The imperishable Sovereign of the land and the all-powerful Mandarin T'sin Wong having been duly mentioned, the feeble but conscientious recorder of authentic facts discloses the position affecting those of less importance.
Unpropitious opening of the First of Much Gladness and the various ill-effects that Malign Influences had upon the charitable activities of a high official.
The insatiable devotion of Chin-tung and his timely proclamation to the community of Seers, together with a threadbare account of the difficulty this occasioned and an opportune example of the penetration displayed by the Mandarin T'sin Wong.
The coming together of the wisest of the Augurs and the intricacy of their task, with a meagre reference to the double-faced exertions of those who sowed dissension among the members of the band.
Whereby it is shown that matters of a conflicting nature may be essentially diverse from what they at first appear, and Kwan Yen, together with Hwa-che, are now discreetly brought into the record.
Hwa-che, having declared to Kwan Yen's ear what she has learned in the by-ways of the city, further explains what their strategy should be if they are to avoid the various unpleasant fates that now beset their progress.
Something of the secret methods of the Barbarian crime detectors, and how Hwa-che, accompanied by Kwan Yen, set forth to test the process.
Hwa-che lays bare the Signs that point to the aggressor and, whether alone or supported by her band, resolves to denounce Pung Chu as guilty.
Confronted with his guilt, the War Lord of Kwei-chang makes a dutiful submission and discovers to Hwa-che how he has been drawn into the involvement.
The egregious Li again comes to the forefront of affairs, though with an admittedly ambiguous bearing, and Hwa- che discusses with Chin-tung the trend of this arisement.
Encouraged by the Portents, Hwa-che seeks fuller enlightenment among the stalls of those who send forth printed leaves, and Chin-tung relates an instance.
Unsympathetic bearing of a Board of State towards a hard-pressed official, while conversation around a barber's stool discloses what is tending.
Inopportune arrival of the formidable Shin Pak and, despite Chin-tung's upholding arm, T'sin Wong's effete prostration.
The compassionate Chin-tung explains to Hwa- che the subterfuge by which he hopes to preserve her freedom, and the dilemma in which this involves her.
Convinced of the soundness of her ground, Hwa-che visits the stall of Tso Tun, the cutting-edge restorer. Her bold resolve, inspired by what she learned there.
Hwa-che is warned by the Calendar Tree that time presses and, sustained by the consciousness of merit, sets out on a dangerous mission.
Further complications with the League of the Hanging Sword and the circumstances that led Hwa-che towards the camp of the Avenging Knife in answer to a challenge.
An encounter by the way and the conditions under which Sun-jen and Yun-yi each relates an instance.
A notable absence of refinement on the part of the Avenging Knives leads to Hwa-che meeting one whom she had seen before, and what he disclosed thereafter.
Despair of the considerately inclined T'sin Wong and the means whereby he sought to avert frustration. His encounter with Chin-tung and that one's subsequent behaviour.
Hwa-che's unenviable plight in the camp of the Avenging Knives, and the surprising turn given to events by various unforeseen arisements.
The Last of Much Gladness and what emerged thereon within the walls of T'sin Wong's yamen.
Ill-accorded reception of T'sin Wong when the Capital is reached, and how it devolved upon Hwa-che to arrange his extrication. The divergence of their paths henceforth, with something of what followed after.
The imperishable Sovereign of the land and the all-powerful Mandarin T'sin Wong having been duly mentioned, the feeble but conscientious recorder of authentic facts discloses the position affecting those of less importance.
IN the reign of the enlightened Emperor Ming Wang (of whose reverence for duty it is written that he invariably reclined upon his back, so that even when asleep neither of his ears should be closed against the upraised voice of the meanest of his subjects calling for justice) there dwelt in the mud-walled city of Kochow a variety of persons who will in due course be brought discreetly forward according to the requirements of those with whose fortunes this ill-delivered narrative is favourably concerned; but towering above all others, as a many-tiered pagoda overtops the meagre residences of the necessitous and unofficial, there must, with a seemly regard for the essential proprieties, at once be announced that high dignitary of the coral button, the Mandarin T'sin Wong.
Having thus complied with the formalities of ceremonial usage, the obsequious-mannered relater of this distressingly inept chronicle would regard it as an act of amiable condescension on the part of those who may have been enticed into purchasing his lamentable effort to be allowed to begin anew from a more convenient angle.
FOR a period that was to be counted not by days or moons alone, but even years—and on the elastic authority of the glib and inexact probably unmeasured cycles—the annals of Kochow had been as destitute of pleasurable excitement as a meritorious scholar's sleeve is devoid of silver, until, in the repulsive apothegm of their kind, the young and gyratory of both sexes might frequently be heard to declare that they were "stagnated to rigidity" by the lack of animation discoverable around.
And, indeed, not to withdraw the plain but wholesome face of truth behind the gilded mask of wanton exaggeration, a full decade had elapsed since the town had last been reduced to ashes by fire or overwhelmed by flood. So effete had become the neighbouring hostile tribes that it was not an uncommon circumstance to meet those of the inner chamber—even of middle-age—who had never been submitted to the experience of rape or forcible abduction, while the periodical visitations of plague, black evil and the pitting sickness had been almost robbed of all their salutary virulence by the short-sighted activities of the impious and interfering. So that, whereas under a more judicious system the elderly, the infirm, and the unremunerative were automatically weeded out by a process that was not only reasonable to themselves but convenient and economical to authority, now by the effervescing of a grain of magic powder on the tongue or the scratching of a cryptic emblem about the forearm even a river-pirate or a hungry beggar might not unreasonably cherish the ambition of outliving those so careful of their skin as even to hire others to perform their recreations for them, and so wealthy as to be able to overeat themselves whenever they had the inclination. Truly it was not so in the virile days of the puissant Hwang, when all men below a certain rank were measured with an iron rule, and shortened or lengthened as the case required.
Thus may the internal state of Kochow be positioned on the first day of the Moon of Much Gladness, that being the time selected by the lesser Deities concerned as a fitting moment for the initiation of their somewhat elaborate purpose, and therefore the one chosen by this scrupulous but uninventive historian as the one most suitable for opening his badly arranged if surprisingly developed recital of events.
CONSIDERING the remoteness of the epoch, the size and importance of walled Kochow, the position and authority of the dignified Mandarin T'sin Wong and the undoubted deference that would certainly be paid to his illustrious spirit when at last he had condescended to Pass Above, it was only to be expected that the calamitous act that was to prove the fountain- head from which ultimately proceeded the full river of event should be presaged by celestial hints and omens of unmistakable significance. Whether these took the form of contending dragons in the sky, unnatural noises arising from the Beneath Parts, fiery visitations traversing space, or some other of the recognized signs usual in such an emergency, is clouded with a slight textual ambiguity in the pages of the Epics. Thus positioned, even though engaged upon a work of biographical exactness, it is more convenient (as is now, indeed, the common usage) to refer definitely to the conversation and manner of behaving of ordinary persons then alive, and these, in spite of the distinction of moving in so classical an era, would seem providentially to have conducted themselves in a manner not appreciably different from our own.
IT so chanced that at this period one of the appointed guarders of the Ways—they who by means of hollow drums, sonorous shells and the interspersal of an occasional cry of menace warn thieves and other loiterers of evil habit that it is time for them to withdraw in safety—was kinsman to the chief custodian of the Mandarin's door. Respecting the claims of blood, it was the habit of this club-bearing official to investigate anything of a doubtful nature taking place in the neighbourhood of the yamen at about the gong-stroke when the janitor might perchance be abroad in the exercise of his several duties, and should they happen to encounter none but an outcast would have abstained from the rite of a mutual greeting with, if it could be prudently effected, the ceremonial exchange of appropriate vessels. A tea-house known by the Sign of Well- Sustained Endurance was enticingly positioned.
"Greeting, son of my father's brother!" cried each, striking their hands when they had thus come together. "Are all your constituents well balanced?" But when the guarder of the Ways (on whom the name Ah-Fang had been bestowed at teething) would have suggested by a convenient movement of the wrist that they should partake of what he described as "the habitual," the other (Shun- Ho his style on going forth to work, their common Line being Cheung) raised a dissenting gesture.
"For," he said, indicating the gate that was within his office, "a special task has been laid upon me, and, as the proverb rightly says, 'A single date consumed in peace is better than a basket of ripe figs beneath the shadow of affliction.'"
"That may be true enough as regards figs, which—especially when over-ripe—lie qualmous on a craving stomach," admitted the other. "Yet touching ourselves, it being no part of our intention to consume matter of a solid nature——"
"Nevertheless," interrupted Shun-Ho, who, having failed in the examinations at the outset of his career, was of a slightly superior culture to his kinsman, "the pith of the saying has a general application. Join now your hand to mine and our delay will be the sooner ended."
"What is the motive of this stress, and why should we labour to throw back these massive gates that are so rarely opened?" inquired Ah-Fang, as he carefully laid aside his fan and umbrella before thrusting his loin against the beam as Shun-Ho directed. "Does some important noble pay a ceremonial visit?"
"By no means," was the reply; "those for whom way is thus made are of a very different bacon. A misbegotten zeal for innovation has possessed the Vermilion Pencil and an edict has gone forth that henceforward between the time of light and no-light the gates of every yamen throughout the land shall stand freely open."
"If that is the case why should we, having fully complied with what is called for, now fix a spiked barrier across the path of any who would enter?" demanded Ah-Fang as he lent his aid to his kinsman's further purpose.
"Nothing is said in the proclamation about spiked barriers," replied Shun-Ho capably, "and to leave the passage open would be to invite the intrusion of a procession of the needy and undeserving. . . . Wind a few more lengths of this barbed chain about the farther column and our seclusion will be reasonably protected."
"You have only to command a thing and it is done," said the docile Fang, complying. "Yet who among our suppliant throng would have ventured to encroach here, well knowing as they do the merit of the saying, 'Keep from before an angry bull, from behind a startled pole-cat, but as far as possible in all directions from a high official'?"
"That is as it may have been in the past, but by this printed notice—which under very severe penalties it is ordained must be displayed upon the gate-post—a new era is instituted. Henceforth, one and all are incited to press forward with their several pleas, and under its terms a very superfluity of justice is foreshadowed."
"What next?" grumbled Ah-Fang, "this being the extremest measure. In the virtuous days of this person's youth integrity endured, and the people were encouraged to abide at peace by fining equally both parties to a suit and reprimanding the several witnesses with bamboo rods, of a thickness depending on the length of the testimony they offered. In future all—but how shall the terms of the edict spread abroad if its written surface is thus nailed to the gate-post?"
"That," replied Shun-Ho, driving in a final skewer, "lies outside our plain instruction. 'The sheet displayed for all to see,' runs the tenor of our orders—and he who can overlook so visible a parchment should have his eyes properly scraped without delay at the stall of the nearest barber. Come, brother, we have upheld rightful authority as befits our own positions: none but a niggard would deny us a scanty respite."
"We have done all that sincere men could: to have done more would be to prove us demons," agreed Ah-Fang. "I sustain thy weary shoulder."
WHEN they were seated, each with a cup of a special flavour, and had released their waist-cloths, mutual confidence prevailed and neither forbore to speak freely of the shortcomings of those in authority above them.
"It is scarcely to be imagined that one so deficient in refined understanding as the lesser captain of our band—he of whose ill-arranged face and gravity-dispelling gait I have already spoken—should distribute honours to those who most deserve them," remarked Ah-Fang. "Were it not that mankind is endowed with two ears and but one tongue as a judicious warning it would go hard with Lin Hing's reputation."
"Say on," encouraged Shun-Ho, at the same time displaying the dregs within his cup, but whether to show Ah-Fang that they formed a lucky combination or to another end did not at first transpire. "Are we not both the sons of a common forerunner?"
"It was thus, since your polite curiosity will not be gainsaid," continued Fang; "this being but a single instance among many. One night, at an angle of the Ways, he who is now relating the occurrence chanced upon an unknown stranger sleeping, with his body north and south and his face uncovered to the radiance of the great sky lantern."
"Was he an Out-land man, one of the Short-haired of the Over- mountain Spaces?" inquired Shun-Ho with interest. "They say their demons cannot fly against the wind and are thereby easily outwitted; and it is credibly reported by those who have travelled there that these pale-eyed strangers propagate singly after the manner of fish, though others assert that they do not, but that their lesser ones have feathers on their breasts and lay eggs in earthen vessels."
"He may have been a Middle-distance man," admitted Fang, "but the outward signs were lacking. Be that as it was, here in Kochow he would be subject to the methods of our own especial spirits. Yet there he lay at the conflux of the paths, north and south, and without so much as an open paper umbrella to turn aside the malignant Forces."
"That being so, how did you act?" demanded Shun-Ho.
"Without pausing to take breath I hastened back to the one who mars our prestige, whom presently I discovered at the Sign of Righteous Indulgence, rejoicing to set music. 'Behold,' I exclaimed when I had gained his ear, and thus and thus I reported, concluding, 'Becoming afflicted in his mind as the result of this rash exposure, the undiscriminating stranger will likewise find when he awakes that he is bereft of the sense of continuous direction, and being thereby unable to leave Kochow he will ever after lurk about our Ways and open spaces, a source of alarm to all honest guardians of the night and an added tax upon the resources of the charitable henceforward.'"
"More might have been made of it, had you only taken breath," demurred Shun-Ho. "They have been known to change into vampires."
"I did but pause with the expectation that my zeal would be commended, and, haply, an auspicious sign set against my name in the book of daily omens and accusations."
"To have done so would have been to proclaim his own dependence. Your mind, Ah-Fang, is like the progression of an elderly, footsore tortoise, and you should chew the strings of deer to correct this failing."
"Merit would have been withheld had I recited an entire Ode suited to the occasion," contended Fang darkly; "for, as it is truly written, 'Bestow meat on an upstart and the bone will be cast back at you when he has picked it;' and in furtherance of the saying, the one whose virtues we are here discussing, after he had thus ignored my service, added, 'Begone, thou mutinous offspring of a mentally deficient he-mule, and resume thy neglected duties.' 'But the inauspicious stranger by the Way, O gracious under-chief,' I pleaded. 'The printed leaf of what we shall and shall not do contains no relevant instruction. And lying north and south, as I have said, in the full splendour of the great sky lantern——' 'Then take the enterprising wayfarer by the most convenient angle of his form and cast him east and west into the nearest shadow,' he replied, and with that, in an entire reversal of hospitable usage, this hard- striving person was unworthily ejected."
"YOUR experience in this matter is not surprising, considering that I, though on a more exalted plane, have much to put up with at the hands of the envious and grasping," remarked Shun-Ho, after he had again drawn Ah-Fang's attention to the fortunate conjunction taken by the lees in his empty vessel. "There is Hao Sin, chief of the grill, who when I cross the yard to bear him a courteous greeting rarely fails to bar the door with a wooden shutter if he sees me at a distance; and the habit of licking his fingers vigorously in my direction whenever we meet outside falls short of true refinement. Wherefore, also, is it that Liang, the distiller of grain- extract, should always make a double count of the jars that he leaves at our gate unless an insidious barb has been thrust into my uprightness?"
"It may be," suggested Ah-Fang, "that the integritous Liang fears lest one jar should have escaped him while he journeyed, and would have double assurance, so that your lustre may not suffer."
"It may be," replied Shun-Ho, with an extreme air of no- conviction, "but his device of impressing a special seal about each stopper casts a misgiving shadow."
"Is there no method by which this sordid implication may be lifted?" asked Fang.
"Not when, as is the case, an ignobly tenacious wax is used and its substance firmly driven down into the gullet of each bottle," confessed Shun-Ho with an overcast expression. "When one is eating meat, however, the bites of insects pass unnoticed and these disappointments represent very little actual loss that could be put into a balance. So long as an occasional voice in the granting of chance audiences falls my way and I can press in my services as intermediary for the disposal of the high ones' abandoned raiment, there will be very little need for Shun-Ho to brick-beat his head to excite compassion."
"Your state is an enviable one," agreed Ah-Fang, "and that, like Shing Te's sword, for a two-edged reason. Not only do you occupy a dignified and lucrative position here below, but when you Pass Beyond you will in all probability, through the influence of the one you serve, be accorded a very similar office there—if, indeed, your shadow is not actually given charge of the shadow of the Mandarin T'sin Wong's shadow's door."
"It is as good as promised," confided Shun-Ho with meaning; "so that I shall still be in a position to exercise a useful benevolence towards the shadows of those who have gladdened the face of my approval here below," and he inadvertently overturned his empty cup, which Ah-Fang hastened to replenish.
"IN spite of an assiduous loitering at the hasp of ill-closed shutters, we of our ever-resourceful band hear very little in a profitable direction of what goes on within Kochow of late," remarked Ah-Fang. "Does the ancient male fowl of your allegiance maintain his digestive balance?"
"His High Excellence——"
"High Excellence—true. When one has acted as custodian to a Hoang-ho flower-junk during the Glad Moon one learns to call a sail a sail, but High Excellence is more scrupulously official."
"Between the two who are here conversing together and our Ancestral Tablets, let it be freely admitted that the one to whom you have so fittingly alluded becomes increasingly vagarious in his humours as the time goes on," volunteered Shun-Ho, relenting in his somewhat distant strain as he followed Ah-Fang's outstretched intention. "Were a man provided with the eyes of a jealous husband, the ears of a discreet female slave, the legs of a prudent warrior and the hands of a needy official—sixteen members in all—they were still too few to serve him."
"Yet in the past he has been spoken of as sincere and not too expectant."
"Such a state of things undoubtedly prevailed, but of late he has more or less abandoned the invigorating pursuits becoming to a well-born noble of the Province—catching winged insects, flying kites, taking out the saffron bird upon a stick, and the like—and immersed himself in working charms and investigating omens. Until she with whom the matter rests produces definite reassurance that the Line of T'sin Wong is not to dwindle, there will be very few crackers let off within the four walls of the yamen."
"It is a sombre outlook for one with a craving towards shark- fin and the priceless nests of remote sea-birds that he has yet no he-child to assure a continuance of supplies when he has Passed Above," admitted Ah-Fang, who could himself rely on the service of a stalwart and ever-increasing band of offsprings. "It is not to be wondered at that he should consult the portents."
