occupy the lower dragon
throne for twoscore years, as these earthlings count. Thus and thus--”

“Enough!” exclaimed the Supreme. “Hear my iron word. When the
buffoon-witted Ning rises from his congenial slough this shall be his
lot: for sixty thousand ages he shall fail to find the path of his
return, but shall, instead, thread an aimless flight among the frozen
ambits of the outer stars, carrying a tormenting rain of fire at his
tail. And Leou, the Whisperer,” added the Divining One, with the
inscrutable wisdom that marked even his most opaque moments, “Leou
shall meanwhile perform Ning’s neglected task.”
                                   *

For five and twenty years Ning had laboured in the fields of Sun Wei
with a wooden collar girt about his neck, and Sun Wei had prospered.
Yet it is to be doubted whether this last detail deliberately hinged
on the policy of Leou or whether Sun Wei had not rather been drawn
into some wider sphere of destiny and among converging lines of
purpose. The ways of the gods are deep and sombre, and water once
poured out will flow as freely to the north as to the south. The wise
kowtows acquiescently whatever happens and thus his face is to the
ground. “Respect the deities,” says the imperishable Sage, “but do not
become familiar with them.” Sun Wei was clearly wrong.

To Ning, however, standing on a grassy space on the edge of a flowing
river, such thoughts do not extend. He is now a little hairy man of
gnarled appearance, and his skin of a colour and texture like a ripe
lo-quat. As he stands there, something in the outline of the vista
stirs the retentive tablets of his mind: it was on this spot that he
first encountered Hia, and from that involvement began the cycle of
his unending ill.

As he stood thus, implicated with his own inner emotions, a figure
emerged from the river at its nearest point and, crossing the
intervening sward, approached. He had the aspect of being a young man
of high and dignified manner, and walked with the air of one
accustomed to a silk umbrella, but when Ning looked more closely, to
see by his insignia what amount of reverence he should pay, he
discovered that the youth was destitute of the meagrest garment.

“Rise, venerable,” said the stranger affably, for Ning had prostrated
himself as being more prudent in the circumstances. “The one before
you is only Tian, of obscure birth, and himself of no particular merit
or attainment. You, doubtless, are of considerably more honourable
lineage?”

“Far from that being the case,” replied Ning, “the one who speaks
bears now the commonplace name of Lieu, and is branded with the brand
of Sun Wei. Formerly, indeed, he was a god, moving in the Upper Space
and known to the devout as Ning, but now deposed by treachery.”

“Unless the subject is one that has painful associations,” remarked
Tian considerately, “it is one on which this person would willingly
learn somewhat deeper. What, in short, are the various differences
existing between gods and men?”

“The gods are gods; men are men,” replied Ning. “There is no other
difference.”

“Yet why do not the gods now exert their strength and raise from your
present admittedly inferior position one who is of their band?”

“Behind their barrier the gods laugh at all men. How much more, then,
is their gravity removed at the sight of one of themselves who has
fallen lower than mankind?”

“Your plight would certainly seem to be an ill-destined one,” admitted
Tian, “for, as the Verses say: ‘Gold sinks deeper than dross.’ Is
there anything that an ordinary person can do to alleviate your
subjection?”

“The offer is a gracious one,” replied Ning, “and such an occasion
undoubtedly exists. Some time ago a pearl of unusual size and lustre
slipped from its setting about this spot. I have looked for it in
vain, but your acuter eyes, perchance--”

Thus urged, the youth Tian searched the ground, but to no avail. Then
chancing to look upwards, he exclaimed:

“Among the higher branches of the tallest bamboo there is an ancient
phoenix nest, and concealed within its wall is a pearl such as you
describe.”

“That manifestly is what I seek,” said Ning. “But it might as well be
at the bottom of its native sea, for no ladder could reach to such a
height nor would the slender branch support a living form.”

“Yet the emergency is one easily disposed of.” With these opportune
words the amiable person rose from the ground without any appearance
of effort or conscious movement, and floating upward through the air
he procured the jewel and restored it to Ning.

When Ning had thus learned that Tian possessed these three attainments
which are united in the gods alone--that he could stand naked before
others without consciousness of shame, that his eyes were able to
penetrate matter impervious to those of ordinary persons, and that he
controlled the power of rising through the air unaided--he understood
that the one before him was a deity of some degree. He therefore
questioned him closely about his history, the various omens connected
with his life and the position of the planets at his birth. Finding
that these presented no element of conflict, and that, furthermore,
the youth’s mother was a slave, formerly known as Hia, Ning declared
himself more fully and greeted Tian as his undoubted son.

“The absence of such a relation is the one thing that has pressed
heavily against this person’s satisfaction in the past, and the
deficiency is now happily removed,” exclaimed Tian. “The distinction
of having a deity for a father outweighs even the present admittedly
distressing condition in which he reveals himself. His word shall
henceforth be my law.”

“The sentiment is a dutiful one,” admitted Ning, “and it is possible
that you are now thus discovered in pursuance of some scheme among my
more influential accomplices in the Upper Air for restoring to me my
former eminence.”

“In so meritorious a cause this person is prepared to immerse himself
to any depth,” declared Tian readily. “Nothing but the absence of
precise details restrains his hurrying feet.”

“Those will doubtless be communicated to us by means of omens and
portents as the requirement becomes more definite. In the meanwhile
the first necessity is to enable this person’s nails to grow again;
for to present himself thus in the Upper Air would be to cover him
with ridicule. When the Emperor Chow-sin endeavoured to pass himself
off as a menial by throwing aside his jewelled crown, the rebels who
had taken him replied: ‘Omnipotence, you cannot throw away your
knees.’ To claim kinship with those Above and at the same time to
extend towards them a hand obviously inured to probing among the stony
earth would be to invite the averted face of recognition.”

“Let recognition be extended in other directions and the task of
returning to a forfeited inheritance will be lightened materially,”
 remarked a significant voice.

“Estimable mother,” exclaimed Tian, “this opportune stranger is my
venerated father, whose continuous absence has been an overhanging
cloud above my gladness, but now happily revealed and restored to our
domestic altar.”

“Alas!” interposed Ning, “the opening of this enterprise forecasts a
questionable omen. Before this person stands the one who enticed him
into the beginning of all his evil; how then--”

“Let the word remain unspoken,” interrupted Hia. “Women do not entice
men--though they admittedly accompany them, with an extreme absence of
reluctance, in any direction. In her youth this person’s feet
undoubtedly bore her occasionally along a light and fantastic path,
for in the nature of spring a leaf is green and pliable, and in the
nature of autumn it is brown and austere, and through changeless ages
thus and thus. But, as it is truly said: ‘Milk by repeated agitation
turns to butter,’ and for many years it has been this one’s ceaseless
study of the Arts whereby she might avert that which she helped to
bring about in her unstable youth.”

“The intention is a commendable one, though expressed with unnecessary
verbiage,” replied Ning. “To what solution did your incantations
trend?”

“Concealed somewhere within the walled city of Ti-foo are the sacred
nail-sheaths on which your power so essentially depends, sent thither
by Sun Wei at the crafty instance of the demon Leou, who hopes at a
convenient time to secure them for himself. To discover these and bear
them forth will be the part allotted to Tian, and to this end has the
training of his youth been bent. By what means he shall strive to the
accomplishment of the project the unrolling curtain of the future
shall disclose.”

“It is as the destinies shall decide and as the omens may direct,”
 said Tian. “In the meanwhile this person’s face is inexorably fixed in
the direction of Ti-foo.”

“Proceed with all possible discretion,” advised Ning. “In so critical
an undertaking you cannot be too cautious, but at the same time do not
suffer the rice to grow around your advancing feet.”

“A moment,” counselled Hia. “Tarry yet a moment. Here is one whose
rapidly-moving attitude may convey a message.”

“It is Lin Fa!” exclaimed Ning, as the one alluded to drew near--“Lin
Fa who guards the coffers of Sun Wei. Some calamity pursues him.”

“Hence!” cried Lin Fa, as he caught sight of them, yet scarcely
pausing in his flight: “flee to the woods and caves until the time of
this catastrophe be past. Has not the tiding reached you?”

“We be but dwellers on the farther bounds and no word has reached our
ear, O great Lin Fa. Fill in, we pray you, the warning that has been
so suddenly outlined.”

“The usurper Ah-tang has lit the torch of swift rebellion and is
flattening-down the land that bars his way. Already the villages of
Yeng, Leu, Liang-li and the Dwellings by the Three Pure Wells are as
dust beneath his trampling feet, and they who stayed there have passed
up in smoke. Sun Wei swings from the roof-tree of his own ruined
yamen. Ah-tang now lays siege to walled Ti-foo so that he may possess
the Northern Way. Guard this bag of silver meanwhile, for what I have
is more than I can reasonably bear, and when the land is once again at
peace, assemble to meet me by the Five-Horned Pagoda, ready with a
strict account.”

“All this is plainly part of an orderly scheme for my advancement,
brought about by my friends in the Upper World,” remarked Ning, with
some complacency. “Lin Fa has been influenced to the extent of
providing us with the means for our immediate need; Sun Wei has been
opportunely removed to the end that this person may now retire to a
hidden spot and there suffer his dishonoured nails to grow again:
Ah-tang has been impelled to raise the banner of insurrection outside
Ti-foo so that Tian may make use of the necessities of either side in
pursuit of his design. Assuredly the long line of our misfortunes is
now practically at an end.”


                    iv. EVENTS ROUND WALLED TI-FOO

Nevertheless, the alternative forced on Tian was not an alluring one.
If he joined the band of Ah-tang and the usurper failed, Tian himself
might never get inside Ti-foo; if, however, he allied himself with the
defenders of Ti-foo and Ah-tang did not fail, he might never get out
of Ti-foo. Doubtless he would have reverently submitted his cause to
the inspired decision of the Sticks, or some other reliable augur, had
he not, while immersed in the consideration, walked into the camp of
Ah-tang. The omen of this occurrence was of too specific a nature not
to be regarded as conclusive.

Ah-tang was one who had neglected the Classics from his youth upwards.
For this reason his detestable name is never mentioned in the
Histories, and the various catastrophes he wrought are charitably
ascribed to the action of earthquakes, thunderbolts and other admitted
forces. He himself, with his lamentable absence of literary style, was
wont to declare that while confessedly weak in analogies he was strong
in holocausts. In the end he drove the sublime emperor from his
capital and into the Outer Lands; with true refinement the annalists
of the period explain that the condescending monarch made a journey of
inspection among the barbarian tribes on the confines of his Empire.

When Tian, charged with being a hostile spy, was led into the presence
of Ah-tang, it was the youth’s intention to relate somewhat of his
history, but the usurper, excusing himself on the ground of literary
deficiency, merely commanded five of his immediate guard to bear the
prisoner away and to return with his head after a fitting interval.
Misunderstanding the exact requirement, Tian returned at the appointed
time with the heads of the five who had charge of him and the excuse
that in those times of scarcity it was easier to keep one head than
five. This aptitude so pleased Ah-tang (who had expected at the most a
farewell apophthegm) that he at once made Tian captain of a chosen
band.

Thus was Tian positioned outside the city of Ti-foo, materially
contributing to its ultimate surrender by the resourceful courage of
his arms. For the first time in the history of opposing forces he
tamed the strength and swiftness of wild horses to the use of man, and
placing copper loops upon their feet and iron bars between their
teeth, he and his band encircled Ti-foo with an ever-moving shield
through which no outside word could reach the town. Cut off in this
manner from all hope of succour, the stomachs of those within the
walls grew very small, and their eyes became weary of watching for
that which never came. On the third day of the third moon of their
encirclement they sent a submissive banner, and one bearing a written
message, into the camp of Ah-tang.

    “We are convinced” (it ran) “of the justice of your cause. Let
    six of your lordly nobles appear unarmed before our ill-kept
    Lantern Gate at the middle gong-stroke of to-morrow and they
    will be freely admitted within our midst. Upon receiving a
    bound assurance safeguarding the limits of our temples, the
    persons and possessions of our chiefs, and the undepreciated
    condition of the first wives and virgin daughters of such as
    be of mandarin rank or literary degree, the inadequate keys of
    our broken-down defences will be laid at their sumptuous feet.

    “With a fervent hand-clasp as of one brother to another, and a
    passionate assurance of mutual good-will,
                                                      KO’EN CHENG,
                                              Important Official.”

“It is received,” replied Ah-tang, when the message had been made
known to him. “Six captains will attend.”

Alas! it is well written: “There is often a space between the fish and
the fish-plate.” Mentally inflated at the success of their efforts and
the impending surrender of Ti-foo, Tian’s band suffered their energies
to relax. In the dusk of that same evening one disguised in the skin
of a goat browsed from bush to bush until he reached the town. There,
throwing off all restraint, he declared his errand to Ko’en Cheng.

“Behold!” he exclaimed, “the period of your illustrious suffering is
almost at an end. With an army capable in size and invincible in
determination, the ever-victorious Wu Sien is marching to your aid.
Defy the puny Ah-tang for yet three days more and great glory will be
yours.”

“Doubtless,” replied Ko’en Cheng, with velvet bitterness: “but the sun
has long since set and the moon is not yet risen. The appearance of a
solitary star yesterday would have been more foot-guiding than the
forecast of a meteor next week. This person’s thumb-signed word is
passed and to-morrow Ah-tang will hold him to it.”

Now there was present among the council one wrapped in a mantle made
of rustling leaves, who spoke in a smooth, low voice, very cunning and
persuasive, with a plan already shaped that seemed to offer well and
to safeguard Ko’en Cheng’s word. None remembered to have seen him
there before, and for this reason it is now held by some that this was
Leou, the Whisperer, perturbed lest the sacred nail-sheaths of Ning
should pass beyond his grasp. As to this, says not the Wise One: “When
two men cannot agree over the price of an onion who shall decide what
happened in the time of Yu?” But the voice of the unknown prevailed,
all saying: “At the worst it is but as it will be; perchance it may be
better.”

That night there was much gladness in the camp of Ah-tang, and men
sang songs of victory and cups of wine were freely passed, though in
the outer walks a strict watch was kept. When it was dark the word was
passed that an engaging company was approaching from the town, openly
and with lights. These being admitted revealed themselves as a band of
maidens, bearing gifts of fruit and wine and assurances of their
agreeable behaviour. Distributing themselves impartially about the
tents of the chiefs and upper ones, they melted the hours of the night
in graceful accomplishments and by their seemly compliance dispelled
all thought of treachery. Having thus gained the esteem of their
companions, and by the lavish persuasion of bemusing wine dimmed their
alertness, all this band, while it was still dark, crept back to the
town, each secretly carrying with her the arms, robes and insignia of
the one who had possessed her.

When the morning broke and the sound of trumpets called each man to an
appointed spot, direful was the outcry from the tents of all the
chiefs, and though many heads were out-thrust in rage of indignation,
no single person could be prevailed upon wholly to emerge. Only the
lesser warriors, the slaves and the bearers of the loads moved freely
to and fro and from between closed teeth and with fluttering eyelids
tossed doubtful jests among themselves.

It was close upon the middle gong-stroke of the day when Ah-tang,
himself clad in a shred torn from his tent (for in all the camp there
did not remain a single garment bearing a sign of noble rank), got
together a council of his chiefs. Some were clad in like attire,
others carried a henchman’s shield, a paper lantern or a branch of
flowers; Tian alone displayed himself without reserve.

“There are moments,” said Ah-tang, “when this person’s admitted
accomplishment of transfixing three foemen with a single javelin at a
score of measured paces does not seem to provide a possible solution.
Undoubtedly we are face to face with a crafty plan, and Ko’en Cheng
has surely heard that Wu Sien is marching from the west. If we fail to
knock upon the outer gate of Ti-foo at noon to-day Ko’en Cheng will
say: ‘My word returns. It is as naught.’ If they who go are clad as
underlings, Ko’en Cheng will cry: ‘What slaves be these! Do men break
plate with dogs? Our message was for six of noble style. Ah-tang but
mocks.’” He sat down again moodily. “Let others speak.”

“Chieftain”--Tian threw forth his voice--“your word must be as
iron--‘Six captains shall attend.’ There is yet another way.”

“Speak on,” Ah-tang commanded.

“The quality of Ah-tang’s chiefs resides not in a cloak of silk nor in
a silver-hilted sword, but in the sinews of their arms and the
lightning of their eyes. If they but carry these they proclaim their
rank for all to see. Let six attend taking neither sword nor shield,
neither hat nor sandal, nor yet anything between. ‘There are six
thousand more,’ shall be their taunt, ‘but Ko’en Cheng’s hospitality
drew rein at six. He feared lest they might carry arms; behold they
have come naked. Ti-foo need not tremble.”

“It is well,” agreed Ah-tang. “At least, nothing better offers. Let
five accompany you.”

Seated on a powerful horse Tian led the way. The others, not being of
his immediate band, had not acquired the necessary control, so that
they walked in a company. Coming to the Lantern Gate Tian turned his
horse suddenly so that its angry hoof struck the gate. Looking back he
saw the others following, with no great space between, and so passed
in.

When the five naked captains reached the open gate they paused. Within
stood a great concourse of the people, these being equally of both
sexes, but they of the inner chambers pressing resolutely to the
front. Through the throng of these their way must lead, and at the
sight the hearts of all became as stagnant water in the sun.

“Tarry not for me, O brothers,” said the one who led. “A thorn has
pierced my foot. Take honourable precedence while I draw it forth.”

“Never,” declared the second of the band, “never shall it be cast
abroad that Kang of the House of Ka failed his brother in necessity. I
sustain thy shoulder, comrade.”

“Alas!” exclaimed the third. “This person broke his fast on rhubarb
stewed in fat. Inopportunely--” So he too turned aside.

“Have we considered well,” said they who remained, “whether this be
not a subtle snare, and while the camp is denuded of its foremost
warriors a strong force--?”

Unconscious of these details, Tian went on alone. In spite of the
absence of gravity on the part of the more explicit portion of the
throng he suffered no embarrassment, partly because of his position,
but chiefly through his inability to understand that his condition
differed in any degree from theirs; for, owing to the piercing nature
of his vision, they were to him as he to them. In this way he came to
the open space known as the Space of the Eight Directions, where Ko’en
Cheng and his nobles were assembled.

“One comes alone,” they cried. “This guise is as a taunt.” “Naked to a
naked town--the analogy is plain.” “Shall the mocker be suffered to
return?”

Thus the murmur grew. Then one, more impetuous than the rest, swung
clear his sword and drew it. For the first time Tian understood that
treachery was afoot. He looked round for any of his band, but found
that he was as a foam-tossed cork upon a turbulent Whang Hai. Cries of
anger and derision filled the air; threatening arms waved
encouragement to each other to begin. The one with drawn sword raised
it above his head and made a step. Then Tian, recognizing that he was
unarmed, and that a decisive moment had arrived, stooped low and tore
a copper hoop from off his horse’s foot. High he swung its polished
brightness in the engaging sun, resolutely brought it down, so that it
pressed over the sword-warrior’s shattered head and hung about his
neck. Having thus effected as much bloodshed as could reasonably be
expected in the circumstances, Tian curved his feet about his horse’s
sides and imparting to it the virtue of his own condition they rose
into the air together. When those who stood below were able to exert
themselves a flight of arrows, spears and every kind of weapon
followed, but horse and rider were by that time beyond their reach,
and the only benevolent result attained was that many of their band
were themselves transfixed by the falling shafts.

In such a manner Tian continued his progress from the town until he
came above the Temple of Fire and Water Forces, where on a high tower
a strong box of many woods was chained beneath a canopy, guarded by an
incantation laid upon it by Leou, that no one should lift it down.
Recognizing the contents as the object of his search, Tian brought his
horse to rest upon the tower, and breaking the chains he bore the
magic sheaths away, the charm (owing to Leou’s superficial habits)
being powerless against one who instead of lifting the box down
carried it up.

In spite of this distinguished achievement it was many moons before
Tian was able to lay the filial tribute of restored power at Ning’s
feet, for with shallow-witted obstinacy Ti-foo continued to hold out,
and, scarcely less inept, Ah-tang declined to release Tian even to
carry on so charitable a mission. Yet when the latter one ultimately
returned and was, as the reward of his intrepid services, looking
forward to a period of domestic reunion under the benevolent guidance
of an affectionate father, it was but to point the seasoned proverb:
“The fuller the cup the sooner the spill,” for scarcely had Ning drawn
on the recovered sheaths and with incautious joy repeated the magic
sentence than he was instantly projected across vast space and into
the trackless confines of the Outer Upper Paths. If this were an
imagined tale, framed to entice the credulous, herein would its
falseness cry aloud, but even in this age Ning may still be seen from
time to time with a tail of fire in his wake, missing the path of his
return as N’guk ordained.

Thus bereft, Tian was on the point of giving way to a seemly despair
when a message concerned with Mu, the only daughter of Ko’en Cheng,
reached him. It professed a high-minded regard for his welfare, and
added that although the one who was inspiring the communication had
been careful to avoid seeing him on the occasion of his entry into
Ti-foo, it was impossible for her not to be impressed by the dignity
of his bearing. Ko’en Cheng having become vastly wealthy as the result
of entering into an arrangement with Ah-tang before Ti-foo was sacked,
it did not seem unreasonable to Tian that Ning was in some way
influencing his destiny from afar. On this understanding he ultimately
married Mu, and thereby founded a prolific posterity who inherited a
great degree of his powers. In the course of countless generations the
attributes have faded, but even to this day the true descendants of
the line of Ning are frequently vouchsafed dreams in which they stand
naked and without shame, see gems or metals hidden or buried in the
earth and float at will through space.



                              CHAPTER IV

           The Inopportune Behaviour of the Covetous Li-loe

It was upon the occasion of his next visit to the shutter in the wall
that Kai Lung discovered the obtuse-witted Li-loe moving about the
enclosure. Though docile and well-meaning on the whole, the stunted
intelligence of the latter person made him a doubtful accomplice, and
Kai Lung stood aside, hoping to be soon alone.

Li-loe held in his hand an iron prong, and with this he industriously
searched the earth between the rocks and herbage. Ever since their
previous encounter upon that same spot it had been impossible to erase
from his deformed mind the conviction that a store of rare and potent
wine lay somewhere concealed within the walls of the enclosure.
Continuously he besought the story-teller to reveal the secret of its
hiding-place, saying: “What an added bitterness will assail your noble
throat if, when you are led forth to die, your eye closes upon the one
who has faithfully upheld your cause lying with a protruded tongue
panting in the noonday sun.”

“Peace, witless,” Kai Lung usually replied; “there is no such store.”

“Nevertheless,” the doorkeeper would stubbornly insist, “the cask
cannot yet be empty. It is beyond your immature powers.”

Thus it again befell, for despite Kai Lung’s desire to escape, Li-loe
chanced to look up suddenly and observed him.

“Alas, brother,” he remarked reproachfully, when they had thus
contended, “the vessel that returns whole the first time is chipped
the second and broken at the third essay, and it will yet be too late
between us. If it be as you claim, to what end did you boast of a cask
of wine and of running among a company of goats with leaves entwined
in your hair?”

“That,” replied Kai Lung, “was in the nature of a classical allusion,
too abstruse for your deficient wit. It concerned the story of Kiau
Sun, who first attained the honour.”

“Be that as it may,” replied Li-loe, with mulish iteration, “five
deficient strings of home-made cash are a meagre return for a
friendship such as mine.”

“There is a certain element of truth in what you claim,” confessed Kai
Lung, “but until my literary style is more freely recognized it will
be impossible to reward you adequately. In anything not of a pecuniary
nature, however, you may lean heavily upon my gratitude.”

“In the meanwhile, then,” demanded Li-loe, “relate to me the story to
which reference has been made, thereby proving the truth of your
assertion, and at the same time affording an entertainment of a
somewhat exceptional kind.”

“The shadows lengthen,” replied Kai Lung, “but as the narrative in
question is of an inconspicuous span I will raise no barrier against
your flattering request, especially as it indicates an awakening taste
hitherto unsuspected.”

“Proceed, manlet, proceed,” said Li-loe, with a final probe among the
surrounding rocks before selecting one to lean against. “Yet if this
person could but lay his hand--”


                The Story of Wong Pao and the Minstrel

To Wong Pao, the merchant, pleasurably immersed in the calculation of
an estimated profit on a junk-load of birds’ nests, sharks’ fins and
other seasonable delicacies, there came a distracting interruption
occasioned by a wandering poet who sat down within the shade provided
by Wong Pao’s ornamental gate in the street outside. As he reclined
there he sang ballads of ancient valour, from time to time beating a
hollow wooden duck in unison with his voice, so that the charitable
should have no excuse for missing the entertainment.

Unable any longer to continue his occupation, Wong Pao struck an iron
gong.

“Bear courteous greetings to the accomplished musician outside our
gate,” he said to the slave who had appeared, “and convince him--by
means of a heavily-weighted club if necessary--that the situation he
has taken up is quite unworthy of his incomparable efforts.”

When the slave returned it was with an entire absence of the
enthusiasm of one who has succeeded in an enterprise.

“The distinguished mendicant outside disarmed the one who is relating
the incident by means of an unworthy stratagem, and then struck him
repeatedly on the head with the image of a sonorous wooden duck,”
 reported the slave submissively.

Meanwhile the voice with its accompaniment continued to chant the
deeds of bygone heroes.

“In that case,” said Wong Pao coldly, “entice him into this inadequate
chamber by words suggestive of liberal entertainment.”

This device was successful, for very soon the slave returned with the
stranger. He was a youth of studious appearance and an engaging
openness of manner. Hung about his neck by means of a cord were a
variety of poems suitable to most of the contingencies of an ordinary
person’s existence. The name he bore was Sun and he was of the house
of Kiau.

“Honourable greeting, minstrel,” said Wong Pao, with dignified
condescension. “Why do you persist in exercising your illustrious
talent outside this person’s insignificant abode?”

“Because,” replied Sun modestly, “the benevolent mandarin who has just
spoken had not then invited me inside. Now, however, he will be able
to hear to greater advantage the very doubtful qualities of my
entertainment.”

With these words Kiau Sun struck the duck so proficiently that it
emitted a life-like call, and prepared to raise his voice in a chant.

“Restrain your undoubted capacity,” exclaimed Wong Pao hastily. “The
inquiry presented itself to you at an inaccurate angle. Why, to
restate it, did you continue before this uninviting hovel when, under
the external forms of true politeness, my slave endeavoured to remove
you hence?”

“In the circumstances this person may have overlooked the delicacy of
the message, for, as it is well written, ‘To the starving, a blow from
a skewer of meat is more acceptable than a caress from the hand of a
maiden,’” said Kiau Sun. “Whereunto remember, thou two-stomached
merchant, that although the house in question is yours, the street is
mine.”

“By what title?” demanded Wong Pao contentiously.

“By the same that confers this well-appointed palace upon you,”
 replied Sun: “because it is my home.”

“The point is one of some subtlety,” admitted Wong Pao, “and might be
pursued to an extreme delicacy of attenuation if it were argued by
those whose profession it is to give a variety of meanings to the same
thing. Yet even allowing the claim, it is none the less an unendurable
affliction that your voice should disturb my peacefully conducted
enterprise.”

“As yours would have done mine, O concave-witted Wong Pao!”

“That,” retorted the merchant, “is a disadvantage that you could
easily have averted by removing yourself to a more distant spot.”

“The solution is equally applicable to your own case, mandarin,”
 replied Kiau Sun affably.

“Alas!” exclaimed Wong Pao, with an obvious inside bitterness, “it is
a mistake to argue with persons of limited intelligence in terms of
courtesy. This, doubtless, was the meaning of the philosopher Nhy-hi
when he penned the observation, ‘Death, a woman and a dumb mute always
have the last word,’ Why did I have you conducted hither to convince
you dispassionately, rather than send an armed guard to force you away
by violence?”

“Possibly,” suggested the minstrel, “because my profession is a
legally recognized one, and, moreover, under the direct protection of
the exalted Mandarin Shen-y-ling.”

“Profession!” retorted Wong Pao, stung by the reference to
Shen-y-ling, for that powerful official’s attitude was indeed the
inner reason why he had not pushed violence to a keener edge against
Kiau Sun, “an abject mendicancy, yielding two hands’ grasp of copper
cash a day on a stock composed of half a dozen threadbare odes.”

“Compose me half a dozen better and one hand-count of cash shall be
apportioned to you each evening,” suggested Sun.

“A handful of cash for _my_ labour!” exclaimed the indignant Wong Pao.
“Learn, puny wayfarer, that in a single day the profit of my various
enterprises exceeds a hundred taels of silver.”

“That is less than the achievement of my occupation,” said Kiau Sun.

“Less!” repeated the merchant incredulously. “Can you, O boaster,
display a single tael?”

“Doubtless I should be the possessor of thousands if I made use of the
attributes of a merchant--three hands and two faces. But that was not
the angle of my meaning: your labour only compels men to remember;
mine enables them to forget.”

Thus they continued to strive, each one contending for the
pre-eminence of his own state, regardless of the sage warning: “In
three moments a labourer will remove an obstructing rock, but three
moons will pass without two wise men agreeing on the meaning of a
vowel”; and assuredly they would have persisted in their intellectual
entertainment until the great sky-lantern rose and the pangs of hunger
compelled them to desist, were it not for the manifestation of a very
unusual occurrence.

The Emperor, N’ang Wei, then reigning, is now generally regarded as
being in no way profound or inspired, but possessing the faculty of
being able to turn the dissensions among his subjects to a profitable
account, and other accomplishments useful in a ruler. As he passed
along the streets of his capital he heard the voices of two raised in
altercation, and halting the bearer of his umbrella, he commanded
that the persons concerned should be brought before him and state the
nature of their dispute.

“The rivalry is an ancient one,” remarked the Emperor when each had
made his claim. “Doubtless we ourselves could devise a judgment, but
in this cycle of progress it is more usual to leave decision to the
pronouncement of the populace--and much less exacting to our Imperial
ingenuity. An edict will therefore be published, stating that at a
certain hour Kiau Sun will stand upon the Western Hill of the city and
recite one of his incomparable epics, while at the same gong-stroke
Wong Pao will take his station on the Eastern Hill, let us say for the
purpose of distributing pieces of silver among any who are able to
absent themselves from the competing attraction. It will then be
clearly seen which entertainment draws the greater number.”

“Your mind, O all-wisest, is only comparable to the peacock’s tail in
its spreading brilliance!” exclaimed Wong Pao, well assured of an easy
triumph.

Kiau Sun, however, remained silent, but he observed closely the
benignly impartial expression of the Emperor’s countenance.

When the indicated time arrived, only two persons could have been
observed within the circumference of the Western Hill of the city--a
blind mendicant who had lost his way and an extremely round-bodied
mandarin who had been abandoned there by his carriers when they heard
the terms of the edict. But about the Eastern Hill the throng was so
great that for some time after it was unusual to meet a person whose
outline had not been permanently altered by the occasion. Even Kiau
Sun was present.

On a protected eminence stood N’ang Wei. Near him was Wong Pao,
confidently awaiting the moment when the Emperor should declare
himself. When, therefore, the all-wisest graciously made a gesture of
command, Wong Pao hastened to his side, an unbecoming elation gilding
the fullness of his countenance.

“Wong Pao,” said the Illimitable, “the people are here in gratifying
profusion. The moment has thus arrived for you to consummate your
triumph over Kiau Sun.”

“Omnipotence?” queried Wong Pao.

“The silver that you were to distribute freely to all who came.
Doubtless you have a retinue of slaves in attendance with weighty
sacks of money for the purpose?”

“But that was only in the nature of an imagined condition, Sublime
Being, designed to test the trend of their preference,” said Wong Pao,
with an incapable feeling of no-confidence in the innermost seat of
his self-esteem. “This abject person did not for a single
breathing-space contemplate or provide for so formidable an outlay.”

A shadow of inquiry appeared above the eyebrows of the Sublimest,
although his refined imperturbability did not permit him to display
any acute emotion.

“It is not entirely a matter of what you contemplated, merchant, but
what this multitudinous and, as we now perceive, generally well-armed
concourse imagined. Greatly do we fear that when the position has been
explained to them, the breathing-space remaining, O Wong Pao, will not
be in your body. What,” continued the liberal-minded sovereign,
turning to one of his attending nobles, “what was it that happened to
Ning-lo who failed to satisfy the lottery ticket holders in somewhat
similar circumstances?”

“The scorpion vat, Serenest,” replied the vassal.

“Ah,” commented the Enlightened One, “for the moment we thought it was
the burning sulphur plaster.”

“That was Ching Yan, who lost approval in the inlaid coffin raffle,
Benign Head,” prompted the noble.

“True--there is a certain oneness in these cases. Well, Wong Pao, we
are entirely surrounded by an expectant mob and their attitude, after
much patient waiting, is tending towards a clearly-defined tragedy. By
what means is it your intention to extricate us all from the position
into which your insatiable vanity has thrust us?”

“Alas, Imperishable Majesty, I only appear to have three pieces of
silver and a string of brass cash in my sleeve,” confessed Wong Pao
tremblingly.

“And that would not go very far--even if flung into the limits of the
press,” commented the Emperor. “We must look elsewhere for
deliverance, then. Kiau Sun, stand forth and try your means.”

Upon this invitation Sun appeared from the tent in which he had
awaited the summons and advanced to the edge of the multitude. With no
appearance of fear or concern, he stood before them, and bending his
energies to the great task imposed upon him, he struck the hollow duck
so melodiously that the note of expectancy vibrated into the farthest
confines of the crowd. Then modulating his voice in unison Kiau Sun
began to chant.

At first the narration was of times legendary, when dragons and demons
moved about the earth in more palpable forms than they usually
maintain to-day. A great mist overspread the Empire and men’s minds
were vaporous, nor was their purpose keen. Later, deities and
well-disposed Forces began to exercise their powers. The mist was
turned into a benevolent system of rivers and canals, and iron, rice
and the silk-worm then appeared. Next, heroes and champions, whose
names have been preserved, arose. They fought the giants and an era of
literature and peaceful tranquillity set in. After this there was the
Great Invasion from the north, but the people rallied and by means of
a war lasting five years, five moons and five days the land was freed
again. This prefaced the Golden Age when chess was invented, printed
books first made and the Examination System begun.

So far Kiau Sun had only sung of things that men knew dimly through a
web of time, but the melody of his voice and the valours of the deeds
he told had held their minds. Now he began skilfully to intertwine
among the narration scenes and doings that were near to all--of the
coming of Spring across the mountains that surround the capital;
sunrise on the great lagoon, with the splash of oars and the
cormorants in flight; the appearance of the blossom in the peach
orchards; the Festival of Boats and of Lanterns, their daily task, and
the reward each saw beyond. Finally he spoke quite definitely of the
homes awaiting their return, the mulberry-tree about the gate, the
fire then burning on the hearth, the pictures on the walls, the
ancestral tablets, and the voices calling each. And as he spoke and
made an end of speaking the people began silently to melt away, until
none remained but Kiau, Wong Pao and the Emperor and his band.

“Kiau Sun,” said the discriminating N’ang Wei, “in memory of this day
the office of Chanter of Congratulatory Odes in the Palace ceremonial
is conferred on you, together with the title ‘Leaf-crowned’ and the
yearly allowance of five hundred taels and a jar of rice wine. And
Wong Pao,” he added thoughtfully--“Wong Pao shall be permitted to
endow the post--also in memory of this day.”



                              CHAPTER V

    The Timely Intervention of the Mandarin Shan Tien’s Lucky Day

When Kai Lung at length reached the shutter, after the delay caused by
Li-loe’s inopportune presence, he found that Hwa-mei was already
standing there beneath the wall.

“Alas!” he exclaimed, in an access of self-reproach, “is it possible
that I have failed to greet your arriving footsteps? Hear the
degrading cause of my--”

“Forbear,” interrupted the maiden, with a magnanimous gesture of the
hand that was not engaged in bestowing a gift of fruit. “There is a
time to scatter flowers and a time to prepare the soil. To-morrow a
further trial awaits you, for which we must conspire.”

“I am in your large and all-embracing grasp,” replied Kai Lung.
“Proceed to spread your golden counsel.”

“The implacable Ming-shu has deliberated with himself, and deeming it
unlikely that you should a third time allure the imagination of the
Mandarin Shan Tien by your art, he has ordered that you are again to
be the first led out to judgment. On this occasion, however, he has
prepared a cloud of witnesses who will, once they are given a voice,
quickly overwhelm you in a flood of calumny.”

“Even a silver trumpet may not prevail above a score of brazen horns,”
 confessed the story-teller doubtfully. “Would it not be well to engage
an even larger company who will outlast the first?”

“The effete Ming-shu has hired all there are,” replied Hwa-mei, with a
curbing glance. “Nevertheless, do not despair. At a convenient hour a
trusty hand will let fall a skin of wine at their assembling place.
Their testimony, should any arrive, will entail some conflict.”

“I bow before the practical many-sidedness of your mind, enchanting
one,” murmured Kai Lung, in deep-felt admiration.

“To-morrow, being the first of the Month of Gathering-in, will be one
of Shan Tien’s lucky days,” continued the maiden, her look
acknowledging the fitness of the compliment, but at the same time
indicating that the moment was not a suitable one to pursue the detail
further. “After holding court the Mandarin will accordingly proceed to
hazard his accustomed stake upon the chances of certain of the
competitors in the approaching examinations. His mind will thus be
alertly watchful for a guiding omen. The rest should lie within your
persuasive tongue.”

“The story of Lao Ting--” began Kai Lung.

“Enough,” replied Hwa-mei, listening to a distant sound. “Already has
this one strayed beyond her appointed limit. May your virtuous cause
prevail!”

With this auspicious message the maiden fled, leaving Kai Lung more
than ever resolved to conduct the enterprise in a manner worthy of her
high regard.

On the following day, at the appointed hour, Kai Lung was again led
before the Mandarin Shan Tien. To the alert yet downcast gaze of the
former person it seemed as if the usually inscrutable expression of
that high official was not wholly stern as it moved in his direction.
Ming-shu, on the contrary, disclosed all his voracious teeth without
restraint.

“Calling himself Kai Lung,” began the detestable accuser, in a voice
even more repulsive than its wont, “and claiming--”

“The name has a somewhat familiar echo,” interrupted the Fountain of
Justice, with a genial interest in what was going on, rare in one of
his exalted rank. “Have we not seen the ill-conditioned thing before?”

“He has tasted of your unutterable clemency in the past,” replied
Ming-shu, “this being by no means his first appearance thus. Claiming
to be a story-teller--”

“What,” demanded the enlightened law-giver with leisurely precision,
“is a story-teller, and how is he defined?”

“A story-teller, Excellence,” replied the inscriber of his spoken
word, with the concise manner of one who is not entirely grateful to
another, “is one who tells stories. Having on--”

“The profession must be widely spread,” remarked the gracious
administrator thoughtfully. “All those who supplicate in this very
average court practise it to a more or less degree.”

“The prisoner,” continued the insufferable Ming-shu, so lost to true
refinement that he did not even relax his dignity at a remark handed
down as gravity-removing from times immemorial, “has already been
charged and made his plea. It only remains, therefore, to call the
witnesses and to condemn him.”

“The usual band appears to be more retiring than their custom is,”
 observed Shan Tien, looking around. “Their lack of punctual respect
does not enlarge our sympathy towards their cause.”

“They are all hard-striving persons of studious or commercial habits,”
 replied Ming-shu, “and have doubtless become immersed in their various
traffics.”

“Should the immersion referred to prove to be so deep--”

“A speedy messenger has already gone, but his returning footsteps
tarry,” urged Ming-shu anxiously. “In this extremity, Excellence, I
will myself--”

“High Excellence,” appealed Kai Lung, as soon as Ming-shu’s departing
sandals were obscured to view, “out of the magnanimous condescension
of your unworldly heart hear an added plea. Taught by the inoffensive
example of that Lao Ting whose success in the literary competitions
was brought about by a conjunction of miraculous omens--”

“Arrest the stream of your acknowledged oratory for a single
breathing-space,” commanded the Mandarin dispassionately, yet at the
same time unostentatiously studying a list that lay within his sleeve.
“What was the auspicious name of the one of whom you spoke?”

“Lao Ting, exalted; to whom at various periods were subjoined those
of Li, Tzu, Sun, Chu, Wang and Chin.”

“Assuredly. Your prayer for a fuller hearing will reach our lenient
ears. In the meanwhile, in order to prove that the example upon which
you base your claim is a worthy one, proceed to narrate so much of the
story of Lao Ting as bears upon the means of his success.”