"That is well enough," murmured Shun-Ho, contending with an inclination to fold his arms and slumber, "but, as has been rightly decided, even the Yangtse-kiang must come to an end somewhere. Already seven-and-thirty soothsayers of one kind and another have recently cast the Sacred Sticks inside the yamen, and a tribe of eleven distant-speaking horoscopists is reported as approaching. Nowadays any leper who stands before the gate and can lay claim to a shred of wizardry is fulsomely welcome."
"It is a matter of some comment among the Ways that he whose failings we are discussing has not sought out another chief one of his inner chamber, in that this bearer of the name has responded to his efforts so effetely. Haply she sways him by her excessive symmetry of outline?"
"Her appearance is nothing to display banners on the walls about," replied Shun-Ho, assuming an apathetic manner, "but on such details His High Excellence and the one now finishing his wine are not wholly in agreement."
"It is as well that we should seek our stations," announced Ah-Fang, rising hastily, for the reference to Shun-Ho's ever- empty cup did not tend to reassure him. "Already several distant thunder-bolts have descended on the city, and a paper umbrella is a poor defence against a red-hot missile."
"Since we are both bankrupt of resources it would be idle to contend," agreed Shun-Ho, rising also and again reclining at his ease several times in succession. "But you are under a mental distortion, ill-informed Ah-Fang, in this matter of distant thunder; and were it not that we are, so to speak, the fathers of a common offspring, the attempt might germinate in some offensiveness between us. 'Distant thunder' was the essence of your claim that we should withdraw our custom, yet——"
"Be that as it might," interposed Ah-Fang mildly, "it now admittedly has something of the rhythm of a very powerful drum at closer quarters."
"A drum!" exclaimed Shun-Ho, embracing Ah-Fang about the neck in his effort to maintain an alert position. "A drum beaten within three li of our magisterial palace! This implicates gross treachery, thou corrupt and hollow Fang, outvying any thunder."
"Illustrious customers!" besought the keeper of the house, entering with a lavish display of versatile emotion; "make your way hence while the paths still lie open. Flags are being unfurled, fireworks discharged; the official guarders of the routes have withdrawn to safety; all open doors are being securely barred, and all barred ones thrown widely open; the great drum at the chief gate of the yamen has been taken down and sounded, and without the most shadowy grasp of what is taking place every quarter of the city is joining in the tumult."
"It was the drum of State, and another hand has beat it!" exclaimed Shun-Ho, weeping profusely as Ah-Fang upheld his shoulder. "Some danger threatens, the order has gone forth, and Shun-Ho was not at his post to fulfil it. So drastic a line of action can only indicate one of two misfortunes: either the dynasty has fallen or His High Excellence has suffered extreme annoyance at the rendering of an unusually depressing omen."
Unpropitious opening of the First of Much Gladness and the various ill-effects that Malign Influences had upon the charitable activities of a high official.
IS it not written in the wisdom of the Verses, "He who desires to ride with ease must be content to follow the road-maker," thereby indicating in a somewhat oblique manner that a sore tribulation may be the outcome of a too rigid insistence on the claims of strict precedence? By a similar analogy the poverty-stricken device of listening, as it were, to the low- conditioned conversation of two such illiterate persons as Ah- Fang and Shun-Ho is designed to smooth out painlessly the harshness of the position affecting that exalted functionary the dignified Mandarin T'sin Wong, and make it possible for those who have not already cast aside this discreditable essay in high- minded annoyance to grasp the essentials of his plight.
Added to this, a well-grounded confidence prevails that by the expedient of leading up from so commonplace a situation to one in which persons of undoubted superiority appear, those who have so far continued to tolerate these wholly inadequate printed leaves may be imperceptibly lured on, in the hope of, haply, some further improvement.
THIS most illustrious official of the Badge of the Golden Pheasant, the Mandarin T'sin Wong, was then at the very pinnacle of his fame, and although it would not appear from the pages of the Annals that he actually achieved anything, either before or after, this is doubtless due to his misfortune in living in an era when men of exceptional ability were as the clustering berries on a prolific lychee tree, or else to the jealousy of rival statesmen who may have effaced the records.
To those who in a spirit of narrow-minded prejudice demand some further proof, it is enough to point to the investure of T'sin Wong about this time with that treasured emblem of sympathetic authority, the specially created Order of the Everopen Ear. This unique distinction, which must have been conferred upon the enraptured Mandarin by his appreciative Sovereign for service of a very humanitarian nature, permits the happy recipient to approach the Dragon Throne after merely striking the floor with the side of the head three times, instead of with the more ceremonial brow of less favoured courtiers. . . . In so passionate a spirit of loyalty did T'sin Wong perform his homage on the marble pavement of the throne room at the occasion of the bestowal as to induce the claim on his behalf that he was never entirely the same official afterwards. Some, however, among them standing the revered mother of the chief one of his couch, declared that no appreciable change was discernible; while others maintained that the recipients of hereditary degrees invariably tended to a process of deterioration as the generations passed, and that T'sin Wong in his devotion only enshrined within himself the full effects of the time-honoured system.
WHEN the first rays of the great sky-fire awoke T'sin Wong on the morning of that day ever to be marked with a white and ineradicable sign of mourning, the First of Much Gladness, it was with a cheerful sense of something pleasurable impending that he closed his eyes again. Not pointless is the saying, "To those whom they would crush the Deities send a lucky dream."
Thus positioned, it was but logical that the Mandarin should first associate his unformed anticipations with the thought of food. Doubtless, proceeded the methodical function of his half- awakened senses, he was expecting a consignment of the arriving season's rice-worms, or an especially choice jar of the gills of some of the rarer sea creatures. Or, perchance, intelligence had come that the vanguard of the returning salt-snails had been sighted—but at this point an alerter faculty recalled him, and with an admitted change of angle, though scarcely any diminution of his gladness, T'sin Wong remembered that the occasion was not one directly connected with the board at all, though a suitable feast would not be lacking. It was, be it not forgotten, the First of the Moon of Much Gladness, and on such a day, now a cycle of years ago, the venerated grandmother of the cherished ruler of his inner chamber had come into being. To mark the palmy occasion T'sin Wong would, as usual, receive gifts appropriate to his station from the overjoyed dwellers about Kochow, and accept their homage-laden congratulations. No doubt as to the suitability of the offerings marred his vision, for, taught by the experience of former years, T'sin Wong had caused it to be made known through trusty sources that his accommodation for coffins, shrouds and silk-bound copies of "The Virtuous Official's Sleeve Companion" had passed its appointed limit, and that for this occasion nothing but actual silver or paper obligations of the gold-lined order would rejoice his imagination.
WHEN the one whose privilege it was to take down the inspired Mandarin's spoken words—and also to perform certain other less literary offices about his sublime person—approached the couch at the stroke of a summoning gong, T'sin Wong indicated by a gracious movement of the hand that he desired to remain in a recumbent attitude for a further period of intellectual meditation.
"At the same time," he continued indulgently, "there is no reason why you should bask in a state of unproductive lethargy, Chin-tung. Take your tablets, therefore, and set down, in a neat and grammatical sequence, our definite instructions for the day."
"To hear your melodious voice is to obey with delighted alacrity, High Excellence," replied the other, moistening his brush. "Speak on."
"This being the First of the Moon of Much Gladness—the day for ever distinguished as that on which the last-but-one of our inferior half began her admirable existence—the occasion will be observed with the usual appropriate rites. At a convenient moment before the middle rice the one who is outlining his intentions will take up a commanding position in the ancestral hall and reluctantly accept the spontaneous tributes of admiration forced upon him by a grateful people; you, Chin-tung, meanwhile lurking in the convenient background and inscribing on your sleeve the names of those who seek to absent themselves from the informal gathering, and also details affecting any of the offerings which do not come up to our tabulated list of reasonable expectations. To bridge, as one might say, any regrettable gaps in the stress of the arrivals the Kochow Porcelain Pagoda Table-gong Strikers will be in attendance, and——"
"High Excellence," Chin-tung ventured to interpose, "an ill- conditioned chance——"
"Among the desirable attributes of even a third-rate taker- down of the spoken word it has been aptly said that large ears and a well-retired mouth compensate for many obvious failings," continued the enlightened Mandarin, raising his accomplished voice somewhat, but without suffering any other variation in his gratifying eloquence. "Learn henceforward, O inopportune-lipped Chin, to emulate the facial merits of the docile elephant, or your yearly adequacy of taels may dwindle. In the period of after-rice the Kochow Throng of He-child Track-followers, accompanied by the Dragonet Band, and, if those of the inner chambers of the town permit it, the Group of She-child Out- pointers will be massed about the yamen sward, and when each has received a refreshing fruit and a moderate supply of plain but nutritious fare they will go through their gratifying evolutions. The Drum and Spiral-shell Noise-makers of the First Horde will enliven——"
"Extreme Benevolence!" pleaded the harassed inscriber of his word, "at the risk of bringing down the celestial lightning of your chastening frown the unpropitious sentence must be spoken, for, as the philosopher Nyi Hi remarked when condemned to death by boiling, 'Were there no shadows we should cease to appreciate the sun.'"
"If the inspired sage was the person who observed, 'By tenacity it is possible to arrest the progress of an earthquake, but the tongue of the witless outruns a Mongolian camel,' proceed, Chin-tung, for his words are golden, and that which your rebellious obstinacy forfeits is but silver."
"Nevertheless," persisted Chin-tung, taking a firmer hold upon his resolution, "it is unendurable that your symmetrically arranged periods should be wasted upon so mentally threadbare a being as myself. Know, O Most Exalted, that the bright and undoubtedly remunerative vision which you so proficiently outline has already faded."
"It is well said that he who talks too much when there is no occasion invariably says too little in moments of real need," declared T'sin Wong with a refined bitterness of accent. "Endeavour to get the better of this weakness, Chin-tung, by studying the moves of chess, and in the meantime declare your bankrupt mind more fully."
"Your sympathetic indulgence only adds to my lowborn discomfort, but I will trim the repugnant fact to its acutest angle," replied Chin-tung submissively. "Owing to the misdirected energy of an inauspicious planet it has been found necessary to modify the Calendar, and the First of Much Gladness will this year fall upon the Second, in order to restore the harmonious balance of the Upper Spaces."
"Is this the full extent of the beneficial achievement of the ill—the illustrious officials who control the Records?" asked T'sin Wong in a delicately attuned voice of two-edged import, "or does it preface some further attraction which you, Chin-tung, are tactfully endeavouring, as it were, to lead down to?"
"Omniscience, it would be as easy to wean a he-goat from pollution as to withhold your exploring mind from that which may affect a profit," was the generous admission. "According to the 'What is in progress' column of to-day's Official Printed Leaf, an exceptionally virtuous Emperor of the reigning Line was invited to ascend on the Second of Much Gladness five hundred and fifty-five years ago, and in consequence the day will be observed with ceremonial mourning. In particular, a functionary of any button detected accepting gifts or being glad to music will be degraded on a special scale, as set forth with typical examples."
As he spoke, Chin-tung would have produced the sheet referred to in witness of his message, but the considerate T'sin Wong did not seem to require it. He closed both eyes and an occasional low word passed his proficient lips—doubtless invoking prosperity upon the spirit of the justice-loving monarch in question, but although Chin-tung caught a fervent reference to the dynasty at large he did not actually overhear the blessing. After an adequate pause the broad-willed official's features resumed their usual tolerant expression.
"It is an undeniable fact," he remarked dispassionately, "that he who is slovenly with his rice-bowl will also contrive to be a scatterer of distressing tidings, and you, Chin-tung, are a notorious example of the adage. Learn, now, how unpleasant to yourself this indiscretion makes you. There no longer being an inducement to get up, the one who is thus expressing his disappointment in you will compose himself again to inward contemplation, and you will thereby be denied the extreme felicity of assisting him into his going-about garments. Furthermore, it would seem to be a fitting opportunity to disclose now that your appearance is the reverse of agreeable, Chin-tung, and in a general sense you have failed to win approval."
"Your well-chosen phrases of compassion are a continual source of nourishment to my admittedly second-rate understanding," replied Chin-tung profusely. "Lo, Graciousness, I will now withdraw to my own unsightly quarters and endeavour to adjust your in-taels to equalize your out-taels for the past financial season."
WHEN the liberal-minded T'sin Wong emerged from an introspective reverie some time later he assumed that the adverse influences which must undoubtedly have been responsible for so disastrous a start might be relied upon to have passed on elsewhere. He accordingly decided to arise and robe, but with prudent foresight he refrained from striking the gong lest some lingering hostile Power might perchance still be within hearing.
In spite of a judicial calling which occasionally rendered it inevitable that he should condemn those who did not cherish virtue to various unpleasant forms of ending, the Mandarin T'sin Wong was of a mild and benevolent disposition. Even when consigning those who had no possible claim on his indulgence to the more rigorous sorts of torture he rarely failed to thread a pearl-like string of gravity-removing aphorisms among the commonplace formalities of the sentence, so that the most dissolute should have something mirth-compelling to dwell on when the mind would be peculiarly in need of distraction; nor did he grudge the time—that might otherwise have been spent in sleep—given to devising these spontaneous flashes. For this reason the name of T'sin Wong came to be esteemed as space-worthy among those who sent forth the printed sheets, and his court became the resort of the effete and lethargic beyond any other in the Province.
It was the custom of this immaculate official when the morning seemed to be one of unusual geniality to pass a slightly damped cloth across his intellectual features on rising, even when, by his own exacting standard, the conditions did not actually require it. To those who, on learning of the venture, inquired if so violent a hazard did not affect the essential balance of the harmonizing functions, the intrepid magistrate would reply that so far from this being the case, a feeling of stalwart self- confidence was engendered. Under this stimulating influence T'sin Wong now began to attire, and as he did so he chanted a vainglorious song concerning a high official of a bygone age who had possessed a concubine so engaging that a prince of the neighbouring power of Wei had sought a pretext for making war in order to secure her. He would have continued in a like defiant strain through the second verse had he not remembered that the persistent intonation of his voice might give annoyance to the silkworms.
These proficient creatures, on whose habits and orderly behaviour the Mandarin largely relied for guidance in many of the more general contingencies of life, occupied a space set apart at an angle of the chamber, and as he assumed his loin-cloth T'sin Wong bent his steps in that direction, with no other thought than to gratify his eyes by the sight of their meritorious labour.
Alas, who has not experience of the profoundness of the maxim, "It is better to pick up a copper cash than to dream of drawing a winning number?" Instead of the wonted activity of a zealous band, a scene of apathy and disorder was his welcome. Many of the less resolute-minded of the insects had already Passed Beyond, and even the most enduring had clearly received The Message. At this fresh evidence of the malignity of the Forces an unworthy despair would have possessed T'sin Wong, until he realized that much of the unsettled equipoise of his constituents could be restored in the process of unburdening his mind to one whose conduct he might censure. This feasibly brings in the contumacious Li, whose special office it was to be a remover of discarded fragments.
OWING to the persistence of his claim when a reprimand was foreshadowed, Won Li was commonly referred to as the "Other Hand" among his fellows in the mean parts of the palace. On this occasion so menace-laden was the Unapproachable's bearing when, in answer to a vigorous summons, Li was thrust inwards to the Presence, that the person in question did not even wait for his offence to be outlined before he proclaimed a denial.
"Some other hand, High Excellence, is accountable for this evil. The lowliest of your slaves was at the time busied elsewhere in your service."
"Thus and thus," assented T'sin Wong, withholding his just reproach in order to learn what further crime the egregrious Li had committed. "How, then, may this mischance be the readiest amended?"
"That is no great matter, Munificence," replied the supine one, walking into the snare unaided. "The jade must be of a very inferior sort to come apart at this person's bare touch, or, as he now recalls the fact, merely when it was looked at. A convenient phial of 'Ah-Grip-Ho' will remedy the blemish, or, for the matter of that, why should not the jar be left as it now is, with the fractured side delicately propped up against the carved image of the Sincere One?"
"This also, O thou most transparent Li!" exclaimed the conscientious law-giver, thus for the first time discovering the abuse to which a priceless vase of the choicest tone had been subjected. "Is there no end to the misdoings of this more than usually left-handed demolisher of order? Behold the hard-striving creatures whose industrious thrift has doubtless incurred your rancour, and prepare your stubborn back to wear out an ample but totally inadequate supply of bamboo rods in the light of a general warning."
"Yet there is no occasion for dismay, Benevolence," protested Li, "this being but in the process of their nature. All such creatures lose their skins from time to time and then fall into a stupor. This, doubtless, is what has happened——"
"It is what assuredly will happen without delay to one who need not be more exactly specified," interposed T'sin Wong with sombre meaning. "By a well-established axiom of justice, he who would be guilty of the vice of attempting to instruct a lesser forbear of his Line in the art of extracting the fruit of a banana is automatically held to be capable of any crime up to and including playing games of chance on tombstones, and you, Won Li, by assuming to explain the usage of the industrious worm to one who is the father and the father's father of a city, have clearly brought yourself within the network of the statute."
"Nevertheless, Omnipotence, it is well said——"
"It is still better left unsaid," declared the impartial magistrate concisely, "or on to your original offence may be grafted that of interrupting a high official in the accomplishment of his function. In a strictly legal sense, whatever you may say or omit saying is evidence of a criminal intention that may be used against you, but as between an ever- indulgent chief and a wayward and ill-designing minion, impartiality may be, so to speak, diluted with forbearance—after you have made a full confession of the lapse and disclosed the exact manner of your crafty vengeance."
"Inasmuch, Tolerance, as this person has not even——"
"Without actually going to the unpleasant extremity of compressing the diligent-hearted toilers between a thumb and finger," continued the obliging administrator speculatively, "there are several Malign Influences to which this class of insect is notably subject. Thus you may have looked significantly in their direction immediately after watching a funeral procession, thereby throwing them into a wasting sickness."
"Alas, Great Highness, such entertainments do not come within the scope of one whose activities are bounded by the four walls of——"
"Or," suggested the resourceful authority tactfully, "by breathing heavily outside their cage after partaking generously of fish you have doubtless diffused a fatal apathy about their system."