            The Story of Lao Ting and the Luminous Insect

It is of Lao Ting that the saying has arisen, “He who can grasp
Opportunity as she slips by does not need a lucky dream.”

So far, however, Lao Ting may be judged to have had neither
opportunities nor lucky dreams. He was one of studious nature and from
an early age had devoted himself to a veneration of the Classics. Yet
with that absence of foresight on the part of the providing deities
(for this, of course, took place during an earlier, and probably
usurping, dynasty), which then frequently resulted in the unworthy and
illiterate prospering, his sleeve was so empty that at times it seemed
almost impossible for him to continue in his high ambition.

As the date of the examinations drew near, Lao Ting’s efforts
increased, and he grudged every moment spent away from books. His few
available cash scarcely satisfied his ever-moving brush, and his
sleeve grew so light that it seemed as though it might become a
balloon and carry him into the Upper Air; for, as the Wisdom has it,
“A well-filled purse is a trusty earth anchor.” On food he spent even
less, but the inability to procure light after the sun had withdrawn
his benevolence from the narrow street in which he lived was an
ever-present shadow across his hopes. On this extremity he patiently
and with noiseless skill bored a hole through the wall into the house
of a wealthy neighbour, and by this inoffensive stratagem he was able
to distinguish the imperishable writings of the Sages far into the
night. Soon, however, the gross hearted person in question discovered
the device, owing to the symmetrical breathing of Lao Ting, and
applying himself to the opening unperceived, he suddenly blew a jet of
water through and afterwards nailed in a wooden skewer. This he did
because he himself was also entering for the competitions, though he
did not really fear Lao Ting.

Thus denied, Lao Ting sought other means to continue his study, if for
only a few minutes longer daily, and it became his custom to leave his
ill-equipped room when it grew dusk and to walk into the outer ways,
always with his face towards the west, so that he might prolong the
benefit of the great luminary to the last possible moment. When the
time of no-light definitely arrived he would climb up into one of the
high places to await the first beam of the great sky-lantern, and also
in the reasonable belief that the nearer he got to it the more
powerful would be its light.

It was upon such an occasion that Lao Ting first became aware of the
entrancing presence of Chun Hoa-mi, and although he plainly recognized
from the outset that the graceful determination with which she led a
water-buffalo across the landscape by means of a slender cord attached
to its nose was not conducive to his taking a high place in the
competitions, he soon found that he was unable to withdraw himself
from frequenting the spot at the same hour on each succeeding day.
Presently, however, he decided that his previous misgiving was
inaccurate, as her existence inspired him with an all-conquering
determination to outdistance every other candidate in so marked a
manner that his name would at once become famous throughout the
province, to attain high office without delay, to lead a victorious
army against the encroaching barbarian foe and thus to save the Empire
in a moment of emergency, to acquire vast riches (in a not clearly
defined manner), to become the intimate counsellor of the grateful
Emperor, and finally to receive posthumous honours of unique
distinction, the harmonious personality of Hoa-Mi being inextricably
entwined among these achievements.

At other times, however, he became subject to a funereal conviction
that he would fail discreditably in the examinations to an
accompaniment of the ridicule and contempt of all who knew him, that
he would never succeed in acquiring sufficient brass cash to ensure a
meagre sustenance even for himself, and that he would probably end his
lower existence by ignominious decapitation, so that his pale and
hungry ghost would be unable to find its way from place to place and
be compelled to remain on the same spot through all eternity. Yet so
quickly did these two widely diverging vistas alternate in Lao Ting’s
mind that on many occasions he was under the influence of both
presentiments at the same time.

It will thus be seen that Lao Ting was becoming involved in emotions
of a many-sided hue, by which his whole future would inevitably be
affected, when an event took place which greatly tended to restore his
tranquillity of mind. He was, at the usual hour, lurking unseen on the
path of Hoa-mi’s approach when the water-buffalo, with the perversity
of its kind, suddenly withdrew itself from the amiable control of its
attendant’s restraining hand and precipitated its resistless footsteps
towards the long grass in which Lao Ting lay concealed. Recognizing
that a decisive moment in the maiden’s esteem lay before him, the
latter, in spite of an incapable doubt as to the habits and manner of
behaviour of creatures of this part, set out resolutely to subdue
it. . . . At a later period, by clinging tenaciously to its tail, he
undoubtedly impeded its progress, and thereby enabled Hoa-mi to greet
him as one who had a claim upon her gratitude.

“The person who has performed this slight service is Ting, of the
outcast line of Lao,” said the student with an admiring bow in spite
of a benumbing pain that involved all his lower attributes. “Having as
yet achieved nothing, the world lies before him.”

“She who speaks is Hoa-mi, her father’s house being Chun,” replied the
maiden agreeably. “In addition to the erratic but now repentant animal
that has thus, as it were, brought us within the same narrow compass,
he possesses a wooden plough, two wheel-barrows, a red bow with
threescore arrows, and a rice-field, and is therefore a person of
some consequence.”

“True,” agreed Lao Ting, “though perhaps the dignity is less imposing
than might be imagined in the eye of one who, by means of successive
examinations, may ultimately become the Right hand of the Emperor.”

“Is the contingency an impending one?” inquired Hoa-mi, with polite
interest.

“So far,” admitted Lao Ting, “it is more in the nature of a vision.
There are, of necessity, many trials, and few can reach the ultimate
end. Yet even the Yangtze-kiang has a source.”

“Of your unswerving tenacity this person has already been witness,”
 said the maiden, with a glance of refined encouragement.

“Your words are more inspiring than the example of the aged woman of
Shang-li to the student Tsung,” declared Lao Ting gratefully. “Unless
the Omens are asleep they should tend to the same auspicious end.”

“The exact instance of the moment escapes my recollection.” Probably
Hoa-mi was by no means willing that one of studious mind should
associate her exclusively with water-buffaloes. “Is it related in the
Classics?”

“Possibly, though in which actual masterpiece just now evades my
grasp. The youth referred to was on the point of abandoning a literary
career, appalled at the magnitude of the task before him, when he
encountered an aged woman who was employed in laboriously rubbing away
the surface of an iron crowbar on a block of stone. To his inquiry she
cheerfully replied: ‘The one who is thus engaged required a needle to
complete a task. Being unable to procure one she was about to give way
to an ignoble despair when chance put into her hands this bar, which
only requires bringing down to the necessary size.’ Encouraged by this
painstaking example Tsung returned to his books and in due course
became a high official.”

“Doubtless in the time of his prosperity he retraced his footsteps and
lavishly rewarded the one to whom he was thus indebted,” suggested
Hoa-mi gracefully.

“Doubtless,” admitted Lao Ting, “but the detail is not pursued to so
remote an extremity in the Classic. The delicate poise of the analogy
is what is chiefly dwelt upon, the sign for a needle harmonizing with
that for official, and there being a similar balance between crowbar
and books.”

“Your words are like a page written in vermilion ink,” exclaimed
Hoa-mi, with a sideway-expressed admiration.

“Alas!” he declared, with conscious humility, “my style is meagre and
almost wholly threadbare. To remedy this, each day I strive to
perfect myself in the correct formation of five new written signs.
When equipped with a knowledge of every one there is I shall be
competent to write so striking and original an essay on any subject
that it will no longer be possible to exclude my name from the list of
official appointments.”

“It will be a day of well-achieved triumph for the spirits of your
expectant ancestors,” said Hoa-mi sympathetically.

“It will also have a beneficial effect on my own material prospects,”
 replied Lao Ting, with a commendable desire to awaken images of a more
specific nature in the maiden’s imagination. “Where hitherto it has
been difficult to support one, there will then be a lavish profusion
for two. The moment the announcement is made, my impatient feet will
carry me to this spot. Can it be hoped--?”

“It has long been this one’s favourite resort also,” confessed Hoa-mi,
with every appearance of having adequately grasped Lao Ting’s desired
inference, “Yet to what number do the written signs in question
stretch?”

“So highly favoured is our unapproachable language that the number can
only be faintly conjectured. Some claim fivescore thousand different
written symbols; the least exacting agree to fourscore thousand.”

“You are all-knowing,” responded the maiden absently. With her face in
an opposing direction her lips moved rapidly, as though she might be
in the act of addressing some petition to a Power. Yet it is to be
doubted if this accurately represents the nature of her inner
thoughts, for when she again turned towards Lao Ting the engaging
frankness of her expression had imperceptibly deviated, as she
continued:

“In about nine and forty years, then, O impetuous one, our converging
footsteps will doubtless again encounter upon this spot. In the
meanwhile, however, this person’s awaiting father is certainly
preparing something against her tardy return which the sign for a
crowbar would fittingly represent.”

Then urging the water-buffalo to increased exertion she fled, leaving
Lao Ting a prey to emotions of a very distinguished intensity.

In spite of the admittedly rough-edged nature of Hoa-mi’s
leave-taking, Lao Ting retraced his steps in an exalted frame of mind.
He had spoken to the maiden and heard her incomparable voice. He now
knew her name and the path leading to her father’s house. It only
remained for him to win a position worthy of her acceptance (if the
Empire could offer such a thing), and their future happiness might be
regarded as assured.

Thus engaged, Lao Ting walked on, seeing within his head the arrival
of the bridal chair, partaking of the well-spread wedding feast,
hearing the felicitations of the guests: “A hundred sons and a
thousand grandsons!” Something white fluttering by the wayside
recalled him to the realities of the day. He had reached the buildings
of the outer city, and on a wall before him a printed notice was
displayed.

It has already been set forth that the few solitary cash which from
time to time fell into the student’s sleeve were barely sufficient to
feed his thirsty brush with ink. For the material on which to write
and to practise the graceful curves essential to a style he was driven
to various unworthy expedients. It had thus become his habit to lurk
in the footsteps of those who affix public proclamations in the ways
and spaces of the city, and when they had passed on to remove, as
unostentatiously as possible, the more suitable pronouncements and to
carry them to his own abode. For this reason he regarded every notice
from a varying angle, being concerned less with what appeared upon it
than with what did not appear. Accordingly he now crossed the way and
endeavoured to secure the sheet that had attracted his attention. In
this he was unsuccessful, however, for he could only detach a meagre
fragment.

When Lao Ting reached his uninviting room the last pretence of
daylight had faded. He recognized that he had lost many precious
moments in Hoa-mi’s engaging society, and although he would willingly
have lost many more, there was now a deeper pang in his regret that he
could not continue his study further into the night. As this was
impossible, he drew his scanty night coverings around him and composed
his mind for sleep, conscious of an increasing rigour in the air; for,
as he found when the morning came, one who wished him well, passing in
his absence, had written a lucky saying on a stone and cast it through
the paper window.

When Lao Ting awoke it was still night, but the room was no longer
entirely devoid of light. As his custom was, an open page lay on the
floor beside him, ready to be caught up eagerly with the first gleam
of day; above this a faint but sufficient radiance now hung, enabling
him to read the written signs. At first the student regarded the
surroundings with some awe, not doubting that this was in the nature
of a visitation, but presently he discovered that the light was
provided by a living creature, winged but docile, which carried a
glowing lustre in its tail. When he had read to the end, Lao Ting
endeavoured to indicate by a sign that he wished to turn the page. To
his delight he found that the winged creature intelligently grasped
the requirement and at once transferred its presence to the required
spot. All through the night the youth eagerly read on, nor did this
miraculously endowed visitor ever fail him. By dawn he had more than
made up the time in which the admiration of Hoa-mi had involved him.
If such a state of things could be assured for the future, the vista
would stretch like a sunlit glade before his feet.

Early in the day he set out to visit an elderly monk, who lived in a
cave on the mountain above. Before he went, however, he did not fail
to procure a variety of leaves and herbs, and to display them about
the room in order to indicate to his unassuming companion that he had
a continued interest in his welfare. The venerable hermit received him
hospitably, and after inviting him to sit upon the floor and to
partake of such food as he had brought with him, listened attentively
to his story.

“Your fear that in this manifestation you may be the sport of a
malicious Force, conspiring to some secret ill, is merely
superstition,” remarked Tzu-lu when Lao Ting had reached an end.
“Although creatures such as you describe are unknown in this province,
they undoubtedly exist in outer barbarian lands, as do apes with the
tails of peacocks, ducks with their bones outside their skins, beings
whose pale green eyes can discover the precious hidden things of the
earth, and men with a hole through their chests so that they require
no chair to carry them, but are transposed from spot to spot by means
of poles.”

“Your mind is widely opened, esteemed,” replied Lao Ting respectfully.
“Yet the omen must surely tend towards a definite course?”

“Be guided by the mature philosophy of the resolute Heng-ki, who,
after an unfortunate augury, exclaimed to his desponding warriors: ‘Do
your best and let the Omens do their worst!’ What has happened is as
clear as the iridescence of a dragon’s eye. In the past you have lent
a sum of money to a friend who has thereupon passed into the Upper
Air, leaving you unrequited.”

“A friend receiving a sum of money from this person would have every
excuse for passing away suddenly.”

“Or,” continued the accommodating recluse, “you have in some other way
placed so formidable an obligation upon one now in the Beyond that his
disturbed spirit can no longer endure the burden. For this reason it
has taken the form of a luminous insect, and has thus returned to
earth in order that it may assist you and thereby discharge the debt.”

“The explanation is a convincing one,” replied Lao Ting. “Might it not
have been more satisfactory in the end, however, if the gracious
person in question had clothed himself with the attributes of the
examining chancellor or some high mandarin, so that he could have
upheld my cause in any extremity?”

Without actually smiling, a form of entertainment that was contrary to
his strict vow, the patriarchal anchorite moved his features somewhat
at the youth’s innocence.

“Do not forget that it is written: ‘Though you set a monkey on
horseback yet will his hands and feet remain hairy,’” he remarked.
“The one whose conduct we are discussing may well be aware of his own
deficiencies, and know that if he adopted such a course a humiliating
exposure would await him. Do not have any fear for the future,
however: thus protected, this person is inspired to prophesy that you
will certainly take a high place in the examinations. . . . Indeed,”
 he added thoughtfully, “it might be prudent to venture a string of
cash upon your lucky number.”

With this auspicious leave-taking Tzu-lu dismissed him, and Lao Ting
returned to the city greatly refreshed in spirit by the encounter.
Instead of retiring to his home he continued into the more reputable
ways beyond, it then being about the hour at which the affixers of
official notices were wont to display their energies.

So it chanced indeed, but walking with his feet off the ground, owing
to the obliging solitary’s encouragement, Lao Ting forgot his usual
caution, and came suddenly into the midst of a band of these men at an
angle of the paths.

“Honourable greetings,” he exclaimed, feeling that if he passed them
by unregarded his purpose might be suspected. “Have you eaten your
rice?”

“How is your warmth and cold?” they replied courteously. “Yet why do
you arrest your dignified footsteps to converse with outcasts so
illiterate as ourselves?”

“The reason,” admitted Lao Ting frankly, “need not be buried in a
well. Had I avoided the encounter you might have said among
yourselves: ‘Here is one who shuns our gaze. This, perchance, is he
who of late has lurked within the shadow of our backs to bear away our
labour.’ Not to create this unworthy suspicion I freely came among
you, for, as the Ancient Wisdom says: ‘Do not adjust your sandals
while passing through a melon-field, nor yet arrange your hat beneath
an orange-tree.’”

“Yet,” said the leader of the band, “we were waiting thus in
expectation of the one whom you describe. The incredible leper who
rules our goings has, even at this hour and notwithstanding that now
is the appointed day and time for the gathering together of the
Harmonious Constellation of Paste Appliers and Long Brush Wielders,
thrust within our hands a double task.”

“May bats defile his Ancestral Tablets and goats propagate within his
neglected tomb!” chanted the band in unison. “May the sinews of his
hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement! May the principles of
his warmth and cold never be properly adjusted but--”

“Thus positioned,” continued the leader, indicating by a gesture that
while he agreed with these sentiments the moment was not opportune for
their full recital, “we await. If he who lurks in our past draws near
he will doubtless accept from our hands that which he will assuredly
possess behind our backs. Thus mutual help will lighten the toil of
all.”

“The one whom you require dwells beneath my scanty roof,” said the
youth. “He is now, however, absent on a secret mission. Entrust to me
the burden of your harassment and I will answer, by the sanctity of
the Four-eyed Image, that it shall reach his speedy hand.”

When Lao Ting gained his own room, bowed down but rejoicing beneath
the weight of his unexpected fortune, his eyes were gladdened by the
soft light that hung about his books. Although it was not yet dark,
the radiance of the glow seemed greater than before. Going to the spot
the delighted student saw that in place of one there were now four,
the grateful insect having meanwhile summoned others to his cause. All
these stood in an expectant attitude awaiting his control, so that
through the night he plied an untiring brush and leapt onward in the
garden of similitudes.

From this time forward Lao Ting could not fail to be aware that the
faces of those whom he familiarly encountered were changed towards
him. Men greeted him as one worthy of their consideration, and he even
heard his name spoken of respectfully in the society of learned
strangers. More than once he found garlands of flowers hung upon his
outer door, harmonious messages, and--once--a gift of food. Incredible
as it seemed to him it had come to be freely admitted that the unknown
scholar Lao Ting would take a very high place in the forthcoming
competition, and those who were alert and watchful did not hesitate to
place him first. To this general feeling a variety of portents had
contributed. Doubtless the beginning was the significant fact, known
to the few at first, that the miracle-working Tzu-lu had staked his
inner garment on Lao Ting’s success. Brilliant lights were seen
throughout the night to be moving in the meagre dwelling (for the four
efficacious creatures had by this time greatly added to their
numbers), and the one within was credited with being assisted by the
Forces. It is well said that that which passes out of one mouth passes
into a hundred ears, and before dawn had become dusk all the early and
astute were following the inspired hermit’s example. They who
conducted the lotteries, becoming suddenly aware of the burden of the
hazard they incurred, thereat declared that upon the venture of Lao
Ting’s success there must be set two taels in return for one.
Whereupon the desire of those who had refrained waxed larger than
before, and thus the omens grew.

When the days that remained before the opening of the trial could be
counted on the fingers of one hand, there came, at a certain hour, a
summons on the outer door of Lao Ting’s house, and in response to his
spoken invitation there entered one, Sheng-yin, a competitor.

“Lao Ting,” said this person, when they had exchanged formalities, “in
spite of the flattering attentions of the shallow”--he here threw upon
the floor a garland which he had conveyed from off Lao Ting’s
door--“it is exceedingly unlikely that at the first attempt your name
will be among those of the chosen, and the possibility of it heading
the list may be dismissed as vapid.”

“Your experience is deep and wide,” replied Lao Ting, the circumstance
that Sheng-yin had already tried and failed three and thirty times
adding an edge to the words; “yet if it is written it is written.”

“Doubtless,” retorted Sheng-yin no less capably; “but it will never be
set to music. Now, until your inconsiderate activities prevailed, this
person was confidently greeted as the one who would be first.”

“The names of Wang-san and Yin Ho were not unknown to the expectant,”
 suggested Lao Ting mildly.

“The mind of Wang-san is only comparable with a wastepaper basket,”
 exclaimed the visitor harshly; “and Yin Ho is in reality as dull as
split ebony. But in your case, unfortunately, there is nothing to go
on, and, unlikely though it be, it is just possible that this person’s
well-arranged ambitions may thereby be brought to a barren end. For
that reason he is here to discuss this matter as between virtuous
friends.”

“Let your auspicious mouth be widely opened,” replied Lao Ting
guardedly. “My ears will not refrain.”

“Is there not, perchance, some venerable relative in a distant part of
the province whose failing eyes crave, at this juncture, to rest upon
your wholesome features before he passes Upwards?”

“Assuredly some such inopportune person might be forthcoming,”
 admitted Lao Ting. “Yet the cost of so formidable a journey would be
far beyond this necessitous one’s means.”

“In so charitable a cause affluent friends would not be lacking.
Depart on the third day and remain until the ninth and twenty taels of
silver will glide imperceptibly into your awaiting sleeve.”

“The prospect of not taking the foremost place in the
competition--added to the pangs of those who have hazarded their store
upon the unworthy name of Lao--is an ignoble one,” replied the
student, after a moment’s thought. “The journey will be a costly task
at this season of the rains; it cannot possibly be accomplished for
less than fifty taels.”

“It is well said, ‘Do not look at robbers sharing out their spoil:
look at them being executed,’” urged Sheng-yin. “Should you be so
ill-destined as to compete, and, as would certainly be the case, be
awarded a position of contempt, how unendurable would be your anguish
when, amidst the execrations of the deluded mob, you remembered that
thirty taels of the purest had slipped from your effete grasp.”

“Should the Bridge of the Camel Back be passable, five and forty might
suffice,” mused Lao Tung to himself.

“Thirty-seven taels, five hundred cash, are the utmost that your
obliging friends would hazard in the quest,” announced Sheng-yin
definitely. “On the day following that of the final competition the
sum will be honourably--”

“By no means,” interrupted the other, with unswerving firmness. “How
thus is the journey to be defrayed? In advance, assuredly.”

“The requirement is unusual. Yet upon satisfactory oaths being
offered--”

“This person will pledge the repose of the spirits of his venerated
ancestors practically back to prehistoric times,” agreed Lao Ting
readily. “From the third to the ninth day he will be absent from the
city and will take no part in anything therein. Should he eat his
words, may his body be suffocated beneath five cart-loads of books and
his weary ghost chained to that of a leprous mule. It is spoken.”

“Truly. But it may as well be written also.” With this expression of
narrow-minded suspicion Sheng-yin would have taken up one from a
considerable mass of papers lying near at hand, had not Lao Ting
suddenly restrained him.

“It shall be written with clarified ink on paper of a special
excellence,” declared the student. “Take the brush, Seng-yin, and
write. It almost repays this person for the loss of a degree to behold
the formation of signs so unapproachable as yours.”

“Lao Ting,” replied the visitor, pausing in his task, “you are
occasionally inspired, but the weakness of your character results in a
lack of caution. In this matter, therefore, be warned: ‘The crocodile
opens his jaws; the rat-trap closes his; keep yours shut.’”

When Lao Ting returned after a scrupulously observed six days of
absence he could not fail to become aware that the city was in an
uproar, and the evidence of this increased as he approached the cheap
and lightly esteemed quarter in which those of literary ambitions
found it convenient to reside. Remembering Sheng-yin’s parting, he
forbore to draw attention to himself by questioning any, but when he
reached the door of his own dwelling he discovered the one of whom he
was thinking, standing, as it were, between the posts.

“Lao Ting,” exclaimed Sheng-yin, without waiting to make any polite
reference to the former person’s food or condition, “in spite of this
calamity you are doubtless prepared to carry out the spirit of your
oath?”

“Doubtless,” replied Lao Ting affably. “Yet what is the nature of the
calamity referred to, and how does it affect the burden of my vow?”

“Has not the tiding reached your ear? The examinations, alas! have
been withheld for seven full days. Your journey has been in vain!”

“By no means!” declared the youth. “Debarred by your enticement from a
literary career this person turned his mind to other aims, and has now
gained a deep insight into the habits and behaviour of
water-buffaloes.”

“They who control the competitions from the Capital,” continued
Sheng-yin, without even hearing the other’s words, “when all had been
arranged, learned from the Chief Astrologer (may subterranean fires
singe his venerable moustaches!) that a forgotten obscuration of the
sun would take place on the opening day of the test. In the face of so
formidable a portent they acted thus and thus.”

“How then fares it that due warning of the change was not set forth?”

“The matter is as long as The Wall and as deep as seven wells,”
 grumbled Sheng-yin, “and the Hoang Ho in flood is limpid by its side.
Proclamations were sent forth, yet none appeared, and they entrusted
with their wide disposal have a dragon-story of a shining lordly youth
who ever followed in their steps. . . . Thus in a manner of expressing
it, the spirit--”

“Sheng-yin,” said Lao Ting, with courteous firmness, yet so moving the
door so that while he passed in the former person remained outside,
“you have sought, at the expenditure of thirty-seven taels five
hundred cash, to deflect Destiny from her appointed line. The result
has been lamentable to all--or nearly all--concerned. The lawless
effort must not be repeated, for when heaven itself goes out of its
way to set a correcting omen in the sky, who dare disobey?”

When the list and order of the competition was proclaimed, the name of
Wang-san stood at the very head and that of Yin Ho was next. Lao Ting
was the very last of those who were successful; Sheng-yin was the
next, and was thus the first of those who were unsuccessful. It was as
much as the youth had secretly dared to hope, and much better than he
had generally feared. In Sheng-yin’s case, however, it was infinitely
worse than he had ever contemplated. Regarding Lao Ting as the cause
of his disgrace he planned a sordid revenge. Waiting until night had
fallen he sought the student’s door-step and there took a potent drug,
laying upon his ghost a strict injunction to devote itself to haunting
and thwarting the ambitions of the one who dwelt within. But even in
this he was inept, for the poison was less speedy than he thought, and
Lao Ting returned in time to convey him to another door.

On the strength of his degree Lao Ting found no difficulty in earning
a meagre competence by instructing others who wished to follow in his
footsteps. He was also now free to compete for the next degree, where
success would bring him higher honour and a slightly less meagre
competence. In the meanwhile he married Hoa-mi, being able to display
thirty-seven taels and nearly five hundred cash towards that end.
Ultimately he rose to a position of remunerative ease, but it is
understood that he attained this more by a habit of acting as the
necessities of the moment required than by his literary achievements.

Over the door of his country residence in the days of his profusion he
caused the image of a luminous insect to be depicted, and he engraved
its semblance on his seal. He would also have added the presentment of
a water-buffalo, but Hoa-mi deemed this inexpedient.



                              CHAPTER VI

           The High-minded Strategy of the Amiable Hwa-mei

Warned by the mischance attending his previous meeting with Hwa-mei,
Kai Lung sought the walled enclosure at the earliest moment of his
permitted freedom, and secreting himself among the interlacing growth
he anxiously awaited the maiden’s coming.

Presently a movement in the trees without betrayed a presence, and the
story-teller was on the point of disclosing himself at the shutter
when the approaching one displayed an unfamiliar outline. Instead of a
maiden of exceptional symmetry and peach-like charm an elderly and
deformed hag drew near. As she might be hostile to his cause, Kai Lung
deemed it prudent to remain concealed; but in case she should prove to
be an emissary from Hwa-mei seeking him, his purpose was to stand
revealed. To combine these two attitudes until she should declare
herself was by no means an easy task, but she looked neither near nor
far in scrutiny until she stood, mumbling and infirm, beneath the
shutter.

“It is well, minstrel,” she called aloud. “She whom you await bid me
greet you with a sign.” At Kai Lung’s feet there fell a crimson
flower, growing on a thorny stem. “What word shall I in turn bear
back? Speak freely, for her mind is as my open hand.”

“Tell me rather,” said Kai Lung, looking out, “how she fares and what
averts her footsteps?”

“That will appear in due time,” replied the aged one. “In the
meanwhile I have her message to declare. Three times foiled in his
malignant scheme the now obscene Ming-shu sets all the Axioms at
naught. Distrusting you and those about your path, it is his sinister
intention to call up for judgment Kai-moo, who lies within the
women’s cell beyond the Water Way.”

“What is her crime and how will this avail him?”

“Charged with the murder of her man by means of the supple splinter
her condemnation is assured. The penalty is piecemeal slicing, and in
it are involved those of her direct line, in the humane effort to
eradicate so treacherous a strain.”

“That is but just,” agreed Kai Lung.

“Truly. But on the slender ligament of a kindred name you will be
joined with her in that end. Ming-shu will see to it that records of
your kinship are not lacking. Being accused of no crime on your own
behalf there will be nothing for you to appear against.”

“It is written: ‘Even leprosy may be cured, but the enmity of an
official underling can never be dispelled,’ and the malice of the
persistent Ming-shu certainly points to the wisdom of the verse. Is
the person of Kai-moo known to you, and where is the prison-house you
speak of?”

To this the venerable creature replied that the cell in question was
in a distant quarter of the city. Kai-moo, she continued, might be
regarded as fashioned like herself, being deformed in shape and
repellent in appearance. Furthermore, she was of deficient
understanding, these things aiding Ming-shu’s plan, as she would be
difficult to reach and impossible to instruct when reached.

“The extremity is almost hopeless enough to be left to the
ever-protecting spirits of one’s all-powerful Ancestors,” declared Kai
Lung at length. “Did she from whom you come forecast any confidence?”

“She had some assurance in a certain plan, which it is my message to
declare to you.”

“Her wisdom is to be computed neither by a rule nor by a measure. Say
on.”

“The keeper of the women’s prison-house lies within her hollowed hand,
nor will silver be wanting to still any arising doubt. Wrapped in
prison garb, and with her face disguised by art, she whose word I bear
will come forth at the appointed call and, taking her place before
Shan Tien, will play a fictitious part.”

“Alas! dotard,” interrupted Kai Lung impatiently, “it would be well if
I spent my few remaining hours in kowtowing to the Powers whom I shall
shortly meet. An aged and unsightly hag! Know you not, O venerable
bat, that the smooth perfection of the one you serve would shine
dazzling through a beaten mask of tempered steel? Her matchless hair,
glossier than a starling’s wing, floats like an autumn cloud. Her eyes
strike fire from damp clay, or make the touch of velvet harsh and
stubborn, according to her several moods. Peach-bloom held against her
cheek withers incapably by comparison. Her feet, if indeed she has
such commonplace attributes at all, are smaller--”

“Yet,” interrupted the hag, in a changed and quite melodious voice,
“if it is possible to delude the imagination of one whose longing eyes
dwell so constantly on these threadbare charms, what then will be the
position of the obtuse Ming-shu and the superficial Mandarin Shan
Tien, burdened as they now are by outside cares?”

“There are times when the classical perfection of our graceful tongue
is strangely inadequate to express emotion,” confessed Kai Lung,
colouring deeply, as Hwa-mei stood revealed before him. “It is truly
said: ‘The ingenuity of a guileless woman will undermine nine
mountains.’ You have cut off all the words of my misgivings.”

“To that end have I wrought, for in this I also need your skill.
Listen well and think deeply as I speak. Everywhere the outcome of the
strife grows more uncertain day by day and no man really knows which
side to favour yet. In this emergency each plays a double part. While
visibly loyal to the Imperial cause, the Mandarin Shan Tien fans the
whisper that in secret he upholds the rebellious banners. Ming-shu now
openly avers that if this and that are thus and thus the rising has
justice in its ranks, while at the same time he has it put abroad that
this is but a cloak the better to serve the state. Thus every man
maintains a double face in the hope that if the one side fails the
other will preserve him, and as a band all pledge to save (or if need
be to betray) each other.”

“This is the more readily understood as it is the common case on every
like occasion.”

“Then doubtless there are instances waiting on your lips. Teach me
such a story whereby the hope of those who are thus swayed may be
engaged and leave the rest to my arranging hand.”

On the following day at the appointed hour a bent and forbidding hag
was brought before Shan Tien, and the nature of her offence
proclaimed.

“It is possible to find an excuse for almost everything, regarding it
from one angle or another,” remarked the Mandarin impartially; “but
the crime of destroying a husband--and by a means so unpleasantly
insinuating--really seems to leave nothing to be said.”

“Yet, imperishable, even a bad coin must have two sides,” replied the
hag. “That I should be guilty and yet innocent would be no more
wonderful than the case of Weng Cho, who, when faced with the
alternative of either defying the Avenging Societies or of opposing
fixed authority found a way out of escaping both.”

“That should be worth--that is to say, if you base your defence upon
an existing case--”

“Providing the notorious thug Kai Lung is not thereby brought in,”
 suggested the narrow-minded Ming-shu, who equally desired to learn the
stratagem involved.

“Weng Cho was the only one concerned,” replied the ancient
obtusely--“he who escaped the consequences. Is it permitted to this
one to make clear her plea?”

“If the fatigue is not more than your venerable personality can
reasonably bear,” replied Shan Tien courteously.

“To bear is the lot of every woman, be she young or old,” replied the
one before them. “I comply, omnipotence.”


          The Story of Weng Cho; or, the One Devoid of Name

There was peach-blossom in the orchards of Kien-fi, a blue sky above,
and in the air much gladness; but in Wu Chi’s yamen gloom hung like
the herald of a thunderstorm. At one end of a table in the ceremonial
hall sat Wu Chi, heaviness upon his brow, deceit in his eyes, and a
sour enmity about the lines of his mouth; at the other end stood his
son Weng, and between them, as it were, his whole life lay.

Wu Chi was an official of some consequence and had two wives, as
became him. His union with the first had failed in its essential
purpose; therefore he had taken another to carry on the direct line
which alone could bring him contentment in this world and a reputable
existence in the next. This degree of happiness was supplied by Weng’s
mother, yet she must ever remain but a “secondary wife,” with no
rights and a very insecure position. In the heart of the chief wife
smouldered a most bitter hatred, but the hour of her ascendancy came,
for after many years she also bore her lord a son. Thenceforward she
was strong in her authority; but Weng’s mother remained, for she was
very beautiful, and despite all the arts of the other woman Wu Chi
could not be prevailed upon to dismiss her. The easy solution of this
difficulty was that she soon died--the “white powder death” was the
shrewd comment of the inner chambers of Kien-fi.

Wu Chi put on no mourning, custom did not require it; and now that the
woman had Passed Beyond he saw no necessity to honour her memory at
the expense of his own domestic peace. His wife donned her gayest
robes and made a feast. Weng alone stood apart, and in funereal
sackcloth moved through the house like an accusing ghost. Each day his
father met him with a frown, the woman whom alone he must regard as
his mother with a mocking smile, but he passed them without any word
of dutiful and submissive greeting. The period of all seemly mourning
ended--it touched that allotted to a legal parent; still Weng cast
himself down and made no pretence to hide his grief. His father’s
frown became a scowl, his mother’s smile framed a biting word. A wise
and venerable friend who loved the youth took him aside one day and
with many sympathetic words counselled restraint.

“For,” he said, “your conduct, though affectionate towards the dead,
may be urged by the ill-disposed as disrespectful towards the living.
If you have a deeper end in view, strive towards it by a less open
path.”

“You are subtle and esteemed in wisdom,” replied Weng, “but neither of
those virtues can restore a broken jar. The wayside fountain must one
day dry up at its source, but until then not even a mountain placed
upon its mouth can pen back its secret stores. So is it with unfeigned
grief.”

“The analogy may be exact,” replied the aged friend, shaking his head,
“but it is no less truly said: ‘The wise tortoise keeps his pain
inside.’ Rest assured, on the disinterested advice of one who has no
great experience of mountains and hidden springs, but a life-long
knowledge of Wu Chi and of his amiable wife, that if you mourn too
much you will have reason to mourn more.”

His words were pointed to a sharp edge. At that moment Wu Chi was
being confronted by his wife, who stood before him in his inner
chamber. “Who am I?” she exclaimed vehemently, “that my authority
should be denied before my very eyes? Am I indeed Che of the house of
Meng, whose ancestors wore the Yellow Scabbard, or am I some nameless
one? Or does my lord sleep, or has he fallen blind upon the side by
which Weng approaches?”

“His heart is bad and his instincts perverted,” replied Wu Chi dully.
“He ignores the rites, custom, and the Emperor’s example, and sets at
defiance all the principles of domestic government. Do not fear that I
shall not shortly call him to account with a very heavy call.”

“Do so, my lord,” said his wife darkly, “or many valiant champions of
the House of Meng may press forward to make a cast of that same
account. To those of our ancient line it would not seem a trivial
thing that their daughter should share her rights with a purchased
slave.”

“Peace, cockatrice! the woman was well enough,” exclaimed Wu Chi, with
slow resentment. “But the matter of this obstinacy touches the dignity
of my own authority, and before to-day has passed Weng shall bring up
his footsteps suddenly before a solid wall.”

Accordingly, when Weng returned at his usual hour he found his father
awaiting him with curbed impatience. That Wu Chi should summon him
into his presence in the great hall was of itself an omen that the
matter was one of moment, but the profusion of lights before the
Ancestral Tablets and the various symbols arranged upon the table
showed that the occasion was to be regarded as one involving
irrevocable issues.

“Weng Cho,” said his father dispassionately, from his seat at the head
of the table, “draw near, and first pledge the Ancient Ones whose
spirits hover above their Tablets in a vessel of wine.”

“I am drinking affliction and move under the compact of a solemn vow,”
 replied Weng fixedly, “therefore I cannot do this; nor, as signs are
given me to declare, will the forerunners of our line, who from their
high places look down deep into the mind and measure the heart with an
impartial rod, deem this an action of disrespect to their illustrious
shades.”

“It is well to be a sharer of their councils,” said Wu Chi, with
pointed insincerity. “But,” he continued, in the same tone, “for whom
can Weng Cho of the House of Wu mourn? His father is before him in his
wonted health; in the inner chamber his mother plies an unfaltering
needle; while from the Dragon Throne the supreme Emperor still rules
the world. Haply, however, a thorn has pierced his little finger, or
does he perchance bewail the loss of a favourite bird?”

“That thorn has sunk deeply into his existence, and the memory of that
loss still dims his eyes with bitterness,” replied Weng. “Bid the rain
cease to fall when the clouds are heavy.”

“The comparison is ill-chosen,” cried Whu Chi harshly. “Rather should
the allusion be to the evil tendency of a self-willed branch which, in
spite of the continual watering of precept and affection, maintains
its perverted course, and must henceforth either submit to be bound
down into an appointed line, or be utterly cut off so that the tree
may not suffer. Long and patiently have I marked your footsteps, Weng
Cho, and they are devious. This is not a single offence, but it is no
light one. Appointed by the Board of Ceremony, approved of by the
Emperor, and observed in every loyal and high-minded subject are the
details of the rites and formalities which alone serve to distinguish
a people refined and humane from those who are rude and barbarous. By
setting these observances at defiance you insult their framers, act
traitorously towards your sovereign, and assail the foundations of
your House; for your attitude is a direct reflection upon others; and
if you render such a tribute to one who is incompetent to receive it,
how will you maintain a seemly balance when a greater occasion
arises?”

“When the earth that has nourished it grows cold the leaves of the
branch fall--doubtless the edicts of the Board referred to having
failed to reach their ears,” replied Weng bitterly. “Revered father,
is it not permitted that I should now depart? Behold I am stricken and
out of place.”

“You are evil and your heart is fat with presumptuous pride!”
 exclaimed Wu Chi, releasing the cords of his hatred and anger so that
they leapt out from his throat like the sudden spring of a tiger from
a cave. “Evil in birth, grown under an evil star and now come to a
full maturity. Go you shall, Weng Cho, and that on a straight journey
forthwith or else bend your knees with an acquiescent face.” With
these words he beat furiously on a gong, and summoning the entire
household he commanded that before Weng should be placed a jar of wine
and two glass vessels, and on the other side a staff and a pair of
sandals. From an open shutter the face of the woman Che looked down in
mocking triumph.

The alternatives thus presented were simple and irrevocable. On the
one hand Weng must put from him all further grief, ignore his vows,
and join in mirth and feast; on the other he must depart, never to
return, and be deprived of every tie of kinship, relinquishing
ancestry, possessions and name. It was a course severer than anything
that Wu Chi had intended when he sent for his son, but resentment had
distorted his eyesight. It was a greater test than Weng had
anticipated, but his mind was clear, and his heart charged with
fragrant memories of his loss. Deliberately but with silent dignity he
poured the untasted wine upon the ground, drew his sword and touched
the vessels lightly so that they broke, took from off his thumb the
jade ring inscribed with the sign of the House of Wu, and putting on
the sandals grasped the staff and prepared to leave the hall.

“Weng Cho, for the last time spoken of as of the House of Wu, now
alienated from that noble line, and henceforth and for ever an
outcast, you have made a choice and chosen as befits your rebellious
life. Between us stretches a barrier wider and deeper than the Yellow
Sea, and throughout all future time no sign shall pass from that
distant shore to this. From every record of our race your name shall
be cut out; no mention of it shall profane the Tablets, and both in
this world and the next it shall be to us as though you have never
been. As I break this bowl so are all ties broken, as I quench this
candle so are all memories extinguished, and as, when you go, the
space is filled with empty air, so shall it be.”

“Ho, nameless stranger,” laughed the woman from above, “here is food
and drink to bear you on your way”; and from the grille she threw a
withered fig and spat.

“The fruit is the cankered effort of a barren tree,” cast back Weng
over his shoulder. “Look to your own offspring, basilisk. It is given
me to speak.” Even as he spoke there was a great cry from the upper
part of the house, the sound of many feet and much turmoil, but he
went on his way without another word.