"If," declared the clay-souled Li, with more than usual ardour, "if it were possible under the usurious thumb of the parsimonious Hao Sin to obtain even a bare sufficiency of the simplest rice—fish being in the nature of a distant vision——"
"Then you have doubtless brought in a live lizard and allowed the unsuspecting creatures to observe it, or told them something unsettling to their simple mode of life, or in one way or another effected your vindictive purpose," definitely announced T'sin Wong, his humane forbearance becoming somewhat corroded under Won Li's unreasonable persistence. "The silk-worms being manifestly dead, a logical excuse must inevitably be found to account for the arisement. Insects so devoted to their frugal toil do not Pass Hence for nothing. It would be as irrational for this person himself to sacrifice his own striking and ornamental pig-tail as for these orderly and custom-loving creatures to self-end themselves merely——"
"Pre-eminence!" exclaimed Won Li, who had dared for a moment to lift his mediocre eyes to follow the parallelism of T'sin Wong's apt allusion, "the unguarded word has been spoken. We are undoubtedly in the thick of very convincing Forces: your highly distinguished head has indeed suffered this unmentionable effacement!"
How shall the degrading fact be adequately expressed with a brush of only ordinary size and in ink having no particular brilliance? The Mandarin T'sin Wong raised his self-reliant hand to his nobly proportioned neck, but at what it failed there to encounter his deficient knees betrayed him. His incomparable pig- tail, essentially the badge and symbol of his dignity and sway, had completely vanished.
The insatiable devotion of Chin-tung and his timely proclamation to the community of Seers, together with a threadbare account of the difficulty this occasioned and an opportune example of the penetration displayed by the Mandarin T'sin Wong.
HOW many among the thousands who daily give point to some lack of foresight on their neighbour's part by the helpful reminder, "It is useless to bar the shutter when the pig has flown," spare a charitable thought for the unfortunate Mandarin T'sin Wong, stricken in the very seat and citadel of his dignified authority almost within sight of the gravity-unstable and derisive element of legendary Kochow in the ancient days of Ming Wang, who rearranged the Statutes? Rather, by the corrupting passage of time, the natural words themselves have come to obtain a deeper implication, whereby the illiterate and uncouth do not scruple to maintain that in those patriarchal ages a race of animals notoriously earth-bound and devoid of aspiration possessed the semi-divine attributes of dragons, griffins and other beings of a similar creation.
IT cannot be denied that in the first anguish of his humiliating discovery the usually self-possessed T'sin Wong completely lost his feet and issued a variety of conflicting orders with no very clear perception of what would logically result, his one apparent desire being to keep his entire retinue and household in a state of perpetual flux and to tax any whom he encountered carrying out his instructions, with treason, insubordination, embezzlement, venality, sluggishness, precipitancy, lack of poise, over-confidence, sycophancy, arrogance, or failure of initiative to a censurable degree.
The city gates were closed and thrown open again more times than an ordinary person could remember; the Ways and Spaces cleared of loiterers, and immediately afterwards filled to congestion on the injunction that all the trustworthy should freely display themselves or be deemed guilty of plotting behind barred doors. The entire stock of fireworks and coloured lights that the stalls of the Make-glad Mart contained was promiscuously discharged as an indication that those in authority were by no means disheartened, and, conjointly, demonstrations of every kind were prohibited by horn-blowers, crying from lofty towers. Both the Iron Caps and the Tiger Braves were speedily called out as a provision of emergency and as speedily disbanded as a precautionary measure. All prisoners were set at liberty so that the various keepers of the cage might be free to lend their weight wherever aid was needed, but a like number of doubtless equally guilty passers-by was quickly gathered in lest it should seem to the dissolute that iniquity prevailed. To merchants of every sort, and to vendors by the Routes, an order was passed on that none should seek in the general stress to increase the profit of his commerce; and the people were everywhere assured that all had been foreseen and was being capably dealt with, so that nothing was required on their part but obscurity and repose.
Having in this comprehensive manner provided for everything, whichever way it went, and convinced the populace that something of an exceptionally disastrous nature had taken place and was being withheld, the resourceful-minded dispenser of justice inadvertently caught sight of himself from a backward angle in a mirror of three facets, and suffering an overwhelming emotion of despair at this reminder of his loss, he again retired to his inner chamber to see if perchance guidance would be revealed to him through the medium of a vision. Before closing his eyes, in order to concentrate inwardly with suitable detachment, he again summoned Chin-tung from the lower parts of the palace, and specifically commanded the unassuming inscriber of his word that he should now earn his overdue sufficiency of taels by probing the outrage to its source at once and recovering the severed queue before it had suffered any further desecration at the hands of the lawless and unofficial.
"Does the grasshopper spin webs wherein to catch its prey, or the earthworm lay up for herself a store of honey?" reasonably contended Chin-tung as he weighed his own shortcomings in an exacting balance. "Assuredly this concerns the collective prescience of the company of Sages, to whom I will send forth an authoritative summons . . . and may the President of the Lower Regions fructify their labour."
SELDOM even in the variegated history of epoch- gemmed Kochow had a more impressive ceremony been witnessed than the gathering together of the entire company of omen-readers and revealers of the obscure, when, in response to the proclamation that Chin-tung had taken it upon himself to farcast in T'sin Wong's name, they began to converge by guilds and fraternities, or as solitary wayfarers and straggling tribes upon the yamen gate. Shun-Ho alone, upon whom it devolved to unloose the bar of the outer door until his wrist grew flaccid, voiced any discord.
"Has sandal-leather become a thing of no account in Kochow that one must toil for nothing more negotiable than a blessing?" was his lament, as he swung an empty sleeve fruitlessly before a band of hereditary ape-worshippers whose leader had made him a flattering obeisance as they passed in, but no material contribution. "It were as well to be shoot-bolt to a community of locusts as to expect a piece of broken copper from this sort—may their Deities pelt them with the sacred ordure!"
Even the distressed Mandarin himself, denying his usually open-hearted countenance to all save the faithful recorder of his word, as he lurked in a darkened chamber—even T'sin Wong could not forgo an element of pride that his unendurable misfortune should occasion the greatest gathering of its kind which the city had ever known, and it became his meagre entertainment to count the arriving horde through a slotted opening, though he did not refrain from upbraiding Chin-tung for much that he found to be sinister in his conduct.
"None but a concave-witted Manchurian she-ass would have spread abroad that which should have been prudently concealed behind a guarded lattice—until, perchance, nature had to some extent remedied what the opaque-eyed fruit of shame (may his guilty hand develop the itching sore) has traitorously encompassed," he proficiently remarked when the inscriber of his word obeyed the summons. "The only reasonable inference, Chin- tung, is that the one standing in an offensively absent-minded attitude before me is either deliberately plotting to undermine set authority or has temporarily blurred his never excessively well-developed mental focus."
"Your unfailing gift of appreciation sends a warm glow of excusable pride through my confessedly ill-nurtured system," replied Chin-tung, whose mind was busily computing the necessary accommodation for an arriving band of horoscopists. "I press forward, Eminence, to earn a further meed of your lavish approbation."
"Go, and the seven-pointed blessing of Tse-tz the Full- throated guide your movements," contributed T'sin Wong perversely. "For not without understanding is it written, 'Avoid walking beside the deficient, for he whose head is badly balanced will inevitably be clumsy with his footsteps also.'"
IT is an indication of the fame attaching to T'sin Wong's name, and also of the thoroughness of Chin-tung's proclamation, that when all those who felt themselves called to the assembly had at length arrived it was found impossible to reach agreement on any single detail. Not only was there no building in all Kochow capable of holding such a concourse, but when an attempt was made to secure the inspired pronouncement of their judgment by means of a public gathering held in the great Open Space within the city, so overpowering was the volume of simultaneously expressed wisdom that no individual voice could be heard above the tumult, and for many days afterwards ordinary persons who had the extreme good fortune to live in that quarter might be seen going about with sheaths of padded wool about their ears.
IN this extremity T'sin Wong applied himself to the task of restoring order with the high judicial insight that had doubtless recommended him in the eyes of the August Ruler to his eminent position.
"Since you, Chin-tung, have displayed in this matter a surfeit of incompetence that could scarcely be matched outside a Harbourage for the Mentally Unstable, it accordingly devolves upon your notoriously overworked superior to discover an avenue of extrication," he announced.
"Nothing could be more felicitously expressed, even in the pages of the Epics," declared the gratified inscriber. "Alas, that in listening to the music of your flute-like voice its occasional sense escapes these moss-grown ears. Proceed, Eloquence, to the elaboration of your opportune solution, so that——"
"Even the bull-frog does not open his mouth until the song- birds have closed theirs, and you have much to learn therefrom, Chin-tung, until you overcome an ill-bred habit of interrupting. . . . To every guild, company, fraternity, gang, knot, circle, tribe, league, left-wing or bound-together confederacy let it be proclaimed that all may now depart save only one from each, the wisest of their band, who will thus enshrine the collective learning of their several orders and constitute a select assembly of reasonable dimension."
"The ink is as good as dry and the heralds clearing their lusty throats in preparation," declared the effusive Chin-tung. "Yet, Benevolence, shall it not——"
"To each of those who are dismissed let there be conveyed an appreciative motto, together with sufficient pure water and wholesome rice to carry him to a satisfactory distance from the city," continued the enlightened authority, addressing his profound words to an elaborately carved chair of solid teak, however, in order to indicate courteously to Chin-tung that he was not earning commendation. "As a mark of further recognition an inscribed parchment might be given, testifying to their painstaking efforts and excusing them from any further deliberations of a similar nature for a full hand-count of years."
"Even to have failed in your service, Esteemed, is more gratifying than to have received a garland of azaleas from another," declared Chin-tung. "Yet how, among the complexity of their pretensions, can reliance be placed upon retaining the wisest of each sect, and not merely the most assertive?"
"A certain amount of intelligence will admittedly be necessary to secure that end," agreed T'sin Wong, "and you, Chin-tung, had therefore better not appear in the matter. The one who is thus doing the task for which you extract a lavish competency will cause it to be rumoured that the honour of being selected to remain will be considered so exceptional that no other reward is offered, the various representatives, indeed, being, on the contrary, expected to contribute to a fund for their mutual sustentation."
"Yet, Revered, in such a case consider well what must inevitably follow," pleaded Chin-tung, who saw thereby his labour in assembling the Augurs brought to a barren end. "Faced with a prospect so devoid of promise even the one before you would, in a similar plight, be himself among the first to remove their presence."
"Assuredly," agreed T'sin Wong, "and thereby will the analogy be established. The grasping and superficial will fall into the snare and hasten elsewhere; the merely ordinary will be swayed by the action of the others and will follow more discreetly, but the sagacious and observing will consider well, and recognizing our undoubted need and their own assured position, will probe beneath the surface. In the deplorable locution with which you and your unbecoming associates probably freely express yourselves when unrestrained by the refining influence of our presence, the wise will infallibly sense the proximity of a tortoise."
The coming together of the wisest of the Augurs and the intricacy of their task, with a meagre reference to the double-faced exertions of those who sowed dissension among the members of the band.
THE logical outcome of the Mandarin T'sin Wong's far-seeing scheme was what that penetrating official had so discerningly foreshadowed. Not only were the astute induced to remain, in the rational belief that terms apparently so harsh must in reality conceal something especially attractive, but the wiser a person was the more tenaciously he clung to this opinion, the inevitable result being that when a formal assembly was called it was found that in every instance the most sagacious of each band had outlasted all the others. This fixed principle of diplomacy (ever since known as "T'sin Wong's Formula") sufficiently explains why our own pure and exalted nation is invariably at an advantage when negotiating with the short- sighted Barbarian peoples of the Out-lands.
CHIN-TUNG, in spite of the many rebukes to which he was in the process subjected, threw himself into the task of arranging the procedure with a cheerful stomach. It was on his initiative that cushions were provided for the reclining benches round the Chamber of Deliberation, the purpose being that those who intended to unweight their copious minds should lack no encouragement towards refraining, although this inoffensive move was set at defiance by the pretensions of the various sects of Paradoxists who maintained an ancient privilege to talk while in any position, including, if necessary, complete inversion. Nor was his ingenious project for arriving at the considered opinion of the Assembly by means of diversely coloured beans which they deposited within a hat, offered to each in turn, wholly successful; for after a lengthy sitting it presently emerged that the one entrusted with the rite—a mendicant ascetic of extreme simplicity of life who had been elected to the office on account of his entire ignorance of our refined and expressive tongue—had meanwhile consumed the frugal gathering, in the belief that it had been charitably bestowed upon him in compassion. Thereafter, Chin-tung to a certain extent dusted his feet of the trend of the proceedings, though he still continued to hang out a banner whenever they assembled, and to greet with an appropriate saying any Sage whom he happened to see looking expectantly in his direction.
IT is of the Muster beneath the Cedar Roof (as the gathering of the Sages was destined to be called) that there has arisen the adage, "Two resolute men acting in concord may transform an Empire, but an ordinarily resourceful duck can escape from a dissentient rabble," and without following too closely the analogy of the saying it must freely be admitted that the diversity of the gifts possessed by those chiefly involved did not tend to germinate the seeds of mutual attainment.
This in particular concerns Ip Tsoi, whose form of divination it was to spit vigorously against a headstrong wind and to read the future from the shapes taken by that which he had propelled, in falling.
Strongly opposing him (until they made a common cause against the voice of recognized authority, which presently ensued) was Fong-min, who, when inspired, would sit down powerfully in a pool of mud and discover much that was hidden by the configuration of the arising dispersal. From the outset both Ip Tsoi and Fong-min nourished a disputatious bitterness that the coming together of the united Assembly should take place within the four walls of a roofed enclosure, the one because in the absence of the natural elements he could not enlarge his special power, the other to a like effect in that by the most assiduous scraping he could not bring together sufficient mud to demonstrate his endowments. Nor were their obliging efforts to contribute to the common fund of enlightenment to the best of their ability within the cramped limits of the Chamber always productive of a harvest of gratitude in the eyes of those around.
"Is it to be deemed," conjured Tang-san, the one who by a general count had been chosen to direct their counsel, and upon whom had been conferred an onyx chisel as a badge of his incisive office, "is it to be deemed seemly that Sages who derive their authority from the Books, the Propitious Sticks, and other recognized sources of orthodoxy should stand aside to the advancement of one whose only claim to inspiration lies in a fecund gullet, and another who depends wholly on the resilient quality of a pair of unnaturally callous hams for the Inner Vision? Rather shall Hung-leung the geomancer, whose opportune eye has just engaged those of your appointed Decider, beguile our negligible moments with his usual brilliantly expressed opinions," and he struck the wooden barrier that displayed authority with his sonorous chisel in order to enforce this ruling.
"If," retorted Ip Tsoi, still maintaining his assertive ground despite Tang-san's pronouncement, "he who by the very nature of his immune position should most preserve an even balance breathes heavily into the opposing scale whenever his ignoring glance avoids this one's direction, what remains of Justice? This describes Tang-san, whom doubtless the Philosopher had clearly in his mind when he pronounced the warning: 'Of the two, an average demon is preferable to a bad official.'"
"Yet is it not said with equal insight, 'He who upholds a feeble cause may be known by the vigour of his windpipe'?" cast back another, and the continuous sounds of approval greeting this well-edged barb plainly indicated that Ip Tsoi had failed to lead their voices.
"Furthermore," advanced one who divined through the medium of dreams and so cherished a reasonable hope that the prolonged deliberation of the Council would engender material for his method, "standing on the very point and pinnacle of our habit, is it among the things to be permitted that the distinguished and far-reaching expectoratist should apply so unprepossessing an analogy as that of 'demon'—even under the oblique and ambiguous guise of a philosophical allusion—to our benign and incorruptible Decider?"
"That is a consideration which may fittingly be left for the Chisel to deal with at a more convenient season," replied the one who thus merged himself within his office, and observing that his fingers abstractedly tested the edge of his very capable badge of order, it was considered only becoming not to press the arisement too closely.
FROM thence onwards Ip Tsoi withdrew himself from the common body of the Council and sat somewhat apart, though he still maintained a claim to be enrolled among their number, together with an unshackled freedom to condemn their ways and to dissent from all their rulings. There he was shortly joined by the aspersionist, Fong-min, who had in turn also suffered in his seat of rectitude when one who foretold from the trailings left by snails was preferred before him, and from time to time others receded from the general band and signified their adherence to Ip Tsoi's faction. These persons always reclined at a distance from the rest, and as they sought to thwart whatever was advanced, from a conscientious sense of duty combined with a stimulating lack of information, it became the custom, from the convenience of the impress, to refer to them collectively as the Opposers. Under this harmonious scheme whatever the main body resolved the Opposers found to be corrupt and designed to bring about oppression, and should Ip Tsoi or any of those banded with him raise a constructive voice it was held by the Elder Branch to veil effeteness and in all probability to mark out the path to ultimate disaster.
Thus in the end sincerity emerged, for it was soon recognized that by this rational system of mutual assault Truth must inevitably be pressed out to the front, and that with so much disturbance between the contending ranks ever in progress there was no abiding place for Fallacy to linger.
"LIKE the blades of Hwang-ti's shears, never moving at one yet ill betides the hand that comes between them," is a well-worn caution from the days of Yu, the Drainer (but for whose energy mankind would still be fishes), and the manner of behaving of the Assembly beneath the Cedar Roof justified the adage, for although there was no single detail on which they were agreed among themselves, yet when confronted by an outside threat they formed a solid barrier. Such a moment of stress had now arrived, for, embellish it how they might beneath a gracefully embroidered cloak of complimentary subterfuge, the unavoidable gong-stroke had drawn near when they must declare their inspired findings relating to the missing pig-tail, and so far Enlightenment had not enticed their footsteps towards a satisfactory issue; or, viewed from another angle, there had been no lack of proffered guides indeed, but every portent led towards a different direction.
"It is one thing to declare that the Deities pronounce the porter Shun, Li the inept, or Fang who safeguards the Ways to be the guilty person, but to what extent can Their Celestial Highnesses be relied upon to lend the necessary aid when we are bidden to produce that which is hidden?" inquired Tang-san, upon whom fell the burden of blending their conflicting voices. "Even the worthy suggestion of the integritous representative of the Company of Tea-leaf Readers—that in the cause of uprightness one of our number should sacrifice his own attractive pig-tail, which could then be deposited in the necessary spot to which the Omens would duly lead us—is not devoid of humiliating pitfalls. By what ingenious exercise of agile-minded wit would it be possible to effect a dignified withdrawal if it should presently appear that the tails referred to differed in some essential detail which has hitherto been unscrupulously guarded from our knowledge?" And the no-appearance of enthusiasm on the faces of those around did not contribute to a prosperous solution.
"Thus positioned," urged one who styled himself an Accurate Thinker, "would it not be feasible to maintain—as all solid matter is contendably a deception of the mind, possessing no substantial being—that the disappearance of the pig-tail is in the nature of an untenable illusion?"
"Admittedly," replied Tang-san, with a slight corrosion on the polished surface of his usually indulgent voice, "if, when we are called upon to disclose a practical solution, the accommodating upholder of this view will equally produce the material illusion that the pig-tail is now back again in its natural position. Failing such a manifestation it is extremely likely that the impartial-handed law-giver would direct the resourceful theorist's very picturesque head to be detached from his really ornamental body, on the plea that to do so charitably removed an incongruous hallucination."
"It is indeed futile to attempt to pour truth into a vessel that is already full to the brim with obstinate delusion," hastily conceded the one who had thus spoken. "Let others, more to the wonted taste, raise their suggestive voices."
THE formal ceremony of the delivering of the interpretation of the Augurs was shorn of the essence of its lustre by the absence of the one most intimately concerned—the benevolent Mandarin himself, who, when the moment for entering his impressive chair of state arrived, discovered an unpropitious omen in the significant behaviour of a passing tribe of migratory dung beetles. Thus was undone a scene of almost unparalleled splendour in which a delighted populace could have played a fitting part by acclaiming their sympathetic viceroy with deafening cries, among which expressions of grateful loyalty would doubtless have predominated. As it was, a certain appearance of inelegance prevailed, especially at those points of the route where thrifty keepers of the stalls had bargained with expectant passers-by for space whereon to stand among their wares, and much of that which followed arose from the ambiguous nature of their bargain, for although the discriminating merchants had required full payment in advance, many had incautiously neglected to remove the more perishable objects of their commerce.
"This amply justifies the assertion that he who entrusts a person of weak intellect with a box of fire-sticks is himself guilty of the crime of arson," remarked the humane T'sin Wong remorsefully as the sounds of conflict reached his well-trained ears. "The one thus expressing his regret that the inevitable has come to pass has clearly to reproach himself for allowing an underling of your notorious incompetence, Chin-tung, to mismanage this business of the Soothsayers from the beginning end down to the other."
"It is a sufficient reward to be allowed to tread the path of your all-guiding footsteps," zealously declared Chin-tung as he sought to arrange his scattered tablets. "Lo, Omniscience, is it not——"
"You will therefore bear the brunt of the popular disappointment at this one's enforced absence by representing him, however grotesquely, in the awaiting procession, and, subsequently, receive and transmit, with as little misconstruction of the text as your bankrupt mind is capable of, a full account of the Assembly's doubtless conclusive findings. Should these be satisfactory on the whole, and cast in a becomingly submissive spirit, you may convey the gratifying message to the mouthpiece of their wisdom that we have decided to recommend him for the Illustrious Honour (Third Degree) of Brotherhood of the Golden Mullet, and the more conspicuous of his painstaking helpers, up to twelve or fifteen, for remoter steps of relationship in the same exclusive Order. Needless to say, you will at once gather in, on the usual basis, the customary exaction levied by the unscrupulous Board of Seal Impressers and other rapacious bodies on the necessary parchments."
OF Chin-tung's reception at the Hall of Ten Thousand Ages there remains very scanty actual record, both sides equally shunning the necessarily confidential details. This undoubtedly arose from the fact that while the object of the faithful-hearted inscriber of the Mandarin's word was to obtain from the Assembly a specific pronouncement with only so much delay as was inevitable, that of the no less allegiant Tang-san was to convey as little of a concrete nature as might be prudent in view of T'sin Wong's notorious sense of widespread justice, and to delay even what must be said until the last possible moment.
Being of a sincere and ungrudging nature, it was some time before Chin-tung recognized in the excess of elaborate ceremonial with which he was received an unworthy artifice on Tang-san's part to gain a further respite. This took the form of meeting him at the foot of the terraced flight leading to the great door of the Hall and insisting that the honour of preceding one possessing such priceless attributes would be so overpowering that afterwards he would be quite incapable of further exertion for the remainder of the day. To this, none but an outcast could have failed to reply in a strain no less obsequious, and the lengthening shadows testified to the unquenchable delicacy of both before a seemly compromise could be effected. It being necessary to ascend three-and-thirty broad steps of polished malachite before reaching the summit, and as Tang-san was overcome by a like sense of personal unworthiness at every stair, it presently began to appear to the one who was becoming increasingly concerned that unless he could arrange their progress on a different basis his report of what had been disclosed by the Assembly would consist of an unwritten page when T'sin Wong required their message.
In spite of a mild and compliant disposition where no particular issue was involved, Chin-tung was neither inept nor feeble, and when once he had become convinced that a crafty purpose lay behind, he stretched out both hands for a means to counteract it. This took the form of seizing the resourceful- minded Wielder of the Chisel at the juncture of his head and body, and also by the slacker part of his lower garment, in an unguarded moment when he was bowing deferentially to give point to a saying, and impelling him vigorously up the remainder of the flight and into the presence of the assembled gathering, at the same time divesting the action of any appearance of discourtesy that might otherwise have attached to it by protesting the graceful line that in the case of the very retiring it is sometimes necessary that they should have honour thrust upon them.
THEREAFTER, as if recognizing the potency of Chin-tung's logic, Tang-san forbore to urge his own inadequacy, as a reason for delay, whenever the former person stood up and made a movement of dissent towards him. Even in so ceremonial a detail as that of pressing an unending succession of cups of scented tea upon him there was a disposition to meet Chin-tung's wishes when at length he declared that the distinction was becoming more than he could reasonably carry.
Deeming that the moment of revelation must now be at hand, Chin-tung arranged his brush and tablets and expressed his willingness to learn and record the Assembly's inspired findings.
"Your agreeable voice well recalls the theme," professed Tang- san, seeing that further evasion would be not only inelegant but certainly useless. "Hitherto, in the delight of welcoming so accomplished a person to our unworthy midst the occasion itself had escaped our weed-grown memory. Assuredly: the Assembly's findings."
"Say on," conjured Chin-tung, testing the smoothness of his medium. "No golden link in the jewelled chain of your matchless eloquence should be lost, and already the light is fading."
"So unprecedented must be accounted the crime of denuding an official of the higher grade of his always jealously guarded pig- tail that no inconsiderable part of our labour has been in the direction of establishing the necessary precedent," explained Tang-san. "The nearest case on record would seem to be that of a confirmed litigant in the very early days, in the Province of Wei-chi. In order to call attention to the justice of his cause, this unpleasantly active suppliant secretly contrived, under the deceptive cloak of a prolonged kowtow, to attach the free end of the presiding functionary's treasured pig-tail to a staple in the floor and then exploded a fire-cracker immediately before him. The effect on the official, the chronicle relates, was distressing, but the punishment that was devised as adequate to meet the unusual case supplies a logical basis upon which, always regarding the known facts strictly in the light of a mathematical equation, the Assembly has been able to formulate a scale which will doubtless satisfy everyone—or nearly everyone—concerned."
"Your admitted historical voracity is deserving of a metal tablet," was Chin-tung's generous concession. "Yet would it not be possible, without impairing the fabric of your praiseworthy achievement, to acquire a slightly increased vocal momentum?"
"Reproach so delicately conveyed would stimulate the movements of a turtle," replied Tang-san profusely, "and this one will at once come to what might be considered as the meat part of the gravy. The suitable punishment thus arrived at would involve smearing the profane-minded culprit with liquid fat and leaving him, securely bound, on a rocky, sun-scorched height frequented by hungry ants and aggressively inclined scorpions. A continual supply of tempting water would be drawn into transparent vessels and then thrown down upon the thirsty earth, out of the reach but always within sight of the rebellious malefactor. Should he attempt to avoid——"
"Undeniably so," agreed Chin-tung, "but these mere flowers of detail may be safely left to His Excellence, who is himself the compiler of a useful set of precepts entitled, 'The Official Executioner's Come-with-Me and Complete Torturer's Fireside Companion.' Not to dig around the roots of your gifted ingenuity to any greater verbal depth, Tang-san, it is necessary to point out that so far you have failed to disclose who the guilt-laden felon is, and beneath what sign he conceals the fruits of his transgression."
"In the eyes of a thoroughly loyal Assembly so unpardonable appeared the crime that the detail of adequately requiting it not unnaturally first engaged our attention," replied Tang-san, with a subtle indication of well-deserved reproach marking his versatile tones. "The more mechanical functions of indicating actual delinquents and disclosing their hidden dens," he continued, with a certain falling-off in his self-reliant manner, "lie rather outside the ordinary routine of general divination, and for this purpose the Assembly has thought it better to appoint a small underbody to deal with this section of the case and to report their attainments."
"If this indicates a further delay, necessitating the sending forth of another yellow parchment——"
"By no means," declared Tang-san. "Not only has the desired end already been achieved, but with a concensus extremely rare in the doings of such groups it is endorsed by every member of the band. The pronouncement on all points is simple, self-contained and absolutely conclusive. About sunset on the evening of the third day from this an elderly stranger, having the appearance of a footsore wayfarer, will approach the city by the entrance known as the Gate of the Upright Camel. Affecting to be both obscure and in want of shelter he is in reality a profound philosopher with a remarkable capacity for unfathoming the hidden, and now in answer to our occult influence, and at the stress of so exalted an official as the Mandarin T'sin Wong, he is being guided here by the directing Powers. While respecting his ambiguous methods, receive him well, for not only is he the appointed mouthpiece of the High Authorities, but nothing could be luckier than to fulfil his needs. So much it is permitted to reveal. The Omens have disclosed their message."
"YET, revered," craved the one who replenished Tang-san's cup, the youngest of their band who had but lately taken up the quest of divination, "how can it be assured that he whom you have so concisely named will be in reality a wise philosopher and thus conform to the message?"
"If a destitute traveller, entering an unknown city at nightfall, does not prove to be a profound philosopher after being received with special honour and made freely welcome—where is mankind to find one?" replied Tang-san deeply. "Should he however fail," admitted the penetrating Sage, with an almost imperceptible raising of his self-reliant shoulders, "then the undiscriminating inhabitants of great Kochow will obviously have picked the wrong wayfarer."
"How, then," persisted the assiduous youth, "must it come to pass that the intersection of the Fates will be at their culmination three days hence?"
"There is in the number three," benevolently explained Tang- san, "a very cryptic flavour. Furthermore," he added profoundly, "three days from now is an undeniably convenient lapse should one, for instance, wish to journey to an appreciable distance from a city. . . . The seed beneath your hat, Chi-pun, has somewhat yet to sprout before you can be entrusted with the casting of a portent."
Whereby it is shown that matters of a conflicting nature may be essentially diverse from what they at first appear, and Kwan Yen, together with Hwa-che, are now discreetly brought into the record.
UNCONSCIOUS of the all-directing hand of Destiny, and acting merely under the impression that they were turning aside to linger in a grove of spreading camphor-wood because the path was long and dusty and the discomfort of their sandals scarcely to be borne, two footsore wayfarers rested from their journey a few li distant from the eastern towers of walled Kochow on the evening of the third day after Tang-san had spoken. Yet the discriminating among those who are still turning the threadbare pages of this depressing chronicle, in the virtuous hope that an inspired tenacity may presently be rewarded with something more worthy of their effort, will need only to be told that of the two one might reasonably pass in any assembly as a philosophical recluse, to recognize in this carefully arranged delay a scheme on the part of the lesser Deities to bring both Kwan Yen and Hwa-che within the orbit of their fixed design.
Kwan Yen, the venerable-looking personage thus indicated, had for the greater part of his tranquil life led a blameless but in no way distinguished existence in the remote province of Si-shang as a professional expresser of public apologies, until at length a malignant Fate was driving him forth, homeless and destitute of taels, in the hope of avoiding certain hostile Forces. Of the one now resting by his side, whose immature form implied scarcely three hands'-count of years, Kwan Yen spoke in a guarded way, though when necessary he described him as second in direct Line from himself, Hwa-che by name, and the last of a dignified but financially hard-pressed succession.
"NOW that we are somewhat rested, and the fierceness of the sun withdrawn, shall we not press on again towards Kochow, revered, before the gates are closed?" urged Hwa- che, in what seemed to be a favourable pause in the profound meditation affected by the ancient. "Although the city walls doubtless have the usual gaps provided for the convenience of late arrivers, the extortionate Guardian of the Bolt will certainly demand the customary toll for disclosing where they lie," and Hwa-che shook out an empty sleeve significantly.
"Yet somewhere in the pages of the Classics there occurs the passage, 'He who sleeps beneath the stars has a jewelled counterpane for his coverlet, but the four walls of a roofed enclosure are a barrier to the crystal stream of inspiration,'" meditated Kwan Yen.
"Doubtless, esteemed, and thus to repose on a gathering of sweetly scented herb fulfills this one's most romantic expectation," assented Hwa-che, with an unlooked-for melody of intonation. "But the ever-to-be-regretted stiffness of many of your venerated joints precludes this delightful simplicity of existence, now that the clinging mists of evening are to be encountered."
"The neglected tombs that are discoverable along the route of this conveniently arranged Province are both commodious and dry," urged the patriarch, with the stubbornness of one who reclines at ease with no inclination to resume a journey. "Within a stone- cast of this reposeful grove there is doubtless——"
"The obligation on a dutiful and affectionate second-in- descent to conform to the wishes of an almost idolized forerunner is practically unbounded," interposed Hwa-che with the disclosure of an unexpected firmness, "but—setting aside the bondage of cords or of being clubbed senseless—nothing within the imagined limits of the flat earth will induce this absolutely resolved person ever again to spend another night in the spectre- haunted recesses of a disused burial-place."
"The experiences of last night were admittedly annoying," agreed Kwan Yen, "but it must indeed be rare that coffins are so delicately poised on end that the mere vibration of this person's rhythmic breathing should cause them to fall forward. Apart from such remote contingencies, Hwa-che, it is never to be forgotten that, 'He who leads a virtuous life has nothing to fear from a myriad of demons, but a company of bowmen cannot protect the unscrupulous even from a gnat-bite.' Why then——"
"Why then should we, who have not only obeyed the Essential Injunctions but never even overstepped the Celestial Prohibitions, be fleeing from our native Si-shang, and this person compelled to assume the garb and simulate the unprepossessive behaviour of one of an alien sort?" demanded Hwa- che, with somewhat less of an implicit acquiescence to authority than her submissive words would have tended to infer.
"That is a very different matter," replied Kwan Yen, abandoning for the moment his strictly philosophical abstraction, "and your obliquity of mental vision only serves to establish, Hwa-che, that one of your sort, whatever your outward garb, is incapable of logic. The ordinary every-night or couch-side variety of spectres, such as inhabit all deserted buildings in this weed-grown corner of the Empire, do not come within a thousand li of the really influential fire-breathing, five- clawed, earth-and-air Forces such as make life decidedly complicated in Si-shang. A wise person takes no more notice of these two-and-a-half cash local apparitions than a crocodile turns aside from the attentions of a gad-fly. But when it became plain that you had incurred the malignity of one of the most powerful dragons frequenting the Middle Spaces, it was absolutely necessary, unless our sadly attenuated Line was to accept extinction, to draw a piece of roast pork, as it were, across his nose by some ingenious counteraction. Since it has been announced publicly that you have definitely Passed Above, and by henceforth assuming that the person now accompanying me is someone otherwise than what you really are, has not this menace faded?"
"That is undeniable," assented Hwa-che. "Whereas heretofore scarcely a night passed without the fastening of this one's inner door being tried continually by some intruding Spirit, unearthly words dropped into her ears in crowded places, and the embarrassing pressure as of familiar hands in the darkened courts and narrow by-ways of the city, since she stained her face to a repulsive tone and adopted the uncouth garb and behaviour of one of the other sort the infliction has wholly ceased."
"Nothing could be more convincing," maintained Kwan Yen, "and that, to render certainty doubly assured, is why we are wearing out our sandals in this Deity-forsaken refuse-heap called the Province of Kwei-chang, thou ungrateful second-in-descent, and thereunto it is now this one's present intention to seek out a convenient and sequestered tomb wherein to pass the night."
"Your voice has all the authority of a wind-instrument delicately attuned," dutifully replied Hwa-che, "and as regards the bestowal of your own high-minded body immediate compliance will attend your most trifling wishes. Propitious omens surround you, revered, until the morrow." With these sympathetic words Hwa-che took up the heavier of the burdens and prepared to turn her decisive footsteps in the direction of Kochow.
Kwan Yen, more slowly, followed.
"'As accommodating as Hi-sen's wife, who patched the seat of his under-pair with a piece cut from the forefront of his trousers,'" murmured the venerable, as he thrust the bamboo pole resentfully across the cordage of his burden. "It is well said, indeed; for it is less profitable to expect reason from a she- being of one's own house than it is to dig out a wasp's nest in pursuit of honey."
AS they continued their journey side by side Kwan Yen sought from time to time to engender a tendency towards repose by pointing out the attractive qualities of the various shady swards bounding the laborious earth-road. He also spoke appreciatively of certain ruined structures which, he said, he thought he could faintly discern just beyond the limits of Hwa- che's less experienced vision. These, he surmised in a voice not actually designed to be outside the other's attention, would probably be tombs of a specially alluring type, for which the Province of Kwei-chang was justly famous. They might be relied upon to contain no coffins, and for that reason would be devoid of spectres, while it was not an unknown circumstance to discover there food and wine, and—as this failed to entice Hwa-che's imagination—sometimes material whereon to repose, which the charitable left in the hope of acquiring merit through the blessings of footsore and hungry travellers. To this he would doubtless have added other inducements had not Hwa-che at that moment pointed out the eastern gate of Kochow, appearing through the golden mist of evening at not more than the distance which a full-bodied person might prudently accomplish in order to ensure a satisfactory appetite.