Thus it was that Weng Cho came to be cut off from the past. From his
father’s house he stepped out into the streets of Kien-fi a being
without a name, destitute, and suffering the pangs of many keen
emotions. Friends whom he encountered he saluted distantly, not
desirous of sharing their affection until they should have learned his
state; but there was one who stood in his mind as removed above the
possibility of change, and to the summer-house of Tiao’s home he
therefore turned his steps.

Tiao was the daughter of a minor official, an unsuccessful man of no
particular descent. He had many daughters, and had encouraged Weng’s
affection, with frequent professions that he regarded only the youth’s
virtuous life and discernment, and would otherwise have desired one
not so highly placed. Tiao also had spoken of rice and contentment in
a ruined pagoda. Yet as she listened to Weng’s relation a new
expression gradually revealed itself about her face, and when he had
finished many paces lay between them.

“A breaker of sacred customs, a disobeyer of parents and an outcast!
How do you disclose yourself!” she exclaimed wildly. “What vile thing
has possessed you?”

“One hitherto which now rejects me,” replied Weng slowly. “I had
thought that here alone I might find a familiar greeting, but that
also fails.”

“What other seemly course presents itself?” demanded the maiden
unsympathetically. “How degrading a position might easily become that
of the one who linked her lot with yours if all fit and proper
sequences are to be reversed! What menial one might supplant her not
only in your affections but also in your Rites! He had defied the
Principles!” she exclaimed, as her father entered from behind a
screen.

“He has lost his inheritance,” muttered the little old man, eyeing him
contemptuously. “Weng Cho,” he continued aloud, “you have played a
double part and crossed our step with only half your heart. Now the
past is past and the future an unwritten sheet.”

“It shall be written in vermilion ink,” replied Weng, regaining an
impassive dignity; “and upon that darker half of my heart can now be
traced two added names.”

He had no aim now, but instinct drove him towards the mountains, the
retreat of the lost and despairing. A three days’ journey lay between.
He went forward vacantly, without food and without rest. A falling
leaf, as it is said, would have turned the balance of his destiny, and
at the wayside village of Li-yong so it chanced. The noisome smell of
burning thatch stung his face as he approached, and presently the
object came into view. It was the bare cabin of a needy widow who had
become involved in a lawsuit through the rapacity of a tax-gatherer.
As she had the means neither to satisfy the tax nor to discharge the
dues, the powerful Mandarin before whom she had been called ordered
all her possessions to be seized, and that she should then be burned
within her hut as a warning to others. This was the act of justice
being carried out, and even as Weng heard the tale the Mandarin in
question drew near, carried in his state chair to satisfy his eyes
that his authority was scrupulously maintained. All those villagers
who had not drawn off unseen at once fell upon their faces, so that
Weng alone remained standing, doubtful what course to take.

“Ill-nurtured dog!” exclaimed the Mandarin, stepping up to him,
“prostrate yourself! Do you not know that I am of the Sapphire Button,
and have fivescore bowmen at my yamen, ready to do my word?” And he
struck the youth across the face with a jewelled rod.

“I have only one sword, but it is in my hand,” cried Weng, reckless
beneath the blow, and drawing it he at one stroke cut down the
Mandarin before any could raise a hand. Then breaking in the door of
the hovel he would have saved the woman, but it was too late, so he
took the head and body and threw them into the fire, saying: “There,
Mandarin, follow to secure justice. They shall not bear witness
against you Up There in your absence.”

The chair-carriers had fled in terror, but the villagers murmured
against Weng as he passed through them. “It was a small thing that one
house and one person should be burned; now, through this, the whole
village will assuredly be consumed. He was a high official and visited
justice impartially on us all. It was our affair, and you, who are a
stranger, have done ill.”

“I did you wrong, Mandarin,” said Weng, resuming his journey; “you
took me for one of them. I pass you the parting of the woman Che,
burrowers in the cow-heap called Li-yong.”

“Oi-ye!” exclaimed a voice behind, “but yonder earth-beetles haply
have not been struck off the Tablets and found that a maiden with
well-matched eyes can watch two ways at once, all of a morning: and
thereby death through red spectacles is not that same death through
blue spectacles. Things in their appointed places, noble companion.”

“Greetings, wayfarer,” said Weng, stopping. “The path narrows somewhat
inconveniently hereabout. Take honourable precedence.”

“The narrower the better to defend then,” replied the stranger
good-humouredly. “Whereto, also, two swords cut a larger slice than
one. Without doubt fivescore valiant bowmen will soon be a-ranging
when they hear that the enemy goes upon two feet, and then ill befall
who knows not the passes.” As he spoke an arrow, shot from a distance,
flew above their heads.

“Why should you bear a part with me, and who are you who know these
recent things?” demanded Weng doubtfully.

“I am one of many, we being a branch of that great spreading lotus the
Triad, though called by the tillers here around the League of
Tomb-Haunters, because we must be sought in secret places. The things
I have spoken I know because we have many ears, and in our care a
whisper passes from east to west and from north to south without a
word being spilled.”

“And the price of your sword is that I should join the confederacy?”
 asked Weng thoughtfully.

“I had set out to greet you before the estimable Mandarin who is now
saluting his ancestors was so inopportune as to do so,” replied the
emissary. “Yet it is not to be denied that we offer an adequate
protection among each other, while at the same time punishing guilt
and administering a rigorous justice secretly.”

“Lead me to your meeting-place, then,” said Weng determinedly. “I have
done with the outer things.”

The guide pointed to a rock, shaped like a locust’s head, which marked
the highest point of the steep mountain before them. Soon the fertile
lowlands ended and they passed beyond the limit of the inhabitable
region. Still ascending they reached the Tiger’s High Retreat, which
defines the spot where even the animal kind turn back and where
watercourses cease to flow. Beyond this the most meagre indication of
vegetable sustenance came to an end, and thenceforward their passage
was rendered more slow and laborious by frequent snow-storms, barriers
of ice, and sudden tempests which strove to hurl them to destruction.
Nevertheless, by about the hour of midnight they reached the rock
shaped like a locust’s head, which stood in the wildest and most
inaccessible part of the mountain, and masked the entrance to a
strongly-guarded cave. Here Weng suffered himself to be blindfolded,
and being led forward he was taken into the innermost council. Closely
questioned, he professed a spontaneous desire to be admitted into
their band, to join in their dangers and share their honours;
whereupon the oath was administered to him, the passwords and secret
signs revealed, and he was bound from that time forth, under the bonds
of a most painful death and torments in the afterworld, to submerge
all passions save those for the benefit of their community, and to
cherish no interests, wrongs or possessions that did not affect them
all alike.

For the space of seven years Weng remained about the shadow of the
mountain, carrying out, together with the other members of the band,
the instructions which from time to time they received from the higher
circles of the Society, as well as such acts of retributive justice as
they themselves determined upon, and in this quiet and unostentatious
manner maintaining peace and greatly purifying the entire province. In
this passionless subservience to the principles of the Order none
exceeded him; yet at no time have men been forbidden to burn
joss-sticks to the spirit of the destinies, and who shall say?

At the end of seven years the first breath from out of the past
reached Weng (or Thang, as he had announced himself to be when cast
out nameless). One day he was summoned before the chief of their
company and a mission laid upon him.

“You have proved yourself to be capable and sincere in the past, and
this matter is one of delicacy,” said the leader. “Furthermore, it is
reported that you know something of the paths about Kien-fi?”

“There is not a forgotten turn within those paths by which I might
stumble in the dark,” replied Weng, striving to subdue his mind.

“See that out of so poignant a memory no more formidable barrier than
a forgotten path arises,” said the leader, observing him closely.
“Know you, then a house bearing as a sign the figure of a golden
ibis?”

“Truly; I have noted it,” replied Weng, changing his position, so that
he now leaned against a rock. “There dwelt an old man of some lower
official rank, who had no son but many daughters.”

“He has Passed, and one of those--Tiao by name,” said the other,
referring to a parchment--“has schemingly driven out the rest and held
the patrimony. Crafty and ambitious, she has of late married a high
official who has ever been hostile to ourselves. Out of a private
enmity the woman seeks the lives of two who are under our most solemn
protection, and now uses her husband’s wealth and influence to that
end. It is on him that the blow must fall, for men kill only men, and
she, having no son, will then be discredited and impotent.”

“And concerning this official?” asked Weng.

“It has not been thought prudent to speak of him by name,” replied the
chief. “Stricken with a painful but not dangerous malady he has
retired for a time to the healthier seclusion of his wife’s house, and
there he may be found. The woman you will know with certainty by a
crescent scar--above the right eye.”

“Beneath the eye,” corrected Weng instantly.

“Assuredly, beneath: I misread the sign,” said the head, appearing to
consult the scroll. “Yet, out of a keen regard for your virtues,
Thang, let me point a warning that it is antagonistic to our strict
rule to remember these ancient scars too well. Further, in accordance
with that same esteem, do not stoop too closely nor too long to
identify the mark. By our pure and exacting standard no high
attainment in the past can justify defection. The pains and penalties
of failure you well know.”

“I bow, chieftain,” replied Weng acquiescently.

“It is well,” said the chief. “Your strategy will be easy. To cure
this lord’s disorder a celebrated physician is even now travelling
from the Capital towards Kien-fi. A day’s journey from that place he
will encounter obstacles and fall into the hands of those who will
take away his robes and papers. About the same place you will meet one
with a bowl on the roadside who will hail you, saying, ‘Charity, out
of your superfluity, noble mandarin coming from the north!’ To him you
will reply, ‘Do mandarins garb thus and thus and go afoot? It is I who
need a change of raiment and a chair; aye, by the token of the
Locust’s Head!’ He will then lead you to a place where you will find
all ready and a suitable chair with trusty bearers. The rest lies
beneath your grinding heel. Prosperity!”

Weng prostrated himself and withdrew. The meeting by the wayside
befell as he had received assurance--they who serve the Triad do not
stumble--and at the appointed time he stood before Tiao’s door and
called for admission. He looked to the right and the left as one who
examines a new prospect, and among the azalea flowers the burnished
roof of the summer-house glittered in the sun.

“Lucky omens attend your coming, benevolence,” said the chief
attendant obsequiously; “for since he sent for you an unpropitious
planet has cast its influence upon our master, so that his power
languishes.”

“Its malignity must be controlled,” said Weng, in a feigned voice, for
he recognized the one before him. “Does any watch?”

“Not now,” replied the attendant; “for he has slept since these two
hours. Would your graciousness have speech with the one of the inner
chamber?”

“In season perchance. First lead me to your lord’s side and then see
that we are undisturbed until I reappear. It may be expedient to
invoke a powerful charm without delay.”

In another minute Weng stood alone in the sick man’s room, between
them no more barrier than the silk-hung curtains of the couch. He slid
down his right hand and drew a keen-edged knife; about his left he
looped the even more fatal cord; then advancing with a noiseless step
he pulled back the drapery and looked down. It was the moment for
swift and silent action; nothing but hesitation and delay could
imperil him, yet in that supreme moment he stepped back, released the
curtain from his faltering grasp and, suffering the weapons to fall
unheeded to the floor, covered his face with his hands, for lying
before him he had seen the outstretched form, the hard contemptuous
features, of his father.

Yet most solemnly alienated from him in every degree. By Wu Chi’s own
acts every tie of kinship had been effaced between them: the bowl had
been broken, the taper blown out, empty air had filled his place. Wu
Chi acknowledged no memory of a son; he could claim no reverence as a
father. . . . Tiao’s husband. . . . Then he was doubly
childless. . . . The woman and her seed had withered, as he had
prophesied.

On the one hand stood the Society, powerful enough to protect him in
every extremity, yet holding failure as treason; most terrible and
inexorable towards set disobedience. His body might find a painless
escape from their earthly torments, but by his oaths his spirit lay in
their keeping to be punished through all eternity.

That he was no longer Wu Chi’s son, that he had no father--this
conviction had been strong enough to rule him in every contingency of
life save this. By every law of men and deities the ties between them
had been dissolved, and they stood as a man and man; yet the salt can
never be quite washed out of sea-water.

For a time which ceased to be hours or minutes, but seemed as a
fragment broken off eternity, he stood, motionless but most deeply
racked. With an effort he stooped to take the cord, and paused again;
twice he would have seized the dagger, but doubt again possessed him.
From a distant point of the house came the chant of a monk singing a
prayer and beating upon a wooden drum. The rays of the sun falling
upon the gilded roof in the garden again caught his eyes; nothing else
stirred.

“These in their turn have settled great issues lightly,” thought Weng
bitterly. “Must I wait upon an omen?”

“. . . submitting oneself to purifying scars,” droned the voice far
off; “propitiating if need be by even greater self-inflictions . . .”

“It suffices,” said Weng dispassionately, and picking up the knife he
turned to leave the room.

At the door he paused again, but not in an arising doubt. “I will
leave a token for Tiao to wear as a jest,” was the image that had
sprung from his new abasement, and taking a sheet of parchment he
quickly wrote thereon: “A wave has beat from that distant shore to
this, and now sinks in the unknown depths.”

Again he stepped noiselessly to the couch, drew the curtain and
dropped the paper lightly on the form. As he did so his breath
stopped; his fingers stiffened. Cautiously, on one knee, he listened
intently, lightly touched the face; then recklessly taking a hand he
raised the arm and suffered it to fall again. No power restrained it;
no alertness of awakening life came into the dull face. Wu Chi had
already Passed Beyond.



                             CHAPTER VII

            Not Concerned with any Particular Attribute of
                        Those who are Involved

Unendurable was the intermingling of hopes and fears with which Kai
Lung sought the shutter on the next occasion after the avowal of
Hwa-mei’s devoted strategy. While repeatedly assuring himself that it
would have been better to submit to piecemeal slicing without a
protesting word rather than that she should incur so formidable a
risk, he was compelled as often to admit that when once her mind had
formed its image no effort on his part would have held her back.
Doubtless Hwa-mei readily grasped the emotion that would possess the
one whose welfare was now her chief concern, for without waiting to
gum her hair or to gild her lips she hastened to the spot beneath the
wall at the earliest moment that Kai Lung could be there.

“Seven marble tombstones are lifted from off my chest!” exclaimed the
story-teller when he could greet her. “How did your subterfuge
proceed, and with what satisfaction was the history of Weng Cho
received?”

“That,” replied Hwa-mei modestly, “will provide the matter for an
autumn tale, when seated around a pine-cone fire. In the meanwhile
this protracted ordeal takes an ambiguous bend.”

“To what further end does the malignity of the ill-made Ming-shu now
shape itself? Should it entail a second peril to your head--”

“The one whom you so justly name fades for a moment out of our
concern. Burdened with a secret mission he journeys to Hing-poo, nor
does the Mandarin Shan Tien hold another court until the day of his
return.”

“That gives a breathing space of time to our ambitions?”

“So much is assured. Yet even in that a subtle danger lurks. Certain
contingencies have become involved in the recital of your admittedly
ingenious stories which the future unfolding of events may not always
justify. For instance, the very speculative Shan Tien, casting his
usual moderate limit to the skies, has accepted the Luminous Insect as
a beckoning omen, and immersed himself deeply in the chances of every
candidate bearing the name of Lao, Ting, Li, Tzu, Sung, Chu, Wang or
Chin. Should all these fail incapably at the trials a very undignified
period in the Mandarin’s general manner of expressing himself may
intervene.”

“Had the time at the disposal of this person been sufficiently
enlarged he would not have omitted the various maxims arising from the
tale,” admitted Kai Lung, with a shadow of remorse. “That suited to
the need of a credulous and ill-balanced mind would doubtless be the
proverb: ‘He who believes in gambling will live to sell his sandals.’
It is regrettable if the well-intending Mandarin took the wrong one.
Fortunately another moon will fade before the results are known--”

“In the meantime,” continued the maiden, indicating by a glance that
what she had to relate was more essential to the requirements of the
moment than anything he was saying: “Shan Tien is by no means
indisposed towards your cause. Your unassuming attitude and deep
research have enlarged your wisdom in his eyes. To-morrow he will send
for you to lean upon your well-stored mind.”

“Is the emergency one for which any special preparation is required?”
 questioned Kai Lung.

“That is the message of my warning. Of late a company of grateful
friends has given the Mandarin an inlaid coffin to mark the sense of
their indebtedness, the critical nature of the times rendering the
gift peculiarly appropriate. Thus provided, Shan Tien has cast his
eyes around to secure a burial robe worthy of the casket. The
merchants proffer many, each endowed with all the qualities, but
meanwhile doubts arise, and now Shan Tien would turn to you to learn
what is the true and ancient essential of the garment, and wherein its
virtue should reside.”

“The call will not find me inept,” replied Kai Lung. “The story of
Wang Ho--”

“It is enough,” exclaimed the maiden warningly. “The time for
wandering together in the garden of the imagination has not yet
arrived. Ming-shu’s feet are on a journey, it is true, but his eyes
are doubtless left behind. Until a like hour to-morrow gladdens our
expectant gaze, farewell!”

On the following day, at about the stroke of the usual court, Li-loe
approached Kai Lung with a grievous look.

“Alas, manlet,” he exclaimed, “here is one direct from the presence of
our high commander, requiring you against his thumb-signed bond. Go
you must, and that alone, whether it be for elevation on a tree or on
a couch. Out of an insatiable friendship this one would accompany you,
were it possible, equally to hold your hand if you are to die or hold
your cup if you are to feast. Yet touching that same cask of hidden
wine there is still time--”

“Cease, mooncalf,” replied Kai Lung reprovingly. “This is but an eddy
on the surface of a moving stream. It comes, it goes; and the waters
press on as before.”

Then Kai Lung, neither bound nor wearing the wooden block, was led
into the presence of Shan Tien, and allowed to seat himself upon the
floor as though he plied his daily trade.

“Sooner or later it will certainly devolve upon this person to condemn
you to a violent end,” remarked the far-seeing Mandarin reassuringly.
“In the ensuing interval, however, there is no need for either of us
to dwell upon what must be regarded as an unpleasant necessity.”

“Yet no crime has been committed, beneficence,” Kai Lung ventured to
protest; “nor in his attitude before your virtuous self has this one
been guilty of any act of disrespect.”

“You have shown your mind to be both wide and deep, and suitably
lined,” declared Shan Tien, dexterously avoiding the weightier part of
the story-teller’s plea. “A question now arises as to the efficacy of
embroidered coffin cloths, and wherein their potent merit lies. Out of
your well-stored memory declare your knowledge of this sort, conveying
the solid information in your usual palatable way.”

“I bow, High Excellence,” replied Kai Lung. “This concerns the story
of Wang Ho.”


               The Story of Wang Ho and the Burial Robe

There was a time when it did not occur to anyone in this pure and
enlightened Empire to question the settled and existing order of
affairs. It would have been well for the merchant Wang Ho had he lived
in that happy era. But, indeed, it is now no unheard-of thing for an
ordinary person to suggest that customs which have been established
for centuries might with advantage be changed--a form of impiety which
is in no degree removed from declaring oneself to be wiser or more
profound than one’s ancestors! Scarcely more seemly is this than
irregularity in maintaining the Tablets or observing the Rites; and
how narrow is the space dividing these delinquencies from the actual
crimes of overturning images, counselling rebellion, joining in
insurrection and resorting to indiscriminate piracy and bloodshed.

Certainly the merchant Wang Ho would be a thousand taels wealthier
to-day if he had fully considered this in advance. Nor would Cheng
Lin--but who attempts to eat an orange without first disposing of the
peel, or what manner of a dwelling could be erected unless an adequate
foundation be first provided?

Wang Ho, then, let it be stated, was one who had early in life amassed
a considerable fortune by advising those whose intention it was to
hazard their earnings in the State Lotteries as to the numbers that
might be relied upon to be successful, or, if not actually successful,
those at least that were not already predestined by malign influences
to be absolutely incapable of success. These chances Wang Ho at first
forecast by means of dreams, portents and other manifestations of an
admittedly supernatural tendency, but as his name grew large and the
number of his clients increased vastly, while his capacity for
dreaming remained the same, he found it no less effective to close his
eyes and to become inspired rapidly of numbers as they were thus
revealed to him.

Occasionally Wang Ho was the recipient of an appropriate bag of money
from one who had profited by his advice, but it was not his custom to
rely upon this contingency as a source of income, nor did he in any
eventuality return the amount which had been agreed upon (and
invariably deposited with him in advance) as the reward of his
inspired efforts. To those who sought him in a contentious spirit,
inquiring why he did not find it more profitable to secure the prizes
for himself, Wang Ho replied that his enterprise consisted in
forecasting the winning numbers for State Lotteries and not in solving
enigmas, writing deprecatory odes, composing epitaphs or conducting
any of the other numerous occupations that could be mentioned. As this
plausible evasion was accompanied by the courteous display of the many
weapons which he always wore at different convenient points of his
attire, the incident invariably ended in a manner satisfactory to Wang
Ho.

Thus positioned Wang Ho prospered, and had in the course of years
acquired a waist of honourable proportions, when the unrolling course
of events influenced him to abandon his lucrative enterprise. It was
not that he failed in any way to become as inspired as before; indeed,
with increasing practice he attained a fluency that enabled him to
outdistance every rival, so that on the occasion of one lottery he
afterwards privately discovered that he had predicted the success of
every possible combination of numbers, thus enabling those who followed
his advice (as he did not fail to announce in inscriptions of
vermilion assurance) to secure--among them--every variety of prize
offered.

But, about this time, the chief wife of Wang Ho having been greeted
with amiable condescension by the chief wife of a high official of the
Province, and therefrom in an almost equal manner by the wives of even
higher officials, the one in question began to abandon herself to a
more rapidly outlined manner of existence than formerly, and to
involve Wang Ho in a like attitude, so that presently this
ill-considering merchant, who but a short time before would have
unhesitatingly cast himself bodily to earth on the approach of a city
magistrate, now acquired the habit of alluding to mandarins in casual
conversation by names of affectionate abbreviation. Also, being
advised of the expediency by a voice speaking in an undertone, he
sought still further to extend beyond himself by suffering his nails
to grow long and obliterating his name from the public announcements
upon the city walls.

In spite of this ambitious sacrifice Wang Ho could not entirely shed
from his habit a propensity to associate with those requiring advice
on matters involving financial transactions. He could no longer
conduct enterprises which entailed many clients and the lavish display
of his name, but in the society of necessitous persons who were
related to others of distinction he allowed it to be inferred that he
was benevolently disposed and had a greater sufficiency of taels than
he could otherwise make use of. He also involved himself, for the
benefit of those whom he esteemed, in transactions connected with
pieces of priceless jade, jars of wine of an especially fragrant
character, and pictures of reputable antiquity. In the written manner
of these transactions (for it is useless to conceal the fact that Wang
Ho was incapable of tracing the characters of his own name) he
employed a youth whom he never suffered to appear from beyond the
background. Cheng Lin is thus brought naturally and unobtrusively into
the narrative.

Had Cheng Lin come into the world when a favourably disposed band of
demons was in the ascendant he would certainly have merited an earlier
and more embellished appearance in this written chronicle. So far,
however, nothing but omens of an ill-destined obscurity had beset his
career. For many years two ambitions alone had contained his mind,
both inextricably merged into one current and neither with any
appearance of ever flowing into its desired end. The first was to pass
the examination of the fourth degree of proficiency in the great
literary competitions, and thereby qualify for a small official post
where, in the course of a few years, he might reasonably hope to be
forgotten in all beyond the detail of being allotted every third moon
an unostentatious adequacy of taels. This distinction Cheng Lin felt
to be well within his power of attainment could he but set aside three
uninterrupted years for study, but to do this would necessitate the
possession of something like a thousand taels of silver, and Lin might
as well fix his eyes upon the great sky-lantern itself.

Dependent on this, but in no great degree removed from it, was the
hope of being able to entwine into that future the actuality of Hsi
Mean, a very desirable maiden whom it was Cheng Lin’s practice to meet
by chance on the river bank when his heavily-weighted duties for the
day were over.

To those who will naturally ask why Cheng Lin, if really sincere in
his determination, could not imperceptibly acquire even so large a sum
as a thousand taels while in the house of the wealthy Wang Ho,
immersed as the latter person was with the pursuit of the full face of
high mandarins and further embarrassed by a profuse illiteracy, it
should be sufficient to apply the warning: “Beware of helping yourself
to corn from the manger of the blind mule.”

In spite of his preoccupation Wang Ho never suffered his mind to
wander when sums of money were concerned, and his inability to express
himself by written signs only engendered in his alert brain an
ever-present decision not to be entrapped by their use. Frequently,
Cheng Lin found small sums of money lying in such a position as to
induce the belief that they had been forgotten, but upon examining
them closely he invariably found upon them marks by which they could
be recognized if the necessity arose; he therefore had no hesitation
in returning them to Wang Ho with a seemly reference to the extreme
improbability of the merchant actually leaving money thus unguarded,
and to the lack of respect which it showed to Cheng Lin himself to
expect that a person of his integrity should be tempted by so
insignificant an amount. Wang Ho always admitted the justice of the
reproach, but he did not on any future occasion materially increase
the sum in question, so that it is to be doubted if his heart was
sincere.

It was on the evening of such an incident that Lin walked with Mean by
the side of the lotus-burdened Hoang-keng expressing himself to the
effect that instead of lilies her hair was worthy to be bound up with
pearls of a like size, and that beneath her feet there should be
spread a carpet not of verdure, but of the finest Chang-hi silk,
embroidered with five-clawed dragons and other emblems of royal
authority, nor was Mean in any way displeased by this indication of
extravagant taste on her lover’s part, though she replied:

“The only jewels that this person desires are the enduring glances of
pure affection with which you, O my phoenix one, entwined the lilies
about her hair, and the only carpet that she would crave would be the
embroidered design created by the four feet of the two persons who are
now conversing together for ever henceforth walking in uninterrupted
harmony.”

“Yet, alas!” exclaimed Lin, “that enchanting possibility seems to be
more remotely positioned than ever. Again has the clay-souled Wang Ho,
on the pretext that he can no longer make his in and out taels meet,
sought to diminish the monthly inadequacy of cash with which he
rewards this person’s conscientious services.”

“Undoubtedly that opaque-eyed merchant will shortly meet a revengeful
fire-breathing vampire when walking alone on the edge of a narrow
precipice,” exclaimed Mean sympathetically. “Yet have you pressingly
laid the facts before the spirits of your distinguished ancestors with
a request for their direct intervention?”

“The expedient has not been neglected,” replied Lin, “and appropriate
sacrifices have accompanied the request. But even while in the form of
an ordinary existence the venerable ones in question were becoming
distant in their powers of hearing, and doubtless with increasing
years the ineptitude has grown. It would almost seem that in the case
of a person so obtuse as Wang Ho is, more direct means would have to
be employed.”

“It is well said,” assented Mean, “that those who are unmoved by the
thread of a vat of flaming sulphur in the Beyond, rend the air if they
chance to step on a burning cinder here on earth.”

“The suggestion is a timely one,” replied Lin. “Wang Ho’s weak spot
lies between his hat and his sandals. Only of late, feeling the
natural infirmities of time pressing about him, he has expended a
thousand taels in the purchase of an elaborate burial robe, which he
wears on every fit occasion, so that the necessity for its ultimate
use may continue to be remote.”

“A thousand taels!” repeated Mean. “With that sum you could--”

“Assuredly. The coincidence may embody something in the nature of an
omen favourable to ourselves. At the moment, however, this person has
not any clear-cut perception of how the benefit may be attained.”

“The amount referred to has already passed into the hands of the
merchant in burial robes?”

“Irrevocably. In the detail of the transference of actual sums of
money Wang Ho walks hand in hand with himself from door to door. The
pieces of silver are by this time beneath the floor of Shen Heng’s
inner chamber.”

“Shen Heng?”

“The merchant in silk and costly fabrics, who lives beneath the sign
of the Golden Abacus. It was from him--”

“Truly. It is for him that this person’s sister Min works the finest
embroideries. Doubtless this very robe--”

“It is of blue silk edged with sand pearls in a line of three depths.
Felicitations on long life and a list of the most venerable persons of
all times serve to remind the controlling deities to what length human
endurance can proceed if suitably encouraged. These are designed in
letters of threaded gold. Inferior spirits are equally invoked in
characters of silver.”

“The description is sharp-pointed. It is upon this robe that the one
referred to has been ceaselessly engaged for several moons. On account
of her narrow span of years, no less than her nimble-jointed
dexterity, she is justly esteemed among those whose wares are
guaranteed to be permeated with the spirit of rejuvenation.”

“Thereby enabling the enterprising Shen Heng to impose a special
detail into his account: ‘For employing the services of one who will
embroider into the fabric of the robe the vital principles of youth
and long-life-to-come--an added fifty taels.’ Did she of your house
benefit to a proportionate extent?”

Mean indicated a contrary state of things by a graceful movement of
her well-arranged eyebrows.

“Not only that,” she added, “but the sordid-minded Shen Heng, on a
variety of pretexts, has diminished the sum Min was to receive at the
completion of the work, until that which should have required a full
hand to grasp could be efficiently covered by two attenuated fingers.
From this cause Min is vindictively inclined towards him and,
steadfastly refusing to bend her feet in the direction of his
workshop, she has, between one melancholy and another, involved
herself in a dark distemper.”

As Mean unfolded the position lying between her sister Min and the
merchant Shen Heng, Lin grew thoughtful, and, although it was not his
nature to express the changing degrees of emotion by varying the
appearance of his face, he did not conceal from Mean that her words
had fastened themselves upon his imagination.

“Let us rest here a while,” he suggested presently. “That which you
say, added to what I already know, may, under the guidance of a
sincere mind, put a much more rainbow-like outlook on our combined
future than hitherto appeared probable.”

So they composed themselves about the bank of the river, while Lin
questioned her more closely as to those things of which she had
spoken. Finally, he laid certain injunctions upon her for her
immediate guidance. Then, it being now the hour of middle light, they
returned, Mean accompanying her voice to the melody of stringed wood,
as she related songs of those who have passed through great endurances
to a state of assured contentment. To Lin it seemed as though the city
leapt forward to meet them, so narrow was the space of time involved
in reaching it.

A few days later Wang Ho was engaged in the congenial occupation of
marking a few pieces of brass cash before secreting them where Cheng
Lin must inevitably displace them, when the person in question quietly
stood before him. Thereupon Wang Ho returned the money to his inner
sleeve, ineptly remarking that when the sun rose it was futile to
raise a lantern to the sky to guide the stars.

“Rather is it said, ‘From three things cross the road to avoid: a
falling tree, your chief and second wives whispering in agreement, and
a goat wearing a leopard’s tail,’” replied Lin, thus rebuking Wang Ho,
not only for his crafty intention, but also as to the obtuseness of
the proverb he had quoted. “Nevertheless, O Wang Ho, I approach you on
a matter of weighty consequence.”

“To-morrow approaches,” replied the merchant evasively. “If it
concerns the detail of the reduction of your monthly adequacy, my word
has become unbending iron.”

“It is written: ‘Cho Sing collected feathers to make a garment for his
canary when it began to moult,’” replied Lin acquiescently. “The care
of so insignificant a person as myself may safely be left to the
Protecting Forces, esteemed. This matter touches your own condition.”

“In that case you cannot be too specific.” Wang Ho lowered himself
into a reclining couch, thereby indicating that the subject was not
one for hasty dismissal, at the same time motioning to Lin that he
should sit upon the floor. “Doubtless you have some remunerative form
of enterprise to suggest to me?”

“Can a palsied finger grasp a proffered coin? The matter strikes more
deeply at your very existence, honoured chief.”

“Alas!” exclaimed Wang Ho, unable to retain the usual colour of his
appearance, “the attention of a devoted servant is somewhat like
Tohen-hi Yang’s spiked throne--it torments those whom it supports.
However, the word has been spoken--let the sentence be filled in.”

“The full roundness of your illustrious outline is as a display of
coloured lights to gladden my commonplace vision,” replied Lin
submissively. “Admittedly of late, however, an element of dampness has
interfered with the brilliance of the display.”

“Speak clearly and regardless of polite evasion,” commanded Wang Ho.
“My internal organs have for some time suspected that hostile
influences were at work. For how long have you noticed this, as it may
be expressed, falling off?”

“My mind is as refined crystal before your compelling glance,”
 admitted Lin. “Ever since it has been your custom to wear the funeral
robe fashioned by Shen Heng has your noble shadow suffered erosion.”

This answer, converging as it did upon the doubts that had already
assailed the merchant’s satisfaction, convinced him of Cheng Lin’s
discrimination, while it increased his own suspicion. He had for some
little time found that after wearing the robe he invariably suffered
pangs that could only be attributed to the influence of malign and
obscure Beings. It is true that the occasions of his wearing the robe
were elaborate and many-coursed feasts, when he and his guests had
partaken lavishly of birds’ nests, sharks’ fins, sea snails and other
viands of a rich and glutinous nature. But if he could not both wear
the funeral robe and partake unstintingly of well-spiced food, the
harmonious relation of things was imperilled; and, as it was since the
introduction of the funeral robe into his habit that matters had
assumed a more poignant phase, it was clear that the influence of the
funeral robe was at the root of the trouble.

“Yet,” protested Wang Ho, “the Mandarin Ling-ni boasts that he has
already lengthened the span of his natural life several years by such
an expedient, and my friend the high official T’cheng asserts that,
while wearing a much less expensive robe than mine, he feels the
essence of an increased vitality passing continuously into his being.
Why, then, am I marked out for this infliction, Cheng Lin?”

“Revered,” replied Lin, with engaging candour, “the inconveniences of
living in a country so densely populated with demons, vampires,
spirits, ghouls, dragons, omens, forces and influences, both good and
bad, as our own unapproachably favoured Empire is, cannot be evaded
from one end of life to the other. How much greater is the difficulty
when the prescribed forms for baffling the ill-disposed among the
unseen appear to have been wrongly angled by those framing the Rites!”

Wang Ho made a gesture of despair. It conveyed to Lin’s mind the wise
reminder of N’sy-hing: “When one is inquiring for a way to escape from
an advancing tiger, flowers of speech assume the form of noisome
bird-weed.” He therefore continued:

“Hitherto it has been assumed that for a funeral robe to exercise its
most beneficial force it should be the work of a maiden of immature
years, the assumption being that, having a prolonged period of
existence before her, the influence of longevity would pass through
her fingers into the garment and in turn fortify the wearer.”

“Assuredly,” agreed Wang Ho anxiously. “Thus was the analogy outlined
to me by one skilled in the devices, and the logic of it seems
unassailable.”

“Yet,” objected Lin, with sympathetic concern in his voice, “how
unfortunate must be the position of a person involved in a robe that
has been embroidered by one who, instead of a long life, has been
marked out by the Destinies for premature decay and an untimely death!
For in that case the influence--”

“Such instances,” interrupted Wang Ho, helping himself profusely to
rice-spirit from a jar near at hand, “must providentially be of rare
occurrence?”

“Esteemed head,” replied Lin, helping Wang Ho to yet another
superfluity of rice-spirit, “there are moments when it behoves each of
us to maintain an unflaccid outline. Suspecting the true cause of your
declining radiance, I have, at an involved expenditure of seven taels
and three hand counts of brash cash, pursued this matter to its
ultimate source. The robe in question owes its attainment to one Min,
of the obscure house of Hsi, who recently ceased to have an existence
while her years yet numbered short of a score. Not only was it the last
work upon which she was engaged, but so closely were the two
identified that her abrupt Passing Beyond must certainly exercise a
corresponding effect upon any subsequent wearer.”

“Alas!” exclaimed Wang Ho, feeling many of the symptoms of contagion
already manifesting themselves about his body. “Was the infliction of
a painless nature?”

“As to whether it was leprosy, the spotted plague, or acute demoniacal
possession, the degraded Shen Heng maintains an unworthy silence.
Indeed, at the mention of Hsi Min’s name he wraps his garment about
his head and rolls upon the floor--from which the worst may be
inferred. They of Min’s house, however, are less capable of guile, and
for an adequate consideration, while not denying that Shen Heng has
paid them to maintain a stealthy silence, they freely admit that the
facts are as they have been stated.”

“In that case, Shen Heng shall certainly return the thousand taels in
exchange for this discreditable burial robe,” exclaimed Wang Ho
vindictively.

“Venerated personality,” said Lin, with unabated loyalty, “the
essential part of the development is to safeguard your own
incomparable being against every danger. Shen Heng may be safely left
to the avenging demons that are ever lying in wait for the
contemptible.”

“The first part of your remark is inspired,” agreed Wang Ho, his
incapable mind already beginning to assume a less funereal forecast.
“Proceed, regardless of all obstacles.”

“Consider the outcome of publicly compelling Shen Heng to undo the
transaction, even if it could be legally achieved! Word of the
calamity would pass on heated breath, each succeeding one becoming
more heavily embroidered than the robe itself. The yamens and palaces
of your distinguished friends would echo with the once honoured name
of Wang Ho, now associated with every form of malignant distemper and
impending fate. All would hasten to withdraw themselves from the
contagion of your overhanging end.”

“Am I, then,” demanded Wang Ho, “to suffer the loss of a thousand
taels and retain an inadequate and detestable burial robe that will
continue to exercise its malign influence over my being?”

“By no means,” replied Lin confidently. “But be warned by the precept:
‘Do not burn down your house in order to inconvenience even your chief
wife’s mother.’ Sooner or later a relation of Shen Heng’s will turn
his steps towards your inner office. You can then, without undue
effort, impose on him the thousand taels that you have suffered loss
from those of his house. In the meantime a device must be sought for
exchanging your dangerous but imposing-looking robe for one of proved
efficiency.”

“It begins to assume a definite problem in this person’s mind as to
whether such a burial robe exists,” declared Wang Ho stubbornly.

“Yet it cannot be denied, when a reliable system is adopted in the
fabrication,” protested Lin. “For a score and five years the one to
whom this person owes his being has worn such a robe.”

“To what age did your venerated father attain?” inquired the merchant,
with courteous interest.

“Fourscore years and three parts of yet another score.”

“And the robe in question eventually accompanied him when he Passed
Beyond?”

“Doubtless it will. He is still wearing it,” replied Lin, as one who
speaks of casual occurrences.

“Is he, then, at so advanced an age, in the state of an ordinary
existence?”

“Assuredly. Fortified by the virtue emanating from the garment
referred to, it is his deliberate intention to continue here for yet
another score of years at least.”

“But if such robes are of so dubious a nature how can reliance be
placed on any one?”

“Esteemed,” replied Lin, “it is a matter that has long been suspected
among the observant. Unfortunately, the Ruby Buttons of the past
mistakenly formulated that the essence of continuous existence was
imparted to a burial robe through the hands of a young maiden--hence
so many deplorable experiences. The proper person to be so employed is
undoubtedly one of ripe attainment, for only thereby can the claim to
possess the vital principle be assured.”

“Was the robe which has so effectively sustained your meritorious
father thus constructed?” inquired Wang Ho, inviting Lin to recline
himself upon a couch by a gesture as of one who discovers for the
first time that an honoured guest has been overlooked.

“It is of ancient make, and thereby in the undiscriminating eye
perhaps somewhat threadbare; but to the desert-traveller all wells are
sparkling,” replied Lin. “A venerable woman, inspired of certain magic
wisdom, which she wove into the texture, to the exclusion of the
showier qualities, designed it at the age of threescore years and
three short of another score. She was engaged upon its fabrication yet
another seven, and finally Passed Upwards at an attainment of three
hundred and thirty-three years, three moons, and three days, thus
conforming to all the principles of allowed witchcraft.”

“Cheng Lin,” said Wang Ho amiably, pouring out for the one whom he
addressed a full measure of rice-spirit, “the duty that an obedient
son owes even to a grasping and self-indulgent father has in the past
been pressed to a too-conspicuous front, at the expense of the
harmonious relation that should exist between a comfortably-positioned
servant and a generous and broad-minded master. Now in the matter of
these two coffin cloths--”

“My ears are widely opened towards your auspicious words,
benevolence,” replied Lin.