"In that case there is plainly no incentive to press on," maintained Kwan Yen, casting down his burden and leaning on the bamboo pole to contemplate the jade-like scene, wherein the narrowing line of deep green trees led them, so to speak, by a gentle slope across white fields of ripening poppy and prolific rice to where the protecting waters of the Ming (if suitably appeased) safeguarded the defensive walls of rich Kochow. "The city gates will not be barred until a full gong-stroke space of time from now, for the great sky-fire has yet an appreciable fraction of his daily wheel to accomplish. Observe how strikingly the upward-slanting rays burnish the under surface of each leaf into the semblance of a fabricated scale of beaten copper. The time would not be misspent in resting by this spot and composing verses on the theme——"
"Haply," replied Hwa-che, resuming the arduous way, "but a more profitable development would be to contrive the means of acquiring something having an appearance of minted silver on both the under and the upper surface. The occupation of expressing public apologies, however well and abjectly performed, is not one that in a strange city, and at a moment's notice, can be hopefully regarded as a means of procuring food and shelter through the night."
"Without actually begging it should not be difficult to stand in such an attitude that those who are of a sympathetic nature need not fear repulse," suggested Kwan Yen, as he also reluctantly resumed his burden.
"Without actually eating it might be comparatively easy to stand before a stall whereon meats stew, and so inhale their vapour," replied Hwa-che. "But," she added, "to say which process would the more effectively satisfy the void that inspired it lies outside the instance."
"In the days before this person took his second name it used to be widely said, 'The song of a serpent and the voice of a woman apt at replying do not make for harmony,'" murmured Kwan Yen morosely, "and this journey with the one who is henceforth to be called Hwa-che has gone a long way to show that the ancient wisdom is by no means extinct. However," he reflected, with the supineness of one afflicted with his narrow outlook, "it is only to be expected that in the more settled atmosphere of an established city like Kochow a period of unruffled tranquillity may be assured."
WHEN they were come at length to where the convergence of the paths led straight to the gate called that of the Upright Camel, both Kwan Yen and Hwa-che paused for a beat of time at the unusual sight before them, for instead of the deserted Way which at that hour might reasonably be depended upon, a notable variety of persons in all conditions seemed to have been attracted to the spot, and all were engaged in looking expectantly in their direction. As the great sky-fire sank beyond the line of western hills at that moment when the two appeared, a general exclamation of wonder, not unmixed, it seemed to Hwa- che's penetrating insight, with admiration, greeted the occurrence.
"These can foreshadow no good to us, from whatever angle it is regarded," declared Kwan Yen, seeking to retain the other's elbow. "Let us retrace our footsteps in a slow and negligible manner, and so haply escape attention."
"This comes from the complicated inferiority that has become part of your second nature," replied Hwa-che, striving to urge him forward. "Is there not, among your stock of appropriate sayings, anything to the effect that he who always has doubt in his mind will never lift his feet out of trouble? An apologetic front, except strictly in the way of business, is an invitation to Affliction not to pass you by. Leave the conduct of this enterprise in my unworthy hands, revered, and it will go hard if assurance does not fill our rice-bowls."
"It was not thus with the unfledged ones of our inner chambers in the meritorious days that marked this person's youth," reflected Kwan Yen, as he suffered himself to be drawn to the encounter. "All this stress and turmoil undoubtedly comes from the new device of inscribing leaves by pressing them down upon blocks of wood having an ink-smeared surface. Contagion of one sort and another is bound to be diffused by so widespread a process, and Hwa-che has certainly become infected by some small but potent Spirit that has taken advantage of this means of passing from one place to another, and now possesses her with a very unbecoming sense of no-reluctance."
WHEN suitable salutations of polite regard had been exchanged, one who had taken it upon himself to assume authority among the throng would have approached Kwan Yen, but Hwa-che inoffensively arranged herself between them.
"For," she explained, "we have come on a long and exacting march, and although, whenever we tarried, the righteous—possibly to incur the blessing of so devout a pilgrim—brought out the choicest that their homes contained, the rough way has sapped his vigour and my office is to protect him from increased fatigue."
"You speak of those who succoured you as compassionately inclined, and describe the one whose shoulder you uphold as being a worthy of extreme merit. In such a case it would surely have been their care to bear him easily from stage to stage along the way, and not leave his sanctimonious but obviously weak-kneed feet to stumble."
"Each morning a long awaiting line of suppliants contended for the honour. But he who is now on the point of falling into one of his exalted reveries put them all aside, protesting that the repute of Kochow stood so high among the cities that even the greatest should approach it unassumingly on foot, like the meanest of ordinary beings."
"That discloses a very proper spirit in one whose fame has doubtless already reached us. His illustrious title——?"
"In conformance with an imposed vow he has taken the quite low-class signification of Kwan Yen, so as to pass unnoticed. My even more commonplace name is that of Hwa-che, and we describe ourselves as coming from obsolete Lo-ngo in the third-rate State of Si-shang. Your own high-sounding style is doubtless——?"
"Ling-yan is the misshapen outcast now before you. He is by trade a thoroughly discredited instructor in the art of passing competitive examinations by fabricated transcripts. His door, beneath the Sign of a Successful Hand grasping a Well-balanced Pencil, may be further recognized by the number of would-be candidates who go on elsewhere. But it is of your venerable charge that we would speak. Is he notorious in any special direction?"
"His virtue is greater than his unblemished pig-tail is long, and the diffuseness of his garnered wisdom has never yet been really sounded. . . . Are there any other particular attributes in a pilgrim that the open-handed of Kochow consider deserving of charitable recognition?"
"Your veiled reference to a pig-tail that is blemished and your affected willingness to depend on contingent alms assure us that we have not been mistaken," declared Ling-yan after he had drawn aside to confer among his fellows. "In one particular alone would the forecast seem to have suffered an ambiguous rendering. You who have so capably performed an irksome part have no mention in the saying, nor in any event should we have expected to find one so young involved in so weighty a matter."
"As to that," replied Hwa-che, "I am somewhat older than I might appear, and in several other particulars I am not entirely as you may deem me."
"It would be presumptuous to attempt to pry beneath the surface as everything seems to fit in with what we have expected. Doubtless you will be willing to continue your charitable ministration of the aged recluse even though he has now reached the attainment of his journey?
"Assuredly. Apart from the necessities of his physical well- being, who else could interpret the finer shades of his exact meaning?"
"Is his philosophy, then, of so inscrutable an order?"
"It is so variously complicated as to be at most times practically incomprehensible to the untrained imagination. Not infrequently he conveys a cryptic meaning under the simplest form of ordinary speech—as what on the common tongue would be an inquiry as to when the next rice may be expected, or the statement of an intention to perform some natural office."
"That has been the way with the really profound from time immemorial," agreed Ling-yan; "for what is there to the general ear in the plain assertion that thus and thus is such and so?"
"If all this observance is to tend to anything substantial," interposed Kwan Yen, emerging abruptly from his impending lethargy, "it were well that the chop-sticks should be forthcoming. It is truly said that the less spoken of a feast before, the more it will be appreciated afterwards."
"It is even as was told," remarked Hwa-che, raising her expressive eyebrows, "and this implies something of a rather special nature. We will now withdraw——"
"To my own ill-furnished hovel, surely?" exclaimed Ling-yan with gratifying insistence. "Nothing could become your philosophical indifference to externals better, for it is doubtful if there is a more comfortless abode in all Kochow, or one where you will receive worse food cooked in a more insipid manner."
"Before that is definitely arranged hear an inserted claim," broke in one who had hitherto fretted impatiently at Ling-yan's elbow. "The compact, O crafty wielder of the instructive pencil, was that you should voice our welcome to these happily arrived strangers, not entice them to your own advancement. Behold before you, opportune wayfarers," he continued, affecting to ignore Ling-yan's restraining gesture, "Tsoi-han, an inefficient retailer of dried herbs and flavouring extracts. His own meagre hut, if admittedly larger and more lavishly provided than that of the other person here, is quite unworthy of your refined attention, and the deficient fare that he can offer, though perhaps rather less unappetizing than that which would elsewhere be placed before you, is utterly beneath your meritorious notice. If, however, in a spirit of high-minded condescension——"
"Not without reason is it freely quoted, 'His goats are larger than his neighbour's camels,' when passing beneath the Sign of a Truly Iniquitous Pestle," and Ling-yan again forced himself into the forefront of the discussion. "It is one thing for a liberal- minded host to decry what he is offering in terms of ceremonial politeness: it is quite another thing that he who is notorious for the squalor of his sty and the niggardly division of his tasteless bounty, should seek for his own ends to impugn it. Whereunto also is it, thou calumnious Tsoi-han, that while a sprinkling of costly herbs and fragrances are seen to reach thy door, sacks of dried weeds and weighty loads of sand are secretly borne in by night and disappear thereafter? The essential laws of hospitality require that these confiding strangers should be protected from the contamination of this harbourage of short weight and double dealing."
"There comes a time," replied Tsoi-han, thrusting his face against Ling-yan's in a markedly offensive manner, "when if a person does not proclaim the truth it is better that he should be struck by thunder, and as regards the pretensions of a competence to instruct in the art of passing examinations and of your general unworthiness to live, that moment has arrived, O most superfluous Ling-yan. To speak plainly, since the matter has been probed, that to which you apply the name of home is but the enlargement of a sewer, laboriously hollowed out into the semblance of a dwelling, while the viands that find their way into your stew-pan are disregarded offal, filched from beneath the stalls of the inferior sort of dog-butchers in the low-class districts of the city. To allow these unsuspecting wayfarers to risk plague and leprosy under the guise of fellowship would bring down upon Kochow the contempt of ghouls and hired assassins."
"The reference to thugs and questionable Beings is apt," cast back Ling-yan, "for who should better speak of them than one who shares their secret councils? Oh, thou most adulterous intermingler of market scrapings! where are the eight taels—setting aside the seventy-five brass cash—entrusted to thy care by this one, which established thy bankrupt commerce?"
"Not without cause was he of we two who is alone speaking the truth warned by an omen-reader against a gross, convergent-eyed extortioner who would give the name of Ling-yan and profess a virtuous friendship," maintained Tsoi-han. "The occasion being fitting, a deliberate request is made that the Recording Spirits should take down the actual facts for reference when this same Ling-yan Goes Upwards: that of the eight taels referred to, three gave forth a hollow tone when sounded and one bore a fictitious impress. Two score of the brass cash were of the kind that the charitable lay by for bestowing on sightless beggars, being useless as exchange. Furthermore, the one who is accurately describing the occurrence had at the time of thumb-signing the receipt been enticed into a sort of stupor, and he has, moreover, since repaid all that integrity requires."
"The original begetter of the House of Tsoi was a distinguished river pirate," remarked Ling-yan, falling into the frenzy of a methodic calmness, "and the one whom he took in marriage having been an experienced stall-despoiler, the chiefship devolved in strict succession. No one has ever disputed Tsoi-han's right to inherit these endowments——"
"Worthy and hospitable contenders for so meagre an honour, consider well what will ultimately befall," implored Hwa-che, beginning to fear that in the progress of the strife its origin would become forgotten. "Without the ripple of a doubt it is not beyond your exceptionally well-nourished powers to continue this versatile display of gifted eloquence until the great sky-lantern shall arise and thereafter reach its zenith, but meanwhile the venerable old man who is the cause of your very flattering contest shows signs of dissolution and will inevitably soon faint of sheer exhaustion. If, however, it is permissible for this one to hazard a suggestion——"
"Say on," agreed Tsoi-han. "The Deities rule justly."
"Nothing could be more exact," assented Ling-yan. "Sincerity can never ultimately be stifled."
"What is there to choose between a flawless pearl and an unusually matchless opal? Or who shall weigh in one scale of the balance a virtuous life and adequately measure it against a high capacity to train performing locusts in the other? If, however, it is the practice of either of the two concerned to provide freshly cooked viands for his evening rice, while that of the other consists of reassembled fragments, a very definite standard of preference is thus established——"
"Doubtless the opulent and round-bodied may have hot evening rice, but it has never been a custom with the House of Ling, nor is he who speaks a sorcerer to call up fire to an extinguished hearth at his mere bidding," remarked the one who bore that name, falling back from his advanced position. "Furthermore, the uncompliant ruler of his domestic round would certainly insert a disagreeing voice," and he merged himself still more among those who were not pressing forward.
"There is an adage among the judicious of this city, 'He who lifts the pot-lid before taking his seat will receive scant pressing to a second helping,'" declared Tsoi-han with circumstantial meaning, and he, too, forbore to entreat further.
"This comes of leaving things in the hands of one who impugns a deferential bearing," repined Kwan Yen, for despite his deep relapse he had meanwhile followed all that was being said with varied emotion. "Something could have been secured from one or both by a suitable display of conciliation. Even yet——"
"Forbear, revered," directed Hwa-che, withholding him as he would have followed, with an apologetic message, the two who had thus failed them; "one higher still approaches. Should he be no less well disposed we shall do better there than with these others."
"It is Chin-tung," was passed from lip to ear among the watchers, "and he hastens with a welcome. Chin-tung who takes down the lord T'sin Wong's spoken word and even prompts him on the legality of his very original rulings. Doubtless the strangers are to rest within the shadow of the yamen, and even to receive their rice from the Mandarin's own table. Now it becomes clear to us why this deep philosopher and the wise youth who leads him waited."
"YOUR strategy, Tsoi-han, was ill-contrived," declared Ling-yan as, after an open withdrawal apart, they came secretly together. "Now, instead of being beneath our guiding hand, this inspired detector of crime will be lodged in the very citadel of our chief oppressor and beyond our supervision. The Crimson Circle of the Restoring Balance will not regard this lightly."
"The unfolding of events beguiled me," pleaded Tsoi-han, "that and the white-hearted Cho-kow's defection. Plainly, the all- discovering partisan of oppression could not be housed beneath either of our roofs, to listen at the bolt-slot, and the effete Cho-kow was to step into the breach at the appointed moment. That he failed to disclose himself and play an appointed part made it necessary to protract a delusive drama, and so paved a way for the inopportune Chin-tung and our present sore misgivings. For this the deficient Kow will be brought up against a very keen- edged sentence."
"It will be necessary to secure his condemnation in order to safeguard our own position. In fact, we had better arrange together the details of his guilt so as to ensure that when the matter comes up there shall arise no obstacle to justice."
"That should be easy to one of your inventive bend," agreed Tsoi-han. "When the time arrives you have but to say and my voice will confirm you in all the details."
"In that case I will set apart a quiet half gong-stroke after the worship of my deserving ancestors to-night to establishing his treason," engaged Ling-yan. "In one particular alone does any doubt pursue me: the presence of the ambiguous youth of whom we have had no warning. . . . There can be no uncertainty but that this Kwan Yen is indeed the one appointed by the Chief Upholder of the Law to lay bare our hidden purpose?"
"Who can doubt it on the assurance we have gathered? And the shallow device of seeming to arrive conforming to Tang-san's prophecy does but substantiate——"
"Restrain your efficient voice," warned Ling-yan concisely; "one approaches from the west under the dusk of evening. Let us affect a convincing interest in extraneous matters," and he began to speak appreciatively of the lesser-known verses of Han Yu, an accomplished poet of the T'ang era.
"It is Cho-kow at last," declared Tsoi-han as the one alluded to drew near. "Thou sluggish-stomached Kow!" he exclaimed in greeting, "is this the way that the decrees of our strict Order are regarded?"
"A misbegotten sandal-lace delayed me," replied Cho-kow. "Furthermore, one who had a grievance against this person's kinsman's ass in the matter of a trespass stopped him by the way with a reproachful message. What ensued meanwhile?"
"That instead of being beneath our watchful eye the emissary of those who wish us ill is safeguarded in T'sin Wong's palace," pronounced Ling-yan with impending menace. "That has ensued, O recalcitrant Cho-kow, and for it thou shalt answer very sharply."
"No man can hasten with a sagging latchet," urged the dilatory Cho-kow, "and in the matter of the ass certain immemorial rights of pasturage were threatened. Who, seeing a piece of silver lying by the way, will hesitate to bend his form towards it, even if thereby an angle of disrespect is turned towards some passing high one?"
"Was ever effeteness more brazenly self-pictured?" murmured the two who listened to his pleading.
"As regards the enemy to our League the case is by no means desperate," continued the obtuse-witted Cho, unconscious of the erosive ground that formed his foothold. "Within the yamen walls Li, the two-tongued, is sworn to watch our interest, while just beyond the gate Ah-Fang, the custodian of the paths, will report whatever threatens."
"Forbear!" exclaimed Ling-yan, "or what punishment can requite you? To the offence of failing to accomplish a task you have added the crime of speaking aloud the names of those secretly of our number. By the first you have delivered yourself to a certain fate; by the other you have made it both painful and humiliating."
"If this is the view that you take of the matter, it is useless to argue further," confessed Cho-kow. "However, as it is very justly said, 'The most prudent cannot escape death once, nor the headstrong incur it twice': therefore, why tremble? In his hands this person holds the cord with which it was his intention to lead back the wayward ass, and should that fail he has by his side a knife of proficient keenness. Added to that, by self- ending himself at once a certain gain is made in the matter of his rice between now and the fulfilling of his sentence."
"There would seem to be no actual objection to such a course," admitted Tsoi-han in answer to an inquiring glance, "provided that you do not bind your revengeful ghost to haunt our rest hereafter."
"It would be uncourteous to dissent," confirmed Ling-yan, "especially as this one will thereby be in a position to devote more time to the worship of his cherished forerunners."
"The undertaking is freely given," agreed Cho-kow. "By the repose of his seven immediate ancestors he assures it."
"Nothing could be more straightforward," was their farewell. "May your Passing Up be short and the attendant Beings indulgent."
"May your virtuous cause no less prevail," replied Cho-kow as he turned aside from them into a convenient coppice.