“You, Cheng Lin, are still too young to be concerned with the question
of Passing Beyond; your imperishable father is, one is compelled to
say, already old enough to go. As regards both persons, therefore, the
assumed virtue of one burial robe above another should be merely a
matter of speculative interest. Now if some arrangement should be
suggested, not unprofitable to yourself, by which one robe might be
imperceptibly substituted for another--and, after all, one burial robe
is very like another--”

“The prospect of deceiving a trustful and venerated sire is so ignoble
that scarcely any material gain would be a fitting compensation--were
it not for the fact that an impending loss of vision renders the
deception somewhat easy to accomplish. Proceed, therefore,
munificence, towards a precise statement of your open-handed
prodigality.”
                                   *

Indescribable was the bitterness of Shen Heng’s throat when Cheng Lin
unfolded his burden and revealed the Wang Ho thousand-tael burial
robe, with an unassuming request for the return of the purchase money,
either in gold or honourable paper, as the article was found
unsuitable. Shen Heng shook the rafters of the Golden Abacus with
indignation, and called upon his domestic demons, the spirits of
eleven generations of embroidering ancestors, and the illuminated
tablets containing the High Code and Authority of the Distinguished
Brotherhood of Coffin Cloth and Burial Robe Makers in protest against
so barbarous an innovation.

Bowing repeatedly and modestly expressing himself to the effect that
it was incredible that he was not justly struck dead before the
sublime spectacle of Shen Heng’s virtuous indignation, Cheng Lin
carefully produced the written lines of the agreement, gently
directing the Distinguished Brother’s fire-kindling eyes to an
indicated detail. It was a provision that the robe should be returned
and the purchase money restored if the garment was not all that was
therein stipulated: with his invariable painstaking loyalty Lin had
insisted upon this safeguard when he drew up the form, although,
probably from a disinclination to extol his own services, he had
omitted mentioning the fact to Wang Ho in their recent conversation.

With deprecating firmness Lin directed Shen Heng’s reluctant eyes to
another line--the unfortunate exaction of fifty taels in return for
the guarantee that the robe should be permeated with the spirit of
rejuvenation. As the undoubted embroiderer of the robe--one Min of the
family of Hsi--had admittedly Passed Beyond almost with the last
stitch, it was evident that she could only have conveyed by her touch
an entirely contrary emanation. If, as Shen Heng never ceased to
declare, Min was still somewhere alive, let her be produced and a
fitting token of reconciliation would be forthcoming; otherwise,
although with the acutest reluctance, it would be necessary to carry
the claim to the court of the chief District Mandarin, and (Cheng Lin
trembled at the sacrilegious thought) it would be impossible to
conceal the fact that Shen Heng employed persons of inauspicious omen,
and the high repute of coffin cloths from the Golden Abacus would be
lost. The hint arrested Shen Heng’s fingers in the act of tearing out
a handful of his beautiful pigtail. For the first time he noticed,
with intense self-reproach, that Lin was not reclining on a couch.

The amiable discussion that followed, conducted with discriminating
dignity by Shen Heng and conscientious humility on the part of Cheng
Lin, extended from one gong-stroke before noon until close upon the
time for the evening rice. The details arrived at were that Shen Heng
should deliver to Lin eight-hundred and seventy-five taels against the
return of the robe. He would also press upon that person a silk purse
with an onyx clasp, containing twenty-five taels, as a deliberate mark
of his individual appreciation and quite apart from anything to do
with the transaction on hand. All suggestions of anything other than
the strictest high-mindedness were withdrawn from both sides. In order
that the day should not be wholly destitute of sunshine at the Golden
Abacus, Lin declared his intention of purchasing, at a price not
exceeding three taels and a half, the oldest and most unattractive
burial robe that the stock contained. So moved was Shen Heng by this
delicate consideration that he refused to accept more than two taels
and three-quarters. Moreover, he added for Lin’s acceptance a small
jar of crystallized limpets.

To those short-sighted ones who profess to discover in the conduct of
Cheng Lin (now an official of the seventeenth grade and drawing his
quarterly sufficiency of taels in a distant province) something not
absolutely honourably arranged, it is only necessary to display the
ultimate end as it affected those persons in any way connected.

Wang Ho thus obtained a burial robe in which he was able to repose
absolute confidence. Doubtless it would have sustained him to an
advanced age had he not committed self-ending, in the ordinary way of
business, a few years later.

Shen Heng soon disposed of the returned garment for two thousand taels
to a person who had become prematurely wealthy owing to the distressed
state of the Empire. In addition he had sold, for more than two taels,
a robe which he had no real expectation of ever selling at all.

Min, made welcome at the house of Mean and Lin, removed with them to
that distant province. There she found that the remuneration for
burial robe embroidery was greater than she had ever obtained before.
With the money thus amassed she was able to marry an official of noble
rank.

The father of Cheng Lin had passed into the Upper Air many years
before the incidents with which this related narrative concerns
itself. He is thus in no way affected. But Lin did not neglect, in the
time of his prosperity, to transmit to him frequent sacrifices of
seasonable delicacies suited to his condition.



                             CHAPTER VIII

               The Timely Disputation among Those of an
                       Inner Chamber of Yu-ping

For the space of three days Ming-shu remained absent from Yu-ping, and
the affections of Kai Lung and Hwa-mei prospered. On the evening of
the third day the maiden stood beneath the shutter with a more
definite look, and Kai Lung understood that a further period of
unworthy trial was now at hand.

“Behold!” she explained, “at dawn the corrupt Ming-shu will pass
within our gates again, nor is it prudent to assume that his enmity
has lessened.”

“On the contrary,” replied Kai Lung, “like that unnatural reptile that
lives on air, his malice will have grown upon the voidness of its
cause. As the wise Ling-kwang remarks: ‘He who plants a vineyard with
one hand--’”

“Assuredly, beloved,” interposed Hwa-mei dexterously. “But our
immediate need is less to describe Ming-shu’s hate in terms of
classical analogy than to find a potent means of baffling its venom.”

“You are all-wise as usual,” confessed Kai Lung, with due humility. “I
will restrain my much too verbose tongue.”

“The invading Banners from the north have for the moment failed and
those who drew swords in their cause are flying to the hills. In
Yu-ping, therefore, loyalty wears a fully round face and about the
yamen of Shan Tien men speak almost in set terms. While these
conditions prevail, justice will continue to be administered precisely
as before. We have thus nothing to hope in that direction.”

“Yet in the ideal state of purity aimed at by the illustrious founders
of our race--” began Kai Lung, and ceased abruptly, remembering.

“As it is, we are in the state of Tsin in the fourteenth of the
heaven-sent Ching,” retorted Hwa-mei capably. “The insatiable Ming-shu
will continue to seek your life, calling to his aid every degraded
subterfuge. When the nature of these can be learned somewhat in
advance, as the means within my power have hitherto enabled us to do,
a trusty shield is raised in your defence.”

Kai Lung would have spoken of the length and the breadth of his
indebtedness, but she who stood below did not encourage this.

“Ming-shu’s absence makes this plan fruitless here to-day, and as a
consequence he may suddenly disclose a subtle snare to which your feet
must bend. In this emergency my strategy has been towards safeguarding
your irreplaceable life to-morrow at all hazard. Should this avail,
Ming-shu’s later schemes will present no baffling veil.”

“Your virtuous little finger is as strong as Ming-shu’s offensive
thumb,” remarked Kai Lung. “This person has no fear.”

“Doubtless,” acquiesced Hwa-mei. “But she who has spun the thread
knows the weakness of the net. Heed well to the end that no ineptness
may arise. Shan Tien of late extols your art, claiming that in every
circumstance you have a story fitted to the need.”

“He measures with a golden rule,” agreed Kai Lung. “Left to himself,
Shan Tien is a just, if superficial, judge.”

The knowledge of this boast, Hwa-mei continued to relate, had spread
to the inner chambers of the yamen, where the lesser ones vied with
each other in proclaiming the merit of the captive minstrel. Amid this
eulogy Hwa-mei moved craftily and played an insidious part, until she
who was their appointed head was committed to the claim. Then the
maiden raised a contentious voice.

“Our lord’s trout were ever salmon,” she declared, “and lo! here is
another great and weighty fish! Assuredly no living man is thus and
thus; or are the T’ang epicists returned to earth? Truly our noble one
is easily pleased--in many ways!” With these well-fitted words she
fixed her eyes upon the countenance of Shan Tien’s chief wife and
waited.

“The sun shines through his words and the moon adorns his utterances,”
 replied the chief wife, with unswerving loyalty, though she added, no
less suitably: “That one should please him easily and another therein
fail, despite her ceaseless efforts, is as the Destinies provide.”

“You are all-seeing,” admitted Hwa-mei generously; “nor is a locked
door any obstacle to your discovering eye. Let this arisement be
submitted to a facile test. Dependent from my ill-formed ears are
rings of priceless jade that have ever tinged your thoughts, while
about your shapely neck is a crystal charm, to which an unclouded
background would doubtless give some lustre. I will set aside the
rings and thou shalt set aside the charm. Then, at a chosen time, this
vaunted one shall attend before us here, and I having disclosed the
substance of a theme, he shall make good the claim. If he so does,
capably and without delay, thou shalt possess the jewels. But if, in
the judgment of these around, he shall fail therein, then are both
jewels mine. Is it so agreed?”

“It is agreed!” cried those who were the least concerned, seeing some
entertainment to themselves. “Shall the trial take place at once?”

“Not so,” replied Hwa-mei. “A sufficient space must be allowed for
this one wherein to select the matter of the test. To-morrow let it
be, before the hour of evening rice. And thou?”

“Inasmuch as it will enlarge the prescience of our lord in minds that
are light and vaporous, I also do consent,” replied the chief wife.
“Yet must he too be of our company, to be witness of the upholding of
his word and, if need be, to cast a decisive voice.”

“Thus,” continued Hwa-mei, as she narrated these events, “Shan Tien
is committed to the trial and thereby he must preserve you until that
hour. Tell me now the answer to the test, that I may frame the
question to agree.”

Kai Lung thought a while, then said:

“There is the story of Chang Tao. It concerns one who, bidden to do an
impossible task, succeeded though he failed, and shows how two
identically similar beings may be essentially diverse. To this should
be subjoined the apophthegm that that which we are eager to obtain may
be that which we have striven to avoid.”

“It suffices,” agreed Hwa-mei. “Bear well your part.”

“Still,” suggested Kai Lung, hoping to detain her retiring footsteps
for yet another span, “were it not better that I should fall short at
the test, thus to enlarge your word before your fellows?”

“And in so doing demean yourself, darken the face of Shan Tien’s
present regard, and alienate all those who stand around! O most obtuse
Kai Lung!”

“I will then bare my throat,” confessed Kai Lung. “The barbed thought
had assailed my mind that perchance the rings of precious jade lay
coiled around your heart. Thus and thus I spoke.”

“Thus also will I speak,” replied Hwa-mei, and her uplifted eyes held
Kai Lung by the inner fibre of his being. “Did I value them as I do,
and were they a single hair of my superfluous head, the whole head
were freely offered to a like result.”

With these noticeable words, which plainly testified the strength of
her emotion, the maiden turned and hastened on her way, leaving Kai
Lung gazing from the shutter in a very complicated state of
disquietude.


       The Story of Chang Tao, Melodious Vision and the Dragon

After Chang Tao had reached the age of manhood his grandfather took
him apart one day and spoke of a certain matter, speaking as a
philosopher whose mind has at length overflowed.

“Behold!” he said, when they were at a discreet distance aside, “your
years are now thus and thus, but there are still empty chairs where
there should be occupied cradles in your inner chamber, and the only
upraised voice heard in this spacious residence is that of your
esteemed father repeating the Analects. The prolific portion of the
tree of our illustrious House consists of its roots; its existence
onwards narrows down to a single branch which as yet has put forth no
blossoms.”

“The loftiest tower rises from the ground,” remarked Chang Tao
evasively, not wishing to implicate himself on either side as yet.

“Doubtless; and as an obedient son it is commendable that you should
close your ears, but as a discriminating father there is no reason why
I should not open my mouth,” continued the venerable Chang in a voice
from which every sympathetic modulation was withdrawn. “It is
admittedly a meritorious resolve to devote one’s existence to
explaining the meaning of a single obscure passage of one of the Odes,
but if the detachment necessary to the achievement results in a
hitherto carefully-preserved line coming to an incapable end, it would
have been more satisfactory to the dependent shades of our revered
ancestors that the one in question should have collected street
garbage rather than literary instances, or turned somersaults in place
of the pages of the Classics, had he but given his first care to
providing you with a wife and thereby safeguarding our unbroken
continuity.”

“My father is all-wise,” ventured Chang Tao dutifully, but observing
the nature of the other’s expression he hastened to add considerately,
“but my father’s father is even wiser.”

“Inevitably,” assented the one referred to; “not merely because he is
the more mature by a generation, but also in that he is thereby nearer
to the inspired ancients in whom the Cardinal Principles reside.”

“Yet, assuredly, there must be occasional exceptions to this rule of
progressive deterioration?” suggested Chang Tao, feeling that the
process was not without a definite application to himself.

“Not in our pure and orthodox line,” replied the other person firmly.
“To suggest otherwise is to admit the possibility of a son being the
superior of his own father, and to what a discordant state of things
would that contention lead! However immaturely you may think at
present, you will see the position at its true angle when you have
sons of your own.”

“The contingency is not an overhanging one,” said Chang Tao. “On the
last occasion when I reminded my venerated father of my age and
unmarried state, he remarked that, whether he looked backwards or
forwards, extinction seemed to be the kindest destiny to which our
House could be subjected.”

“Originality, carried to the length of eccentricity, is a censurable
accomplishment in one of official rank,” remarked the elder Chang
coldly. “Plainly it is time that I should lengthen the authority of my
own arm very perceptibly. If a father is so neglectful of his duty, it
is fitting that a grandfather should supply his place. This person
will himself procure a bride for you without delay.”

“The function might perhaps seem an unusual one,” suggested Chang Tao,
who secretly feared the outcome of an enterprise conducted under these
auspices.

“So, admittedly, are the circumstances. What suitable maiden suggests
herself to your doubtless better-informed mind? Is there one of the
house of Tung?”

“There are eleven,” replied Chang Tao, with a gesture of despair, “all
reputed to be untiring with their needle, skilled in the frugal
manipulation of cold rice, devout, discreet in the lines of their
attire, and so sombre of feature as to be collectively known to the
available manhood of the city as the Terror that Lurks for the Unwary.
Suffer not your discriminating footsteps to pause before that house, O
father of my father! Now had you spoken of Golden Eyebrows, daughter
of Kuo Wang--”

“It would be as well to open a paper umbrella in a thunderstorm as to
seek profit from an alliance with Kuo Wang. Crafty and ambitious, he
is already deep in questionable ventures, and high as he carries his
head at present, there will assuredly come a day when Kuo Wang will
appear in public with his feet held even higher than his crown.”

“The rod!” exclaimed Chang Tao in astonishment. “Can it really be that
one who is so invariably polite to me is not in every way immaculate?”

“Either bamboo will greet his feet or hemp adorn his neck,” persisted
the other, with a significant movement of his hands in the proximity
of his throat. “Walk backwards in the direction of that house, son of
my son. Is there not one Ning of the worthy line of Lo, dwelling
beneath the emblem of a Sprouting Aloe?”

“Truly,” agreed the youth, “but at an early age she came under the
malign influence of a spectral vampire, and in order to deceive the
creature she was adopted to the navigable portion of the river here,
and being announced as having Passed Above was henceforth regarded as
a red mullet.”

“Yet in what detail does that deter you?” inquired Chang, for the
nature of his grandson’s expression betrayed an acute absence of
enthusiasm towards the maiden thus concerned.

“Perchance the vampire was not deceived after all. In any case this
person dislikes red mullet,” replied the youth indifferently.

The venerable shook his head reprovingly.

“It is imprudent to be fanciful in matters of business,” he remarked.
“Lo Chiu, her father, is certainly the possessor of many bars of
silver, and, as it is truly written: ‘With wealth one may command
demons; without it one cannot summon even a slave.’”

“It is also said: ‘When the tree is full the doubtful fruit remains
upon the branch,’” retorted Chang Tao. “Are not maidens in this city
as the sand upon a broad seashore? If one opens and closes one’s hands
suddenly out in the Ways on a dark night, the chances are that three
or four will be grasped. A stone cast at a venture--”

“Peace!” interrupted the elder. “Witless spoke thus even in the days
of this person’s remote youth--only the virtuous did not then open and
close their hands suddenly in the Ways on dark nights. Is aught
reported of the inner affairs of Shen Yi, a rich philosopher who
dwells somewhat remotely on the Stone Path, out beyond the Seven
Terraced Bridge?”

Chang Tao looked up with a sharply awakening interest.

“It is well not to forget that one,” he replied. “He is spoken of as
courteous but reserved, in that he drinks tea with few though his
position is assured. Is not his house that which fronts on a
summer-seat domed with red copper?”

“It is the same,” agreed the other. “Speak on.”

“What I recall is meagre and destitute of point. Nevertheless, it so
chanced that some time ago this person was proceeding along the
further Stone Path when an aged female mendicant, seated by the
wayside, besought his charity. Struck by her destitute appearance he
bestowed upon her a few unserviceable broken cash, such as one retains
for the indigent, together with an appropriate blessing, when the hag
changed abruptly into the appearance of a young and alluring maiden,
who smilingly extended to this one her staff, which had meanwhile
become a graceful branch of flowering lotus. The manifestation was not
sustained, however, for as he who is relating the incident would have
received the proffered flower he found that his hand was closing on
the neck of an expectant serpent, which held in its mouth an agate
charm. The damsel had likewise altered, imperceptibly merging into the
form of an overhanging fig-tree, among whose roots the serpent twined
itself. When this person would have eaten one of the ripe fruit of the
tree he found that the skin was filled with a bitter dust, whereupon
he withdrew, convinced that no ultimate profit was likely to result
from the encounter. His departure was accompanied by the sound of
laughter, mocking yet more melodious than a carillon of silver gongs
hung in a porcelain tower, which seemed to proceed from the
summer-seat domed with red copper.”

“Some omen doubtless lay within the meeting,” said the elder Chang.
“Had you but revealed the happening fully on your return, capable
geomancers might have been consulted. In this matter you have fallen
short.”

“It is admittedly easier to rule a kingdom than to control one’s
thoughts,” confessed Chang Tao frankly. “A great storm of wind met
this person on his way back, and when he had passed through it, all
recollection of the incident had, for the time, been magically blown
from his mind.”

“It is now too late to question the augurs. But in the face of so
involved a portent it would be well to avert all thought from
Melodious Vision, wealthy Shen Yi’s incredibly attractive daughter.”

“It is unwise to be captious in affairs of negotiation,” remarked the
young man thoughtfully. “Is the smile of the one referred to such that
at the vision of it the internal organs of an ordinary person begin to
clash together, beyond the power of all control?”

“Not in the case of the one who is speaking,” replied the grandfather
of Chang Tao, “but a very illustrious poet, whom Shen Yi charitably
employed about his pig-yard, certainly described it as a ripple on the
surface of a dark lake of wine, when the moon reveals the hidden
pearls beneath; and after secretly observing the unstudied grace of
her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province
burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer
of performing elephants. But when maidens are as numerous as the
grains of sand--”

“Esteemed,” interposed Chang Tao, with smooth determination, “wisdom
lurks in the saying: ‘He who considers everything decides nothing.’
Already this person has spent an unprofitable score of years through
having no choice in the matter; at this rate he will spend yet another
score through having too much. Your timely word shall be his beacon.
Neither the disadvantage of Shen Yi’s oppressive wealth nor the
inconvenience of Melodious Vision’s excessive beauty shall deter him
from striving to fulfil your delicately expressed wish.”

“Yet,” objected the elder Chang, by no means gladdened at having the
decision thus abruptly lifted from his mouth, “so far, only a
partially formed project--”

“To a thoroughly dutiful grandson half a word from your benevolent
lips carries further than a full-throated command does from a less
revered authority.”

“Perchance. This person’s feet, however, are not liable to a similar
acceleration, and a period of adequate consideration must intervene
before they are definitely moving in the direction of Shen Yi’s
mansion. ‘Where the road bends abruptly take short steps,’ Chang Tao.”

“The necessity will be lifted from your venerable shoulders, revered,”
 replied Chang Tao firmly. “Fortified by your approving choice, this
person will himself confront Shen Yi’s doubtful countenance, and that
same bend in the road will be taken at a very sharp angle and upon a
single foot.”

“In person! It is opposed to the Usages!” exclaimed the venerable; and
at the contemplation of so undignified a course his voice prudently
withdrew itself, though his mouth continued to open and close for a
further period.

“‘As the mountains rise, so the river winds,’” replied Chang Tao, and
with unquenchable deference he added respectfully as he took his
leave, “Fear not, eminence; you will yet remain to see five
generations of stalwart he-children, all pressing forward to worship
your imperishable memory.”

In such a manner Chang Tao set forth to defy the Usages and--if
perchance it might be--to speak to Shen Yi face to face of Melodious
Vision. Yet in this it may be that the youth was not so much hopeful
of success by his own efforts as that he was certain of failure by the
elder Chang’s. And in the latter case the person in question might
then irrevocably contract him to a maiden of the house of Tung, or to
another equally forbidding. Not inaptly is it written: “To escape from
fire men will plunge into boiling water.”

Nevertheless, along the Stone Path many doubts and disturbances arose
within Chang Tao’s mind. It was not in this manner that men of weight
and dignity sought wives. Even if Shen Yi graciously overlooked the
absence of polite formality, would not the romantic imagination of
Melodious Vision be distressed when she learned that she had been
approached with so indelicate an absence of ceremony? “Here, again,”
 said Chang Tao’s self-reproach accusingly, “you have, as usual, gone
on in advance of both your feet and of your head. ‘It is one thing to
ignore the Rites: it is quite another to expect the gods to ignore the
Penalties.’ Assuredly you will suffer for it.”

It was at this point that Chang Tao was approached by one who had
noted his coming from afar, and had awaited him, for passers-by were
sparse and remote.

“Prosperity attend your opportune footsteps,” said the stranger
respectfully. “A misbegotten goat-track enticed this person from his
appointed line by the elusive semblance of an avoided li. Is there,
within your enlightened knowledge, the house of one Shen Yi, who makes
a feast to-day, positioned about this inauspicious region? It is
further described as fronting on a summer-seat domed with red copper.”

“There is such a house as you describe, at no great distance to the
west,” replied Chang Tao. “But that he marks the day with music had
not reached these superficial ears.”

“It is but among those of his inner chamber, this being the name-day
of one whom he would honour in a refined and at the same time
inexpensive manner. To that end am I bidden.”

“Of what does your incomparable exhibition consist?” inquired Chang
Tao.

“Of a variety of quite commonplace efforts. It is entitled
‘Half-a-gong-stroke among the No-realities; or Gravity-removing devoid
of Inelegance.’ Thus, borrowing the neck-scarf of the most
dignified-looking among the lesser ones assembled I will at once
discover among its folds the unsuspected presence of a family of
tortoises; from all parts of the person of the roundest-bodied
mandarin available I will control the appearance of an inexhaustible
stream of copper cash, and beneath the scrutinizing eyes of all a
bunch of paper chrysanthemums will change into the similitude of a
crystal bowl in whose clear depth a company of gold and silver carp
glide from side to side.”

“These things are well enough for the immature, and the sight of an
unnaturally stout official having an interminable succession of white
rabbits produced from the various recesses of his waistcloth
admittedly melts the austerity of the superficial of both sexes. But
can you, beneath the undeceptive light of day, turn a sere and
unattractive hag into the substantial image of a young and beguiling
maiden, and by a further complexity into a fruitful fig-tree; or
induce a serpent so far to forsake its natural instincts as to poise
on the extremity of its tail and hold a charm within its mouth?”

“None of these things lies within my admitted powers,” confessed the
stranger. “To what end does your gracious inquiry tend?”

“It is in the nature of a warning, for within the shadow of the house
you seek manifestations such as I describe pass almost without remark.
Indeed it is not unlikely that while in the act of displaying your
engaging but simple skill you may find yourself transformed into a
chameleon or saddled with the necessity of finishing your
gravity-removing entertainment under the outward form of a Manchurian
ape.”

“Alas!” exclaimed the other. “The eleventh of the moon was ever this
person’s unlucky day, and he would have done well to be warned by a
dream in which he saw an unsuspecting kid walk into the mouth of a
voracious tiger.”

“Undoubtedly the tiger was an allusion to the dangers awaiting you,
but it is not yet too late for you to prove that you are no kid,”
 counselled Chang Tao. “Take this piece of silver so that the
enterprise of the day may not have been unfruitful and depart with all
speed on a homeward path. He who speaks is going westward, and at the
lattice of Shen Yi he will not fail to leave a sufficient excuse for
your no-appearance.”

“Your voice has the compelling ring of authority, beneficence,”
 replied the stranger gratefully. “The obscure name of the one who
prostrates himself is Wo, that of his degraded father being Weh. For
this service he binds his ghost to attend your ghost through three
cycles of time in the After.”

“It is remitted,” said Chang Tao generously, as he resumed his way.
“May the path be flattened before your weary feet.”

Thus, unsought as it were, there was placed within Chang Tao’s grasp a
staff that might haply bear his weight into the very presence of
Melodious Vision herself. The exact strategy of the undertaking did
not clearly yet reveal itself, but “When fully ripe the fruit falls of
its own accord,” and Chang Tao was content to leave such detail to the
guiding spirits of his destinies. As he approached the outer door he
sang cheerful ballads of heroic doings, partly because he was glad,
but also to reassure himself.

“One whom he expects awaits,” he announced to the keeper of the gate.
“The name of Wo, the son of Weh, should suffice.”

“It does not,” replied the keeper, swinging his roomy sleeve
specifically. “So far it has an empty, short-stopping sound. It lacks
sparkle; it has no metallic ring. . . . He sleeps.”

“Doubtless the sound of these may awaken him,” said Chang Tao, shaking
out a score of cash.

“Pass in munificence. Already his expectant eyes rebuke the unopen
door.”

Although he had been in a measure prepared by Wo, Chang Tao was
surprised to find that three persons alone occupied the chamber to
which he was conducted. Two of these were Shen Yi and a trusted slave;
at the sight of the third Chang Tao’s face grew very red and the
deficiencies of his various attributes began to fill his mind with
dark forebodings, for this was Melodious Vision and no man could look
upon her without her splendour engulfing his imagination. No record of
her pearly beauty is preserved beyond a scattered phrase or two; for
the poets and minstrels of the age all burned what they had written,
in despair at the inadequacy of words. Yet it remains that whatever a
man looked for, that he found, and the measure of his requirement was
not stinted.

“Greeting,” said Shen Yi, with easy-going courtesy. He was a more
meagre man than Chang Tao had expected, his face not subtle, and his
manner restrained rather than oppressive. “You have come on a long and
winding path; have you taken your rice?”

“Nothing remains lacking,” replied Chang Tao, his eyes again
elsewhere. “Command your slave, Excellence.”

“In what particular direction do your agreeable powers of
leisure-beguiling extend?”

So far Chang Tao had left the full consideration of this inevitable
detail to the inspiration of the moment, but when the moment came the
prompting spirits did not disclose themselves. His hesitation became
more elaborate under the expression of gathering enlightenment that
began to appear in Melodious Vision’s eyes.

“An indifferent store of badly sung ballads,” he was constrained to
reply at length, “and--perchance--a threadbare assortment of involved
questions and replies.”

“Was it your harmonious voice that we were privileged to hear raised
beneath our ill-fitting window a brief space ago?” inquired Shen Yi.

“Admittedly at the sight of this noble palace I was impelled to put my
presumptuous gladness into song.”

“Then let it fain be the other thing,” interposed the maiden, with
decision. “Your gladness came to a sad end, minstrel.”

“Involved questions are by no means void of divertisement,” remarked
Shen Yi, with conciliatory mildness in his voice. “There was one,
turning on the contradictory nature of a door which under favourable
conditions was indistinguishable from an earthenware vessel, that
seldom failed to baffle the unalert in the days before the binding of
this person’s hair.”

“That was the one which it had been my feeble intention to propound,”
 confessed Chang Tao.

“Doubtless there are many others equally enticing,” suggested Shen Yi
helpfully.

“Alas,” admitted Chang Tao with conscious humiliation; “of all those
wherein I retain an adequate grasp of the solution, the complication
eludes me at the moment, and thus in a like but converse manner with
the others.”

“Esteemed parent,” remarked Melodious Vision, without emotion, “this
is neither a minstrel nor one in any way entertaining. It is merely
Another.”

“Another!” exclaimed Chang Tao in refined bitterness. “Is it possible
that after taking so extreme and unorthodox a course as to ignore the
Usages and advance myself in person I am to find that I have not even
the mediocre originality of being the first, as a recommendation?”

“If the matter is thus and thus, so far from being the first, you are
only the last of a considerable line of worthy and enterprising youths
who have succeeded in gaining access to the inner part of this not
really attractive residence on one pretext or another,” replied the
tolerant Shen Yi. “In any case you are honourably welcome. From the
position of your various features I now judge you to be Tao, only son
of the virtuous house of Chang. May you prove more successful in your
enterprise than those who have preceded you.”

“The adventure appears to be tending in unforeseen directions,” said
Chang Tao uneasily. “Your felicitation, benign, though doubtless gold
at heart, is set in a doubtful frame.”

“It is for your stalwart endeavour to assure a happy picture,” replied
Shen Yi, with undisturbed cordiality. “You bear a sword.”

“What added involvement is this?” demanded Chang Tao. “This one’s
thoughts and intention were not turned towards savagery and arms, but
in the direction of a pacific union of two distinguished lines.”

“In such cases my attitude has invariably been one of sympathetic
unconcern,” declared Shen Yi. “The weight of either side produces an
atmosphere of absolute poise that cannot fail to give full play to the
decision of the destinies.”

“But if this attitude is maintained on your part how can the proposal
progress to a definite issue?” inquired Chang Tao.

“So far, it never has so progressed,” admitted Shen Yi. “None of the
worthy and hard-striving young men--any of whom I should have been
overjoyed to greet as a son-in-law had my inopportune sense of
impartiality permitted it--has yet returned from the trial to claim
the reward.”

“Even the Classics become obscure in the dark. Clear your throat of
all doubtfulness, O Shen Yi, and speak to a definite end.”

“That duty devolves upon this person, O would-be propounder of
involved questions,” interposed Melodious Vision. Her voice was more
musical than a stand of hanging jewels touched by a rod of jade, and
each word fell like a separate pearl. “He who ignores the Usages must
expect to find the Usages ignored. Since the day when K’ung-tsz framed
the Ceremonies much water has passed beneath the Seven Terraced
Bridge, and that which has overflowed can never be picked up again. It
is no longer enough that you should come and thereby I must go; that
you should speak and I be silent; that you should beckon and I meekly
obey. Inspired by the uprisen sisterhood of the outer barbarian lands,
we of the inner chambers of the Illimitable Kingdom demand the right
to express ourselves freely on every occasion and on every subject,
whether the matter involved is one that we understand or not.”

“Your clear-cut words will carry far,” said Chang Tao deferentially,
and, indeed, Melodious Vision’s voice had imperceptibly assumed a
penetrating quality that justified the remark. “Yet is it fitting that
beings so superior in every way should be swayed by the example of
those who are necessarily uncivilized and rude?”

“Even a mole may instruct a philosopher in the art of digging,”
 replied the maiden, with graceful tolerance. “Thus among those uncouth
tribes it is the custom, when a valiant youth would enlarge his face
in the eyes of a maiden, that he should encounter forth and slay
dragons, to the imperishable glory of her name. By this beneficent
habit not only are the feeble and inept automatically disposed of, but
the difficulty of choosing one from among a company of suitors, all
apparently possessing the same superficial attributes, is materially
lightened.”

“The system may be advantageous in those dark regions,” admitted Chang
Tao reluctantly, “but it must prove unsatisfactory in our more
favoured land.”

“In what detail?” demanded the maiden, pausing in her attitude of
assured superiority.

“By the essential drawback that whereas in those neglected outer parts
there really are no dragons, here there really are. Thus--”

“Doubtless there are barbarian maidens for those who prefer to
encounter barbarian dragons, then,” exclaimed Melodious Vision, with a
very elaborately sustained air of no-concern.

“Doubtless,” assented Chang Tao mildly. “Yet having set forth in the
direction of a specific Vision it is this person’s intention to pursue
it to an ultimate end.”

“The quiet duck puts his foot on the unobservant worm,” murmured Shen
Yi, with delicate encouragement, adding “This one casts a more
definite shadow than those before.”

“Yet,” continued the maiden, “to all, my unbending word is this: he
who would return for approval must experience difficulties, overcome
dangers and conquer dragons. Those who do not adventure on the quest
will pass outward from this person’s mind.”

“And those who do will certainly Pass Upward from their own bodies,”
 ran the essence of the youth’s inner thoughts. Yet the network of her
unevadable power and presence was upon him; he acquiescently replied:

“It is accepted. On such an errand difficulties and dangers will not
require any especial search. Yet how many dragons slain will suffice
to win approval?”

“Crocodile-eyed one!” exclaimed Melodious Vision, surprised into
wrathfulness. “How many--” Here she withdrew in abrupt vehemence.

“Your progress has been rapid and profound,” remarked Shen Yi, as,
with flattering attention, he accompanied Chang Tao some part of the
way towards the door. “Never before has that one been known to leave a
remark unsaid; I do not altogether despair of seeing her married yet.
As regards the encounter with the dragon--well, in the case of the one
whispering in your ear there was the revered mother of the one whom he
sought. After all, a dragon is soon done with--one way or the other.”

In such a manner Chang Tao set forth to encounter dragons, assured
that difficulties and dangers would accompany him on either side. In
this latter detail he was inspired, but as the great light faded and
the sky-lantern rose in interminable succession, while the
unconquerable li ever stretched before his expectant feet, the
essential part of the undertaking began to assume a dubious facet. In
the valleys and fertile places he learned that creatures of this part
now chiefly inhabited the higher fastnesses, such regions being more
congenial to their wild and intractable natures. When, however, after
many laborious marches he reached the upper peaks of pathless
mountains the scanty crag-dwellers did not vary in their assertion
that the dragons had for some time past forsaken those heights for the
more settled profusion of the plains. Formerly, in both places they
had been plentiful, and all those whom Chang Tao questioned spoke
openly of many encounters between their immediate forefathers and such
Beings.

It was in the downcast frame of mind to which the delays in
accomplishing his mission gave rise that Chang Tao found himself
walking side by side with one who bore the appearance of an affluent
merchant. The northernward way was remote and solitary, but seeing
that the stranger carried no outward arms Chang Tao greeted him
suitably and presently spoke of the difficulty of meeting dragons, or
of discovering their retreats from dwellers in that region.

“In such delicate matters those who know don’t talk, and those who
talk don’t know,” replied the other sympathetically. “Yet for what
purpose should one who would pass as a pacific student seek to
encounter dragons?”

“For a sufficient private reason it is necessary that I should kill a
certain number,” replied Chang Tao freely. “Thus their absence
involves me in much ill-spared delay.”

At this avowal the stranger’s looks became more sombre, and he
breathed inwards several times between his formidable teeth before he
made reply.

“This is doubtless your angle, but there is another; nor is it well to
ignore the saying, ‘Should you miss the tiger be assured that he will
not miss you,’” he remarked at length. “Have you sufficiently
considered the eventuality of a dragon killing you?”

“It is no less aptly said: ‘To be born is in the course of nature, but
to die is according to the decree of destiny.’”

“That is a two-edged weapon, and the dragon may be the first to apply
it.”

“In that case this person will fall back upon the point of the adage:
‘It is better to die two years too soon than to live one year too
long,’” replied Chang Tao. “Should he fail in the adventure and thus
lose all hope of Melodious Vision, of the house of Shen, there will be
no further object in prolonging a wearisome career.”

“You speak of Melodious Vision, she being of the house of Shen,” said
the stranger, regarding his companion with an added scrutiny. “Is the
unmentioned part of her father’s honourable name Yi, and is his
agreeable house so positioned that it fronts upon a summer-seat domed
with red copper?”

“The description is exact,” admitted Chang Tao. “Have you, then, in
the course of your many-sided travels, passed that way?”

“It is not unknown to me,” replied the other briefly. “Learn now how
incautious had been your speech, and how narrowly you have avoided the
exact fate of which I warned you. The one speaking to you is in
reality a powerful dragon, his name being Pe-lung, from the
circumstance that the northern limits are within his sway. Had it not
been for a chance reference you would certainly have been struck dead
at the parting of our ways.”

“If this is so it admittedly puts a new face upon the matter,” agreed
Chang Tao. “Yet how can reliance be spontaneously placed upon so
incredible a claim? You are a man of moderate cast, neither diffident
nor austere, and with no unnatural attributes. All the dragons with
which history is concerned possess a long body and a scaly skin, and
have, moreover, the power of breathing fire at will.”

“That is easily put to the test.” No sooner had Pe-lung uttered these
words than he faded, and in his place appeared a formidable monster
possessing all the terror-inspiring characteristics of his kind. Yet
in spite of his tree-like eyebrows, fiercely-moving whiskers and
fire-breathing jaws, his voice was mild and pacific as he continued:
“What further proof can be required? Assuredly, the self-opinionated
spirit in which you conduct your quest will bring you no nearer to a
desired end.”

“Yet this will!” exclaimed Chang Tao, and suddenly drawing his
reliable sword he drove it through the middle part of the dragon’s
body. So expertly was the thrust weighted that the point of the weapon
protruded on the other side and scarred the earth. Instead of falling
lifeless to the ground, however, the Being continued to regard its
assailant with benignant composure, whereupon the youth withdrew the
blade and drove it through again, five or six times more. As this
produced no effect beyond rendering the edge of the weapon unfit for
further use, and almost paralysing the sinews of his own right arm,
Chang Tao threw away the sword and sat down on the road in order to
recall his breath. When he raised his head again the dragon had
disappeared and Pe-lung stood there as before.

“Fortunately it is possible to take a broad-minded view of your
uncourteous action, owing to your sense of the fitnesses being for the
time in abeyance through allegiance to so engaging a maiden as
Melodious Vision,” said Pe-lung in a voice not devoid of reproach.
“Had you but confided in me more fully I should certainly have
cautioned you in time. As it is, you have ended by notching your
otherwise capable weapon beyond repair and seriously damaging the
scanty cloak I wear”--indicating the numerous rents that marred his
dress of costly fur. “No wonder dejection sits upon your downcast
brow.”

“Your priceless robe is a matter of profuse regret and my self-esteem
can only be restored by your accepting in its place this threadbare
one of mine. My rust-eaten sword is unworthy of your second thought.
But certainly neither of these two details is the real reason of my
dark despair.”

“Disclose yourself more openly,” urged Pe-lung.

“I now plainly recognize the futility of my well-intentioned quest.
Obviously it is impossible to kill a dragon, and I am thus the sport
either of Melodious Vision’s deliberate ridicule or of my own
ill-arranged presumption.”

“Set your mind at rest upon that score: each blow was competently
struck and convincingly fatal. You may quite fittingly claim to have
slain half a dozen dragons at the least--none of the legendary
champions of the past has done more.”

“Yet how can so arrogant a claim be held, seeing that you stand before
me in the unimpaired state of an ordinary existence?”

“The explanation is simple and assuring. It is, in reality, very easy
to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead. The reason
for this is that the Five Essential Constituents of fire, water,
earth, wood and metal are blended in our bodies in the Sublime or
Indivisible proportion. Thus although it is not difficult by extreme
violence to disturb the harmonious balance of the Constituents, and so
bring about the effect of no-existence, they at once re-tranquillize
again, and all effect of the ill usage is spontaneously repaired.”

“That is certainly a logical solution, but it stands in doubtful stead
when applied to the familiar requirements of life; nor is it probable
that one so acute-witted as Melodious Vision would greet the claim
with an acquiescent face,” replied Chang Tao. “Not unnaturally is it
said: ‘He who kills tigers does not wear rat-skin sleeves.’ It would
be one thing to make a boast of having slain six dragons; it would be
quite another to be bidden to bring in their tails.”

“That is a difficulty which must be considered,” admitted Pe-lung,
“but a path round it will inevitably be found. In the meantime night
is beginning to encircle us, and many dark Powers will be freed and
resort to these inaccessible slopes. Accompany me, therefore, to my
bankrupt hovel, where you will be safe until you care to resume your
journey.”

To this agreeable proposal Chang Tao at once assented. The way was
long and laborious, “For,” remarked Pe-lung, “in an ordinary course I
should fly there in a single breath of time; but to seize an honoured
guest by the body-cloth and thus transfer him over the side of a
mountain is toilsome to the one and humiliating to the other.”

To beguile the time he spoke freely of the hardships of his lot.

“We dragons are frequently objects of envy at the hands of the
undiscriminating, but the few superficial privileges we enjoy are
heavily balanced by the exacting scope of our duties. Thus to-night it
is my degraded task to divert the course of the river flowing below
us, so as to overwhelm the misguided town of Yang, wherein swells a
sordid outcast who has reviled the Sacred Claw. In order to do this
properly it will be my distressing part to lie across the bed of the
stream, my head resting upon one bank and my tail upon the other, and
so remain throughout the rigour of the night.”

As they approached the cloudy pinnacle whereon was situated the
dragon’s cave, one came forth at a distance to meet them. As she drew
near, alternating emotions from time to time swayed Chang Tao’s mind.
From beneath a well-ruled eyebrow Pe-lung continued to observe him
closely.

“Fuh-sang, the unattractive daughter of my dwindling line,” remarked
the former person, with refined indifference. “I have rendered you
invisible, and she, as her custom is, would advance to greet me.”

“But this enchanting apparition is Melodious Vision!” exclaimed Chang
Tao. “What new bewilderment is here?”

“Since you have thus expressed yourself, I will now throw off the mask
and reveal fully why I have hitherto spared your life, and for what
purpose I have brought you to these barren heights,” replied Pe-lung.
“In the past Shen Yi provoked the Deities, and to mark their
displeasure it was decided to take away his she-child and to
substitute for it one of demoniac birth. Accordingly Fuh-sang, being
of like age, was moulded to its counterpart, and an attendant gnome
was despatched with her secretly to make the change. Becoming
overwhelmed with the fumes of rice-spirit, until then unknown to his
simple taste, this clay-brained earth-pig left the two she-children
alone for a space while he slept. Discovering each other to be the
creature of another part, they battled together and tore from one
another the signs of recognition. When the untrustworthy gnome
recovered from his stupor he saw what he had done, but being
terror-driven he took up one of the she-children at a venture and
returned with a pliant tale. It was not until a few moons ago that
while in a close extremity he confessed his crime. Meanwhile Shen Yi
had made his peace with those Above and the order being revoked the
she-children had been exchanged again. Thus the matter rests.”

“Which, then, of the twain is she inherent of your house and which
Melodious Vision?” demanded Chang Tao in some concern. “The matter can
assuredly not rest thus.”

“That,” replied Pe-lung affably, “it will be your engaging task to
unravel, and to this end will be your opportunity of closely watching
Fuh-sang’s unsuspecting movements in my absence through the night.”

“Yet how should I, to whom the way of either maiden is as yet no more
than the title-page of a many-volumed book, succeed where the father
native to one has failed?”

“Because in your case the incentive will be deeper. Destined, as you
doubtless are, to espouse Melodious Vision, the Forces connected with
marriage and its Rites will certainly endeavour to inspire you. This
person admittedly has no desire to nurture one who should prove to be
of merely human seed, but your objection to propagating a race of
dragonets turns on a keener edge. Added to all, a not unnatural
disinclination to be dropped from so great a height as this into so
deep and rocky a valley as that will conceivably lend wings to your
usually nimble-footed mind.”

While speaking to Chang Tao in this encouraging strain, Pe-lung was
also conversing suitably with Fuh-sang, who had by this time joined
them, warning her of his absence until the dawn, and the like. When he
had completed his instruction he stroked her face affectionately,
greeting Chang Tao with a short but appropriate farewell, and changing
his form projected himself downwards into the darkness of the valley
below. Recognizing that the situation into which he had been drawn
possessed no other outlet, Chang Tao followed Fuh-sang on her backward
path, and with her passed unsuspected into the dragon’s cave.

Early as was Pe-lung’s return on the ensuing morning, Chang Tao stood
on a rocky eminence to greet him, and the outline of his face, though
not altogether free of doubt, was by no means hopeless. Pe-lung still
retained the impressive form of a gigantic dragon as he cleft the
Middle Air, shining and iridescent, each beat of his majestic wings
being as a roll of thunder and the skittering of sand and water from
his crepitant scales leaving blights and rain-storms in his wake. When
he saw Chang Tao he drove an earthward angle and alighting near at
hand considerately changed into the semblance of an affluent merchant
as he approached.

“Greeting,” he remarked cheerfully. “Did you find your early rice?”

“It has sufficed,” replied Chang Tao. “How is your own incomparable
stomach?”

Pe-lung pointed to the empty bed of the deflected river and moved his
head from side to side as one who draws an analogy to his own
condition. “But of your more pressing enterprise,” he continued, with
sympathetic concern: “have you persevered to a fruitful end, or will
it be necessary--?” And with tactful feeling he indicated the gesture
of propelling an antagonist over the side of a precipice rather than
allude to the disagreeable contingency in spoken words.

“When the oil is exhausted the lamp goes out,” admitted Chang Tao,
“but my time is not yet come. During the visionary watches of the
night my poising mind was sustained by Forces as you so presciently
foretold, and my groping hand was led to an inspired solution of the
truth.”

“This points to a specific end. Proceed,” urged Pe-lung, for Chang Tao
had hesitated among his words as though their import might not be
soothing to the other’s mind.

“Thus it is given me to declare: she who is called Melodious Vision is
rightly of the house of Shen, and Fuh-sang is no less innate of your
exalted tribe. The erring gnome, in spite of his misdeed, was but a
finger of the larger hand of destiny, and as it is, it is.”

“This assurance gladdens my face, no less for your sake than for my
own,” declared Pe-lung heartily. “For my part, I have found a way to
enlarge you in the eyes of those whom you solicit. It is a custom with
me that every thousand years I should discard my outer skin--not that
it requires it, but there are certain standards to which we
better-class dragons must conform. These sloughs are hidden beneath a
secret stone, beyond the reach of the merely vain or curious. When you
have disclosed the signs by which I shall have securance of Fuh-sang’s
identity I will pronounce the word and the stone being thus released
you shall bear away six suits of scales in token of your prowess.”

Then replied Chang Tao: “The signs, assuredly. Yet, omnipotence,
without your express command the specific detail would be elusive to
my respectful tongue.”

“You have the authority of my extended hand,” conceded Pe-lung
readily, raising it as he spoke. “Speak freely.”

“I claim the protection of its benignant shadow,” said Chang Tao, with
content. “You, O Pe-lung, are one who has mingled freely with
creatures of every kind in all the Nine Spaces. Yet have you not, out
of your vast experience thus gained, perceived the essential wherein
men and dragons differ? Briefly and devoid of graceful metaphor, every
dragon, esteemed, would seem to possess a tail; beings of my part have
none.”

For a concise moment the nature of Pe-lung’s reflection was clouded in
ambiguity, though the fact that he became entirely enveloped in a
dense purple vapour indicated feelings of more than usual vigour. When
this cleared away it left his outer form unchanged indeed, but the
affable condescension of his manner was merged into one of dignified
aloofness.

“Certainly all members of our enlightened tribe have tails,” he
replied, with distant precision, “nor does this one see how any other
state is possible. Changing as we constantly do, both male and female,
into Beings, Influences, Shadows and unclothed creatures of the lower
parts, it is essential for our mutual self-esteem that in every
manifestation we should be thus equipped. At this moment, though in
the guise of a substantial trader, I possess a tail--small but
adequate. Is it possible that you and those of your insolvent race are
destitute?”

“In this particular, magnificence, I and those of my threadbare
species are most lamentably deficient. To the proving of this end
shall I display myself?”

“It is not necessary,” said Pe-lung coldly. “It is inconceivable that,
were it otherwise, you would admit the humiliating fact.”

“Yet out of your millenaries of experience you must already--”

“It is well said that after passing a commonplace object a hundred
times a day, at nightfall its size and colour are unknown to one,”
 replied Pe-lung. “In this matter, from motives which cannot have been
otherwise than delicate, I took too much for granted it would
seem. . . . Then you--all--Shen Yi, Melodious Vision, the military
governor of this province, even the sublime Emperor--all--?”

“All tailless,” admitted Chang Tao, with conscious humility.
“Nevertheless there is a tradition that in distant aeons--”

“Doubtless on some issue you roused the High Ones past forgiveness and
were thus deprived as the most signal mark of their displeasure.”

“Doubtless,” assented Chang Tao, with unquenchable politeness.

“Coming to the correct attitude that you have maintained throughout, it
would appear that during the silent gong-strokes of the night, by some
obscure and indirect guidance it was revealed to you that Fuh--that
any Being of my superior race was, on the contrary--” The menace of
Pe-lung’s challenging eye, though less direct and assured than
formerly, had the manner of being uncertainly restrained by a single
much-frayed thread, but Chang Tao continued to meet it with respectful
self-possession.

“The inference is unflinching,” he replied acquiescently. “I prostrate
myself expectantly.”

“You have competently performed your part,” admitted Pe-lung, although
an occasional jet of purple vapour clouded his upper person and the
passage of his breath among his teeth would have been distasteful to
one of sensitive refinement. “Nothing remains but the fulfilling of my
iron word.”

Thereupon he pronounced a mystic sign and revealing the opening to a
cave he presently brought forth six sets of armoured skin. Binding
these upon Chang Tao’s back, he dismissed him, yet the manner of his
parting was as of one who is doubtful even to the end.

Thus equipped--

But who having made a distant journey into Outer Land speaks lengthily
of the level path of his return, or of the evening glow upon the
gilded roof of his awaiting home? Thus, this limit being reached in
the essential story of Chang Tao, Melodious Vision and the Dragon, he
who relates their commonplace happenings bows submissively.

Nevertheless it is true that once again in a later time Chang Tao
encountered in the throng one whom he recognized. Encouraged by the
presence of so many of his kind, he approached the other and saluted
him.

“Greeting, O Pe-lung,” he said, with outward confidence. “What bends
your footsteps to this busy place of men?”

“I come to buy an imitation pig-tail to pass for one,” replied
Pe-lung, with quiet composure. “Greeting, valorous champion! How fares
Melodious Vision?”

“Agreeably so,” admitted Chang Tao, and then, fearing that so far his
reply had been inadequate, he added: “Yet, despite the facts, there
are moments when this person almost doubts if he did not make a wrong
decision in the matter after all.”

“That is a very common complaint,” said Pe-lung, becoming most
offensively amused.



                              CHAPTER IX

         The Propitious Dissension between Two whose General
         Attributes have already been sufficiently Described

When Kai Lung had related the story of Chang Tao and had made an end
of speaking, those who were seated there agreed with an undivided
voice that he had competently fulfilled his task. Nor did Shan Tien
omit an approving word, adding:

“On one point the historical balance of a certain detail seemed open
to contention. Accompany me, therefore, to my own severe retreat,
where this necessarily flat and unentertaining topic can be looked at
from all round.”

When they were alone together the Mandarin unsealed a jar of wine,
apportioned melon seeds, and indicated to Kai Lung that he should sit
upon the floor at a suitable distance from himself.

“So long as we do not lose sight of the necessity whereby my official
position will presently involve me in condemning you to a painful
death, and your loyal subjection will necessitate your whole-hearted
co-operation in the act, there is no reason why the flower of literary
excellence should wither for lack of mutual husbandry,” remarked the
broad-minded official tolerantly.

“Your enlightened patronage is a continual nourishment to the soil of
my imagination,” replied the story teller.

“As regards the doings of Chang Tao and of the various other
personages who unite with him to form the fabric of the narrative,
would not a strict adherence to the fable in its classical simplicity
require the filling in of certain details which under your elusive
tongue seemed, as you proceeded, to melt imperceptibly into a discreet
background?”

“Your voice is just,” confessed Kai Lung, “and your harmonious ear
corrects the deficiencies of my afflicted style. Admittedly in the
story of Chang Tao there are here and there analogies which may be
fittingly left to the imagination as the occasion should demand. Is it
not rightly said: ‘Discretion is the handmaiden of Truth’? and in that
spacious and well-appointed palace there is every kind of vessel, but
the meaner are not to be seen in the more ceremonial halls. Thus he
who tells a story prudently suits his furnishing to the condition of
his hearers.”

“Wisdom directs your course,” replied Shan Tien, “and propriety sits
beneath your supple tongue. As the necessity for this very seemly
expurgation is now over, I would myself listen to your recital of the
fullest and most detailed version--purely, let it be freely stated, in
order to judge whether its literary qualities transcend those of the
other.”

“I comply, benevolence,” replied Kai Lung. “This rendering shall be to
the one that has gone before as a spreading banyan-tree overshadowing
an immature shrub.”

“Forbear!” exclaimed a discordant voice, and the sour-eyed Ming-shu
revealed his inopportune presence from behind a hanging veil. “Is it
meet, O eminence, that in this person’s absence you should thus
consort on terms of fraternity with tomb-riflers and grain-thieves?”

“The reproach is easily removed,” replied Shan Tien hospitably. “Join
the circle of our refined felicity and hear at full length by what
means the ingenious Chang Tao--”

“There are moments when one despairs before the spectacle of authority
thus displayed,” murmured Ming-shu, his throat thickening with
acrimony. “Understand, pre-eminence,” he continued more aloud, “that
not this one’s absence but your own presence is the distressing
feature, as being an obstacle in the path of that undeviating justice
in which our legal system is embedded. From the first moment of our
encountering it had been my well-intentioned purpose that loyal
confidence should be strengthened and rebellion cowed by submitting
this opportune but otherwise inoffensive stranger to a sordid and
degrading end. Yet how shall this beneficent example be attained if on
every occasion--”

“Your design is a worthy and enlightened one,” interposed the
Mandarin, with dignity. “What you have somewhat incapably overlooked,
Ming-shu, is the fact that I never greet this intelligent and
painstaking young man without reminding him of the imminence of his
fate and of his suitability for it.”

“Truth adorns your lips and accuracy anoints your palate,”
 volunteered Kai Lung.

“Be this as the destinies permit, there is much that is circuitous in
the bending of events,” contended Ming-shu stubbornly. “Is it by
chance or through some hidden tricklage that occasion always finds Kai
Lung so adequately prepared?”

“It is, as the story of Chang Tao has this day justified, and as this
discriminating person has frequently maintained, that the one in
question has a story framed to meet the requirement of every
circumstance,” declared Shan Tien.

“Or that each requirement is subtly shaped to meet his preparation,”
 retorted Ming-shu darkly. “Be that as it shall perchance ultimately
appear, it is undeniable that your admitted weaknesses--”

“Weaknesses!” exclaimed the astonished Mandarin, looking around the
room as though to discover in what crevice the unheard-of attributes
were hidden. “This person’s weaknesses? Can the sounding properties of
this ill-constructed roof thus pervert one word into the semblance of
another? If not, the bounds set to the admissible from the taker-down
of the spoken word, Ming-shu, do not in their most elastic moods
extend to calumny and distortion. . . . The one before you has no
weaknesses. . . . Doubtless before another moon has changed you will
impute to him actual faults!”

“Humility directs my gaze,” replied Ming-shu, with downcast eyes, and
he plainly recognized that his presumption had been too maintained.
“Yet,” he added, with polished irony, “there is a well-timed adage
that rises to the lips: ‘Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a
missile at the Tablets!’”

“Truly,” agreed Shan Tien, with smooth concurrence, “the line is not
unknown to me. Who, however, was the one in question and under what
provocation did he so behave?”

“That is beyond the province of the saying,” replied Ming-shu. “Nor is
it known to my remembrance.”

“Then out of your own mouth a fitting test is set, which if Kai Lung
can agreeably perform will at once demonstrate a secret and a guilty
confederacy between you both. Proceed, O story-teller, to incriminate
Ming-shu together with yourself!”

“I proceed, High Excellence, but chiefly to the glorification of your
all-discerning mind,” replied Kai Lung.


            The Story of Yuen Yan, of the Barber Chou-hu,
                        and His Wife Tsae-che

“Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a missile at the Tablets,” is
a proverb of encouragement well worn throughout the Empire; but
although it is daily on the lips of some it is doubtful if a single
person could give an intelligent account of the Yuen Yan in question
beyond repeating the outside facts that he was of a humane and
consistent disposition and during the greater part of his life
possessed every desirable attribute of wealth, family and virtuous
esteem. If more closely questioned with reference to the specific
incident alluded to, these persons would not hesitate to assert that
the proverb was not to be understood in so superficial a sense,
protesting, with much indignation, that Yuen Yan was of too courteous
and lofty a nature to be guilty of so unseemly an action, and
contemptuously inquiring what possible reason one who enjoyed every
advantage in this world and every prospect of an unruffled felicity in
The Beyond could have for behaving in so outrageous a manner. This
explanation by no means satisfied the one who now narrates, and after
much research he has brought to light the forgotten story of Yuen
Yan’s early life, which may be thus related.

At the period with which this part of the narrative is concerned, Yuen
Yan dwelt with his mother in one of the least attractive of the arches
beneath the city wall. As a youth it had been his intention to take an
exceptionally high place in the public examinations, and, rising at
once to a position of responsible authority, to mark himself out for
continual promotion by the exercise of unfailing discretion and
indomitable zeal. Having saved his country in a moment of acute
national danger, he contemplated accepting a title of unique
distinction and retiring to his native province, where he would build
an adequate palace which he had already planned out down to the most
trivial detail. There he purposed spending the remainder of his life,
receiving frequent tokens of regard from the hand of the gratified
Emperor, marrying an accomplished and refined wife who would doubtless
be one of the princesses of the Imperial House, and conscientiously
regarding The Virtues throughout. The transition from this sumptuously
contrived residence to a damp arch in the city wall, and from the high
destiny indicated to the occupation of leading from place to place a
company of sightless mendicants, had been neither instantaneous nor
painless, but Yuen Yan had never for a moment wavered from the
enlightened maxims which he had adopted as his guiding principles, nor
did he suffer unending trials to lessen his reverence for The Virtues.
“Having set out with the full intention of becoming a wealthy
mandarin, it would have been a small achievement to have reached that
position with unshattered ideals,” he frequently remarked; “but having
thus set out it is a matter for more than ordinary congratulation to
have fallen to the position of leading a string of blind beggars about
the city and still to retain unimpaired the ingenuous beliefs and
aspirations of youth.”

“Doubtless,” replied his aged mother, whenever she chanced to overhear
this honourable reflection, “doubtless the foolish calf who innocently
puts his foot into the jelly finds a like consolation. This person,
however, would gladly exchange the most illimitable moral satisfaction
engendered by acute poverty for a few of the material comforts of a
sordid competence, nor would she hesitate to throw into the balance
all the aspirations and improving sayings to be found within the
Classics.”

“Esteemed mother,” protested Yan, “more than three thousand years ago
the royal philosopher Nin-hyo made the observation: ‘Better an
earth-lined cave from which the stars are visible than a golden pagoda
roofed over with iniquity,’ and the saying has stood the test of
time.”

“The remark would have carried a weightier conviction if the
broad-minded sovereign had himself first stood the test of lying for a
few years with enlarged joints and afflicted bones in the abode he so
prudently recommended for others,” replied his mother, and without
giving Yuen Yan any opportunity of bringing forward further proof of
their highly-favoured destiny she betook herself to her own straw at
the farthest end of the arch.

Up to this period of his life Yuen Yan’s innate reverence and courtesy
of manner had enabled him to maintain an impassive outlook in the face
of every discouragement, but now he was exposed to a fresh series of
trials in addition to the unsympathetic attitude which his mother
never failed to unroll before him. It has already been expressed that
Yuen Yan’s occupation and the manner by which he gained his livelihood
consisted in leading a number of blind mendicants about the streets of
the city and into the shops and dwelling-places of those who might
reasonably be willing to pay in order to be relieved of their
presence. In this profession Yan’s venerating and custom-regarding
nature compelled him to act as leaders of blind beggars had acted
throughout all historical times and far back into the dim recesses of
legendary epochs and this, in an era when the leisurely habits of the
past were falling into disuse, and when rivals and competitors were
springing up on all sides, tended almost daily to decrease the
proceeds of his labour and to sow an insidious doubt even in his
unquestioning mind.

In particular, among those whom Yan regarded most objectionably was
one named Ho. Although only recently arrived in the city from a
country beyond the Bitter Water, Ho was already known in every quarter
both to the merchants and stallkeepers, who trembled at his
approaching shadow, and to the competing mendicants who now counted
their cash with two fingers where they had before needed both hands.
This distressingly active person made no secret of his methods and
intention; for, upon his arrival, he plainly announced that his object
was to make the foundations of benevolence vibrate like the strings of
a many-toned lute, and he compared his general progress through the
haunts of the charitably disposed to the passage of a highly-charged
firework through an assembly of meditative turtles. He was usually
known, he added, as “the rapidly-moving person,” or “the one devoid of
outline,” and it soon became apparent that he was also quite destitute
of all dignified restraint. Selecting the place of commerce of some
wealthy merchant, Ho entered without hesitation and thrusting aside
the waiting customers he continued to strike the boards impatiently
until he gained the attention of the chief merchant himself.
“Honourable salutations,” he would say, “but do not entreat this
illiterate person to enter the inner room, for he cannot tarry to
discuss the movements of the planets or the sublime Emperor’s health.
Behold, for half-a-tael of silver you may purchase immunity from his
discreditable persistence for seven days; here is the acknowledgement
duly made out and attested. Let the payment be made in pieces of metal
and not in paper obligations.” Unless immediate compliance followed Ho
at once began noisily to cast down the articles of commerce, to roll
bodily upon the more fragile objects, to become demoniacally possessed
on the floor, and to resort to a variety of expedients until all the
customers were driven forth in panic.

In the case of an excessively stubborn merchant he had not hesitated
to draw a formidable knife and to gash himself in a superficial but
very imposing manner; then he had rushed out uttering cries of terror,
and sinking down by the door had remained there for the greater part
of the day, warning those who would have entered to be upon their
guard against being enticed in and murdered, at the same time groaning
aloud and displaying his own wounds. Even this seeming disregard of
time was well considered, for when the tidings spread about the city
other merchants did not wait for Ho to enter and greet them, but
standing at their doors money in hand they pressed it upon him the
moment he appeared and besought him to remove his distinguished
presence from their plague-infected street. To the ordinary mendicants
of the city this stress of competition was disastrous, but to Yuen Yan
it was overwhelming. Thoroughly imbued with the deferential systems of
antiquity, he led his band from place to place with a fitting regard
for the requirements of ceremonial etiquette and a due observance of
leisurely unconcern. Those to whom he addressed himself he approached
with obsequious tact, and in the face of refusal to contribute to his
store his most violent expedient did not go beyond marshalling his
company of suppliants in an orderly group upon the shop floor, where
they sang in unison a composed chant extolling the fruits of
munificence and setting forth the evil plight which would certainly
attend the flinty-stomached in the Upper Air. In this way Yuen Yan had
been content to devote several hours to a single shop in the hope of
receiving finally a few pieces of brass money; but now his
persecutions were so mild that the merchants and vendors rather
welcomed him by comparison with the intolerable Ho, and would on no
account pay to be relieved of the infliction of his presence. “Have we
not disbursed in one day to the piratical Ho thrice the sum which we
had set by to serve its purpose for a hand-count of moons; and do we
possess the Great Secret?” they cried. “Nevertheless, dispose your
engaging band of mendicants about the place freely until it suits your
refined convenience to proceed elsewhere, O meritorious Yuen Yan, for
your unassuming qualities have won our consistent regard; but an
insatiable sponge has already been laid upon the well-spring of our
benevolence and the tenacity of our closed hand is inflexible.”

Even the passive mendicants began to murmur against his leadership,
urging him that he should adopt some of the simpler methods of the
gifted Ho and thereby save them all from an otherwise inevitable
starvation. The Emperor Kai-tsing, said the one who led their voices
(referring in his malignant bitterness to a sovereign of the previous
dynasty), was dead, although the fact had doubtless escaped Yuen Yan’s
deliberate perception. The methods of four thousand years ago were
becoming obsolete in the face of a strenuous competition, and unless
Yuen Yan was disposed to assume a more highly-coiled appearance they
must certainly address themselves to another leader.

It was on this occasion that the incident took place which has passed
down in the form of an inspiriting proverb. Yuen Yan had
conscientiously delivered at the door of his abode the last of his
company and was turning his footsteps towards his own arch when he
encountered the contumelious Ho, who was likewise returning at the
close of a day’s mendicancy--but with this distinction: that, whereas
Ho was followed by two stalwart attendants carrying between them a
sack full of money, Yan’s share of his band’s enterprise consisted
solely of one base coin of a kind which the charitable set aside for
bestowing upon the blind and quite useless for all ordinary purposes
of exchange. A few paces farther on Yan reached the Temple of the
Unseen Forces and paused for a moment, as his custom was, to cast his
eyes up to the tablets engraved with The Virtues, before which some
devout person nightly hung a lantern. Goaded by a sudden impulse, Yan
looked each way about the deserted street, and perceiving that he was
alone he deliberately extended his out-thrust tongue towards the
inspired precepts. Then taking from an inner sleeve the base coin he
flung it at the inscribed characters and observed with satisfaction
that it struck the verse beginning, “The Rewards of a Quiescent and
Mentally-introspective Life are Unbounded--”

When Yan entered his arch some hours later his mother could not fail
to perceive that a subtle change had come over his manner of behaving.
Much of the leisurely dignity had melted out of his footsteps, and he
wore his hat and outer garments at an angle which plainly testified
that he was a person who might be supposed to have a marked objection
to returning home before the early hours of the morning. Furthermore,
as he entered he was chanting certain melodious words by which he
endeavoured to convey the misleading impression that his chief
amusement consisted in defying the official watchers of the town, and
he continually reiterated a claim to be regarded as “one of the
beardless goats.” Thus expressing himself, Yan sank down in his
appointed corner and would doubtlessly soon have been floating
peacefully in the Middle Distance had not the door been again thrown
open and a stranger named Chou-hu entered.

“Prosperity!” said Chou-hu courteously, addressing himself to Yan’s
mother. “Have you eaten your rice? Behold, I come to lay before you a
very attractive proposal regarding your son.”

“The flower attracts the bee, but when he departs it is to his lips
that the honey clings,” replied the woman cautiously; for after Yan’s
boastful words on entering she had a fear lest haply this person might
be one on behalf of some guardian of the night whom her son had flung
across the street (as he had specifically declared his habitual
treatment of them to be) come to take him by stratagem.

“Does the pacific lamb become a wolf by night?” said Chou-hu,
displaying himself reassuringly. “Wrap your ears well round my words,
for they may prove very remunerative. It cannot be a matter outside
your knowledge that the profession of conducting an assembly of blind
mendicants from place to place no longer yields the wage of even a
frugal existence in this city. In the future, for all the sympathy
that he will arouse, Yan might as well go begging with a silver bowl.
In consequence of his speechless condition he will be unable to
support either you or himself by any other form of labour, and your
line will thereupon become extinct and your standing in the Upper Air
be rendered intolerable.”

“It is a remote contingency, but, as the proverb says, ‘The wise hen
is never too old to dread the Spring,’” replied Yan’s mother, with
commendable prudence. “By what means, then, may this calamity be
averted?”

“The person before you,” continued Chou-hu, “is a barber and
embellisher of pig-tails from the street leading to the Three-tiered
Pagoda of Eggs. He has long observed the restraint and moderation of
Yan’s demeanour and now being in need of one to assist him his
earliest thought turns to him. The affliction which would be an
insuperable barrier in all ordinary cases may here be used to
advantage, for being unable to converse with those seated before him,
or to hear their salutations, Yan will be absolved from the necessity
of engaging in diffuse and refined conversation, and in consequence he
will submit at least twice the number of persons to his dexterous
energies. In that way he will secure a higher reward than this person
could otherwise afford and many additional comforts will doubtless
fall into the sleeve of his engaging mother.”

At this point the woman began to understand that the sense in which
Chou-hu had referred to Yan’s speechless condition was not that which
she had at the time deemed it to be. It may here be made clear that it
was Yuen Yan’s custom to wear suspended about his neck an inscribed
board bearing the words, “Speechless, and devoid of the faculty of
hearing,” but this originated out of his courteous and deferential
nature (for to his self-obliterative mind it did not seem respectful
that he should appear to be better endowed than those whom he led),
nor could it be asserted that he wilfully deceived even the passing
stranger, for he would freely enter into conversation with anyone whom
he encountered. Nevertheless an impression had thus been formed in
Chou-hu’s mind and the woman forbore to correct it, thinking that it
would be scarcely polite to assert herself better informed on any
subject than he was, especially as he had spoken of Yan thereby
receiving a higher wage. Yan himself would certainly have revealed
something had he not been otherwise employed. Hearing the conversation
turn towards his afflictions, he at once began to search very
industriously among the straw upon which he lay for the inscribed
board in question; for to his somewhat confused imagination it seemed
at the time that only by displaying it openly could he prove to
Chou-hu that he was in no way deficient. As the board was found on the
following morning nailed to the great outer door of the Hall of Public
Justice (where it remained for many days owing to the official
impression that so bold and undeniable a pronouncement must have
received the direct authority of the sublime Emperor), Yan was not
unnaturally engaged for a considerable time, and in the meanwhile his
mother contrived to impress upon him by an unmistakable sign that he
should reveal nothing, but leave the matter in her hands.

Then said Yan’s mother: “Truly the proposal is not altogether wanting
in alluring colours, but in what manner will Yan interpret the
commands of those who place themselves before him, when he has
attained sufficient proficiency to be entrusted with the knife and the
shearing irons?”

“The objection is a superficial one,” replied Chou-hu. “When a person
seats himself upon the operating stool he either throws back his head,
fixing his eyes upon the upper room with a set and resolute air, or
inclines it slightly forward as in a reverent tranquillity. In the
former case he requires his uneven surfaces to be made smooth; in the
latter he is desirous that his pig-tail should be drawn out and
trimmed. Do not doubt Yan’s capability to conduct himself in a
discreet and becoming manner, but communicate to him, by the usual
means which you adopt, the offer thus laid out, and unless he should
be incredibly obtuse or unfilial to a criminal degree he will present
himself at the Sign of the Gilt Thunderbolt at an early hour
to-morrow.”

There is a prudent caution expressed in the proverb, “The hand that
feeds the ox grasps the knife when it is fattened: crawl backwards
from the presence of a munificent official.” Chou-hu, in spite of his
plausible pretext, would have experienced no difficulty in obtaining
the services of one better equipped to assist him than was Yuen Yan,
so that in order to discover his real object it becomes necessary to
look underneath his words. He was indeed, as he had stated, a barber
and an embellisher of pig-tails, and for many years he had grown rich
and round-bodied on the reputation of being one of the most skilful
within his quarter of the city. In an evil moment, however, he had
abandoned the moderation of his past life and surrounded himself with
an atmosphere of opium smoke and existed continually in the
mind-dimming effects of rice-spirit. From this cause his custom began
to languish; his hand no longer swept in the graceful and unhesitating
curves which had once been the admiration of all beholders, but
displayed on the contrary a very disconcerting irregularity of
movement, and on the day of his visit he had shorn away the venerable
moustaches of the baker Heng-cho under a mistaken impression as to the
reality of things and a wavering vision of their exact position. Now
the baker had been inordinately proud of his long white moustaches and
valued them above all his possessions, so that, invoking the spirits
of his ancestors to behold his degradation and to support him in his
resolve, and calling in all the passers-by to bear witness to his
oath, he had solemnly bound himself either to cut down Chou-hu
fatally, or, should that prove too difficult an accomplishment, to
commit suicide within his shop. This twofold danger thoroughly
stupefied Chou-hu and made him incapable of taking any action beyond
consuming further and more unstinted portions of rice-spirit and
rending article after article of his apparel until his wife Tsae-che
modestly dismissed such persons as loitered, and barred the outer
door.

“Open your eyes upon the facts by which you are surrounded, O
contemptible Chou-hu,” she said, returning to his side and standing
over him. “Already your degraded instincts have brought us within
measurable distance of poverty, and if you neglect your business to
avoid Heng-cho, actual want will soon beset us. If you remain openly
within his sight you will certainly be removed forcibly to the Upper
Air, leaving this inoffensive person destitute and abandoned, and if
by the exercise of unfailing vigilance you escape both these dangers,
you will be reserved to an even worse plight, for Heng-cho in
desperation will inevitably carry out the latter part of his threat,
dedicating his spirit to the duty of continually haunting you and
frustrating your ambitions here on earth and calling to his assistance
myriads of ancestors and relations to torment you in the Upper Air.”

“How attractively and in what brilliantly-coloured outlines do you
present the various facts of existence!” exclaimed Chou-hu, with
inelegant resentment. “Do not neglect to add that, to-morrow being the
occasion of the Moon Festival, the inexorable person who owns this
residence will present himself to collect his dues, that, in
consequence of the rebellion in the south, the sagacious viceroy has
doubled the price of opium, that some irredeemable outcast has carried
away this person’s blue silk umbrella, and then doubtless the alluring
picture of internal felicity around the Ancestral Altar of the Gilt
Thunderbolt will be complete.”

“Light words are easily spoken behind barred doors,” said his wife
scornfully. “Let my lord, then, recline indolently upon the floor of
his inner chamber while this person sumptuously lulls him into
oblivion with the music of her voice, regardless of the morrow and of
the fate in which his apathy involves us both.”

“By no means!” exclaimed Chou-hu, rising hastily and tearing away much
of his elaborately arranged pigtail in his uncontrollable rage; “there
is yet a more pleasurable alternative than that and one which will
ensure to this person a period of otherwise unattainable domestic calm
and at the same time involve a detestable enemy in confusion.
Anticipating the dull-witted Heng-cho _this_ one will now proceed
across the street and, committing suicide within _his_ door, will
henceforth enjoy the honourable satisfaction of haunting _his_
footsteps and rending his bakehouses and ovens untenable.” With this
assurance Chou-hu seized one of his most formidable business weapons
and caused it to revolve around his head with great rapidity, but at
the same time with extreme carefulness.

“There is a ready saying: ‘The new-born lamb does not fear a tiger,
but before he becomes a sheep he will flee from a wolf,’” said
Tsae-che without in any way deeming it necessary to arrest Chou-hu’s
hand. “Full confidently will you set out, O Chou-hu, but to reach the
shop of Heng-cho it is necessary to pass the stall of the dealer in
abandoned articles, and next to it are enticingly spread out the wares
of Kong, the merchant in distilled spirits. Put aside your reliable
scraping iron while you still have it, and this not ill-disposed
person will lay before you a plan by which you may even yet avoid all
inconveniences and at the same time regain your failing commerce.”

“It is also said: ‘The advice of a wise woman will ruin a walled
city,’” replied Chou-hu, somewhat annoyed at his wife so opportunely
comparing him to a sheep, but still more concerned to hear by what
possible expedient she could successfully avert all the contending
dangers of his position. “Nevertheless, proceed.”

“In one of the least reputable quarters of the city there dwells a
person called Yuen Yan,” said the woman. “He is the leader of a band
of sightless mendicants and in this position he has frequently passed
your open door, though--probably being warned by the benevolent--he
has never yet entered. Now this Yuen Yan, save for one or two
unimportant details, is the reflected personification of your own
exalted image, nor would those most intimate with your form and
outline be able to pronounce definitely unless you stood side by side
before them. Furthermore, he is by nature unable to hear any remark
addressed to him, and is incapable of expressing himself in spoken
words. Doubtless by these indications my lord’s locust-like
intelligence will already have leapt to an inspired understanding of
the full project?”

“Assuredly,” replied Chou-hu, caressing himself approvingly. “The
essential details of the scheme are built about the ease with which
this person could present himself at the abode of Yuen Yan in his
absence and, gathering together that one’s store of wealth
unquestioned, retire with it to a distant and unknown spot and thereby
elude the implacable Heng-cho’s vengeance.”

“Leaving your menial one in the ‘walled city’ referred to, to share
its fate, and, in particular, to undertake the distressing obligation
of gathering up the atrocious Heng-cho after he has carried his final
threat into effect? Truly must the crystal stream of your usually
undimmed intelligence have become vaporized. Listen well. Disguising
your external features slightly so that the resemblance may pass
without remark, present yourself openly at the residence of the Yuen
Yan in question--”

“First learning where it is situated?” interposed Chou-hu, with a
desire to grasp the details competently.

“Unless a person of your retrospective taste would prefer to leave so
trivial a point until afterwards,” replied his wife in a tone of
concentrated no-sincerity. “In either case, however, having arrived
there, bargain with the one who has authority over Yuen Yan’s
movements, praising his demeanour and offering to accept him into the
honours and profits of your craft. The words of acquiescence should
spring to meet your own, for the various branches of mendicancy are
languishing, and Yuen Yan can have no secret store of wealth. Do not
hesitate to offer a higher wage than you would as an affair of
ordinary commerce, for your safety depends upon it. Having secured
Yan, teach him quickly the unpolished outlines of your business and
then clothing him in robes similar to your own let him take his stand
within the shop and withdraw yourself to the inner chamber. None will
suspect the artifice, and Yuen Yan is manifestly incapable of
betraying it. Heng-cho, seeing him display himself openly, will not
deem it necessary to commit suicide yet, and, should he cut down Yan
fatally, the officials of the street will seize him and your own
safety will be assured. Finally, if nothing particular happens, at
least your prosperity will be increased, for Yuen Yan will prove
_industrious_, _frugal_, _not addicted to excesses_ and in every way
_reliable_, and towards the shop of so exceptional a barber customers
will turn in an unending stream.”

“Alas!” exclaimed Chou-hu, “when you boasted of an inspired scheme
this person for a moment foolishly allowed his mind to contemplate the
possibility of your having accidentally stumbled upon such an
expedient haply, but your suggestion is only comparable with a company
of ducks attempting to cross an ice-bound stream--an excessive outlay
of action but no beneficial progress. Should Yuen Yan freely present
himself here on the morrow, pleading destitution and craving to be
employed, this person will consider the petition with an open head,
but it is beneath his dignity to wait upon so low-class an object.”
 Affecting to recollect an arranged meeting of some importance, Chou-hu
then clad himself in other robes, altered the appearance of his face,
and set out to act in the manner already described, confident that the
exact happening would never reach his lesser one’s ears.

On the following day Yuen Yan presented himself at the door of the
Gilt Thunderbolt, and quickly perfecting himself in the simpler
methods of smoothing surfaces and adorning pig-tails he took his stand
within the shop and operated upon all who came to submit themselves to
his embellishment. To those who addressed him with salutations he
replied by a gesture, tactfully bestowing an agreeable welcome yet at
the same time conveying the impression that he was desirous of
remaining undisturbed in the philosophical reflection upon which he
was engaged. In spite of this it was impossible to lead his mind
astray from any weighty detail, and those who, presuming upon his
absorbed attitude, endeavoured to evade a just payment on any pretext
whatever invariably found themselves firmly but courteously pressed to
the wall by the neck, while a highly polished smoothing blade was
flashed to and fro before their eyes with an action of unmistakable
significance. The number of customers increased almost daily, for Yan
quickly proved himself to be expert above all comparison, while others
came from every quarter of the city to test with their own eyes and
ears the report that had reached them, to the effect that in the
street leading to the Three-tiered Pagoda of Eggs there dwelt a barber
who made no pretence of elegant and refined conversation and who did
not even press upon those lying helpless in his power miraculous
ointments and infallible charm-waters. Thus Chou-hu prospered greatly,
but Yan still obeyed his mother’s warning and raised a mask before his
face so that Chou-hu and his wife never doubted the reality of his
infirmities. From this cause they did not refrain from conversing
together freely before him on subjects of the most poignant detail,
whereby Yan learned much of their past lives and conduct while
maintaining an attitude of impassive unconcern.

Upon a certain evening in the month when the grass-blades are
transformed into silk-worms Yan was alone in the shop, improving the
edge and reflecting brilliance of some of his implements, when he heard
the woman exclaim from the inner room: “Truly the air from the desert
is as hot and devoid of relief as the breath of the Great Dragon. Let
us repose for the time in the outer chamber.” Whereupon they entered
the shop and seating themselves upon a couch resumed their
occupations, the barber fanning himself while he smoked, his wife
gumming her hair and coiling it into the semblance of a bird with
outstretched wings.

“The necessity for the elaborate caution of the past no longer
exists,” remarked Chou-hu presently. “The baker Heng-cho is desirous
of becoming one of those who select the paving-stones and regulate the
number of hanging lanterns for the district lying around the
Three-tiered Pagoda. In this ambition he is opposed by Kong, the
distilled-spirit vendor, who claims to be a more competent judge of
paving-stones and hanging lanterns and one who will exercise a
lynx-eyed vigilance upon the public outlay and especially devote
himself to curbing the avarice of those bread-makers who habitually
mix powdered white earth with their flour. Heng-cho is therefore very
concerned that many should bear honourable testimony of his engaging
qualities when the day of trial arrives, and thus positioned he has
inscribed and sent to this person a written message offering a
dignified reconciliation and adding that he is convinced of the
necessity of an enactment compelling all persons to wear a smooth face
and a neatly braided pig-tail.”