"THERE is more in this than meets the organ of vision," declared Hwa-che, when, refreshed by a meal both several-coursed and rich, they were alone together in a room allotted to them at no great distance from Chin-tung's own quarters. "Setting aside the extremely mysterious reception of our threadbare selves at the east gate of this city, why should the ruling lord hereof depute his very agreeable recorder of the spoken word to do us honour?"
"Doubtless to you it wears an ambiguous face, but so far as this one is concerned it is little more than was to be expected," replied Kwan Yen, stroking his venerable moustaches with dignified self-approval.
"Say on," invoked Hwa-che. "It is as well to know what form of intelligence is germinating within your productive mind, revered."
"Among the more enlightened communities of this illimitable Empire there must be some where the art of expressing a suitable public apology is held in deserved esteem. By the fostering intervention of our appreciative ancestors we have been led to such a spot, and, the whisper having spread, the outcome is thus and thus."
"Haply," replied Hwa-che, "though it is doubtful whether in the end it may not prove merely so and so. In the hope of averting such a mishap, however, it is this one's immediate purpose now to explore the Ways in the out-parts of the city and glean what may be learned there. Meanwhile, esteemed, if any seek to probe your hidden wisdom it would be advisable to relapse into a scholarly abstraction, and on no account to part your descriptive lips."
"Be that as it shall," maintained Kwan Yen, with a stubbornness that, in one affecting a philosophical guise, was rather unbecoming; "before a pearl can be admired it is necessary that an oyster should be opened."
"The analogy has a somewhat fishy trend," observed Hwa-che, "and is not fitted to our pastoral surroundings. Rather is it said, 'The wiser the ox, the longer he contrives to hold his tongue.' Be guided."
To this Kwan Yen would have made a suitable reply, but before he could recall a conclusive instance, Hwa-che had passed out and closed the door upon him.
Hwa-che, having declared to Kwan Yen's ear what she has learned in the by-ways of the city, further explains what their strategy should be if they are to avoid the various unpleasant fates that now beset their progress.
SEVERAL gong-strokes passed before Hwa-che returned to their lodging within the yamen, but Kwan Yen did not suffer himself thereby to become unduly harassed. Doubtless this in part sprang from the unstinted trust that he reposed in her alertness, but it is not to be denied that meanwhile the person in question had discovered a jar of seasoned wine, left by a discreet well-wisher just inside the angle of the door, and he was passing the time profitably in testing the purity of its flavour. When the one whose absence he was not altogether regretting at length displaced the bolt and entered, it was evident from the burden of her impugning glance that Kwan Yen had done well to reinforce himself against affliction.
"Thus and thus," exclaimed Hwa-che, possessing herself of the vessel and pouring out what remained upon the floor. "Is it not enough that this hard-striving one should have to bear the combined weight of our united needs upon her careworn shoulders, but that during an essential absence he whose sole protection against indiscreet garrulity lies in a rigorous silence should adopt the means most calculated to sway his unfettered tongue like the insistent clapper of a warning bell in time of panic?"
"Proceed to discharge your copious mind," replied Kwan Yen, seeing no prospect of any other outcome. "Yet there are those for whom any stimulus towards that same result would be deemed an added surfeit."
"This is not the occasion for a display of effete personalities," said Hwa-che, discovering at the moment no apt retort in answer. "Our very existence is menaced, for it is indeed an attractive stew-pan of eels that your insatiable craving for change has led us into!"
"Speak freely," enjoined Kwan Yen, to whom the quality of the wine had conveyed a valiant message. "The analogy of your instance is far from being exact, but after a well-spent life devoted to all forms of exculpation there is no arising emergency—from opening the wrong door in the dark to thinking aloud about the reigning dynasty—known to this person from which a delicately expressed apology does not provide a graceful means of extrication."
"KNOW then," continued Hwa-che, "that after leaving your congenial presence this misgiving person sought out the denser and less reputable quarter of the city, and there soon ingratiated herself into the society of various bands of the young and outspoken of the other sort, with a well-formed determination to learn what course of events had conspired to bring about our dubious position."
"Nothing could have been more hazardous, and thereby your inability to conduct an enterprise is clearly shown," declared Kwan Yen sincerely. "Because of your ignorance of the subjects of conversation most affected by those whose company you had chosen, discovery of the fact that you were one of the other sort lurked in your every utterance—if, indeed, the disclosure has not actually already come about, and your unseemly freedom now being made the matter of a questionable jest among the by-ways."
"On the contrary," replied Hwa-che, with an appreciable distance in her manner, "the subjects of conversation most affected by those—whatever their age or calling—of your repulsive sort would seem to be matters upon which this one might reasonably be supposed to be much better informed than they should be. Setting this aside, however, learn now how complex and menacing an outlook unrolls its vista."
In the labyrinthal depths of his capacious mind Kwan Yen was, under the exalting influence of wine possessing a hitherto- unsuspected vigour, engaged upon the composition of an apology that would outvie all the greatest historical examples of the classic past, and in a single formula be applicable to practically every emergency in life with which an ordinary person might be confronted. Hwa-che was thus suffered to relate what she had learned from the conversation of the young and freely spoken almost as a consecutive narration.
"THE ruling lord of this city of Kochow, T'sin Wong by name, has long bewailed his he-childless state and sacrificed on countless shrines to the All-supplying Forces. Just now the by no means submissive Lady Fa, sole mistress of his inner courts, is again, for the seventh and—so it is whispered she has forcibly declared to those who drink tea with her—for the last time, preparing to withdraw for what is harmoniously described in our chaste and elusive tongue as 'a specific purpose,' whereat the concerned T'sin Wong has abandoned himself to a glut of omen reading, to learn whether perchance his necessity is at last to be fulfilled, or whether this will again and for the seventh time be yet another unserviceable she- child."
"One all-embracing word—indicating 'cleft to the heart with sorrow,' tactfully admitting 'a consciousness of personal uncleanliness,' deftly implying, without an actual promise, ample restitution——" murmured Kwan Yen.
"At this momentous crisis in the progress of his hopes, he whose bounty we enjoy suffered an unworthy trial," continued Hwa- che, raising her melodious voice no more than was actually necessary to recall Kwan Yen's divergent senses. "While he slept his incomparable pig-tail was mysteriously removed, but whether at the hands of the sacrilegiously inclined or by the direct intervention of thwarting or guiding Powers is as yet obscure. Be that as it will ultimately appear, there could be no doubt of the sinister implication of the omen: for how should one who had suffered such a deprivation hope to secure the continuity of worship at his Domestic Altar? The most superficial could not miss the obvious portent that direct succession in male tail had been thus symbolically shorn off at the very well-spring. The blow, coming at that particular moment, was a distressing one, and the internal cords of T'sin Wong's dignified self-possession for the moment slackened beneath the impact.
"In this emergency the resourceful inscriber of the Mandarin's spoken word, that same Chin-tung who so agreeably led us to this haven, effected a bold design. By a single stroke of assumed authority he summoned to his aid representatives of every branch of necromancy throughout the Province, and enjoined them to agree among themselves upon the several points requiring interpretation. The Augurs, no less ingeniously in turn, learned from the Sources that an inspired Messenger, charged with revealing all, would appear within the city at a certain time, having the outward semblance of a wise philosopher. By one of the sarcasms of Destiny, esteemed, your own unpretentious arrival here—combined with a certain venerableness of outline and the habit of falling into an ambiguous reverie when not otherwise employed—would seem to have established you by universal acclaim as this accomplished stranger, and the entire court and city are now confidently awaiting your profound disclosure of the abductor—whether human or demoniacal—and a speedy recovery of the priceless hostage."
IN spite of the engaging simplicity of this recital and the symmetrical purity of Hwa-che's harmonious voice, it was some time before Kwan Yen could be made to grasp the essential outcome of the position, with the impressive part that he was definitely expected to play in its fulfilment. When he understood the length and depth of the involvement, he reached for his street attire and laid a strict injunction on Hwa-che that she should remain meanwhile in close seclusion. "For," he said, "had it not been for your inopportune discovery, we might have gone on for several days longer in a pleasurable ignorance of this impending pitfall, all our material needs supplied, and the ultimate disclosure no worse than what immediately awaits us. 'He who meets disaster,' it is truly written, 'may pass it by. But one who fears its coming is never free from the menace of its shadow.'"
"It is well recalled," agreed Hwa-che. "How then, revered, is it your indomitable purpose to surmount this mischance?"
"Did you but exercise the upper part of your face rather than the lower, such an inquiry would not have passed your unnecessary lips," replied Kwan Yen severely. "Have you not seen the expectant crowds within Lo-ngo assemble in their tens at this one's upraised voice, nor heard their tones of admiration as he who is now speaking sought to exonerate some prudent-minded transgressor? The occasion now at hand is unique in its requirement, but the more laborious the bow to bend the straighter does it speed the arrow, and the public apology which it is this person's immediate intention to proclaim in each of the four quarters of the city will undoubtedly, to continue the analogy, sound the gong of approbation that indicates a hit in the centre of the target of achievement. In the meanwhile, rest content."
"Assuredly," replied Hwa-che, "and never let it be forgotten that the essential principle guiding this submissive being's most trivial mood is the passionate obedience that she accords to the lightest wish expressed by one who is both the Sun and the Moon of her negligible existence."
"The obligation is by no means ill defined," observed Kwan Yen, pausing for a moment on his way, partly in order to afford Hwa-che the opportunity of expressing herself still further in so commendable a strain, but no less because her attitude before the door made it impossible for him to act in any other manner.
"That maxim firmly digested, it will at once be seen that anything that she may feel called upon to say or do springs from an unswerving sense of loyalty to your cherished person," continued the docile maiden. "Speaking in this sense, therefore, esteemed, it would be well for you now to replace your hat upon the wooden peg, for assuredly if the agile-tempered dispenser of summary justice learns how his hopes have been misled, there will be no other suitable place upon which to dispose it, and lay your outer cloak aside again, for should the easily inflamed populace of this self-opinionated city conclude that their sympathetic interest has been imposed on, its weight would press unbearably upon your much-enduring shoulders."
"There was a saying passed about among the sage in the period of this person's youth, 'It is possible to escape from an enemy carrying a two-edged sword but not from the interference of a well-meaning woman,' and much that has happened of late goes to prove the foresight of the proverb," murmured Kwan Yen as he bent his crestfallen feet to comply with Hwa-che's requirement. "Proceed, fountain of reverence, proceed; for having got us here, assuredly you now have some further expedient designed to render our sojourn in this stronghold of promiscuous hospitality doubly joy-laden."
"The challenge has been cast, though barbed with an undeserved reproach," Hwa-che admitted; "nor will it be evaded. Therefore wrap your venerated ears well about my ill-considered words, for much depends on your playing a not absolutely weak-kneed part in that which is to follow."
WHEN Kwan Yen had removed his outer things and seated himself again upon the floor, Hwa-che took up a convenient poise, from which she could satisfy herself that he was not falling into a retrospective state, and began to explain her purpose.
"If an exhausted goat, fleeing from the embrace of a voracious tiger, finds across its path a deep and untrod chasm, how would it act—assuming, esteemed, that the goat had no preconceived belief in the efficacy of a well-turned apology on either the rapacity of the tiger or the steepness of the chasm?"
"Faced with such an alternative there could only be one outcome. Foreseeing a certain death if it remained, though only a faint hope of escape if it adventured on, the goat would commit itself to the dangers of the unknown ravine—doubtless with a suitable appeal to the protecting spirits of its ancestors."
"Nothing could be more convincing, and thereby you have paved the way of our future conduct. For in the similitude of a threatening tiger it is not difficult to recognize the fatal course of proclaiming that we are the unwitting cause of a high official's displeasure, while the alternative line of acquiescing to the dubious rôle thrust on us by an irrational and concave- witted people, though neither light nor easy, offers a possible chance of extrication."
"The analogy so far is not devoid of a certain classical authority," allowed the other. "Who, however, of those concerned, can be traced under the obnoxious guise of an infirm goat—a creature at once stubborn in its mode of life and illiberal in its outlook?" and Kwan Yen stroked his patriarchal beard as he considered deeply.
"Setting aside the questionable detail of horns there is no sufficient reason why the one on whom will fall the arduous task of discovering a reliant path among the threatening abyss should avoid the implication," replied Hwa-che circumspectly.
"Yet how, pursuing the comparison still further, would it be remotely in your power—who are immature, superficial, illogical, wanting in persuasion or authority, and destitute of parts, as befits one of your sort—to unmask the hidden working of an untraced crime when those most experienced in the divining arts have faltered?"
"The scruple is a natural one, indulgence, and were it that she who is now disclosing her threadbare mind had to rely on the obsolete and moss-grown lore of our own decrepit systems, the outlook would indeed be one destitute of promise. The time has come, however, to initiate, as painlessly as is feasible, one whose lightest word will ever be this one's Guide and Ruler into the workings of certain very unexpected Forces."
With these auspicious words Hwa-che abruptly drew aside the bolt that closed their shutter and thrust out an inquiring hand into the darkness. Satisfied that no encroaching ear had been pressed against the crevice, the resourceful maiden assumed a graceful attitude in such a position that she could command Kwan Yen's attention, and continued the pearl-like flow of her confessedly ill-recorded eloquence.
"It would have been well if mankind had remained content to cast pebbles from a sling and to transfix each other by means of shot-bolts from a space-destroying crossbow," ran the burden of Kwan Yen's thoughts, though at the same time he did not neglect to assume the appearance of paying a close heed to Hwa-che's recital. "This latest scheme whereby certain earths are ground together into a powder which has the quality of propelling a missile from a hollow tube is bound to disturb the harmonious balance of the Spaces. Setting aside the annoyance of a resentful band of cave-dwelling demons whose rest may have been disturbed by the unseemly outburst, the volume of smoke engendered must have a benumbing effect on all but the most solid wits throughout the Empire. It is embedded in logic that as everywhere is already full of something, to create a considerable bulk of anything else must inevitably press what already exists into an unnatural position. Certain misshapen ideas have thus been forced into Hwa- che's elastic mind, where there was doubtless a regrettable amount of waste space already, and this is what then happens."
"IN order to grasp the position adequately, revered, it is necessary to raise somewhat the curtain of this one's secret activities extending over a period of moons, when it was generally supposed that she was busily engaged in gumming her not very attractive hair into new and alluring shapes, or embroidering wholly mythical winged creatures in golden thread upon a purple background," resumed Hwa-che, when she was reasonably assured that Kwan Yen was merely thinking. "In the security of a chamber far removed, however, and under the guiding hands of those skilled in the obscure, she was in reality imbibing the hidden wisdom of the mysterious West—those remoter Out-lands on the uncharted fringe of space where to a suitable accompaniment of the dim green light peculiar to such parts, unthought-of systems for disclosing what is dark, and the retributive avenging of stealthy crimes have long been practised by a highly special guild of the literary classes."
"In our own more intellectual land the literary devote their lives to endeavouring to pass a succession of competitive examinations," observed Kwan Yen. "That would appear to be a more dignified occupation than what you have depicted. However, proceed."
"These scribes are as a class set apart—together with street musicians, hired witnesses in claims for damage at the hands of wealthy charioteers, conscientious objectors to the meat of beasts, and concubines who exceed the normal limit," explained Hwa-che. "It is as well to be wide-headed in regarding the ritual of alien tribes," she added, with a magnanimous gesture of refined endurance, "seeing that we ourselves hold mendicants, barbers, bond-slaves, guarders of the streets and play-actors to be unclean."
"That is a very different matter," was Kwan Yen's stubborn contention. "All those whom you have cited are notoriously reluctant to express regret, and are therefore rightly banned. Nevertheless, do not deviate continuously from the verbal path of your seasonable exposure."
"The reproach is just, esteemed, and should not have been called for. Thus leisured, the one before you gave herself to the by no means unentertaining task of examining the complex systems of the varied schools of those who treat on dire or fantastic crimes and their methods of detection."
"Yet since these Barbarian seers would necessarily explain their uncouth views in an Out-land tongue, how should you, who have no particular accomplishments of any sort, uncloak their feeble meaning?"
"By an ingenious arrangement which it is superfluous to describe, these illiterate islanders can express everything that they may wish to say through the rhythmic grouping of scarcely more than a score of easily remembered symbols. To a second-from- yourself the acquiring of this art was less elaborate than transposing a single Ode or perfecting the balance of a creditable antithesis."
"To a second-from-myself that is but natural," agreed Kwan Yen. "Whether it was worth the commonplace effort might involve the other scandal. It is grounded in reasonableness that as we require at least several thousand written signs to express our general purpose—and even then have to indicate many of the finer shades of extreme politeness by singing—a language that may be pressed within the narrow compass of a score can have made little advance on the grunts of swine and the chattering of magpies. But restrain your verbose tendency to roam unchecked along the fruitless by-ways of an unpruned imagination and declare, as succinctly as may be, the nature of this system."
"What is contained in three hundred and eighty-five compendious volumes—each with an illuminated cover emblematic of its hidden problems—cannot be told between the sounding of one gong-stroke and another. So highly valued are these printed leaves in the country of their being that under the threat of a quite untranslatable torture it is ordained that one of each must be brought to a strong citadel within their capital, where it is held beneath a central dome and surrounded by a guard."
"It is not to be denied that these pale Barbarian ghosts have eyes so light that they can see through solid matter," conceded Kwan Yen, with less assurance in his bearing. "Yet in the casting of the Sacred Sticks, or foretelling by the form of smoke given off when appropriate written sentences are burned to a proper incantation, is it to be thought that our Augurs have anything to learn from a race of wan Out-land spectres?"
"That is not their mode," replied Hwa-che, "inasmuch as they do not seem to place reliance on extraneous portents. Thus where with us a Diviner of the Signs would cast the Sticks and say, 'Behold: the one whom you accuse is guiltless'; with a Detector of Crime among the tribe whose ways we are now discussing, it would rather be, 'Yet how comes it that he who protests his innocence so assuredly has teeth that fit the half-consumed banana that this dead High Excellence was grasping?' Thereupon he would enact the prescribed ceremony of Sleuthing the Clues, and in the destined end retribution would close in upon the guilty ill-doer with all the force and precision of a well-oiled rat- trap securing its victim. Compose yourself now to rest, benevolence, for at daybreak we shall assume our delusive parts and embark on this admittedly hazardous enterprise of disclosing what is hidden in the romantic Barbarian manner."
"It would be as profitable for this person to raise a dissenting voice as for the unfledged lapwing to contend against the fostering breast of a marble roller," was Kwan Yen's unspoken lament as he drew the coverlet of plaited grass around him. "The Sacred Sticks have hitherto been well enough; for he who is accused must be either in the wrong or sinless, and the equitable outcome is that in any case truth is as likely to prevail as error. This Out-landish plan of leaving guilt or innocence to be decided by the chance formation of a culprit's teeth . . . doubtless it has escaped Hwa-che's unstable mind, but whereon do we stand if the one whom she impugns should at the test prove toothless?"
Something of the secret methods of the Barbarian crime detectors, and how Hwa-che, accompanied by Kwan Yen set forth to test the process.
WHEN Hwa-che recalled herself from the Middle Air, where she had floated in the untroubled state that rewards only the virtue-loving and solvent, the fiery ruler of the sky had already ascended through his outer courts, and as he looked down upon the Middle Kingdom of his Lower Realm was shedding warm approval. From the streets and Spaces out beyond the yamen walls came the sounds of reawakening enterprise—drums, horns and cymbals, designed to attract the passer-by to the wares each stall displayed, or, should that fail, at least to discourage the uncertain from trafficking with a more persuasive rival; the raised voices of street beggars calling down alternately a blessing or a curse as the emergency required; the warning cries of official guarders of the Ways advising the feloniously inclined either to desist or hasten, with the occasional discharge of a salutary fire-cracker where some prudent stall- keeper sought to ensure that no chance loiterer from among the dark Beings of the night should still lurk among his commerce. Accustomed to the smoother-flowing life of remote Lo-ngo, this evidence of stress and turmoil engendered in Hwa-che's reliant mind an increasing sense of no-reluctance, and she looked even pleasantly forward to the doubtful course into which she was about to thrust one to whom she owed (as she would hasten to assure him) both the Length and the Breadth of her meaningless subsistence.
CERTAIN sounds of movement had not been lacking from beyond the hanging curtain, but when Hwa-che drew it aside to apprise Kwan Yen that the moment for the first trial of their powers was now at hand, the ancient had all the outward appearance of reclining in a profound abstraction. With a few well-chosen words Hwa-che repeated the substance of her resolution and indicated to Kwan Yen that he should take up his hat and staff and go before her. "For," she explained, "although to this one will fall the exacting task of discovering the Signs and tracing their indication, it is necessary that you, revered, on whom has been conferred the cloak of divination by an expectant city, should assume the outward semblance of authority."
"The word is well recalled, thou acrimonious she-child," replied Kwan Yen, to whom the nearness of the test detracted still more from its lustre. "The control of a second-in-ascent shall not be lightly questioned. Learn now, how during the silence of the night a warning Vision stood by this one's couch——"
"Such visions are by no means rare when the elderly and effete have partaken over freely," interposed Hwa-che, solicitously pressing down the hat upon Kwan Yen's venerable features. "It would have been more in keeping with the plight of one who through all contingencies will ever be my Stay and Grapnel if he had spent the night quietly in sleeping off the excess of his surfeit rather than adventuring forth at an obscene hour in search of further indulgence."
"A scale of the dragon that has breathed its venom is counselled as the surest antidote," was Kwan Yen's hasty palliation. "Though, O precocious daughter of a notorious Line of peccant she-fowl," he added, "the thrust is inept from one who has plainly lurked with a discovering eye fixed to a weakness in the curtain."
"The need did not arise," replied Hwa-che coldly. "To one versed in the deductive wisdom of the efficacious West your unseen course is as open as if proclaimed on an Imperial edict in the Mandarin style, and with ink of the brightest crimson. Assailed by a consuming thirst it is very evident that you sought vainly here for the means whereby to satisfy the craving, then wandering forth in the precarious dawn bruised your exploring nose against some obstacle that barred its progress."
"May the knee-joints of those who place ladders in the way snap ignobly as they reach the summit!" was Kwan Yen's murmured imprecation.
"Thereafter, it is not concealed from me that you sought out the retreat of Hao Sin who controls the ovens, and failing to obtain from him a gift of wine received instead a cake of new- baked rice, with which you then returned, chewing morosely."
"This savours overmuch of the Forbidden Arts, if your disavowal is to be regarded," exclaimed Kwan Yen, with a want of true politeness. "How should you speak definitely of Hao Sin, his denial of a cup of wine, and the bestowal of a few crumbs from the hearth unless you followed closely?"
"On the contrary," replied Hwa-che, "nothing could be freer of involvement. The confused state of this lately well-ordered room indicates a feverish search while this one was gently sleeping, and what would he who had overnight bemused himself with wine look for on waking but another potion?"
"That is not to be gainsaid," agreed Kwan Yen. "It is in the nature of an inherent requirement."
"That failing here you went forth to seek elsewhere the moist earth about your sandals testifies; and who would willingly assail so venerable a sage, especially on the organ indicative of derision? It inexorably follows that a mischance was involved, and that beyond these walls, or your full-throated outcry would certainly have claimed this one's succour; while the passage of a reasonable span of time is shown by the cessation, as it were, of the grosser and more distressing symptoms."
"What can be so easily explained proves the slightness of your claimed achievement," maintained Kwan Yen with narrow-minded envy. "Yet, so far, nothing has been shown touching Hao Sin and the sordidness of his bounty."
"Inasmuch as the outer gates were then secured, your progress was restricted to the confines of the yamen, and at that hour who save Hao Sin, heedful of his oven fires, was open to your pleading? Had he complied your outlook now would have been less sombre, and, to insert the coping in the edifice of your doings, traces of his grudging dole still cling to your benevolent moustaches."
"Is it to be thought that what would be obscure to one should be patent to another, and that but a second-in-descent and of the lesser order?" considered Kwan Yen as he took up his reluctant staff in compliance. "Doubtless Hwa-che has in some way earned the profitable gratitude of a small but powerful Spirit, which meanwhile attends her call and reports all that has taken place elsewhere. This would explain everything in a perfectly rational manner."
AS they proceeded on their way along the devious paths that marked the farther limits of T'sin Wong's productive garden, Hwa-che laid on Kwan Yen a strict injunction for his discreet guidance. This in general enjoined silence, a profound if inert bearing, and an immediate acquiescence to whatever she herself propounded. Nor was the venerable for his part wholly speechless.
"How comes it," he demanded, "that you who until to-day disguised your natural face and adopted an uncouth habit, now have all the appearance of a not unattractive person of somewhat ambiguous outline? Furthermore, why do you wear a bright red feather at your ear in a way that must provoke attention?"
"Among the Barbarian experts whose doings are set forth it is always thus and thus," was Hwa-che's sufficient explanation. "Whereas, to exemplify, it is the mark of one to mix with crowds in search of interpretation, another finds his requirements met by an inconspicuous grey cell, in which solitude he can doubtless best invoke the Expounding Forces. Yet a third sits in an angle of the wall apart and by means of knotted cords disentangles all involvements. One of strict priestly caste tests innoence and guilt by the parallelism of appropriate Symbols, through which he brings everything to a highly satisfactory conclusion, though without any very clear indication of the actual process; while a High Excellence of noble rank becomes inspired on rare and costly scrolls, choice wine and apparel of unique distinction."
"That one—setting aside the precious scrolls and the rich attire, which are extraneous to the issue—would appear to have the most reasonable foundation," interposed Kwan Yen, with more interest than he had as yet displayed in the Barbarian sages. "Would it not be feasible——"
"The foremost of the band," pursued Hwa-che, her ear being doubtless closed by the feather to which the other had alluded, "whose mere name has now become a synonym for alertness, inhales the acrid fumes of smouldering weeds and wraps about his form a flowing robe of talismanic virtues. He it is who also calls up attending Shapes by means of forbidden drugs and restores the harmonious balance of the Spheres with a machine of wood and string that in his hand produces music. An inner coat of fur—the skin of an animal both fecund and adept at burrowing into the concealed depths of the earth—is the chosen emblem of an arch-detector of a kindred race, and endows its wearer with its own prolificness of conception and an ability to penetrate beneath the disguising surface of exterior matter."
"Yet among all these various methods how should one proceed, and what is there to distinguish between truth and delusive error?"
"That would not appear to matter very much so long as he who sets out to detect is endowed with a characteristic manner," confessed Hwa-che. "It is for this reason that she who now makes the essay has procured an allusive feather, with which to tickle the imagination of the sluggish and dull-witted."
"It is doubtless to complete the analogy that it is worn against the region of discernment," rejoined Kwan Yen, his emotion of no-enthusiasm towards the enterprise by no means fading. "If the feather of a capricious toucan is to prove the limit of your equipment, nothing but an apology of the most resolute abjection stands between us and the immediate prospect of Going Upwards."
"Do not despair," counselled Hwa-che. "The Sombre One may knock a score of times, but he can only enter once. Nor, in the matter of attributes, shall other aid be lacking."
"Then why hesitate to declare whatever shows a reassuring facet?" demanded Kwan Yen, for Hwa-che had turned aside as it might be to admire the prospect. "Anything that would induce this person's internal organs to assume a more buoyant leaning would be received with waves of gladness."
"From one who must ever be the Root and Branch of all my prospects, the lightest wish assumes the force of a Royal proclamation," acquiesced Hwa-che with dutiful submission. "Know then, revered, that one thing in common every reliant detector of crime must possess or the very groundwork of his craft would perish of sheer inaction, and that would seem to be one who should combine with less than average force of character an almost superhuman deficiency of sense, who shall be ever at his call, to conform to any requirement."
"Yet how can this avail, for where is there to be found such a man to play so inevitable a part, seeing that you are a stranger led by chance to an unknown city?" and Kwan Yen pushed back his hat and rubbed the unclothed part of his head repeatedly as he strove in vain to discover an answer.
"The benign influence of our all-protecting ancestors will certainly not fail us," was Hwa-che's confident assurance. "Was there not, it now occurs to this one, a sort of mediocre inscriber of the spoken word—his trivial name escapes me—who met us with an ingratiating message?"
"Truly so—Chin-tung he announced himself as being. Yet why should you, since it is to him that we owe the fullness of our welcome, speak of him in terms of such a distance?"
"The obscure menial left no impression whatever on my imagination," replied Hwa-che, "but he will doubtless serve as well as any other. It should not be difficult to attract the negligible hireling to our cause"—here she stooped down and plucked a fragrant blossom, which she thereafter wore at her other ear—"if you, revered, will play a double part and not betray our project."
"It was ever the way with those of Hwa-che's sort to act in an illogical and oblique manner," considered Kwan Yen as he resumed his steps again at that one's bidding. "Without being to any degree expert or nimble-minded, Chin-tung is by no means deficient in attainment, yet doubtless he will lend himself unwittingly to Hwa-che's purpose. The spectacle is not without a certain zest to one of philosophical aloofness, so that it would perhaps be as well to make an outward show of conforming to her two-faced wishes."
Hwa-che lays bare the Signs that point to the aggressor and, whether alone or supported by her band, resolves to denounce Pung Chu as guilty.
AS they approached the more important of the yamen buildings there could be heard, beyond the obstructing barrier of an acacia hedge, the voice of one chanting an analect with taste and determination. At this Kwan Yen's lips also began to move, as though in an exhortation to the Beings, but suspecting that the person in question was really assembling the points of a specially composed apology, Hwa-che resourcefully stepped on his heel, though with no more force than was actually necessary to recall her strict directions, and confidently urged him on. In this she was amply justified, for with the exactitude of detail to be found only in the affairs of those who are being led towards a destined end by protecting Spirits, the one presently disclosed proved to be Chin-tung, it being his usual habit to compose Odes on various subjects in the seclusion of the garden when he deemed that T'sin Wong would be unlikely to require his office.
"TEN thousand greetings!" exclaimed Chin-tung, at once recognizing the two before him. "Have you satisfied your stomachs?"
"Nothing has been neglected," hastily declared Hwa-che, shaking hands with herself repeatedly so that Kwan Yen should have no opportunity to insert a dissenting murmur. "This profound old man, for whom I speak, has been made the subject of an appropriate vision, and he would now stand outside the window of T'sin Wong's own chamber in the confident expectation of some further message."
"That can be very easily arranged," agreeably replied Chin- tung, "if you will but submit yourselves to the extreme indignity of following footsteps so commonplace as those which must now precede you."
"It would cover us with honourable confusion even to be seen with one who recites the Verses with so far-reaching an intonation," suitably replied Hwa-che. "Nor is it likely," she added, "that footsteps of such insignificance as those of the one beside you could make any impression whatever on your own clear- cut outlines."
Whereupon Chin-tung, who had paid no definite attention to the voice or lower extremities of any maiden hitherto, could not fail to notice that the tones of the one who thus addressed him were infinitely more melodious, and the footprints smaller and more like a graceful lily than those of ordinary persons with whom he was in the habit of consorting.
Passing the moments profitably with conversation of this improving nature, Chin-tung led them to a neglected and weed- grown area of the garden, from time to time stretching forth a guiding hand to help one whom he regarded as a weak and immature member of his own sort, nor did either mark appreciably when Kwan Yen lagged at the obstructions.
"WE have now reached that towards which we set out," remarked Chin-tung, when he had brought them to a sequestered part where an austere wall barred farther progress. "Behind that shuttered opening His High Excellence is doubtless at this moment marshalling before his scrupulous mind the intricate points of justice which at his latest public court he openly declared he would reserve for mature digestion. It would be well, therefore, to restrain our discordant voices within their narrowest limits."
"Assuredly," replied Hwa-che, to whom the ceremonial turn of this loyal sentiment was for some reason not wholly pleasing. "Yet so evenly maintained in volume would appear to be the two sides of each of His High Excellence's deep considerations, that it is questionable if an armed conflict would break through his humane detachment. As this far-sighted philosopher reasonably observes, however, it is not with the presence of His Excellence that we are now concerned, but with the absence of his pig- tail."
"His prescient remark failed to reach these humdrum ears," apologized Chin-tung, not desirous of seeming inattentive.
"That is because we communicate without the need of words, on a plane of mutual understanding," obligingly explained Hwa-che. "It is in such a way that he has now indicated a desire to follow to their source this double line of sandal-prints, leading from the outer garden wall to the Mandarin's shuttered window, and thence back in like progression. Therein, superfluous to explain, resides the answer to the mysterious happening of the First of Much Gladness."
"Yet," questioned Chin-tung, whose training had not extended beyond the Classics, "why should not the sandal-prints have proceeded from the shuttered window to the wall and thence back in strict reversal, whereby the outcome assumes an inverted sequence?"
"To one versed in the deeper culture of the sleuthhounds of the West that is transparent," replied Hwa-che, indicating the various Signs as she described them. "He who sets out to achieve a crime steps lightly on his toes in caution, but the purpose once fulfilled, his only thought is towards swift retreat. Thus and thus. The one who came with stealth returned in extended order."
"What is there to show, however, that the object of this intrusion may not have been based on some variable ambition," persisted the scrupulous Chin-tung, "and how, in any case, do these footprints lead to a definite disclosure?"
"It is aptly said, 'Before adventuring into a neighbour's house it is well to decide within yourself what to explain should he meet you coming out again,' and the analogy is not ill- fitting," replied Hwa-che with a suitable display of picturesque reluctance. "If the one who came stealthily to this neglected spot by night and stood beneath the window did not come for the only thing that has since been missing, how is his action to be accounted for? and thereby the whole fabric of deductive argument is menaced."
"The inference is self-evident," confessed Chin-tung. "Proceed to unroll your ingeniously arranged suggestions."
"Nevertheless," affirmed Kwan Yen, though he prudently turned aside under the pretence of spitting, "the cravings of an insatiable thirst——"
"Furthermore," continued Hwa-che, tracing the indications of the prints by means of a polished crystal possessing secret powers of discovering the hidden, "when we expose that he who came on level feet departed with one side demonstrably heavier than the other—or why should his right foot henceforth impress a deeper matrix than the left one?—even the unsightly bat could not fail to recognize that his right sleeve was now surcharged with an added burden."
"It fits like the indentations of a pigeon's tail," confessed Chin-tung, regarding Hwa-che with an enhanced admiration, and despite Kwan Yen's threadbare protest that a misbegotten thorn caused him to limp beyond endurance, he was urged on, to lead them forward in the confident belief that the footprints would bring them to the lair of the despoiler.
IT was not until they had reached the farthest limit of the ground, where a high wall raised an insuperable barrier, that Chin-tung's assurance faltered.
"Suffer no undue depression," was Hwa-che's ready exhortation, "for remember that 'Although we cannot see the roots the tree is growing meanwhile.' Even in the most remote Barbarian parts stockades of hewn wood must create like obstacles, but the Out- land trackers-down of crime never waver; and doubtless this inspired patriarch will lead us to where the scent again presents a foothold."
"That is not to be disputed," agreed Chin-tung, "and by the expedient of mounting each upon another's shoulders we might—unless the lower tier should prove unworthy—vanquish this obstruction. But could another, coming alone, be equally resourceful, and how, having once got here, would he, in the darkness of the night and pursued by guilty terrors, succeed in getting back again?"
"The allusion to the organ of smell was wanting in refinement," maintained Kwan Yen, thus recalled to a sense of his affliction. "May those who rear ladders against heights fall off into an unguarded vat of simmering naphtha, where, to the delight of all beholders——"
"Our trust is well repaid!" declared Hwa-che, exulting; partly to drown Kwan Yen's ill-advised voice, but no less on account of the suggestion. "This inscrutable far-seer, under the cloak of an obscure allusion, indicates not only the means whereby the plunderer secured an easy passage, but is also inspired to predict his unlamented ending. By means of a supple ladder he both came and went with freedom," and she pointed to certain indications of the disturbed earth, which established, she said, that the transgressor had acted thus and thus in detail.
"In that case," declared Chin-tung, coming to an abrupt pause in his progress, "we are, as the saying is, 'pushed off the footpath into the roadway.' Over this forbidding wall lies the stronghold of truculent Pung Chu, the military ruler of the Province. Between this bristling tiger and our humane T'sin Wong there is not enough tea spilled to fill a hollow back tooth, so that nothing is more remote than that Pung Chu will throw open his spiked gate to enable us to search within for the offender."