“It is a creditable solution of the matter,” said Tsae-che, speaking
between the ivory pins which she held in her mouth. “Henceforth, then,
you will take up your accustomed stand as in the past?”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Chou-hu. “Yuen Yan is painstaking, and has
perhaps done as well as could be expected of one of his shallow
intellect, but the absence of suave and high-minded conversation
cannot fail to be alienating the custom of the more polished. Plainly
it is a short-sighted policy for a person to try and evade his destiny.
Yan seems to have been born for the express purpose of leading blind
beggars about the streets of the city and to that profession he must
return.”

“O distressingly superficial Chou-hu!” exclaimed his wife, “do men
turn willingly from wine to partake of vinegar, or having been clothed
in silk do they accept sackcloth without a struggle? Indeed, your
eyes, which are large to regard your own deeds and comforts, grow
small when they are turned towards the attainments of another. In no
case will Yan return to his mendicants, for his band is by this time
scattered and dispersed. His sleeve being now well lined and his hand
proficient in every detail of his craft, he will erect a stall,
perchance even directly opposite or next to ourselves, and by
subtlety, low charges and diligence he will draw away the greater part
of your custom.”

“Alas!” cried Chou-hu, turning an exceedingly inferior yellow, “there
is a deeper wisdom in the proverb, ‘Do not seek to escape from a flood
by clinging to a tiger’s tail,’ than appears at a casual glance. Now
that this person is contemplating gathering again into his own hands
the execution of his business, he cannot reasonably afford to employ
another, yet it is an intolerable thought that Yan should make use of
his experience to set up a sign opposed to the Gilt Thunderbolt.
Obviously the only really safe course out of an unpleasant dilemma
will be to slay Yan with as little delay as possible. After receiving
continuous marks of our approval for so long it is certainly very
thoughtless of him to put us to so unpardonable an inconvenience.”

“It is not an alluring alternative,” confessed Tsae-che, crossing the
room to where Yan was seated in order to survey her hair to greater
advantage in a hanging mirror of three sides composed of burnished
copper; “but there seems nothing else to be done in the difficult
circumstances.”

“The street is opportunely empty and there is little likelihood of
anyone approaching at this hour,” suggested Chou-hu. “What better
scheme could be devised than that I should indicate to Yan by signs
that I would honour him, and at the same time instruct him further in
the correct pose of some of the recognized attitudes, by making smooth
the surface of his face? Then during the operation I might perchance
slip upon an overripe whampee lying unperceived upon the floor; my
hand--”

“Ah-_ah_!” cried Tsae-che aloud, pressing her symmetrical fingers
against her gracefully-proportioned ears; “do not, thou dragon-headed
one, lead the conversation to such an extremity of detail, still less
carry the resolution into effect before the very eyes of this
delicately-susceptible person. Now to-morrow, after the midday meal,
she will be journeying as far as the street of the venders of woven
fabrics in order to procure a piece of silk similar to the pearl-grey
robe which she is wearing. The opportunity will be a favourable one,
for to-morrow is the weekly occasion on which you raise the shutters
and deny customers at an earlier hour; and it is really more modest
that one of my impressionable refinement should be away from the house
altogether and not merely in the inner chamber when that which is now
here passes out.”

“The suggestion is well timed,” replied Chou-hu. “No interruption will
then be possible.”

“Furthermore,” continued his wife, sprinkling upon her hair a perfumed
powder of gold which made it sparkle as it engaged the light at every
point with a most entrancing lustre, “would it not be desirable to use
a weapon less identified with your own hand? In the corner nearest to
Yan there stands a massive and heavily knotted club which could
afterwards be burned. It would be an easy matter to call the simple
Yan’s attention to some object upon the floor and then as he bent down
suffer him to Pass Beyond.”

“Assuredly,” agreed Chou-hu, at once perceiving the wisdom of the
change; “also, in that case, there would be less--”

“_Ah_!” again cried the woman, shaking her upraised finger reprovingly
at Chou-hu (for so daintily endowed was her mind that she shrank from
any of the grosser realities of the act unless they were clothed in
the very gilded flowers of speech). “Desist, O crimson-minded
barbarian! Let us now walk side by side along the river bank and drink
in the soul-stirring melody of the musicians who at this hour will be
making the spot doubly attractive with the concord of stringed woods
and instruments of brass struck with harmonious unison.”

The scheme for freeing Chou-hu from the embarrassment of Yan’s position
was not really badly arranged, nor would it have failed in most cases,
but the barber was not sufficiently broad-witted to see that many of
the inspired sayings which he used as arguments could be taken in
another light and conveyed a decisive warning to himself. A pleasantly
devised proverb has been aptly compared to a precious jewel, and as
the one has a hundred light-reflecting surfaces, so has the other a
diversity of applications, until it is not infrequently beyond the
comprehension of an ordinary person to know upon which side wisdom and
prudence lie. On the following afternoon Yan was seated in his
accustomed corner when Chou-hu entered the shop with uneven feet. The
barriers against the street had been raised and the outer door was
barred so that none might intrude, while Chou-hu had already carefully
examined the walls to ensure that no crevices remained unsealed. As he
entered he was seeking, somewhat incoherently, to justify himself by
assuring the deities that he had almost changed his mind until he
remembered the many impious acts on Yan’s part in the past, to avenge
which he felt himself to be their duly appointed instrument.
Furthermore, to convince them of the excellence of his motive (and
also to protect himself against the influence of evil spirits) he
advanced repeating the words of an invocation which in his youth he
had been accustomed to say daily in the temple, and thereupon Yan knew
that the moment was at hand.

“Behold, master!” he exclaimed suddenly, in clearly expressed words,
“something lies at your feet.”

Chou-hu looked down to the floor and lying before him was a piece of
silver. To his dull and confused faculties it sounded an inaccurate
detail of his pre-arranged plan that Yan should have addressed him,
and the remark itself seemed dimly to remind him of something that he
had intended to say, but he was too involved with himself to be able
to attach any logical significance to the facts and he at once stooped
greedily to possess the coin. Then Yan, who had an unfaltering grasp
upon the necessities of each passing second, sprang agilely forward,
swung the staff, and brought it so proficiently down upon Chou-hu’s
lowered head that the barber dropped lifeless to the ground and the
weapon itself was shattered by the blow. Without a pause Yan clothed
himself with his master’s robes and ornaments, wrapped his own garment
about Chou-hu instead, and opening a stone door let into the ground
rolled the body through so that it dropped down into the cave beneath.
He next altered the binding of his hair a little, cut his lips deeply
for a set purpose, and then reposing upon the couch of the inner
chamber he took up one of Chou-hu’s pipes and awaited Tsae-che’s
return.

“It is unendurable that they of the silk market should be so
ill-equipped,” remarked Tsae-che discontentedly as she entered. “This
pitiable one has worn away the heels of her sandals in a vain
endeavour to procure a suitable embroidery, and has turned over the
contents of every stall to no material end. How have the events of the
day progressed with you, my lord?”

“To the fulfilling of a written destiny. Yet in a measure darkly, for
a light has gone out,” replied Yuen Yan.

“There was no unanticipated divergence?” inquired the woman with
interest and a marked approval of this delicate way of expressing the
operation of an unpleasant necessity.

“From detail to detail it was as this person desired and contrived,”
 said Yan.

“And, of a surety, this one also?” claimed Tsae-che, with an internal
emotion that something was insidiously changed in which she had no
adequate part.

“The language may be fully expressed in six styles of writing, but who
shall read the mind of a woman?” replied Yan evasively. “Nevertheless,
in explicit words, the overhanging shadow has departed and the future
is assured.”

“It is well,” said Tsae-che. “Yet how altered is your voice, and for
what reason do you hold a cloth before your mouth?”

“The staff broke and a splinter flying upwards pierced my lips,” said
Yan, lowering the cloth. “You speak truly, for the pain attending each
word is by no means slight, and scarcely can this person recognize his
own voice.”

“Oh, incomparable Chou-hu, how valiantly do you bear your sufferings!”
 exclaimed Tsae-che remorsefully. “And while this heedless one has been
passing the time pleasantly in handling rich brocades you have been
lying here in anguish. Behold now, without delay she will prepare food
to divert your mind, and to mark the occasion she had already
purchased a little jar of gold-fish gills, two eggs branded with the
assurance that they have been earth-buried for eleven years, and a
small serpent preserved in oil.”

When they had eaten for some time in silence Yuen Yan again spoke.
“Attend closely to my words,” he said, “and if you perceive any
disconcerting oversight in the scheme which I am about to lay before
you do not hesitate to declare it. The threat which Heng-cho the baker
swore he swore openly, and many reputable witnesses could be gathered
together who would confirm his words, while the written message of
reconciliation which he sent will be known to none. Let us therefore
take that which lies in the cave beneath and clothing it in my robes
bear it unperceived as soon as the night has descended and leave it in
the courtyard of Heng-cho’s house. Now Heng-cho has a fig plantation
outside the city, so that when he rises early, as his custom is, and
finds the body, he will carry it away to bury it secretly there,
remembering his impetuous words and well knowing the net of entangling
circumstances which must otherwise close around him. At that moment
you will appear before him, searching for your husband, and suspecting
his burden raise an outcry that may draw the neighbours to your side
if necessary. On this point, however, be discreetly observant, for if
the tumult calls down the official watch it will go evilly with
Heng-cho, but we shall profit little. The greater likelihood is that
as soon as you lift up your voice the baker will implore you to
accompany him back to his house so that he may make a full and
honourable compensation. This you will do, and hastening the
negotiation as much as is consistent with a seemly regard for your
overwhelming grief, you will accept not less than five hundred taels
and an undertaking that a suitable funeral will be provided.”

“O thrice-versatile Chou-hu!” exclaimed Tsae-che, whose eyes had
reflected an ever-increasing sparkle of admiration as Yan unfolded the
details of his scheme, “how insignificant are the minds of others
compared with yours! Assuredly you have been drinking at some magic
well in this one’s absence, for never before was your intellect so
keen and lustreful. Let us at once carry your noble stratagem into
effect, for this person’s toes vibrate to bear her on a project of
such remunerative ingenuity.”

Accordingly they descended into the cave beneath and taking up Chou-hu
they again dressed him in his own robes. In his inner sleeve Yan
placed some parchments of slight importance; he returned the jade
bracelet to his wrist and by other signs he made his identity
unmistakable; then lifting him between them, when the night was well
advanced, they carried him through unfrequented ways and left him
unperceived within Heng-cho’s gate.

“There is yet another precaution which will ensure to you the
sympathetic voices of all if it should become necessary to appeal
openly,” said Yuen Yan when they had returned. “I will make out a deed
of final intention conferring all I possess upon Yuen Yan as a mark of
esteem for his conscientious services, and this you can produce if
necessary in order to crush the niggard baker in the wine-press of
your necessitous destitution.” Thereupon Yan drew up such a document
as he had described, signing it with Chou-hu’s name and sealing it
with his ring, while Tsae-che also added her sign and attestation. He
then sent her to lurk upon the roof, strictly commanding her to keep
an undeviating watch upon Heng-cho’s movements.

It was about the hour before dawn when Heng-cho appeared, bearing
across his back a well-filled sack and carrying in his right hand a
spade. His steps were turned towards the fig orchard of which Yan had
spoken, so that he must pass Chou-hu’s house, but before he reached it
Tsae-che had glided out and with loosened hair and trailing robes she
sped along the street. Presently there came to Yuen Yan’s waiting ear
a long-drawn cry and the sounds of many shutters being flung open and
the tread of hurrying feet. The moments hung about him like the wings
of a dragon-dream, but a prudent restraint chained him to the inner
chamber.

It was fully light when Tsae-che returned, accompanied by one whom she
dismissed before she entered. “Felicity,” she explained, placing
before Yan a heavy bag of silver. “Your word has been accomplished.”

“It is sufficient,” replied Yan in a tone from which every tender
modulation was absent, as he laid the silver by the side of the
parchment which he had drawn up. “For what reason is the outer door
now barred and they who drink tea with us prevented from entering to
wish Yuen Yan prosperity?”

“Strange are my lord’s words, and the touch of his breath is cold to
his menial one,” said the woman in doubting reproach.

“It will scarcely warm even the roots of Heng-cho’s fig-trees,”
 replied Yuen Yan with unveiled contempt. “Stretch across your hand.”

In trembling wonder Tsae-che laid her hand upon the ebony table which
stood between them and slowly advanced it until Yan seized it and held
it firmly in his own. For a moment he held it, compelling the woman to
gaze with a soul-crushing dread into his face, then his features
relaxed somewhat from the effort by which he had controlled them, and
at the sight Tsae-che tore away her hand and with a scream which
caused those outside to forget the memory of every other cry they had
ever heard, she cast herself from the house and was seen in the city
no more.

These are the pages of the forgotten incident in the life of Yuen Yan
which this narrator has sought out and discovered. Elsewhere, in the
lesser Classics, it may be read that the person in question afterwards
lived to a venerable age and finally Passed Above surrounded by every
luxury, after leading an existence consistently benevolent and marked
by an even exceptional adherence to the principles and requirements of
The Virtues.



                              CHAPTER X

          The Incredible Obtuseness of Those who had Opposed
                        the Virtuous Kai Lung

It was later than the appointed hour that same day when Kai Lung and
Hwa-mei met about the shutter, for the Mandarin’s importunity had
disturbed the harmonious balance of their fixed arrangement. As the
story-teller left the inner chamber a message of understanding, veiled
from those who stood around, had passed between their eyes, and so
complete was the sympathy that now directed them that without a spoken
word their plans were understood. Li-loe’s acquiescence had been
secured by the bestowal of a flask of wine (provided already by
Hwa-mei against such an emergency), and though the door-keeper had
indicated reproach by a variety of sounds, he forbore from speaking
openly of any vaster store.

“Let the bitterness of this one’s message be that which is first
spoken, so that the later and more enduring words of our remembrance
may be devoid of sting. A star has shone across my mediocre path which
now an envious cloud has conspired to obscure. This meeting will
doubtless be our last.”

Then replied Kai Lung from the darkness of the space above, his voice
unhurried as its wont:

“If this is indeed the end, then to the spirits of the destinies I
prostrate myself in thanks for those golden hours that have gone
before, and had there been no others to recall then would I equally
account myself repaid in life and death by this.”

“My words ascend with yours in a pale spiral to the bosom of the
universal mother,” Hwa-mei made response. “I likewise am content,
having tasted this felicity.”

“There is yet one other thing, esteemed, if such a presumption is to
be endured,” Kai Lung ventured to request. “Each day a stone has been
displaced from off the wall and these now lie about your gentle feet.
If you should inconvenience yourself to the extent of standing upon
the mound thus raised, and would stretch up your hand, I, leaning
forth, could touch it with my finger-tips.”

“This also will I dare to do and feel it no reproach,” replied
Hwa-mei; thus for the first time their fingers met.

“Let me now continue the ignoble message that my unworthy lips must
bear,” resumed the maiden, with a gesture of refined despair.
“Ming-shu and Shan Tien, recognizing a mutual need in each, have
agreed to forego their wordy strife and have entered upon a common
cause. To mark this reconciliation the Mandarin to-morrow night will
make a feast of wine and song in honour of Ming-shu and into this
assembly you will be led, bound and wearing the wooden cang, to
contribute to their offensive mirth. To this end you will not be
arraigned to-morrow, but on the following morning at a special court
swift sentence will be passed and carried out, neither will Shan Tien
suffer any interruption nor raise an arresting hand.”

The darkness by this time encompassed them so that neither could see
the other’s face, but across the scent-laden air Hwa-mei was conscious
of a subtle change, as of a poise or the tightening of a responsive
cord.

“This is the end?” she whispered up, unable to sustain. “Ah, is it not
the end?”

“In the high wall of destiny that bounds our lives there is ever a
hidden gap to which the Pure Ones may guide our unconscious steps
perchance, if they see fit to intervene. . . . So that to-morrow,
being the eleventh of the Moon of Gathering-in, is to be celebrated by
the noble Mandarin with song and wine? Truly the nimble-witted
Ming-shu must have slumbered by the way!”

“Assuredly he has but now returned from a long journey.”

“Haply he may start upon a longer. Have the musicians been commanded
yet?”

“Even now one goes to inform the leader of their voices and to bid him
hold his band in readiness.”

“Let it be your continual aim that nothing bars their progress. Where
does that just official dwell of whom you lately spoke?”

“The Censor K’o-yih, he who rebuked Shan Tien’s ambitions and made him
mend his questionable life? His yamen is about the Three-eyed Gate of
Tai, a half-day’s journey to the south.”

“The lines converge and the issues of Shan Tien, Ming-shu and we who
linger here will presently be brought to a very decisive point where
each must play a clear-cut part. To that end is your purpose firm?”

“Lay your commands,” replied Hwa-mei steadfastly, “and measure not the
burden of their weight.”

“It is well,” agreed Kai Lung. “Let Shan Tien give the feast and the
time of acquiescence will have passed. . . . The foothold of to-morrow
looms insecure, yet a very pressing message must meanwhile reach your
hands.”

“At the feast?”

“Thus: about the door of the inner hall are two great jars of shining
brass, one on either side, and at their approach a step. Being led, at
that step I shall stumble. . . . the message you will thereafter find
in the jar from which I seek support.”

“It shall be to me as your spoken word. Alas! the moment of recall is
already here.”

“Doubt not; we stand on the edge of an era that is immeasurable. For
that emergency I now go to consult the spirits who have so far guided
us.”

On the following day at an evening hour Kai Lung received an imperious
summons to accompany one who led him to the inner courts. Yet neither
the cords about his arms nor the pillory around his neck could contain
the gladness of his heart. From within came the sounds of instruments
of wood and string with the measured beating of a drum; nothing had
fallen short, for on that forbidden day, incredibly blind to the
depths of his impiety, the ill-starred Mandarin Shan Tien was having
music!

“Gall of a misprocured she-mule!” exclaimed the unsympathetic voice of
the one who had charge of him, and the rope was jerked to quicken his
loitering feet. In an effort to comply Kai Lung missed the step that
crossed his path and stumbling blindly forward would have fallen had
he not struck heavily against a massive jar of lacquered brass, one of
two that flanked the door.

“Thy province is to tell a tale rather than to dance a grotesque, as I
understand the matter,” said the attendant, mollified by the
amusement. “In any case, restrain thy admitted ardour for a while;
the call is not yet for us.”

From a group that stood apart some distance from the door one moved
forth and leisurely crossed the hall. Kai Lung’s wounded head ceased
to pain him.

“What slave is this,” she demanded of the other in a slow and level
tone, “and wherefore do the two of you intrude on this occasion?”

“The exalted lord commands that this one of the prisoners should
attend here thus, to divert them with his fancies, he having a certain
wit of the more foolish kind. Kai Lung, the dog’s name is.”

“Approach yet nearer to the inner door,” enjoined the maiden,
indicating the direction; “so that when the message comes there shall
be no inept delay.” As they moved off to obey she stood in languid
unconcern, leaning across the opening of a tall brass vase, one hand
swinging idly in its depths, until they reached their station. Kai
Lung did not need his eyes to know.

Presently the music ceased, and summoned to appear in turn, Kai Lung
stood forth among the guests. On the right hand of the Mandarin
reclined the base Ming-shu, his mind already vapoury with the fumes of
wine, the secret malice of his envious mind now boldly leaping from
his eyes.

“The overrated person now about to try your refined patience to its
limit is one who calls himself Kai Lung,” declared Ming-shu
offensively. “From an early age he has combined minstrelsy with other
and more lucrative forms of crime. It is the boast of this
contumacious mendicant that he can recite a story to fit any set of
circumstances, this, indeed, being the only merit claimed for his
feeble entertainment. The test selected for your tolerant amusement on
this very second-rate occasion is that he relates the story of a
presuming youth who fixes his covetous hopes upon one so far above his
degraded state that she and all who behold his uncouth efforts are
consumed by helpless laughter. Ultimately he is to be delivered to a
severe but well-earned death by a conscientious official whose
leisurely purpose is to possess the maiden for himself. Although
occasionally bordering on the funereal, the details of the narrative
are to be of a light and gravity-removing nature on the whole.
Proceed.”

The story-teller made obeisance towards the Mandarin, whose face
meanwhile revealed a complete absence of every variety of emotion.

“Have I your genial permission to comply, nobility?” he asked.

“The word is spoken,” replied Shan Tien unwillingly. “Let the vaunt be
justified.”

“I obey, High Excellence. This involves the story of Hien and the
Chief Examiner.”


               The Story of Hien and the Chief Examiner

In the reign of the Emperor K’ong there lived at Ho Chow an official
named Thang-li, whose degree was that of Chief Examiner of Literary
Competitions for the district. He had an only daughter, Fa Fei, whose
mind was so liberally stored with graceful accomplishments as to give
rise to the saying that to be in her presence was more refreshing than
to sit in a garden of perfumes listening to the wisdom of seven
elderly philosophers, while her glossy floating hair, skin of crystal
lustre, crescent nails and feet smaller and more symmetrical than an
opening lotus made her the most beautiful creature in all Ho Chow.
Possessing no son, and maintaining an open contempt towards all his
nearer relations, it had become a habit for Thang-li to converse with
his daughter almost on terms of equality, so that she was not
surprised on one occasion, when, calling her into his presence, he
graciously commanded her to express herself freely on whatever subject
seemed most important in her mind.

“The Great Middle Kingdom in which we live is not only inhabited by
the most enlightened, humane and courteous-minded race, but is itself
fittingly the central and most desirable point of the Universe,
surrounded by other less favoured countries peopled by races of
pig-tailless men and large-footed women, all destitute of refined
intelligence,” replied Fa Fei modestly. “The sublime Emperor is of all
persons the wisest, purest and--”

“Undoubtedly,” interrupted Thang-li. “These truths are of gem-like
brilliance, and the ears of a patriotic subject can never be closed to
the beauty and music of their ceaseless repetition. Yet between father
and daughter in the security of an inner chamber there not unnaturally
arise topics of more engrossing interest. For example, now that you
are of a marriageable age, have your eyes turned in the direction of
any particular suitor?”

“Oh, thrice-venerated sire!” exclaimed Fa Fei, looking vainly round
for some attainable object behind which to conceal her honourable
confusion, “should the thoughts of a maiden dwell definitely on a
matter of such delicate consequence?”

“They should not,” replied her father; “but as they invariably do, the
speculation is one outside our immediate concern. Nor, as it is your
wonted custom to ascend upon the outside roof at a certain hour of the
morning, is it reasonable to assume that you are ignorant of the
movements of the two young men who daily contrive to linger before
this in no way attractive residence without any justifiable pretext.”

“My father is all-seeing,” replied Fa Fei in a commendable spirit of
dutiful acquiescence, and also because it seemed useless to deny the
circumstance.

“It is unnecessary,” said Thang-li. “Surrounded, as he is, by a
retinue of eleven female attendants, it is enough to be all-hearing.
But which of the two has impressed you in the more favourable light?”

“How can the inclinations of an obedient daughter affect the matter?”
 said Fa Fei evasively. “Unless, O most indulgent, it is your amiable
intention to permit me to follow the inspiration of my own unfettered
choice?”

“Assuredly,” replied the benevolent Thang-li. “Provided, of course,
that the choice referred to should by no evil mischance run in a
contrary direction to my own maturer judgment.”

“Yet if such an eventuality did haply arise?” persisted Fa Fei.

“None but the irredeemably foolish spend their time in discussing the
probable sensation of being struck by a thunderbolt,” said Thang-li
more coldly. “From this day forth, also, be doubly guarded in the
undeviating balance of your attitude. Restrain the swallow-like
flights of your admittedly brilliant eyes, and control the movements
of your expressive fan within the narrowest bounds of necessity. This
person’s position between the two is one of exceptional delicacy and
he has by no means yet decided which to favour.”

“In such a case,” inquired Fa Fei, caressing his pig-tail
persuasively, “how does a wise man act, and by what manner of omens is
he influenced in his decision?”

“In such a case,” replied Thang-li, “a very wise man does not act; but
maintaining an impassive countenance, he awaits the unrolling of
events until he sees what must inevitably take place. It is thus that
his reputation for wisdom is built up.”

“Furthermore,” said Fa Fei hopefully, “the ultimate pronouncement
rests with the guarding deities?”

“Unquestionably,” agreed Thang-li. “Yet, by a venerable custom, the
esteem of the maiden’s parents is the detail to which the suitors
usually apply themselves with the greatest diligence.”
                                   *

Of the two persons thus referred to by Thang-li, one, Tsin Lung, lived
beneath the sign of the Righteous Ink Brush. By hereditary right Tsin
Lung followed the profession of copying out the more difficult
Classics in minute characters upon parchments so small that an entire
library could be concealed among the folds of a garment, in this
painstaking way enabling many persons who might otherwise have failed
at the public examination, and been driven to spend an idle and
perhaps even dissolute life, to pass with honourable distinction to
themselves and widespread credit to his resourceful system. One
gratified candidate, indeed, had compared his triumphal passage
through the many grades of the competition to the luxurious ease of
being carried in a sedan-chair, and from that time Tsin Lung was
jestingly referred to as a “sedan-chair.”

It might reasonably be thought that a person enjoying this enviable
position would maintain a loyal pride in the venerable traditions of
his house and suffer the requirements of his craft to become the four
walls of his ambition. Alas! Tsin Lung must certainly have been born
under the influence of a very evil planet, for the literary quality of
his profession did not entice his imagination at all, and his sole and
frequently-expressed desire was to become a pirate. Nothing but the
necessity of obtaining a large sum of money with which to purchase a
formidable junk and to procure the services of a band of capable and
bloodthirsty outlaws bound him to Ho Chow, unless, perchance, it might
be the presence there of Fa Fei after he had once cast his piratical
eye upon her overwhelming beauty.

The other of the two persons was Hien, a youth of studious desires and
unassuming manner. His father had been the chief tax-collector of the
Chunling mountains, beyond the town, and although the exact nature of
the tax and the reason for its extortion had become forgotten in the
process of interminable ages, he himself never admitted any doubt of
his duty to collect it from all who passed over the mountains, even
though the disturbed state of the country made it impossible for him
to transmit the proceeds to the capital. To those who uncharitably
extended the envenomed tongue of suspicion towards the very existence
of any Imperial tax, the father of Hien replied with unshaken loyalty
that in such a case the sublime Emperor had been very treacherously
served by his advisers, as the difficulty of the paths and the
intricate nature of the passes rendered the spot peculiarly suitable
for the purpose, and as he was accompanied by a well-armed and
somewhat impetuous band of followers, his arguments were inevitably
successful. When he Passed Beyond, Hien accepted the leadership, but
solely out of a conscientious respect for his father’s memory, for his
heart was never really in the occupation. His time was almost wholly
taken up in reading the higher Classics, and even before he had seen
Fa Fei his determination had been taken that when once he had
succeeded in passing the examination for the second degree and thereby
become entitled to an inferior mandarinship he would abandon his
former life forever. From this resolution the entreaties of his
devoted followers could not shake him, and presently they ceased to
argue, being reassured by the fact that although Hien presented
himself unfailingly for every examination his name appeared at the
foot of each successive list with unvarying frequency. It was at this
period that he first came under the ennobling spell of Fa Fei’s
influence and from that time forth he redoubled his virtuous efforts.

After conversing with her father, as already related, Fa Fei spent the
day in an unusually thoughtful spirit. As soon as it was dark she
stepped out from the house and veiling her purpose under the pretext
of gathering some herbs to complete a charm she presently entered a
grove of overhanging cedars where Hien had long been awaiting her
footsteps.

“Rainbow of my prosaic existence!” he exclaimed, shaking hands with
himself courteously, “have you yet carried out your bold suggestion?”
 and so acute was his anxiety for her reply that he continued to hold
his hand unconsciously until Fa Fei turned away her face in very
becoming confusion.

“Alas, O my dragon-hearted one,” she replied at length, “I have indeed
dared to read the scroll, but how shall this person’s inelegant lips
utter so detestable a truth?”

“It is already revealed,” said Hien, striving to conceal from her his
bitterness. “When the list of competitors at the late examination is
publicly proclaimed to-morrow at the four gates of the city, the last
name to be announced will again, and for the eleventh time, be that of
the degraded Hien.”

“Beloved,” exclaimed Fa Fei, resolved that as she could not honourably
deny that her Hien’s name was again indeed the last one to appear she
would endeavour to lead his mind subtly away to the contemplation of
more pleasurable thoughts, “it is as you have said, but although your
name is the last, it is by far the most dignified and
romantic-sounding of all, nor is there another throughout the list
which can be compared to it for the ornamental grace of its flowing
curves.”

“Nevertheless,” replied Hien, in a violent access of self-contempt,
“it is a name of abandoned omen and is destined only to reach the ears
of posterity to embellish the proverb of scorn, ‘The lame duck should
avoid the ploughed field.’ Can there--can there by no chance have been
some hope-inspiring error?”

“Thus were the names inscribed on the parchment which after the public
announcement will be affixed to the Hall of Ten Thousand Lustres,”
 replied Fa Fei. “With her own unworthy eyes this incapable person
beheld it.”

“The name ‘Hien’ is in no way striking or profound,” continued the one
in question, endeavouring to speak as though the subject referred to
some person standing at a considerable distance away. “Furthermore, so
commonplace and devoid of character are its written outlines that it
has very much the same appearance whichever way up it is looked
at. . . . The possibility that in your graceful confusion you held the
list in such a position that what appeared to be the end was in
reality the beginning is remote in the extreme, yet--”

In spite of an absorbing affection Fa Fei could not disguise from
herself that her feelings would have been more pleasantly arranged if
her lover had been inspired to accept his position unquestioningly.
“There is a detail, hitherto unrevealed, which disposes of all such
amiable suggestions,” she replied. “After the name referred to,
someone in authority had inscribed the undeniable comment ‘As usual.’”

“The omen is a most encouraging one,” exclaimed Hien, throwing aside
all his dejection. “Hitherto this person’s untiring efforts had met
with no official recognition whatever. It is now obvious that far from
being lost in the crowd he is becoming an object of honourable
interest to the examiners.”

“One frequently hears it said, ‘After being struck on the head with an
axe it is a positive pleasure to be beaten about the body with a
wooden club,’” said Fa Fei, “and the meaning of the formerly elusive
proverb is now explained. Would it not be prudent to avail yourself at
length of the admittedly outrageous Tsin Lung’s services, so that this
period of unworthy trial may be brought to a distinguished close?”

“It is said, ‘Do not eat the fruit of the stricken branch,’” replied
Hien, “and this person will never owe his success to one who is so
detestable in his life and morals that with every facility for a
scholarly and contemplative existence he freely announces his
barbarous intention of becoming a pirate. Truly the Dragon of Justice
does but sleep for a little time, and when he awakens all that will be
left of the mercenary Tsin Lung and those who associate with him will
scarcely be enough to fill an orange skin.”

“Doubtless it will be so,” agreed Fa Fei, regretting, however, that
Hien had not been content to prophesy a more limited act of vengeance,
until, at least, her father had come to a definite decision regarding
her own future. “Alas, though, the Book of Dynasties expressly says,
‘The one-legged never stumble,’ and Tsin Lung is so morally
ill-balanced that the proverb may even apply to him.”

“Do not fear,” said Hien. “It is elsewhere written, ‘Love and leprosy
few escape,’ and the spirit of Tsin Lung’s destiny is perhaps even at
this moment lurking unsuspected behind some secret place.”

“If,” exclaimed a familiar voice, “the secret place alluded to should
chance to be a hollow cedar-tree of inadequate girth, the unfortunate
spirit in question will have my concentrated sympathy.”

“Just and magnanimous father!” exclaimed Fa Fei, thinking it more
prudent not to recognize that he had learned of their meeting-place
and concealing himself there had awaited their coming, “when your
absence was discovered a heaven-sent inspiration led me to this spot.
Have I indeed been permitted here to find you?”

“Assuredly you have,” replied Thang-li, who was equally desirous of
concealing the real circumstances, although the difficulty of the
position into which he had hastily and incautiously thrust his body on
their approach compelled him to reveal himself. “The same inspiration
led me to lose myself in this secluded spot, as being the one which
you would inevitably search.”

“Yet by what incredible perversity does it arise, venerable Thang-li,
that a leisurely and philosophical stroll should result in a person of
your dignified proportions occupying so unattractive a position?” said
Hien, who appeared to be too ingenuous to suspect Thang-li’s craft, in
spite of a warning glance from Fa Fei’s expressive eyes.

“The remark is a natural one, O estimable youth,” replied Thang-li,
doubtless smiling benevolently, although nothing of his person could
be actually seen by Hien or Fa Fei, “but the recital is not devoid of
humiliation. While peacefully studying the position of the heavens
this person happened to glance into the upper branches of a tree and
among them he beheld a bird’s nest of unusual size and richness--one
that would promise to yield a dish of the rarest flavour. Lured on by
the anticipation of so sumptuous a course, he rashly trusted his body
to an unworthy branch, and the next moment, notwithstanding his
unceasing protests to the protecting Powers, he was impetuously
deposited within this hollow trunk.”

“Not unreasonably is it said, ‘A bird in the soup is better than an
eagle’s nest in the desert,’” exclaimed Hien. “The pursuit of a fair
and lofty object is set about with hidden pitfalls to others beyond
you, O noble Chief Examiner! By what nimble-witted act of adroitness
is it now your enlightened purpose to extricate yourself?”

At this admittedly polite but in no way inspiring question a silence
of a very acute intensity seemed to fall on that part of the forest.
The mild and inscrutable expression of Hien’s face did not vary, but
into Fa Fei’s eyes there came an unexpected but not altogether
disapproving radiance, while, without actually altering, the
appearance of the tree encircling Thang-li’s form undoubtedly conveyed
the impression that the benevolent smile which might hitherto have
been reasonably assumed to exist within had been abruptly withdrawn.

“Your meaning is perhaps well-intentioned, gracious Hien,” said
Thang-li at length, “but as an offer of disinterested assistance your
words lack the gong-like clash of spontaneous enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, if you will inconvenience yourself to the extent of
climbing this not really difficult tree for a short distance you will
be able to grasp some outlying portion of this one’s body without any
excessive fatigue.”

“Mandarin,” replied Hien, “to touch even the extremity of your
incomparable pig-tail would be an honour repaying all earthly
fatigue--”

“Do not hesitate to seize it, then,” said Thang-li, as Hien paused.
“Yet, if this person may without ostentation continue the analogy, to
grasp him firmly by the shoulders must confer a higher distinction and
would be even more agreeable to his own feelings.”

“The proposal is a flattering one,” continued Hien, “but my hands are
bound down by the decree of the High Powers, for among the most
inviolable of the edicts is it not written: ‘Do the lame offer to
carry the footsore; the blind to protect the one-eyed? Distrust the
threadbare person who from an upper back room invites you to join him
in an infallible process of enrichment; turn aside from the one devoid
of pig-tail who says, “Behold, a few drops daily at the hour of the
morning sacrifice and your virtuous head shall be again like a
well-sown rice-field at the time of harvest”; and towards the passing
stranger who offers you that mark of confidence which your friends
withhold close and yet again open a different eye. So shall you grow
obese in wisdom’?”

“Alas!” exclaimed Thang-li, “the inconveniences of living in an Empire
where a person has to regulate the affairs of his everyday life by the
sacred but antiquated proverbial wisdom of his remote ancestors are by
no means trivial. Cannot this possibly mythical obstacle be
flattened-out by the amiable acceptance of a jar of sea snails or some
other seasonable delicacy, honourable Hien?”

“Nothing but a really well-grounded encouragement as regards Fa Fei
can persuade this person to regard himself as anything but a solitary
outcast,” replied Hien, “and one paralysed in every useful impulse.
Rather than abandon the opportunity of coming to such an arrangement
he would almost be prepared to give up all idea of ever passing the
examination for the second degree.”

“By no means,” exclaimed Thang-li hastily. “The sacrifice would be too
excessive. Do not relinquish your sleuth-hound-like persistence, and
success will inevitably reward your ultimate end.”

“Can it really be,” said Hien incredulously, “that my contemptible
efforts are a matter of sympathetic interest to one so high up in
every way as the renowned Chief Examiner?”

“They are indeed,” replied Thang-li, with that ingratiating candour
that marked his whole existence. “Doubtless so prosaic a detail as the
system of remuneration has never occupied your refined thoughts, but
when it is understood that those in the position of this person are
rewarded according to the success of the candidates you will begin to
grasp the attitude.”

“In that case,” remarked Hien, with conscious humiliation, “nothing
but a really sublime tolerance can have restrained you from upbraiding
this obscure competitor as a thoroughly corrupt egg.”

“On the contrary,” replied Thang-li reassuringly, “I have long
regarded you as the auriferous fowl itself. It is necessary to
explain, perhaps, that the payment by result alluded to is not based
on the number of successful candidates, but--much more reasonably as
all those have to be provided with lucrative appointments by the
authorities--on the economy effected to the State by those whom I can
conscientiously reject. Owing to the malignant Tsin Lung’s sinister
dexterity these form an ever-decreasing band, so that you may now be
fittingly deemed the chief prop of a virtuous but poverty-afflicted
line. When you reflect that for the past eleven years you have thus
really had the honour of providing the engaging Fa Fei with all the
necessities of her very ornamental existence you will see that you
already possess practically all the advantages of matrimony.
Nevertheless, if you will now bring our agreeable conversation to an
end by releasing this inauspicious person he will consider the matter
with the most indulgent sympathies.”

“Withhold!” exclaimed a harsh voice before Hien could reply, and from
behind a tree where he had heard Thang-li’s impolite reference to
himself Tsin Lung stood forth. “How does it chance, O two-complexioned
Chief Examiner, that after weighing this one’s definite
proposals--even to the extent of demanding a certain proportion in
advance--you are now engaged in holding out the same alluring hope to
another? Assuredly, if your existence is so critically imperilled this
person and none other will release you and claim the reward.”

“Turn your face backwards, imperious Tsin Lung,” cried Hien. “These
incapable hands alone shall have the overwhelming distinction of
drawing forth the illustrious Thang-li.”

“Do not get entangled among my advancing footsteps, immature one,”
 contemptuously replied Tsin Lung, shaking the massive armour in which
he was encased from head to foot. “It is inept for pigmies to stand
before one who has every intention of becoming a rapacious pirate
shortly.”

“The sedan-chair is certainly in need of new shafts,” retorted Hien,
and drawing his sword with an expression of ferocity he caused it to
whistle around his head so loudly that a flock of migratory doves
began to arrive, under the impression that others of their tribe were
calling them to assemble.

“Alas!” exclaimed Thang-li, in an accent of despair, “doubtless the
wise Nung-yu was surrounded by disciples all eager that no other
should succour him when he remarked: ‘A humble friend in the same
village is better than sixteen influential brothers in the Royal
Palace.’ In all this illimitable Empire is there not room for one
whose aspirations are bounded by the submerged walls of a predatory
junk and another whose occupation is limited to the upper passes of the
Chunling mountains? Consider the poignant nature of this person’s vain
regrets if by a couple of evilly directed blows you succeeded at this
inopportune moment in exterminating one another!”

“Do not fear, exalted Thang-li,” cried Hien, who, being necessarily
somewhat occupied in preparing himself against Tsin Lung’s attack,
failed to interpret these words as anything but a direct encouragement
to his own cause. “Before the polluting hands of one who disdains the
Classics shall be laid upon your sacred extremities this tenacious
person will fix upon his antagonist with a serpent-like embrace and,
if necessary, suffer the spirits of both to Pass Upward in one
breath.” And to impress Tsin Lung with his resolution he threw away
his scabbard and picked it up again several times.

“Grow large in hope, worthy Chief Examiner,” cried Tsin Lung, who from
a like cause was involved in a similar misapprehension. “Rather shall
your imperishable bones adorn the interior of a hollow cedar-tree
throughout all futurity than you shall suffer the indignity of being
extricated by an earth-nurtured sleeve-snatcher.” And to intimidate
Hien by the display he continued to clash his open hand against his
leg armour until the pain became intolerable.

“Honourable warriors!” implored Thang-li in so agonized a voice--and
also because they were weary of the exercise--that Hien and Tsin Lung
paused, “curb your bloodthirsty ambitions for a breathing-space and
listen to what will probably be a Last Expression. Believe the
passionate sincerity of this one’s throat when he proclaims that there
would be nothing repugnant to his very keenest susceptibilities if an
escaping parricide, who was also guilty of rebellion, temple-robbing,
book-burning, murder and indiscriminate violence, and the pollution of
tombs, took him familiarly by the hand at this moment. What,
therefore, would be his gratified feelings if two such nobly-born
subjects joined forces and drew him up dexterously by the body-cloth?
Accept his definite assurance that without delay a specific
pronouncement would be made respecting the bestowal of the one around
whose jade-like personality this encounter has arisen.”

“The proposal casts a reasonable shadow, gracious Hien,” remarked
Tsin Lung, turning towards the other with courteous deference. “Shall
we bring a scene of irrational carnage to an end and agree to regard
the incomparable Thang-li’s benevolent tongue as an outstretched olive
branch?”

“It is admittedly said, ‘Every road leads in two directions,’ and the
alternative you suggest, O virtue-loving Tsin Lung, is both reputable
and just,” replied Hien pleasantly. In this amiable spirit they
extricated Thang-li and bore him to the ground. At an appointed hour
he received them with becoming ceremony and after a many-coursed
repast rose to fulfil the specific terms of his pledge.

“The Line of Thang,” he remarked with inoffensive pride, “has for
seven generations been identified with a high standard of literary
achievement. Undeniably it is a very creditable thing to control the
movements of an ofttime erratic vessel and to emerge triumphantly from
a combat with every junk you encounter, and it is no less worthy of
esteem to gather round about one, on the sterile slopes of the
Chunlings, a devoted band of followers. Despite these virtues,
however, neither occupation is marked by any appreciable literary
flavour, and my word is, therefore, that both persons shall present
themselves for the next examination, and when in due course the result
is declared the more successful shall be hailed as the chosen suitor.
Lo, I have spoken into a sealed bottle, and my voice cannot vary.”

Then replied Tsin Lung: “Truly, it is as it is said, astute Thang-li,
though the encircling wall of a hollow cedar-tree, for example, might
impart to the voice in question a less uncompromising ring of finality
than it possesses when raised in a silk-lined chamber and surrounded
by a band of armed retainers. Nevertheless the pronouncement is one
which appeals to this person’s sense of justice, and the only
improvement he can suggest is that the superfluous Hien should hasten
that ceremony at which he will be an honoured guest by now signifying
his intention of retiring from so certain a defeat. For by what
expedient,” he continued, with arrogant persistence, “can you avert
that end, O ill-destined Hien? Have you not burned joss-sticks to the
deities, both good and bad, for eleven years unceasingly? Can you, as
this person admittedly can, inscribe the Classics with such inimitable
delicacy that an entire volume of the Book of Decorum, copied in his
most painstaking style, may be safely carried about within a hollow
tooth, a lengthy ode, traced on a shred of silk, wrapped undetectably
around a single eyelash?”

“It is true that the one before you cannot bend his brush to such
deceptive ends,” replied Hien modestly. “A detail, however, has
escaped your reckoning. Hitherto Hien has been opposed by a thousand,
and against so many it is true that the spirits of his ancestors have
been able to afford him very little help. On this occasion he need
regard one adversary alone. Giving those Forces which he invokes
clearly to understand that they need not concern themselves with any
other, he will plainly intimate that after so many sacrifices on his
part something of a really tangible affliction is required to
overwhelm Tsin Lung. Whether this shall take the form of mental
stagnation, bodily paralysis, demoniacal possession, derangement of
the internal faculties, or being changed into one of the lower
animals, it might be presumptuous on this person’s part to stipulate,
but by invoking every accessible power and confining himself to this
sole petition a very definite tragedy may be expected. Beware, O
contumacious Lung, ‘However high the tree the shortest axe can reach
its trunk.’”
                                   *

As the time for the examination drew near the streets of Ho Chow began
to wear a fuller and more animated appearance both by day and night.
Tsin Lung’s outer hall was never clear of anxious suppliants all
entreating him to supply them with minute and reliable copies of the
passages which they found most difficult in the selected works, but
although his low and avaricious nature was incapable of rejecting this
means of gain he devoted his closest energies and his most inspired
moments to his own personal copies, a set of books so ethereal that
they floated in the air without support and so cunningly devised in
the blending of their colour as to be, in fact, quite invisible to any
but his microscopic eyes. Hien, on the other hand, devoted himself
solely to interesting the Powers against his rival’s success by every
variety of incentive, omen, sacrifice, imprecation, firework,
inscribed curse, promise, threat or combination of inducements.
Through the crowded streets and by-ways of Ho Chow moved the
imperturbable Thang-li, smiling benevolently on those whom he
encountered and encouraging each competitor, and especially Hien and
Tsin Lung, with a cheerful proverb suited to the moment.

An outside cause had further contributed to make this period one of
the most animated in the annals of Ho Chow, for not only was the city,
together with the rest of the imperishable Empire, celebrating a great
and popular victory, but, as a direct consequence of that event, the
sublime Emperor himself was holding his court at no great distance
away. An armed and turbulent rabble of illiterate barbarians had
suddenly appeared in the north and, not giving a really sufficient
indication of their purpose, had traitorously assaulted the capital.
Had he followed the prompting of his own excessive magnanimity, the
charitable Monarch would have refused to take any notice whatever of
so puny and contemptible a foe, but so unmistakable became the wishes
of the Ever-victorious Army that, yielding to their importunity, he
placed himself at their head and resolutely led them backward. Had the
opposing army been more intelligent, this crafty move would certainly
have enticed them on into the plains, where they would have fallen an
easy victim to the Imperial troops and all perished miserably. Owing
to their low standard of reasoning, however, the mule-like invaders
utterly failed to grasp the advantage which, as far as the appearance
tended, they might reasonably be supposed to reap by an immediate
pursuit. They remained incapably within the capital slavishly
increasing its defences, while the Ever-victorious lurked
resourcefully in the neighbourhood of Ho Chow, satisfied that with so
dull-witted an adversary they could, if the necessity arose, go still
further.

Upon a certain day of the period thus indicated there arrived at the
gate of the royal pavilion one having the appearance of an aged seer,
who craved to be led into the Imperial Presence.

“Lo, Mightiest,” said a slave, bearing in this message, “there stands
at the outer gate one resembling an ancient philosopher, desiring to
gladden his failing eyesight before he Passes Up with a brief vision
of your illuminated countenance.”

“The petition is natural but inopportune,” replied the agreeable
Monarch. “Let the worthy soothsayer be informed that after an
exceptionally fatiguing day we are now snatching a few short hours of
necessary repose, from which it would be unseemly to recall us.”

“He received your gracious words with distended ears and then observed
that it was for your All-wisdom to decide whether an inspired message
which he had read among the stars was not of more consequence than
even a refreshing sleep,” reported the slave, returning.

“In that case,” replied the Sublimest, “tell the persevering wizard
that we have changed our minds and are religiously engaged in
worshipping our ancestors, so that it would be really sacrilegious to
interrupt us.”

“He kowtowed profoundly at the mere mention of your charitable
occupation and proceeded to depart, remarking that it would indeed be
corrupt to disturb so meritorious an exercise with a scheme simply for
your earthly enrichment,” again reported the message-bearer.

“Restrain him!” hastily exclaimed the broadminded Sovereign. “Give the
venerable necromancer clearly to understand that we have worshipped
them enough for one day. Doubtless the accommodating soothsayer has
discovered some rare jewel which he is loyally bringing to embellish
our crown.”

“There are rarer jewels than those which can be pasted in a crown,
Supreme Head,” said the stranger, entering unperceived behind the
attending slave. He bore the external signs of an infirm magician,
while his face was hidden in a cloth to mark the imposition of a
solemn vow. “With what apter simile,” he continued, “can this person
describe an imperishable set of verses which he heard this morning
falling from the lips of a wandering musician like a seven-roped cable
of pearls pouring into a silver bucket? The striking and original
title was ‘Concerning Spring,’ and although the snow lay deep at the
time several bystanders agreed that an azalea bush within hearing came
into blossom at the eighty-seventh verse.”

“We have heard of the poem to which you refer with so just a sense of
balance,” said the impartial Monarch encouragingly. (Though not to
create a two-sided impression it may be freely stated that he himself
was the author of the inspired composition.) “Which part, in your
mature judgment, reflected the highest genius and maintained the most
perfectly-matched analogy?”

“It is aptly said: ‘When it is dark the sun no longer shines, but who
shall forget the colours of the rainbow?’” replied the astrologer
evasively. “How is it possible to suspend topaz in one cup of the
balance and weigh it against amethyst in the other; or who in a single
language can compare the tranquillizing grace of a maiden with the
invigorating pleasure of witnessing a well-contested rat-fight?”

“Your insight is clear and unbiased,” said the gracious Sovereign.
“But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of
bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of
almost equal importance?”

“There is yet another detail, it is true,” admitted the sage, “but
regarding its comparative importance a thoroughly loyal subject may be
permitted to amend the remark of a certain wise Emperor of a former
dynasty: ‘Any person in the City can discover a score of gold mines if
necessary, but One only could possibly have written “Concerning
Spring.”’”

“The arts may indeed be regarded as lost,” acquiesced the magnanimous
Head, “with the exception of a solitary meteor here and there. Yet in
the trivial matter of mere earthly enrichment--”

“Truly,” agreed the other. “There is, then, a whisper in the province
that the floor of the Imperial treasury is almost visible.”

“The rumour, as usual, exaggerates the facts grossly,” replied the
Greatest. “The floor of the Imperial treasury is quite visible.”

“Yet on the first day of the next moon the not inconsiderable revenue
contributed by those who present themselves for the examination will
flow in.”

“And by an effete and unworthy custom almost immediately flow out
again to reward the efforts of the successful,” replied the Wearer of
the Yellow in an accent of refined bitterness. “On other occasions it
is possible to assist the overworked treasurer with a large and
glutinous hand, but from time immemorial the claims of the competitors
have been inviolable.”

“Yet if by a heaven-sent chance none, or very few, reached the
necessary standard of excellence--?”

“Such a chance, whether proceeding from the Upper Air or the Other
Parts would be equally welcome to a very hard-lined Ruler,” replied
the one who thus described himself.

“Then listen, O K’ong-hi, of the imperishable dynasty of Chung,” said
the stranger. “Thus was it laid upon me in the form of a spontaneous
dream. For seven centuries the Book of the Observances has been the
unvarying Classic of the examinations because during that period it
has never been surpassed. Yet as the Empire has admittedly existed
from all time, and as it would be impious not to agree that the
immortal System is equally antique, it is reasonable to suppose that
the Book of the Observances displaced an earlier and inferior work,
and is destined in the cycle of time to be itself laid aside for a
still greater.”

“The inference is self-evident,” acknowledged the Emperor uneasily,
“but the logical development is one which this diffident Monarch
hesitates to commit to spoken words.”

“It is not a matter for words but for a stroke of the Vermilion
Pencil,” replied the other in a tone of inspired authority. “Across
the faint and puny effusions of the past this person sees written in
very large and obliterating strokes the words ‘Concerning Spring.’
Where else can be found so novel a conception combined with so unique
a way of carrying it out? What other poem contains so many thoughts
that one instinctively remembers as having heard before, so many
involved allusions that baffle the imagination of the keenest, and so
much sound in so many words? With the possible exception of Meng-hu’s
masterpiece, ‘The Empty Coffin,’ what other work so skilfully conveys
the impression of being taken down farther than one can ever again
come up and then suddenly upraised beyond the possible descent? Where
else can be found so complete a defiance of all that has hitherto been
deemed essential, and, to insert a final wedge, what other poem is
half so long?”

“Your criticism is severe but just,” replied the Sovereign, “except
that part having reference to Meng-hu. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of
the proposal, though reasonable, looms a degree stormily into a
troubled future. Can it be permissible even for--”

“Omnipotence!” exclaimed the seer.

“The title is well recalled,” confessed the Emperor. “Yet although
unquestionably omnipotent there must surely be some limits to our
powers in dealing with so old established a system as that of the
examinations.”

“Who can doubt a universal admission that the composer of ‘Concerning
Spring’ is capable of doing anything?” was the profound reply. “Let
the mandate be sent out--but, to an obvious end, let it be withheld
until the eve of the competitions.”

“The moment of hesitancy has faded; go forth in the certainty,
esteemed,” said the Emperor reassuringly. “You have carried your
message with a discreet hand. Yet before you go, if there is any
particular mark of Imperial favour that we can show--something of a
special but necessarily honorary nature--do not set an iron screen
between your ambition and the light of our favourable countenance.”

“There is indeed such a signal reward,” assented the aged person, with
an air of prepossessing diffidence. “A priceless copy of the immortal
work--”

“By all means,” exclaimed the liberal-minded Sovereign, with an
expression of great relief. “Take three or four in case any of your
fascinating relations have large literary appetites. Or, still more
conveniently arranged, here is an unopened package from the stall of
those who send forth the printed leaves--‘thirteen in the semblance of
twelve,’ as the quaint and harmonious phrase of their craft has it.
Walk slowly, revered, and a thousand rainbows guide your retiring
footsteps.”

Concerning the episode of this discreetly-veiled personage the
historians who have handed down the story of the imperishable
affection of Hien and Fa Fei have maintained an illogical silence. Yet
it is related that about the same time, as Hien was walking by the
side of a bamboo forest of stunted growth, he was astonished by the
maiden suddenly appearing before him from the direction of the royal
camp. She was incomparably radiant and had the appearance of being
exceptionally well satisfied with herself. Commanding him that he
should stand motionless with closed eyes, in order to ascertain what
the presiding deities would allot him, she bound a somewhat weighty
object to the end of his pig-tail, at the same time asking him in how
short a period he could commit about nineteen thousand lines of
atrociously ill-arranged verse to the tablets of his mind.

“Then do not suffer the rice to grow above your ankles,” she
continued, when Hien had modestly replied that six days with good
omens should be sufficient, “but retiring to your innermost chamber
bar the door and digest this scroll as though it contained the last
expression of an eccentric and vastly rich relation,” and with a laugh
more musical than the vibrating of a lute of the purest Yun-nan jade
in the Grotto of Ten Thousand Echoes she vanished.

It has been sympathetically remarked that no matter how painstakingly
a person may strive to lead Destiny along a carefully-prepared path
and towards a fit and thoroughly virtuous end there is never lacking
some inopportune creature to thrust his superfluous influence into an
opposing balance. This naturally suggests the intolerable Tsin Lung,
whose ghoulish tastes led him to seek the depths of that same glade on
the following day. Walking with downcast eyes, after his degraded
custom, he presently became aware of an object lying some distance
from his way. To those who have already fathomed the real character of
this repulsive person it will occasion no surprise to know that, urged
on by the insatiable curiosity that was deeply grafted on to his
avaricious nature, he turned aside to probe into a matter with which
he had no possible concern, and at length succeeded in drawing a
package from the thick bush in which it had been hastily concealed.
Finding that it contained twelve lengthy poems entitled “Concerning
Spring”, he greedily thrust one in his sleeve, and upon his return,
with no other object than the prompting of an ill-regulated mind, he
spent all the time that remained before the contest in learning it
from end to end.

There have been many remarkable scenes enacted in the great
Examination Halls and in the narrow cells around, but it can at once
be definitely stated that nothing either before or since has
approached the unanimous burst of frenzy that shook the dynasty of
Chung when in the third year of his reign the well-meaning but
too-easily-led-aside Emperor K’ong inopportunely sought to replace the
sublime Classic then in use with a work that has since been recognized
to be not only shallow but inept. At Ho Chow nine hundred and
ninety-eight voices blended into one soul-benumbing cry of rage,
having all the force and precision of a carefully drilled chorus, when
the papers were opened, and had not the candidates been securely
barred within their solitary pens a popular rising must certainly have
taken place. There they remained for three days and nights, until the
clamour had subsided into a low but continuous hum, and they were too
weak to carry out a combined effort.

Throughout this turmoil Hien and Tsin Lung each plied an unfaltering
brush. It may here be advantageously stated that the former person was
not really slow or obtuse and his previous failures were occasioned
solely by the inequality he strove under in relying upon his memory
alone when every other competitor without exception had provided
himself with a concealed scrip. Tsin Lung also had a very retentive
mind. The inevitable consequence was, therefore, that when the papers
were collected Hien and Tsin Lung had accomplished an identical number
of correct lines and no other person had made even an attempt.

In explaining Thang-li’s subsequent behaviour it has been claimed by
many that the strain of being compelled, in the exercise of his duty,
to remain for three days and three nights in the middle of the Hall
surrounded by that ferocious horde, all clamouring to reach him, and
the contemplation of the immense sum which he would gain by so
unparalleled a batch of rejections, contorted his faculties of
discrimination and sapped the resources of his usually active mind.
Whatever cause is accepted, it is agreed that as soon as he returned
to his house he summoned Hien and Tsin Lung together and leaving them
for a moment presently returned, leading Fa Fei by the hand. It is
further agreed by all that these three persons noticed upon his face a
somewhat preoccupied expression, and on the one side much has been
made of the admitted fact that as he spoke he wandered round the room
catching flies, an occupation eminently suited to his age and
leisurely tastes but, it may be confessed, not altogether well chosen
at so ceremonious a moment.

“It has been said,” he began at length, withdrawing his eyes
reluctantly from an unusually large insect upon the ceiling and
addressing himself to the maiden, “that there are few situations in
life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time,
either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised
antagonist over the edge of a precipice upon a dark night. This
inoffensive person, however, has striven to arrive at the conclusion
of a slight domestic arrangement both by passively waiting for the
event to unroll itself and, at a later period, by the offer of a
definite omen. Both of the male persons concerned have applied
themselves so tenaciously to the ordeal that the result, to this
simple one’s antique mind, savours overmuch of the questionable arts.
The genial and light-witted Emperor appears to have put his foot into
the embarrassment ineffectually; and Destiny herself has every
indication of being disinclined to settle so doubtful a point. As a
last resort it now remains for you yourself to decide which of these
strenuous and evenly-balanced suitors I may acclaim with ten thousand
felicitations.”

“In that case, venerated and commanding sire,” replied Fa Fei simply,
yet concealing her real regard behind the retiring mask of a modest
indifference, “it shall be Hien, because his complexion goes the more
prettily with my favourite heliotrope silk.”

When the results of the examination were announced it was at once
assumed by those with whom he had trafficked that Tsin Lung had been
guilty of the most degraded treachery. Understanding the dangers of
his position, that person decided upon an immediate flight. Disguised
as a wild-beast tamer, and leading several apparently ferocious
creatures by a cord, he succeeded in making his way undetected through
the crowds of competitors watching his house, and hastily collecting
his wealth together he set out towards the coast. But the evil spirits
which had hitherto protected him now withdrew their aid. In the
wildest passes of the Chunlings Hien’s band was celebrating his
unexpected success by a costly display of fireworks, varied with music
and dancing. . . . So heavily did they tax him that when he reached
his destination he was only able to purchase a small and dilapidated
junk and to enlist the services of three thoroughly incompetent
mercenaries. The vessels which he endeavoured to pursue stealthily in
the hope of restoring his fortunes frequently sailed towards him under
the impression that he was sinking and trying to attract their
benevolent assistance. When his real intention was at length
understood both he and his crew were invariably beaten about the head
with clubs, so that although he persevered until the three hired
assassins rebelled, he never succeeded in committing a single act of
piracy. Afterwards he gained a precarious livelihood by entering into
conversation with strangers, and still later he stood upon a board and
dived for small coins which the charitable threw into the water. In
this pursuit he was one day overtaken by a voracious sea-monster and
perished miserably.

The large-meaning but never fully-accomplishing Emperor K’ong reigned
for yet another year, when he was deposed by the powerful League of
the Three Brothers. To the end of his life he steadfastly persisted
that the rebellion was insidiously fanned, if not actually carried
out, by a secret confederacy of all the verse-makers of the Empire,
who were distrustful of his superior powers. He spent the years of his
exile in composing a poetical epitaph to be carved upon his tomb, but
his successor, the practical-minded Liu-yen, declined to sanction the
expense of procuring so fabulous a supply of marble.
                                  *

When Kai Lung had repeated the story of the well-intentioned youth
Hien and of the Chief Examiner Thang-li and had ceased to speak, a
pause of questionable import filled the room, broken only by the
undignified sleep-noises of the gross Ming-shu. Glances of implied
perplexity were freely passed among the guests, but it remained for
Shan Tien to voice their doubt.

“Yet wherein is the essence of the test maintained,” he asked, “seeing
that the one whom you call Hien obtained all that which he desired and
he who chiefly opposed his aims was himself involved in ridicule and
delivered to a sudden end?”

“Beneficence,” replied Kai Lung, with courteous ease, despite the
pinions that restrained him, “herein it is one thing to demand and
another to comply, for among the Platitudes is the admission made: ‘No
needle has two sharp points.’ The conditions which the subtlety of
Ming-shu imposed ceased to bind, for their corollary was inexact. In
no romance composed by poet or sage are the unassuming hopes of
virtuous love brought to a barren end or the one who holds them
delivered to an ignominious doom. That which was called for does not
therefore exist, but the story of Hien may be taken as indicating the
actual course of events should the case arise in an ordinary state of
life.”

This reply was not deemed inept by most of those who heard, and they
even pressed upon the one who spoke slight gifts of snuff and wine.
The Mandarin Shan Tien, however, held himself apart.

“It is doubtful if your lips will be able thus to frame so confident a
boast when to-morrow fades,” was his dark forecast.

“Doubtless their tenor will be changed, revered, in accordance with
your far-seeing word,” replied Kai Lung submissively as he was led
away.



                              CHAPTER XI

          Of Which it is Written: “In Shallow Water Dragons
                become the Laughing-stock of Shrimps”

At an early gong-stroke of the following day Kai Lung was finally
brought up for judgment in accordance with the venomous scheme of the
reptilian Ming-shu. In order to obscure their guilty plans all
justice-loving persons were excluded from the court, so that when the
story-teller was led in by a single guard he saw before him only the
two whose enmity he faced, and one who stood at a distance prepared to
serve their purpose.

“Committer of every infamy and inceptor of nameless crimes,” began
Ming-shu, moistening his brush, “in the past, by the variety of
discreditable subterfuges, you have parried the stroke of a just
retribution. On this occasion, however, your admitted powers of
evasion will avail you nothing. By a special form of administration,
designed to meet such cases, your guilt will be taken as proved. The
technicalities of passing sentence and seeing it carried out will
follow automatically.”

“In spite of the urgency of the case,” remarked the Mandarin, with an
assumption of the evenly-balanced expression that at one time
threatened to obtain for him the title of “The Just”, “there is one
detail which must not be ignored--especially as our ruling will
doubtless become a lantern to the feet of later ones. You appear,
malefactor, to have committed crimes--and of all these you have been
proved guilty by the ingenious arrangement invoked by the learned
recorder of my spoken word--which render you liable to hanging,
slicing, pressing, boiling, roasting, grilling, freezing, vatting,
racking, twisting, drawing, compressing, inflating, rending, spiking,
gouging, limb-tying, piecemeal-pruning and a variety of less tersely
describable discomforts with which the time of this court need not be
taken up. The important consideration is, in what order are we to
proceed and when, if ever, are we to stop?”

“Under your benumbing eye, Excellence,” suggested Ming-shu
resourcefully, “the precedent of taking first that for which the
written sign is the longest might be established. Failing that, the
names of all the various punishments might be inscribed on separate
shreds of parchment and these deposited within your state umbrella.
The first withdrawn by an unbiased--”

“High Excellence,” Kai Lung ventured to interrupt, “a further plan
suggests itself which--”

“If,” exclaimed Ming-shu in irrational haste, “if the criminal
proposes to narrate a story of one who in like circumstances--”

“Peace!” interposed Shan Tien tactfully. “The felon will only be
allowed the usual ten short measures of time for his suggestion, nor
must he, under that guise, endeavour to insert an imagined tale.”

“Your ruling shall keep straight my bending feet, munificence,”
 replied Kai Lung. “Hear now my simplifying way. In place of cited
wrongs--which, after all, are comparatively trivial matters, as being
merely offences against another or in defiance of a local
usage--substitute one really overwhelming crime for which the penalty
is sharp and explicit.”

“To that end you would suggest--?” Uncertainty sat upon the brow of
both Shan Tien and Ming-shu.

“To straighten out the entangled thread this person would plead guilty
to the act--in a lesser capacity and against his untrammelled will--of
rejoicing musically on a day set apart for universal woe: a crime
aimed directly at the sacred person of the Sublime Head and all those
of his Line.”

At this significant admission the Mandarin’s expression faded; he
stroked the lower part of his face several times and unostentatiously
indicated to the two attendants that they should retire to a more
distant obscurity. Then he spoke.

“When did this--this alleged indiscretion occur, Kai Lung?” he asked
in a considerate voice.

“It is useless to raise a cloud of evasion before the sun of your
penetrating intellect,” replied the story-teller. “The eleventh day of
the existing moon was its inauspicious date.”

“That being yesterday? Ming-shu, you upon whom the duty of regulating
my admittedly vagarious mind devolves, what happened officially on the
eleventh day of the Month of Gathering-in?” demanded the Mandarin in
an ominous tone.

“On such and such a day, benevolence, threescore and fifteen years
ago, the imperishable founder of the existing dynasty ascended on a
fiery dragon to be a guest on high,” confessed the conscience-stricken
scribe, after consulting his printed tablets. “Owing to the stress of
a sudden journey significance of the date had previously escaped my
weed-grown memory, tolerance.”

“Alas!” exclaimed Shan Tien bitterly, “among the innumerable drawbacks
of an exacting position the enforced reliance upon an unusually inept
and more than ordinarily self-opinionated inscriber of the spoken word
is perhaps the most illimitable. Owing to your profuse incompetence
that which began as an agreeable prelude to a busy day has turned into
a really serious matter.”

“Yet, lenience,” pleaded the hapless Ming-shu, lowering his voice for
the Mandarin’s private ear, “so far the danger resides in this one
throat alone. That disposed of--”

“Perchance,” replied Shan Tien; then turning to Kai Lung: “Doubtless,
O story-teller, you were so overcome by the burden of your guilt that
until this moment you have hidden the knowledge of it deep within your
heart?”

“Magnificence, the commanding quality of your enduring voice would
draw the inner matter from a marrow-bone,” frankly replied Kai Lung.
“Fearful lest this crime might go unconfessed and my weak and
trembling ghost therefrom be held to bear its weight unto the end of
time, I set out the full happening in a written scroll and sent it at
daybreak by a sure and secret hand to a scrupulous official to deal
with as he sees fit.”

“Your worthy confidant would assuredly be a person of incorruptible
integrity?”

“The repute of the upright Censor K’o-yih had reached even these
stunted ears.”

“Inevitably: the Censor K’o-yih!” Shan Tien’s hasty glance took in the
angle of the sun and for a moment rested on the door leading to the
part where his swiftest horses lay. “By this time the message will
have reached him?”

“Omnipotence,” replied Kai Lung, spreading out his hands to indicate
the full extent of his submission, “not even a piece of the finest
Ping-hi silk could be inserted between the deepest secret of this
person’s heart and your all-extracting gaze. Should you, in your
meritorious sense of justice, impose upon me a punishment that would
seem to be adequate, it would be superfluous to trouble the obliging
Censor in the matter. To this end the one who bears the message lurks
in a hidden corner of Tai until a certain hour. If I am in a position
to intercept him there he will return the message to my hand; if not,
he will straightway bear it to the integritous K’o-yih.”

“May the President of Hades reward you--I am no longer in a position
to do so!” murmured Shan Tien with concentrated feeling. “Draw near,
Kai Lung,” he continued sympathetically, “and indicate--with as little
delay as possible--what in your opinion would constitute a sufficient
punishment.”

Thus invited and with his cords unbound, Kai Lung advanced and took
his station near the table, Ming-shu noticeably making room for him.

“To be driven from your lofty presence and never again permitted to
listen to the wisdom of your inspired lips would undoubtedly be the
first essential of my penance, High Excellence.”

“It is gran--inflicted,” agreed Shan Tien, with swift decision.

“The necessary edict may conveniently be drafted in the form of a
safe-conduct for this person and all others of his band to a point
beyond the confines of your jurisdiction--when the usually
agile-witted Ming-shu can sufficiently shake off the benumbing torpor
now assailing him so as to use his brush.”

“It is already begun, O virtuous harbinger of joy,” protested the
dazed Ming-shu, overturning all the four precious implements in his
passion to comply. “A mere breath of time--”

“Let it be signed, sealed and thumb-pressed at every available point
of ambiguity,” enjoined Shan Tien.

“Having thus oppressed the vainglory of my self-willed mind, the
presumption of this unworthy body must be subdued likewise. The burden
of five hundred taels of silver should suffice. If not--”

“In the form of paper obligations, estimable Kai Lung, the same amount
would go more conveniently within your scrip,” suggested the Mandarin
hopefully.

“Not convenience, O Mandarin, but bodily exhaustion is the essence of
my task,” reproved the story-teller.

“Yet consider the anguish of my internal pang, if thus encumbered, you
sank spent by the wayside, and being thereby unable to withhold the
message, you were called upon to endure a further ill.”

“That, indeed, is worthy of our thought,” confessed Kai Lung. “To this
end I will further mortify myself by adventuring upon the uncertain
apex of a trustworthy steed (a mode of progress new to my experience)
until I enter Tai.”

“The swiftest and most reputable awaits your guiding hand,” replied
Shan Tien.

“Let it be enticed forth into a quiet and discreet spot. In the
interval, while the obliging Ming-shu plies an unfaltering brush, the
task of weighing out my humiliating burden shall be ours.”

In an incredibly short space of time, being continually urged on by
the flattering anxiety of Shan Tien (whose precipitancy at one point
became so acute that he mistook fourscore taels for five), all things
were prepared. With the inscribed parchment well within his sleeve and
the bags of silver ranged about his body, Kai Lung approached the
platform that had been raised to enable him to subdue the expectant
animal.

“Once in the desired position, weighted down as you are, there is
little danger of your becoming displaced,” remarked the Mandarin
auspiciously.

“Your words are, as usual, many-sided in their wise application,
benignity,” replied Kai Lung. “One thing only yet remains. It is apart
from the expression of this one’s will, but as an act of justice to
yourself and in order to complete the analogy--” And he indicated the
direction of Ming-shu.

“Nevertheless you are agreeably understood,” declared Shan Tien,
moving apart. “Farewell.”

As those who controlled the front part of the horse at this moment
relaxed their tenacity, Kai Lung did not deem it prudent to reply, nor
was he specifically observant of the things about. But a little later,
while in the act of permitting the creature whose power he ruled to
turn round for a last look at its former home, he saw that the
unworthy no longer flourished. Ming-shu, with his own discarded cang
around his vindictive neck, was being led off in the direction of the
prison-house.



                             CHAPTER XII

       The Out-passing into a State of Assured Felicity of the
           Much-enduring Two With Whom These Printed Leaves
                     Have Chiefly Been Concerned

Although it was towards sunset, the heat of the day still hung above
the dusty earth-road, and two who tarried within the shadow of an
ancient arch were loath to resume their way. They had walked far, for
the uncertain steed, having revealed a too contentious nature, had
been disposed of in distant Tai to an honest stranger who freely
explained the imperfection of its ignoble outline.

“Let us remain another space of time,” pleaded Hwa-mei reposefully,
“and as without your all-embracing art the course of events would
undoubtedly have terminated very differently from what it has, will
you not, out of an emotion of gratitude, relate a story for my ear
alone, weaving into it the substance of this ancient arch whose shade
proves our rest?”

“Your wish is the crown of my attainment, unearthly one,” replied Kai
Lung, preparing to obey. “This concerns the story of Ten-teh, whose
name adorns the keystone of the fabric.”


          The Story of the Loyalty of Ten-teh, the Fisherman
                                    “Devotion to the Emperor--”
                                       The Five Great Principles

The reign of the enlightened Emperor Tung Kwei had closed amid scenes
of treachery and lust, and in his perfidiously-spilled blood was
extinguished the last pale hope of those faithful to his line. His
only son was a nameless fugitive--by ceaseless report already Passed
Beyond--his party scattered and crushed out like the sparks from his
blackened Capital, while nothing that men thought dare pass their
lips. The usurper Fuh-chi sat upon the dragon throne and spake with
the voice of brass cymbals and echoing drums, his right hand shedding
blood and his left hand spreading fire. To raise an eye before him was
to ape with death, and a whisper in the outer ways foreran swift
torture. With harrows he uprooted the land until no household could
gather round its ancestral tablets, and with marble rollers he
flattened it until none dare lift his head. For the body of each one
who had opposed his ambition there was offered an equal weight of fine
silver, and upon the head of the child-prince was set the reward of
ten times his weight in pure gold. Yet in noisome swamps and forests,
hidden in caves, lying on desolate islands, and concealing themselves
in every kind of solitary place were those who daily prostrated
themselves to the memory of Tung Kwei and by a sign acknowledged the
authority of his infant son Kwo Kam. In the Crystal City there was a
great roar of violence and drunken song, and men and women lapped from
deep lakes filled up with wine; but the ricesacks of the poor had long
been turned out and shaken for a little dust; their eyes were closing
and in their hearts they were as powder between the mill-stones. On
the north and the west the barbarians had begun to press forward in
resistless waves, and from The Island to The Beak pirates laid waste
the coast.


                      i. UNDER THE DRAGON’S WING

Among the lagoons of the Upper Seng river a cormorant fisher, Ten-teh
by name, daily followed his occupation. In seasons of good harvest,
when they of the villages had grain in abundance and money with which
to procure a more varied diet, Ten-teh was able to regard the
ever-changeful success of his venture without anxiety, and even to add
perchance somewhat to his store; but when affliction lay upon the land
the carefully gathered hoard melted away and he did not cease to
upbraid himself for adopting so uncertain a means of livelihood. At
these times the earth-tillers, having neither money to spend nor crops
to harvest, caught such fish as they could for themselves. Others in
their extremity did not scruple to drown themselves and their
dependents in Ten-teh’s waters, so that while none contributed to his
prosperity the latter ones even greatly added to the embarrassment of
his craft. When, therefore, his own harvest failed him in addition, or
tempests drove him back to a dwelling which was destitute of food
either for himself, his household, or his cormorants, his
self-reproach did not appear to be ill-reasoned. Yet in spite of all
Ten-teh was of a genial disposition, benevolent, respectful and
incapable of guile. He sacrificed adequately at all festivals, and his
only regret was that he had no son of his own and very scanty chances
of ever becoming rich enough to procure one by adoption.

The sun was setting one day when Ten-teh reluctantly took up his
propelling staff and began to urge his raft towards the shore. It was
a season of parched crops and destitution in the villages, when
disease could fondle the bones of even the most rotund and leprosy was
the insidious condiment in every dish; yet never had the Imperial dues
been higher, and each succeeding official had larger hands and a more
inexorable face than the one before him. Ten-teh’s hoarded resources
had already followed the snows of the previous winter, his shelf was
like the heart of a despot to whom the oppressed cry for pity, and the
contents of the creel at his feet were too insignificant to tempt the
curiosity even of his hungry cormorants. But the mists of the evening
were by this time lapping the surface of the waters and he had no
alternative but to abandon his fishing for the day.

“Truly they who go forth to fish, even in shallow waters, experience
strange things when none are by to credit them,” suddenly exclaimed
his assistant--a mentally deficient youth of the villages whom Ten-teh
charitably employed because all others rejected him. “Behold, master,
a spectre bird approaches.”

“Peace, witless,” replied Ten-teh, not turning from his occupation,
for it was no uncommon incident for the deficient youth to mistake
widely-differing objects for one another or to claim a demoniacal
insight into the most trivial happenings. “Visions do not materialize
for such as thou and I.”

“Nevertheless,” continued the weakling, “if you will but slacken your
agile proficiency with the pole, chieftain, our supper to-night may
yet consist of something more substantial than the fish which it is
our intention to catch to-morrow.”

When the defective youth had continued for some time in this
meaningless strain Ten-teh turned to rebuke him, when to his
astonishment he perceived that a strange cormorant was endeavouring to
reach them, its progress being impeded by an object which it carried
in its mouth. Satisfying himself that his own birds were still on the
raft, Ten-teh looked round in expectation for the boat of another
fisherman, although none but he had ever within his memory sought
those waters, but as far as he could see the wide-stretching lagoon
was deserted by all but themselves. He accordingly waited, drawing in
his pole, and inciting the bird on by cries of encouragement.

“A nobly-born cormorant without doubt,” exclaimed the youth
approvingly. “He is lacking the throat-strap, yet he holds his prey
dexterously and makes no movement to consume it. But the fish itself
is outlined strangely.”

As the bird drew near Ten-teh also saw that it was devoid of the usual
strap which in the exercise of his craft was necessary as a barrier
against the gluttonous instincts of the race. It was unnaturally
large, and even at a distance Ten-teh could see that its plumage was
smoothed to a polished lustre, its eye alert, and the movement of its
flight untamed. But, as the youth had said, the fish it carried loomed
mysteriously.

“The Wise One and the Crafty Image--behold they prostrate themselves!”
 cried the youth in a tone of awe-inspired surprise, and without a
pause he stepped off the raft and submerged himself beneath the
waters.

It was even as he asserted; Ten-teh turned his eyes and lo, his two
cormorants, instead of rising in anger, as their contentious nature
prompted, had sunk to the ground and were doing obeisance. Much
perturbed as to his own most prudent action, for the bird was nearing
the craft, Ten-teh judged it safest to accept this token and falling
down he thrice knocked his forehead submissively. When he looked up
again the majestic bird had vanished as utterly as the flame that is
quenched, and lying at his feet was a naked man-child.

“O master,” said the voice of the assistant, as he cautiously
protruded his head above the surface of the raft, “has the vision
faded, or do creatures of the air before whom even their own kind
kowtow still haunt the spot?”

“The manifestation has withdrawn,” replied Ten-teh reassuringly, “but
like the touch of the omnipotent Buddha it has left behind it that
which proves its reality,” and he pointed to the man-child.

“Beware, alas!” exclaimed the youth, preparing to immerse himself a
second time if the least cause arose; “and on no account permit
yourself to be drawn into the snare. Inevitably the affair tends to
evil from the beginning and presently that which now appears as a
man-child will assume the form of a devouring vampire and consume us
all. Such occurrences are by no means uncommon when the great
sky-lantern is at its full distension.”

“To maintain otherwise would be impious,” admitted his master, “but at
the same time there is nothing to indicate that the beneficial deities
are not the ones responsible for this apparition.” With these humane
words the kindly-disposed Ten-teh wrapped his outer robe about the
man-child and turned to lay him in the empty creel, when to his
profound astonishment he saw that it was now filled with fish of the
rarest and most unapproachable kinds.

“Footsteps of the dragon!” exclaimed the youth, scrambling back on to
the raft hastily; “undoubtedly your acuter angle of looking at the
visitation was the inspired one. Let us abandon the man-child in an
unfrequented spot and then proceed to divide the result of the
adventure equally among us.”

“An agreed portion shall be allotted,” replied Ten-teh, “but to
abandon so miraculously-endowed a being would cover even an outcast
with shame.”

“‘Shame fades in the morning; debts remain from day to day,’” replied
the youth, the allusion of the proverb being to the difficulty of
sustaining life in times so exacting, when men pledged their household
goods, their wives, even their ancestral records for a little flour or
a jar of oil. “To the starving the taste of a grain of corn is more
satisfying than the thought of a roasted ox, but as many years must
pass as this creel now holds fish before the little one can disengage
a catch or handle the pole.”

“It is as the Many-Eyed One sees,” replied Ten-teh, with unmoved
determination. “This person has long desired a son, and those who walk
into an earthquake while imploring heaven for a sign are unworthy of
consideration. Take this fish and depart until the morrow. Also,
unless you would have the villagers regard you as not only deficient
but profane, reveal nothing of this happening to those whom you
encounter.” With these words Ten-teh dismissed him, not greatly
disturbed at the thought of whatever he might do; for in no case would
any believe a word he spoke, while the greater likelihood tended
towards his forgetting everything before he had reached his home.

As Ten-teh approached his own door his wife came forth to meet him.
“Much gladness!” she cried aloud before she saw his burden; “tempered
only by a regret that you did not abandon your chase at an earlier
hour. Fear not for the present that the wolf-tusk of famine shall gnaw
our repose or that the dreaded wings of the white and scaly one shall
hover about our house-top. Your wealthy cousin, journeying back to the
Capital from the land of the spice forests, has been here in your
absence, leaving you gifts of fur, silk, carved ivory, oil, wine, nuts
and rice and rich foods of many kinds. He would have stayed to embrace
you were it not that his company of bearers awaited him at an arranged
spot and he had already been long delayed.”

Then said Ten-teh, well knowing that he had no such desirable
relative, but drawn to secrecy by the unnatural course of events: “The
years pass unperceived and all changes but the heart of man; how
appeared my cousin, and has he greatly altered under the enervating
sun of a barbarian land?”

“He is now a little man, with a loose skin the colour of a
finely-lacquered apricot,” replied the woman. “His teeth are large and
jagged, his expression open and sincere, and the sound of his
breathing is like the continuous beating of waves upon a stony beach.
Furthermore, he has ten fingers upon his left hand and a girdle of
rubies about his waist.”

“The description is unmistakable,” said Ten-teh evasively. “Did he
chance to leave a parting message of any moment?”

“He twice remarked: ‘When the sun sets the moon rises, but to-morrow
the drawn will break again,’” replied his wife. “Also, upon leaving he
asked for ink, brushes and a fan, and upon it he inscribed certain
words.” She thereupon handed the fan to Ten-teh, who read, written in
characters of surpassing beauty and exactness, the proverb:
“Well-guarded lips, patient alertness and a heart conscientiously
discharging its accepted duty: these three things have a sure reward.”

At that moment Ten-teh’s wife saw that he carried something beyond his
creel and discovering the man-child she cried out with delight,
pouring forth a torrent of inquiries and striving to possess it. “A
tale half told is the father of many lies,” exclaimed Ten-teh at
length, “and of the greater part of what you ask this person knows
neither the beginning nor the end. Let what is written on the fan
suffice.” With this he explained to her the meaning of the characters
and made their significance clear. Then without another word he placed
the man-child in her arms and led her back into the house.

From that time Hoang, as he was thenceforward called, was received
into the household of Ten-teh, and from that time Ten-teh prospered.
Without ever approaching a condition of affluence or dignified ease,
he was never exposed to the penury and vicissitudes which he had been
wont to experience; so that none had need to go hungry or ill-clad. If
famine ravaged the villages Ten-teh’s store of grain was miraculously
maintained; his success on the lagoons was unvaried, fish even leaping
on to the structure of the raft. Frequently in dark and undisturbed
parts of the house he found sums of money and other valuable articles
of which he had no remembrance, while it was no uncommon thing for
passing merchants to leave bales of goods at his door in mistake and
to meet with some accident which prevented them from ever again
visiting that part of the country. In the meanwhile Hoang grew from
infancy into childhood, taking part with Ten-teh in all his pursuits,
yet even in the most menial occupation never wholly shaking off the
air of command and nobility of bearing which lay upon him. In strength
and endurance he outpaced all the youths around, while in the
manipulation of the raft and the dexterous handling of the cormorants
he covered Ten-teh with gratified shame. So excessive was the devotion
which he aroused in those who knew him that the deficient youth wept
openly if Hoang chanced to cough or sneeze; and it is even asserted
that on more than one occasion high officials, struck by the authority
of his presence, though he might be in the act of carrying fish along
the road, hastily descended from their chairs and prostrated
themselves before him.

In the fourteenth year of the reign of the usurper Fuh-chi a little
breeze rising in the Province of Sz-chuen began to spread through all
the land and men’s minds were again agitated by the memory of a hope
which had long seemed dead. At that period the tyrannical Fuh-chi
finally abandoned the last remaining vestige of restraint and by his
crimes and excesses alienated even the protection of the evil spirits
and the fidelity of his chosen guard; so that he conspired with
himself to bring about his own destruction. One discriminating adviser
alone had stood at the foot of the throne, and being no less resolute
than far-seeing, he did not hesitate to warn Fuh-chi and to hold the
prophetic threat of rebellion before his eyes. Such sincerity met with
the reward not difficult to conjecture.

“Who are our enemies?” exclaimed Fuh-chi, turning to a notorious
flatterer at his side, “and where are they who are displeased with our
too lenient rule?”

“Your enemies, O Brother of the Sun and Prototype of the Red-legged
Crane, are dead and unmourned. The living do naught but speak of your
clemency and bask in the radiance of your eye-light,” protested the
flatterer.

“It is well said,” replied Fuh-chi. “How is it, then, that any can eat
of our rice and receive our bounty and yet repay us with ingratitude
and taunts, holding their joints stiffly in our presence? Lo, even
lambs have the grace to suck kneeling.”

“Omnipotence,” replied the just minister, “if this person is deficient
in the more supple graces of your illustrious Court it is because the
greater part of his life has been spent in waging your wars in
uncivilized regions. Nevertheless, the alarm can be as competently
sounded upon a brass drum as by a silver trumpet, and his words came
forth from a sincere throat.”

“Then the opportunity is by no means to be lost,” exclaimed Fuh-chi,
who was by this time standing some distance from himself in the
effects of distilled pear juice; “for we have long desired to see the
difference which must undoubtedly exist between a sincere throat and
one bent to the continual use of evasive flattery.”

Without further consideration he ordered that both persons should be
beheaded and that their bodies should be brought for his inspection.
From that time there was none to stay his hand or to guide his policy,
so that he mixed blood and wine in foolishness and lust until the land
was sick and heaved.

The whisper starting from Sz-chuen passed from house to house and from
town to town until it had cast a network over every province, yet no
man could say whence it came or by whom the word was passed. It might
be in the manner of a greeting or the pledging of a cup of tea, by the
offer of a coin to a blind beggar at the gate, in the fold of a
carelessly-worn garment, or even by the passing of a leper through a
town. Oppression still lay heavily upon the people; but it was without
aim and carried no restraint; famine and pestilence still went hand in
hand, but the message rode on their backs and was hospitably received.
Soon, growing bolder, men stood face to face and spoke of settled
plans, gave signs, and openly declared themselves. On all sides
proclamations began to be affixed; next weapons were distributed,
hands were made proficient in their uses, until nothing remained but
definite instruction and a swift summons for the appointed day. At
intervals omens had appeared in the sky and prophecies had been put
into the mouths of sooth-sayers, so that of the success of the
undertaking and of its justice none doubted. On the north and the west
entire districts had reverted to barbarism, and on the coasts the
pirates anchored by the water-gates of walled cities and tossed jests
to the watchmen on the towers.

Throughout this period Ten-teh had surrounded Hoang with an added
care, never permitting him to wander beyond his sight, and distrusting
all men in spite of his confiding nature. One night, when a fierce
storm beyond the memory of man was raging, there came at the middle
hour a knocking upon the outer wall, loud and insistent; nevertheless
Ten-teh did not at once throw open the door in courteous invitation,
but drawing aside a shutter he looked forth. Before the house stood one
of commanding stature, clad from head to foot in robes composed of
plaited grasses, dyed in many colours. Around him ran a stream of
water, while the lightning issuing in never-ceasing flashes from his
eyes revealed that his features were rugged and his ears pierced with
many holes from which the wind whistled until the sound resembled the
shrieks of ten thousand tortured ones under the branding-iron. From
him the tempest proceeded in every direction, but he stood unmoved
among it, without so much as a petal of the flowers he wore
disarranged.

In spite of these indications, and of the undoubted fact that the
Being could destroy the house with a single glance, Ten-teh still
hesitated.

“The night is dark and stormy, and robbers and evil spirits are
certainly about in large numbers, striving to enter unperceived by any
open door,” he protested, but with becoming deference. “With what does
your welcome and opportune visit concern itself, honourable stranger?”

“The one before you is not accustomed to be questioned in his doings,
or even to be spoken to by ordinary persons,” replied the Being.
“Nevertheless, Ten-teh, there is that in your history for the past
fourteen years which saves you from the usual fatal consequences of so
gross an indiscretion. Let it suffice that it is concerned with the
flight of the cormorant.”

Upon this assurance Ten-teh no longer sought evasion. He hastened to
throw open the outer door and the stranger entered, whereupon the
tempest ceased, although the thunder and lightning still lingered
among the higher mountains. In passing through the doorway the robe of
plaited grasses caught for a moment on the staple and pulling aside
revealed that the Being wore upon his left foot a golden sandal and
upon his right foot one of iron, while embedded in his throat was a
great pearl. Convinced by this that he was indeed one of the Immortal
Eight, Ten-teh prostrated himself fittingly, and explained that the
apparent disrespect of his reception arose from a conscientious
interest in the safety of the one committed to his care.

“It is well,” replied the Being affably; “and your unvarying fidelity
shall not go unrewarded when the proper time arrives. Now bring
forward the one whom hitherto you have wisely called Hoang.”

In secret during the past years Ten-teh had prepared for such an
emergency a yellow silk robe bearing embroidered on it the Imperial
Dragon with Five Claws. He had also provided suitable ornaments, fur
coverings for the hands and face, and a sword and shield. Waking
Hoang, he quickly dressed him, sprinkled a costly perfume about his
head and face, and taking him for the last time by the hand he led him
into the presence of the stranger.

“Kwo Kam, chosen representative of the sacred line of Tang,” began the
Being, when he and Hoang had exchanged signs and greetings of equality
in an obscure tongue, “the grafted peach-tree on the Crystal Wall is
stricken and the fruit is ripe and rotten to the touch. The flies that
have fed upon its juice are drunk with it and lie helpless on the
ground; the skin is empty and blown out with air, the leaves withered,
and about the root is coiled a great worm which has secretly worked to
this end. From the Five Points of the kingdom and beyond the Outer
Willow Circle the Sheaf-binders have made a full report and it has
been judged that the time is come for the tree to be roughly shaken.
To this destiny the Old Ones of your race now call you; but beware of
setting out unless your face should be unchangingly fixed and your
heart pure from all earthly desires and base considerations.”

“The decision is too ever-present in my mind to need reflection,”
 replied Hoang resolutely. “To grind to powder that presumptuous tyrant
utterly, to restore the integrity of the violated boundaries of the
land, and to set up again the venerable Tablets of the true Tang
line--these desires have long since worn away the softer portion of
this person’s heart by constant thought.”

“The choice has been made and the words have been duly set down,” said
the Being. “If you maintain your high purpose to a prosperous end
nothing can exceed your honour in the Upper Air; if you fail culpably,
or even through incapacity, the lot of Fuh-chi himself will be
enviable compared with yours.”

Understanding that the time had now come for his departure, Hoang
approached Ten-teh as though he would have embraced him, but the Being
made a gesture of restraint.

“Yet, O instructor, for the space of fourteen years--” protested
Hoang.

“It has been well and discreetly accomplished,” replied the Being in a
firm but not unsympathetic voice, “and Ten-teh’s reward, which shall
be neither slight nor grudging, is awaiting him in the Upper Air,
where already his immediate ancestors are very honourably regarded in
consequence. For many years, O Ten-teh, there has dwelt beneath your
roof one who from this moment must be regarded as having passed away
without leaving even a breath of memory behind. Before you stands your
sovereign, to whom it is seemly that you should prostrate yourself in
unquestioning obeisance. Do not look for any recompense or distinction
here below in return for that which you have done towards a nameless
one; for in the State there are many things which for high reasons
cannot be openly proclaimed for the ill-disposed to use as feathers in
their darts. Yet take this ring; the ears of the Illimitable Emperor
are never closed to the supplicating petition of his children and
should such a contingency arise you may freely lay your cause before
him with the full assurance of an unswerving justice.”

A moment later the storm broke out again with redoubled vigour, and
raising his face from the ground Ten-teh perceived that he was again
alone.


                 ii. THE MESSAGE FROM THE OUTER LAND

After the departure of Hoang the affairs of Ten-teh ceased to prosper.
The fish which for so many years had leaped to meet his hand now
maintained an unparalleled dexterity in avoiding it; continual storms
drove him day after day back to the shore, and the fostering
beneficence of the deities seemed to be withdrawn, so that he no
longer found forgotten stores of wealth nor did merchants ever again
mistake his door for that of another to whom they were indebted.

In the year that followed there passed from time to time through the
secluded villages lying in the Upper Seng valley persons who spoke of
the tumultuous events progressing everywhere. In such a manner those
who had remained behind learned that the great rising had been
honourably received by the justice-loving in every province, but that
many of official rank, inspired by no friendship towards Fuh-chi, but
terror-stricken at the alternatives before them, had closed certain
strong cities against the Army of the Avenging Pure. It was at this
crisis, when the balance of the nation’s destiny hung poised, that Kwo
Kam, the only son of the Emperor Tung Kwei, and rightful heir of the
dynasty of the glorious Tang, miraculously appeared at the head of the
Avenging Pure and being acclaimed their leader with a unanimous shout
led them on through a series of overwhelming and irresistible
victories. At a later period it was told how Kwo Kam had been crowned
and installed upon his father’s throne, after receiving a mark of
celestial approbation in the Temple of Heaven, how Fuh-chi had escaped
and fled and how his misleading records had been publicly burned and
his detestable name utterly blotted out.

At this period an even greater misfortune than his consistent ill
success met Ten-teh. A neighbouring mandarin, on a false pretext,
caused him to be brought before him, and speaking very sternly of
certain matters in the past, which, he said, out of a well-intentioned
regard for the memory of Ten-teh’s father he would not cast abroad, he
fined him a much larger sum than all he possessed, and then at once
caused the raft and the cormorants to be seized in satisfaction of the
claim. This he did because his heart was bad, and the sight of Ten-teh
bearing a cheerful countenance under continual privation had become
offensive to him.

The story of this act of rapine Ten-teh at once carried to the
appointed head of the village communities, assuring him that he was
ignorant of the cause, but that no crime or wrong-doing had been
committed to call for so overwhelming an affliction in return, and
entreating him to compel a just restitution and liberty to pursue his
inoffensive calling peaceably in the future.

“Listen well, O unassuming Ten-teh, for you are a person of
discernment and one with a mature knowledge of the habits of all
swimming creatures,” said the headman after attending patiently to
Ten-teh’s words. “If two lean and insignificant carp encountered a
voracious pike and one at length fell into his jaws, by what means
would the other compel the assailant to release his prey?”

“So courageous an emotion would serve no useful purpose,” replied
Ten-teh. “Being ill-equipped for such a conflict, it would inevitably
result in the second fish also falling a prey to the voracious pike,
and recognizing this, the more fortunate of the two would endeavour to
escape by lying unperceived among the reeds about.”

“The answer is inspired and at the same time sufficiently concise to
lie within the hollow bowl of an opium pipe,” replied the headman, and
turning to his bench he continued in his occupation of beating flax
with a wooden mallet.

“Yet,” protested Ten-teh, when at length the other paused, “surely the
matter could be placed before those in authority in so convincing a
light by one possessing your admitted eloquence that Justice would
stumble over herself in her haste to liberate the oppressed and to
degrade the guilty.”

“The phenomenon has occasionally been witnessed, but latterly it would
appear that the conscientious deity in question must have lost all
power of movement, or perhaps even fatally injured herself, as the
result of some such act of rash impulsiveness in the past,” replied
the headman sympathetically.

“Alas, then,” exclaimed Ten-teh, “is there, under the most enlightened
form of government in the world, no prescribed method of obtaining
redress?”

“Assuredly,” replied the headman; “the prescribed method is the part
of the system that has received the most attention. As the one of whom
you complain is a mandarin of the fifth degree, you may fittingly
address yourself to his superiors of the fourth, third, second and
first degrees. Then there are the city governors, the district
prefects, the provincial rulers, the Imperial Assessors, the Board of
Censors, the Guider of the Vermilion Pencil, and, finally, the supreme
Emperor himself. To each of these, if you are wealthy enough to reach
his actual presence, you may prostrate yourself in turn, and each one,
with many courteous expressions of intolerable regret that the matter
does not come within his office, will refer you to another. The more
prudent course, therefore, would seem to be that of beginning with the
Emperor rather than reaching him as the last resort, and as you are
now without means of livelihood if you remain here there is no reason
why you should not journey to the Capital and make the attempt.”

“The Highest!” exclaimed Ten-teh, with a pang of unfathomable emotion.
“Is there, then, no middle way? Who is Ten-teh, the obscure and
illiterate fisherman, that he should thrust himself into the presence
of the Son of Heaven? If the mother of the dutiful Chou Yii could
destroy herself and her family at one blow to the end that her son
might serve his sovereign with a single heart, how degraded an outcast
must he be who would obtrude his own trivial misfortunes at so
critical a time.”

“‘A thorn in one’s own little finger is more difficult to endure than
a sword piercing the sublime Emperor’s arm,’” replied the headman,
resuming his occupation. “But if your angle of regarding the various
obligations is as you have stated it, then there is obviously nothing
more to be said. In any case it is more than doubtful whether the
Fountain of Justice would raise an eyelash if you, by every
combination of fortunate circumstance, succeeded in reaching his
presence.”

“The headman has spoken, and his word is ten times more weighty than
that of an ill-educated fisherman,” replied Ten-teh submissively, and
he departed.

From that time Ten-teh sought to sustain life upon roots and wild
herbs which he collected laboriously and not always in sufficient
quantities from the woods and rank wastes around. Soon even this
resource failed him in a great measure, for a famine of unprecedented
harshness swept over that part of the province. All supplies of
adequate food ceased, and those who survived were driven by the pangs
of hunger to consume weeds and the bark of trees, fallen leaves,
insects of the lowest orders and the bones of wild animals which had
died in the forest. To carry a little rice openly was a rash challenge
to those who still valued life, and a loaf of chaff and black mould
was guarded as a precious jewel. No wife or daughter could weigh in
the balance against a measure of corn, and men sold themselves into
captivity to secure the coarse nourishment which the rich allotted to
their slaves. Those who remained in the villages followed in Ten-teh’s
footsteps, so that the meagre harvest that hitherto had failed to
supply one household now constituted the whole provision for many. At
length these persons, seeing a lingering but inevitable death before
them all, came together and spoke of how this might perchance be
avoided.

“Let us consider well,” said one of their number, “for it may be that
succour would not be withheld did we but know the precise manner in
which to invoke it.”

“Your words are light, O Tan-yung, and your eyes too bright in looking
at things which present no encouragement whatever,” replied another.
“We who remain are old, infirm, or in some way deficient, or we would
ere this have sold ourselves into slavery or left this accursed desert
in search of a more prolific land. Therefore our existence is of no
value to the State, so that they will not take any pains to preserve
it. Furthermore, now being beyond the grasp of the most covetous
extortion, the district officials have no reason for maintaining an
interest in our lives. Assuredly there is no escape except by the
White Door of which each one himself holds the key.”

“Yet,” objected a third, “the aged Ning has often recounted how in the
latter years of the reign of the charitable Emperor Kwong, when a
similar infliction lay upon the land, a bullock-load of rice was sent
daily into the villages of the valley and freely distributed by the
headman. Now that same munificent Kwong was a direct ancestor to the
third degree of our own Kwo Kam.”

“Alas!” remarked a person who had lost many of his features during a
raid of brigands, “since the days of the commendable Kwong, while the
feet of our lesser ones have been growing smaller the hands of our
greater ones have been growing larger. Yet even nowadays, by the
protection of the deities, the bullock might reach us.”

“The wheel-grease of the cart would alone make the day memorable,”
 murmured another.

“O brothers,” interposed one who had not yet spoken, “do not cause our
throats to twitch convulsively; nor is it in any way useful to leave
the date of solid reflection in pursuit of the stone of light and
versatile fancy. Is it thought to be expedient that we should send an
emissary to those in authority, pleading our straits?”

“Have not two already journeyed to Kuing-yi in our cause, and to what
end?” replied the second one who had raised his voice.

“They did but seek the city mandarin and failed to reach his ear,
being empty-handed,” urged Tan-yung. “The distance to the Capital is
admittedly great, yet it is no more than a persevering and
resolute-minded man could certainly achieve. There prostrating himself
before the Sublime One and invoking the memory of the imperishable
Kwong he could so outline our necessity and despair that the one
wagon-load referred to would be increased by nine and the unwieldy
oxen give place to relays of swift horses.”

“The Emperor!” exclaimed the one who had last spoken, in tones of
undisguised contempt towards Tan-yung. “Is the eye of the
Unapproachable Sovereign less than that of a city mandarin, that
having failed to come near the one we should now strive to reach the
other; or are we, peradventure, to fill the sleeves of our messenger
with gold and his inner scrip with sapphires!” Nevertheless the
greater part of those who stood around zealously supported Tan-yung,
crying aloud: “The Emperor! The suggestion is inspired! Undoubtedly
the beneficent Kwo Kam will uphold our cause and our troubles may now
be considered as almost at an end.”

“Yet,” interposed a faltering voice, “who among us is to go?”

At the mention of this necessary detail of the plan the cries which
were the loudest raised in exultation suddenly leapt back upon
themselves as each person looked in turn at all the others and then at
himself. The one who had urged the opportune but disconcerting point
was lacking in the power of movement in his lower limbs and progressed
at a pace little advanced to that of a shell-cow upon two slabs of
wood. Tan-yung was subject to a disorder which without any warning
cast him to the ground almost daily in a condition of writhing frenzy;
the one who had opposed him was paralysed in all but his head and
feet, while those who stood about were either blind, lame,
camel-backed, leprous, armless, misshapen, or in some way mentally or
bodily deficient in an insuperable degree. “Alas!” exclaimed one, as
the true understanding of their deformities possessed him, “not only
would they of the Court receive it as a most detestable insult if we
sent such as ourselves, but the probability of anyone so harassed
overcoming the difficulties of river, desert and mountain barrier is
so remote that this person is more than willing to stake his entire
share of the anticipated bounty against a span-length of succulent
lotus root or an embossed coffin handle.”

“Let unworthy despair fade!” suddenly exclaimed Tan-yung, who
nevertheless had been more downcast than any other a moment before;
“for among us has been retained one who has probably been especially
destined for this very service. There is yet Ten-teh. Let us seek him
out.”

With this design they sought for Ten-teh and finding him in his hut
they confidently invoked his assistance, pointing out how he would
save all their lives and receive great honour. To their dismay Ten-teh
received them with solemn curses and drove them from his door with
blows, calling them traitors, ungrateful ones, and rebellious subjects
whose minds were so far removed from submissive loyalty that rather
than perish harmlessly they would inopportunely thrust themselves in
upon the attention of the divine Emperor when his mind was full of
great matters and his thoughts tenaciously fixed upon the scheme for
reclaiming the abandoned outer lands of his forefathers. “Behold,” he
cried, “when a hand is raised to sweep into oblivion a thousand
earthworms they lift no voice in protest, and in this matter ye are
less than earthworms. The dogs are content to starve dumbly while
their masters feast, and ye are less than dogs. The dutiful son
cheerfully submits himself to torture on the chance that his father’s
sufferings may be lessened, and the Emperor, as the supreme head, is
more to be venerated than any father; but your hearts are sheathed in
avarice and greed.” Thus he drove them away, and their last hope being
gone they wandered back to the forest, wailing and filling the air
with their despairing moans; for the brief light that had inspired
them was extinguished and the thought that by a patient endurance they
might spare the Emperor an unnecessary pang was not a sufficient
recompense in their eyes.

The time of warmth and green life passed. With winter came floods and
snow-storms, great tempests from the north and bitter winds that cut
men down as though they had been smitten by the sword. The rivers and
lagoons were frozen over; the meagre sustenance of the earth lay
hidden beneath an impenetrable crust of snow and ice, until those who
had hitherto found it a desperate chance to live from day to day now
abandoned the unequal struggle for the more attractive certainty of a
swift and painless death. One by one the fires went out in the houses
of the dead; the ever-increasing snow broke down the walls. Wild
beasts from the mountains walked openly about the deserted streets,
thrust themselves through such doors as were closed against them and
lurked by night in the most sacred recesses of the ruined temples. The
strong and the wealthy had long since fled, and presently out of all
the eleven villages of the valley but one man remained alive and
Ten-teh lay upon the floor of his inner chamber, dying.

“There was a sign--there was a sign in the past that more was yet to
be accomplished,” ran the one thought of his mind as he lay there
helpless, his last grain consumed and the ashes on his hearthstone
black. “Can it be that so solemn an omen has fallen unfulfilled to the
ground; or has this person long walked hand in hand with shadows in
the Middle Air?”

“Dwellers of Yin; dwellers of Chung-yo; of Wei, Shan-ta, Feng, the
Rock of the Bleak Pagoda and all the eleven villages of the valley!”
 cried a voice from without. “Ho, inhospitable sleeping ones, I have
reached the last dwelling of the plain and no one has as yet bidden me
enter, no voice invited me to unlace my sandals and partake of tea. Do
they fear that this person is a robber in disguise, or is this the
courtesy of the Upper Seng valley?”

“They sleep more deeply,” said Ten-teh, speaking back to the full
extent of his failing power; “perchance your voice was not raised high
enough, O estimable wayfarer. Nevertheless, whether you come in peace
or armed with violence, enter here, for the one who lies within is
past help and beyond injury.”

Upon this invitation the stranger entered and stood before Ten-teh. He
was of a fierce and martial aspect, carrying a sword at his belt and a
bow and arrows slung across his back, but privation had set a deep
mark upon his features and his body bore unmistakable traces of a long
and arduous march. His garments were ragged, his limbs torn by rocks
and thorny undergrowth, while his ears had fallen away before the
rigour of the ice-laden blasts. In his right hand he carried a staff
upon which he leaned at every step, and glancing to the ground Ten-teh
perceived that the lower part of his sandals were worn away so that he
trod painfully upon his bruised and naked feet.

“Greeting,” said Ten-teh, when they had regarded each other for a
moment; “yet, alas, no more substantial than of the lips, for the
hospitality of the eleven villages is shrunk to what you see before
you,” and he waved his arm feebly towards the empty bowl and the
blackened hearth. “Whence come you?”

“From the outer land of Im-kau,” replied the other. “Over the
Kang-ling mountains.”

“It is a moon-to-moon journey,” said Ten-teh. “Few travellers have
ever reached the valley by that inaccessible track.”

“More may come before the snow has melted,” replied the stranger, with
a stress of significance. “Less than seven days ago this person stood
upon the northern plains.”

Ten-teh raised himself upon his arm. “There existed, many cycles ago,
a path--of a single foot’s width, it is said--along the edge of the
Pass called the Ram’s Horn, but it has been lost beyond the memory of
man.”

“It has been found again,” said the stranger, “and Kha-hia and his
horde of Kins, joined by the vengeance-breathing Fuh-chi, lie encamped
less than a short march beyond the Pass.”

“It can matter little,” said Ten-teh, trembling but speaking to
reassure himself. “The people are at peace among themselves, the
Capital adequately defended, and an army sufficiently large to meet
any invasion can march out and engage the enemy at a spot most
convenient to ourselves.”

“A few days hence, when all preparation is made,” continued the
stranger, “a cloud of armed men will suddenly appear openly, menacing
the western boundaries. The Capital and the fortified places will be
denuded, and all who are available will march out to meet them. They
will be but as an empty shell designed to serve a crafty purpose, for
in the meanwhile Kha-hia will creep unsuspected through the Kang-lings
by the Ram’s Horn and before the army can be recalled he will swiftly
fall upon the defenceless Capital and possess it.”

“Alas!” exclaimed Ten-teh, “why has the end tarried thus long if it be
but for this person’s ears to carry to the grave so tormenting a
message! Yet how comes it, O stranger, that having been admitted to
Kha-hia’s innermost council you now betray his trust, or how can
reliance be placed upon the word of one so treacherous?”

“Touching the reason,” replied the stranger, with no appearance of
resentment, “that is a matter which must one day lie between Kha-hia,
this person, and one long since Passed Beyond, and to this end have I
uncomplainingly striven for the greater part of a lifetime. For the
rest, men do not cross the King-langs in midwinter, wearing away their
lives upon those stormy heights, to make a jest of empty words.
Already sinking into the Under World, even as I am now powerless to
raise myself above the ground, I, Nau-Kaou, swear and attest what I
have spoken.”

“Yet, alas!” exclaimed Ten-teh, striking his breast bitterly in his
dejection, “to what end is it that you have journeyed? Know that out
of all the eleven villages by famine and pestilence not another man
remains. Beyond the valley stretch the uninhabited sand plains, so
that between here and the Capital not a solitary dweller could be
found to bear the message.”

“The Silent One laughs!” replied Nau-Kaou dispassionately; and drawing
his cloak more closely about him he would have composed himself into a
reverent attitude to Pass Beyond.

“Not so!” cried Ten-teh, rising in his inspired purpose and standing
upright despite the fever that possessed him; “the jewel is precious
beyond comparison and the casket mean and falling to pieces, but there
is none other. This person will bear the warning.”

The stranger looked up from the ground in an increasing wonder. “You
do but dream, old man,” he said in a compassionate voice. “Before me
stands one of trembling limbs and infirm appearance. His face is the
colour of potter’s clay; his eyes sunken and yellow. His bones
protrude everywhere like the points of armour, while his garment is
scarcely fitted to afford protection against a summer breeze.”

“Such dreams do not fade with the light,” replied Ten-teh resolutely.
“His feet are whole and untired; his mind clear. His heart is as
inflexibly fixed as the decrees of destiny, and, above all, his
purpose is one which may reasonably demand divine encouragement.”

“Yet there are the Han-sing mountains, flung as an insurmountable
barrier across the way,” said Nau-Kaou.

“The wind passes over them,” replied Ten-teh, binding on his sandals.

“The Girdle,” continued the other, thereby indicating the formidable
obstacle presented by the tempestuous river, swollen by the mountain
snows.

“The fish, moved by no great purpose, swim from bank to bank,” again
replied Ten-teh. “Tell me rather, for the time presses when such
issues hang on the lips of dying men, to what extent Kha-hia’s legions
stretch?”

“In number,” replied Nau-Kaou, closing his eyes, “they are as the
stars on a very clear night, when the thousands in front do but serve
to conceal the innumerable throng behind. Yet even a small and
resolute army taking up its stand secretly in this valley and falling
upon them unexpectedly when half were crossed could throw them into
disorder and rout, and utterly destroy the power of Kha-hia for all
time.”

“So shall it be,” said Ten-Teh from the door. “Pass Upward with a
tranquil mind, O stranger from the outer land. The torch which you
have borne so far will not fail until his pyre is lit.”

“Stay but a moment,” cried Nau-Kaou. “This person, full of vigour and
resource, needed the spur of a most poignant hate to urge his trailing
footsteps. Have you, O decrepit one, any such incentive to your
failing powers?”

“A mightier one,” came back the voice of Ten-teh, across the snow from
afar. “Fear not.”

“It is well; they are the great twin brothers,” exclaimed Nau-Kaou.
“Kha-hia is doomed!” Then twice beating the ground with his open hand
he loosened his spirit and passed contentedly into the Upper Air.


                        iii. THE LAST SERVICE

The wise and accomplished Emperor Kwo Kam (to whom later historians
have justly given the title “Profound”) sat upon his agate throne in
the Hall of Audience. Around him were gathered the most illustrious
from every province of the Empire, while emissaries from the courts of
other rulers throughout the world passed in procession before him,
prostrating themselves in token of the dependence which their
sovereigns confessed, and imploring his tolerant acceptance of the
priceless gifts they brought. Along the walls stood musicians and
singers who filled the air with melodious visions, while fan-bearing
slaves dexterously wafted perfumed breezes into every group. So
unparalleled was the splendour of the scene that rare embroidered
silks were trodden under foot and a great fountain was composed of
diamonds dropping into a jade basin full of pearls, but Kwo Kam
outshone all else by the dignity of his air and the magnificence of
his apparel.

Suddenly, and without any of the heralding strains of drums and
cymbals by which persons of distinction had been announced, the arras
before the chief door was plucked aside and a figure, blinded by so
much jewelled brilliance, stumbled into the chamber, still holding
thrust out before him the engraved ring bearing the Imperial emblem
which alone had enabled him to pass the keepers of the outer gates
alive. He had the appearance of being a very aged man, for his hair
was white and scanty, his face deep with shadows and lined like a
river bank when the waters have receded, and as he advanced, bent down
with infirmity, he mumbled certain words in ceaseless repetition. From
his feet and garment there fell a sprinkling of sand as he moved, and
blood dropped to the floor from many an unhealed wound, but his eyes
were very bright, and though sword-handles were grasped on all sides
at the sight of so presumptuous an intrusion, yet none opposed him.
Rather, they fell back, leaving an open passage to the foot of the
throne; so that when the Emperor lifted his eyes he saw the aged man
moving slowly forward to do obeisance.

“Ten-teh, revered father!” exclaimed Kwo Kam, and without pausing a
moment he leapt down from off his throne, thrust aside those who stood
about him and casting his own outer robe of state about Ten-teh’s
shoulders embraced him affectionately.

“Supreme ruler,” murmured Ten-teh, speaking for the Emperor’s ear
alone, and in such a tone of voice as of one who has taught himself a
lesson which remains after all other consciousness has passed away,
“an army swiftly to the north! Let them dispose themselves about the
eleven villages and, overlooking the invaders as they assemble, strike
when they are sufficiently numerous for the victory to be lasting and
decisive. The passage of the Ram’s Horn has been found and the
malignant Fuh-chi, banded in an unnatural alliance with the barbarian
Kins, lies with itching feet beyond the Kang-lings. The invasion
threatening on the west is but a snare; let a single camp, feigning to
be a multitudinous legion, be thrown against it. Suffer delay from no
cause. Weigh no alternative. He who speaks is Ten-teh, at whose
assuring word the youth Hoang was wont to cast himself into the
deepest waters fearlessly. His eyes are no less clear to-day, but his
heart is made small with overwhelming deference or in unshrinking
loyalty he would cry: ‘Hear and obey! All, all--Flags, Ironcaps,
Tigers, Braves--all to the Seng valley, leaving behind them the
swallow in their march and moving with the guile and secrecy of the
ringed tree-snake.’” With these words Ten-teh’s endurance passed its
drawn-out limit and again repeating in a clear and decisive voice,
“All, all to the north!” he released his joints and would have fallen
to the ground had it not been for the Emperor’s restraining arms.

When Ten-teh again returned to a knowledge of the lower world he was
seated upon the throne to which the Emperor had borne him. His rest
had been made easy by the luxurious cloaks of the courtiers and
emissaries which had been lavishly heaped about him, while during his
trance the truly high-minded Kwo Kam had not disdained to wash his
feet in a golden basin of perfumed water, to shave his limbs, and to
anoint his head. The greater part of the assembly had been dismissed,
but some of the most trusted among the ministers and officials still
waited in attendance about the door.

“Great and enlightened one,” said Ten-teh, as soon as his stupor was
lifted, “has this person delivered his message competently, for his
mind was still a seared vision of snow and sand and perchance his
tongue has stumbled?”

“Bend your ears to the wall, O my father,” replied the Emperor, “and
be assured.”

A radiance of the fullest satisfaction lifted the settling shadows for
a moment from Ten-teh’s countenance as from the outer court came at
intervals the low and guarded words of command, the orderly clashing
of weapons as they fell into their appointed places, and the regular
and unceasing tread of armed men marching forth. “To the Seng
valley--by no chance to the west?” he demanded, trembling between
anxiety and hope, and drinking in the sound of the rhythmic tramp
which to his ears possessed a more alluring charm than if it were the
melody of blind singing girls.

“Even to the eleven villages,” replied the Emperor. “At your
unquestioned word, though my kingdom should hang upon the outcome.”

“It is sufficient to have lived so long,” said Ten-teh. Then
perceiving that it was evening, for the jade and crystal lamps were
lighted, he cried out: “The time has leapt unnoted. How many are by
this hour upon the march?”

“Sixscore companies of a hundred spearmen each,” said Kwo Kam. “By
dawn four times that number will be on their way. In less than three
days a like force will be disposed about the passes of the Han-sing
mountains and the river fords, while at the same time the guards from
less important towns will have been withdrawn to take their place upon
the city walls.”

“Such words are more melodious than the sound of many marble lutes,”
 said Ten-teh, sinking back as though in repose. “Now is mine that
peace spoken of by the philosopher Chi-chey as the greatest: ‘The eye
closing upon its accomplished work.’”

“Assuredly do you stand in need of the healing sleep of nature,” said
the Emperor, not grasping the inner significance of the words. “Now
that you are somewhat rested, esteemed sire, suffer this one to show
you the various apartments of the palace so that you may select for
your own such as most pleasingly attract your notice.”

“Yet a little longer,” entreated Ten-teh. “A little longer by your
side and listening to your voice alone, if it may be permitted, O
sublime one.”

“It is for my father to command,” replied Kwo Kam. “Perchance they of
the eleven villages sent some special message of gratifying loyalty
which you would relate without delay?”

“They slept, omnipotence, or without doubt it would be so,” replied
Ten-teh.

“Truly,” agreed the Emperor. “It was night when you set forth, my
father?”

“The shadows had fallen deeply upon the Upper Seng Valley,” said
Ten-teh evasively.

“The Keeper of the Imperial Stores has frequently conveyed to us their
expressions of unfeigned gratitude for the bounty by which we have
sought to keep alive the memory of their hospitality and our own
indebtedness,” said the Emperor.

“The sympathetic person cannot have overstated their words,” replied
Ten-teh falteringly. “Never, as their own utterances bear testimony,
never was food more welcome, fuel more eagerly sought for, and
clothing more necessary than in the years of the most recent past.”

“The assurance is as dew upon the drooping lotus,” said Kwo Kam, with
a lightening countenance. “To maintain the people in an unshaken
prosperity, to frown heavily upon extortion and to establish justice
throughout the land--these have been the achievements of the years of
peace. Yet often, O my father, this one’s mind has turned yearningly
to the happier absence of strife and the simple abundance which you
and they of the valley know.”

“The deities ordain and the balance weighs; your reward will be the
greater,” replied Ten-teh. Already he spoke with difficulty, and his
eyes were fast closing, but he held himself rigidly, well knowing that
his spirit must still obey his will.

“Do you not crave now to partake of food and wine?” inquired the
Emperor, with tender solicitude. “A feast has long been prepared of
the choicest dishes in your honour. Consider well the fatigue through
which you have passed.”

“It has faded,” replied Ten-teh, in a voice scarcely above a whisper,
“the earthly body has ceased to sway the mind. A little longer,
restored one; a very brief span of time.”

“Your words are my breath, my father,” said the Emperor,
deferentially. “Yet there is one matter which we had reserved for
affectionate censure. It would have spared the feet of one who is
foremost in our concern if you had been content to send the warning by
one of the slaves whose acceptance we craved last year, while you
followed more leisurely by the chariot and the eight white horses
which we deemed suited to your use.”

Ten-teh was no longer able to express himself in words, but at this
indication of the Emperor’s unceasing thought a great happiness shone
on his face. “What remains?” must reasonably have been his reflection;
“or who shall leave the shade of the fruitful palm-tree to search for
raisins?” Therefore having reached so supreme an eminence that there
was nothing human above, he relaxed the effort by which he had so long
sustained himself, and suffering his spirit to pass unchecked, he at
once fell back lifeless among the cushions of the throne.

That all who should come after might learn by his example, the history
of Ten-teh was inscribed upon eighteen tablets of jade, carved
patiently and with graceful skill by the most expert stone-cutters of
the age. A triumphal arch of seven heights was also erected outside
the city and called by his name, but the efforts of story-tellers and
poets will keep alive the memory of Ten-teh even when these
imperishable monuments shall have long fallen from their destined use.
                                  *

When Kai Lung had completed the story of the loyalty of Ten-teh and
had pointed out the forgotten splendour of the crumbling arch, the
coolness of the evening tempted them to resume their way. Moving
without discomfort to themselves before nightfall they reached a small
but seemly cottage conveniently placed upon the mountain-side. At the
gate stood an aged person whose dignified appearance was greatly added
to by his long white moustaches. These possessions he pointed out to
Hwa-mei with inoffensive pride as he welcomed the two who stood before
him.

“Venerated father,” explained Kai Lung dutifully, “this is she who has
been destined from the beginning of time to raise up a hundred sons to
keep your line extant.”

“In that case,” remarked the patriarch, “your troubles are only just
beginning. As for me, since all that is now arranged, I can see about
my own departure--‘Whatever height the tree, its leaves return to the
earth at last.’”

“It is thus at evening-time--to-morrow the light will again shine
forth,” whispered Kai Lung. “Alas, radiance, that you who have dwelt
about a palace should be brought to so mean a hut!”

“If it is small, your presence will pervade it; in a palace there are
many empty rooms,” replied Hwa-mei, with a reassuring glance. “I enter
to prepare our evening rice.”





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Kai Lung's Golden Hours" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home