"Suffer no qualms on that score," replied Hwa-che with the prepossessing confidence that had become her usual habit since she had devoted her virtuous energies to pursuing crime in the Barbarian manner. "What you have just said inserts a final link in the chain of deductive sequence. Pung Chu is himself the guilty doer."
"Pung Chu, chief War Lord of Kwei-chang, who can assemble—at least, if given due notice—anything between ten score and ten thousand trained umbrellas!" Chin-tung dropped his sympathetic voice to a well-guarded whisper as he took Hwa-che's unyielding sleeve and endeavoured to persuade her. "Let us, O ingenuous young man, bend our timely feet towards the region of the stock-yard, where doubtless a refreshing cup of warm goat's milk will soon restore——"
"The bending of our feet will be in the direction of the spoiler's gate, nor shall we stand there framing a submissive message," declared Hwa-che, rearranging the red feather at her ear in a truly aggressive manner. "Oh, that this person possessed an embroidered robing-gown to sustain her for the trial, or could even acquire the art of blowing clouds of smoke from burning weeds without derangement of the lower organs!" Though all who are by now familiar with the one in question's stalwart poise will scarcely need the message that this latter part was in the nature of a silent invocation to the Powers.
"But consider well," urged the circumspect inscriber of the word, "how distressing it would be to the revered Shades of your illustrious ancestors if at your first meeting you should be under the painful humiliation of conversing with them by means of thumb-and-finger signs because your head had been removed and bestowed elsewhere. It would be one thing to have surprised Pung Chu effecting an ungraceful action; but what menace to his repute lies in the mere indication that an unseen one has scaled his outer wall and thereafter hastily returned with similar evasion?"
"Inasmuch, meritorious Chin-tung, that the one unseen is by no means unknown, and therein lies the fulcrum of our efficacious lever. Needless to describe, at the outset of his career as a discloser of hidden crime he who now admits his trivial gifts made a close study of the eighty-seven distinctive kinds of sandals in use throughout the Empire. Owing to the peculiar formation of their feet, acquired by years of strenuous trampling on outside suggestions, only one form of sandal may be comfortably worn by the highest war officials—and its impress lies before you.
"Nevertheless," she added, with a reluctant glance of high- minded regret as she turned to her hazardous mission, "it is truly written, 'A child may attach a buffalo to a cart, but ten resolute men cannot compel him to draw it,' and no good reason can be advanced why you, who are neither so ill-used as to be desperate nor so fortunate as to have become disdainful, should share our common danger."
"It is no less wisely stated, 'The foolhardy seldom reach a virtuous old age,' and more or less of the description has frequently been lavished upon the one beside you," replied Chin- tung, taking his place at her shoulder with scarcely less resolution. "The atmosphere of Pung Chu's reception will doubtless prove funereal, but there is something about your manner of behaving, Hwa-che, that does not make the thought of remaining behind attractive."
"Thus and thus," lamented Kwan Yen, as he also moved his laborious feet—though not specifically called upon to contribute to the venture. "There would be as little use in drawing Hwa-che's capricious mind to this person's sandals—which were charitably bestowed upon him, in a manner of speaking, second-hand, by a sympathetic military chieftain of a neighbouring Province—as there would be in requesting the Hoang Ho not to overflow its banks in the Season of Great Deluge. All this admittedly moves towards a destined end, but whether that end will take the form of shortening us both at one extremity or the other, or the distinguished close of this badly arranged span of ignoble tribulation, seems to be wavering in the balance."
Confronted with his guilt, the War Lord of Kwei-chang makes a dutiful submission and discovers to Hwa-che how he has been drawn into the involvement.
IT was of Pung Chu that the saying has arisen, "It is easier to ride two mules astride than for a loyal general to profit in the long run by sedition."
But at this period of his office Pung Chu was receiving his monthly adequacy of taels with sufficient regularity not to countenance disaffection, and those who came to him with tempting offers of advancement by a change of banner, while invariably given a courteous hearing, could win nothing more definite from his lips than ambiguous quotations which left them with the feeling that, while the one in question was compassionate towards their cause, it would be necessary to bring a reasonably large sum actually in advance before he could be wholly persuaded of its justice.
IN spite of his high military fame—for he had twice compelled illiterate mountain tribes, against whom he had been sent to inculcate refinement, to allow him to withdraw whenever he felt the inclination, nor had he lost a single person of any consequence in either movement—Pung Chu was not really contented.
The weight upon his centre of digestion was twofold. If the incredibly obtuse and martially decayed Board of Warlike Doings which controlled him from the Capital lay the heavier, the position of the insufferably self-opinionated T'sin Wong, judicial ruler of the city, possessed the sharper edges. Certainly the inspired Teh-li, composer of the symbol-laden "Ode to Home-purifying during Spring," had Pung Chu's case in mind when he wrote, "An ill-directed hammer on the thumb-nail is harder to be endured with dignity than the thought of an operation."
Owing to the effete and worm-gnawed system then in force—the misshapen Code framed by an unscrupulous Literary Dictator of a prehistoric era—while he and T'sin Wong ranked equal in degree, it was with the benumbing sub-clause that he—Pung Chu—ranked "equal but appreciably lower." Only during an actual state of war could he claim the privilege of being "equal and practically on a level," and even in that, as both well knew, there lay a veiled recoil, for, if too hard pressed, T'sin Wong might on some specious pretext read the Harmony Enactment in the public way, order the city gates to be permanently open and declare, as a measure of provincial urgency, that a condition of peace existed. Truly the shadow lying across Pung Chu's marble door-step showed no indication of having a less sombre outline.
THERE was another and even more acutely barbed reason for despair corroding Pung Chu's outlook, and it was during a period of weighing the merits of the latest offer from the opposing camp that a submissive slave entered in a downcast manner. Three, apparelled thus and thus, had taken up their stand before the porter's gate, was the burden of his message, and, refusing to disclose their errand, had resisted every effort to displace them.
"It is well that the repose of a more than usually important War Lord should be disturbed at the bidding of three nameless outcasts," exclaimed Pung Chu, looking round for some heavy but not necessarily expensive object with which to underline his actual displeasure. "It was not thus in the days before the coming of the Competitive Examinations. Is there no oil, lard, liquid fat, pitch, sulphur, resin, lead or even salutary boiling water in this ill-equipped stronghold, or has the prolific earth ceased to yield scorpions, red ants, centipedes, vipers, resentful wasps and other similar creatures which a benevolent natural system provides to enable the authoritative to maintain a compliant routine? Are those whom you describe Beings of the air devoid of teeth, nails, hair, outward skin, inner parts or vulnerable extremities? Let it be seen to, and alertly."
"Mightiness," replied the delinquent slave, prostrating himself—as Pung Chu again looked round—even lower, "your gratifying insight is unfailing. One of the three, however, is a philosophical devout who has advanced the length and whiteness of his venerable moustache in evidence of a blameless purpose; the second wears the badge and authority of the puissant Mandarin T'sin Wong, and has, moreover, an unworthy ruse of compressing an adversary's throat when threatened with compulsion; while the third, a supple youth of an agreeable cast, entrusted to this one's care a written charm, which, he said, was capable of effecting wonders."
At the mention of his formidable rival's name Pung Chu ceased to blow out his cheeks, and when he had opened and recognized the message, his normal colour—which customarily was that of a somewhat over-ripe loquat—had changed to one of an immature greengage, for traced upon the scrap of silk was the clear representation of a severed pig-tail, above it the words, "All is known," and beneath it a written sign indicating "Missing."
"Is it not unendurable that one of the busiest and most hardly pressed War Officials of the Empire should be so badly served that when important functionaries of State arrive they are kept loitering on the door-step?" he exclaimed morosely. "Show the distinguished arrivals in, with profuse expressions of suitable contempt towards everything beneath the roof of our meagre dwelling. . . . Thou concave-eyed and mentally bed-ridden offspring of a bald-seated she-dog!"
"It shall be cheerfully performed, O chief, and with an ingratiating fullness," replied the slave, withdrawing. "From the lowest to the most high, in amplified progression."
"Much hinges on a prepossessing forefront," was Pung Chu's inward thought as he reassembled his surroundings. This, in general, took the form of substituting for the gifts of snuff and wine which he pressed on the usual class of rebels who approached him others of a more stimulating nature. He also sought to rearrange his face to a more pacific bend before a reflecting disc of polished copper, and he was stooping to burn a stick of incense beneath the Domestic Tablets—not only to indicate a devout and reverent nature, but also so that he should neither suffer the indignity of having to rise and bow nor create the impression of arrogance by remaining seated—when the compliant slave returned with the three who sought his presence.
"IT has been aptly noted," remarked Pung Chu, the ceremonious greetings having been effected, "that in a piece of gold, a piece of bamboo and a piece of one's mind lie all the forms of satisfaction that it is possible to receive or offer. This imperceptibly lends itself, as it were, to a topic leading up to an amiable exchange of views on the subject of mutual accommodation, but as it has been wisely observed, a high-minded discussion with three penetrating and resourceful voices on the one side and a single infirm and slow-witted upholder on the other, can only be likened, however agilely pursued, to a lame ox attempting to browse on the slope of a precipitous mountain. If, however, this companionable and well-informed young man would so far overcome a natural and inevitable repugnance as to recline on the grotesquely designed couch by my misshapen side, while the other two discriminating experts become amused at the lamentable specimens of contemporary art defacing the crumbling walls of this bankrupt hovel, the essential equipoise will be more nearly balanced."
"Say on," replied Hwa-che, indicating by a sign to her supporters that the enterprise was one by no means beyond her sinew. "These ears are all-expectant."
"IN view of what you already know it would be idle to maintain a pretentious frontage," began Pung Chu, indicating the message Hwa-che had written, at the same time urging that one to partake of snuff and wine with more than usual freedom, "and the cards which it is now my purpose to discover from an inner sleeve shall be wholly free of secret indications."
"It is doubly the time to curb your tongue when he with whom you strive affects a virtue of unbridling his," was Hwa-che's reflection, and she made an affectation of freely inhaling snuff, which, however, she conveyed unseen into Pung Chu's wine-cup.
"In order to grasp the situation competently it is necessary to realize who the one before you really is," continued Pung Chu, disposing of his well-spiced wine by a single effort and thereafter becoming increasingly impressive. "In spite of a slight technical irregularity in the Code, he is immeasurably the most important person in Kochow, and therefrom, by direct ascension, in the Combined Kingdom. It would be offensive to inform a person of your obvious literary attainments—though there can be no harm in reminding my own ill-educated self about it—that Kochow is the keystone of the Province, and Kwei- chang the leading Province of the Empire."
"There is an adage in less favoured parts, 'What Kwei-chang says to-day, everywhere else thinks better of tomorrow,'" confirmed Hwa-che, lifting her sleeve in order to create the illusion that she was again consuming snuff but to a like outcome as before.
"Thus and thus," agreed Pung Chu, again draining his cup and heaving pleasurably, "it is what is rightly termed a very commonplace. Automatically, therefore, and distinct from any special effort of his own, it inexorably follows that as our refined and flower-strewn land is the centre of the habitable world, and that world the axis of all the Spaces, the one before you is actually the leading individuality outside the Upper Air, and it is debatable if his proper place is not really among the inferior Deities—but do not become embarrassed. He merely mentions this, so to speak, in passing; for such considerations to a rough-cast warrior are like five beans offered to a hungry beggar."
"Nevertheless, the privilege of reclining, by analogy, on the same cloud with a celestial Being is really too excessive," protested Hwa-che, and she moved somewhat more apart as Pung Chu again readjusted his position.
"Even greater distinctions may be hoped for," engaged Pung Chu obscurely, "and this gracefully leads up to the inward constituents of this involvement."
With these auspicious words the one in question poured into his cup a further superfluity of wine, and having stirred its depths with an ingratiatory finger so that the solider elements should not elude his discerning palate, he expressed approval of its flavour by opening and closing his lips repeatedly, afterwards rearranging his impressive outline in preparation for the approaching encounter.
"CONSIDER well what will inevitably result should you press matters to a decisive issue," resumed Pung Chu, when he had satisfied himself that no further accumulation of cushions would contribute to his comfort. "Remember also, 'Among conscientious friends there are always as many slices of meat as there are rice bowls.'"
"In certain directions my instruction has been admittedly remiss," confessed Hwa-che, not unwilling to remind Pung Chu of the penalty of his misconduct. "What precise form of expiation would be deemed suitable for an official of your button?"
"The subject is not one that a really delicate-minded companion would positively embroider," replied Pung Chu in a voice obviously corroded, "but it is no new thing that, 'He who is reduced from stewed shark-steak to herring must put up with an occasional bone across the windpipe.' Fortunately, the Board of Warlike Doings would be the last to desire the true facts to become broadcast: a general arraignment alleging 'Conduct in a Public Official Calculated to Excite Comment by its Lack of Ordinariness' may be looked for."
"And the outcome of this transgression?"
"That to a great extent must depend on the number of other officials who can thrust themselves into the transaction," confessed Pung Chu frankly. "A variable weight of taels must inevitably drift East, and a humiliating loss of face be likewise accepted. This leads up, as one might say, to what is now taking place among us. . . . If a really substantial bag of silver were to glide into your awaiting sleeve . . ." and Pung Chu paused, under the pretence of dislodging a persistent insect, but actually to judge from the intonation of the other's voice whether it would be advisable to enlarge this offer.
"It has been said that there is only one thing more unprofitable than spending the hours looking for money which may perchance be lying in the wayside: and that is to neglect securing it when it is thus encountered," replied Hwa-che discreetly. "There is something beyond mere dross, however——"
"Assuredly," interposed Pung Chu, deeming it prudent not to seem ungenerous, "the detail was trembling on the tips of ten open-handed fingers. If this one were to affect a submissive bend and allow you to inflict three reasonably delivered bamboo strokes upon that part of the outline designed to receive correction, would not all the elements of retributive justice be accomplished?"
"The suggestion is obtuse and in more than doubtful taste," replied Hwa-che, shaken in her fictitious poise when brought face to face with so impracticable a suggestion. "Nothing in the direction indicated was even dimly foreshadowed."
"It is a little difficult to anticipate what more could be reasonably expected," demurred Pung Chu, assuming that the progress of negotiation was now satisfactorily established. "However, on the understanding that the force employed will be purely nominal in vigour, this one will not maintain an unbending front should five strokes be claimed, if thereby harmony might be firmly cemented."
"Alas," exclaimed Hwa-che, finding it too much at this emergency to rearrange her thoughts so as to express the various requirements of her mind by a single idiom, "how is it possible to convince a more than ordinarily gross-hearted and dense-headed person——"
"Yet the lucrative bias of our mutual interest would not confuse an earth-worm," pleaded Pung Chu, never doubting but that Hwa-che's impolite definition was in the nature of a courteous disparagement of her own threadbare attainments. "For if the matter should be carried to the length of a public exposure whereby do you profit? The one who is pointing this out entirely for your own good would be more heavily pressed doubtless, but nothing that he yields will come in your direction. Instead of five negligible taps it is not to be ignored that some offensively vigorous hireling will be called upon to administer a lusty fifty; but what is the satisfaction of being an obscure member of a nameless crowd of onlookers compared with the invigorating felicity of yourself inflicting even a tenth of that correction? Indeed, for an ambitious young man of obscure rank, I can conceive no more fortunate start in life than the distinction conferred by such an occasion."
"As to that," replied Hwa-che, "what you conceive and what this person may are not necessarily concurrent. Therefore, inasmuch as all is known, further strategy is useless. Details of punishment and extraneous rewards are but a cloud to obscure a decisive issue. Restore what has been snatched away and you will not find Authority remorseless."
"Recover what is lost!" exclaimed Pung Chu, changing to yet another shade. "This is indeed what is known as adding derision to physical maltreatment! Enable the one before you to accomplish that, and the most ornamental of his concubines—to say nothing of a couple of trusty eunuchs—will be cheerfully thrown into the balance."
"To what stage, then, has the involvement now progressed?" hastily demanded Hwa-che, forgetting, in her praiseworthy confusion at being thus abruptly saddled with those of a sort for whom she could have no possible employment, her claim to be all- knowing. "Disclose into whose hand you have entrusted this honourable pig-tail?"
"Pig-tail?" repeated Pung Chu, assuring himself by a laborious effort that he still possessed that dignified appendage. "Why should our agreeable talk assume an irrational bend when we were all but reaching an appropriate understanding? Certainly these deformed and weed-grown ears must be ceasing to perform their natural function; or why should there now appear this inserted claim to so extraneous an object as a missing pig-tail?"
IT was not until some time later that Hwa-che and Pung Chu, by comparing what each other had in mind, succeeded at length in grasping how the involvement had arisen. With unexpected delicacy in the case of one so gross, the latter person resolutely held that all the fault should be apportioned to his share, explaining:
"This is but another instance of the wisdom of the saying, 'If you dread snake-bites, treading on a thistle is sufficient to induce the symptoms of corruption.' What you so gracefully and with such undulating skill depicted as a pig-tail, these thick- skinned and obliquely convergent eyes assumed to be an umbrella spring," and he indicated the message that had occasioned his misgivings.
"Yet what is the nature of the device in question, and why should the mere reference to its disappearance imply so deep a menace?" demanded Hwa-che, inwardly concerned as to what Barbarian method of discovering crime would here prove the most potent, though she still maintained no doubt of her ultimate ability to pursue the enterprise to an accomplished finish. "Continue to unfold your enlightening tongue more fully."
"Since you already know so much there is little to be gained by a refusal that would be both impolite and misleading," acquiesced Pung Chu, his rigidly trained mind not capable of grasping that Hwa-che's admitted knowledge only applied to circumstances as they no longer existed. "Thus and thus is the situation."
"THE condition of modern warfare," resumed Pung Chu, withdrawing the snuff and wine from Hwa-che's reach now that she no longer seemed to imply a peril, "has been aptly likened to a stubbornly contested game of cards, in which each side strives to secure the advantage by abruptly producing from a hidden source some element of surprise. The device of wearing sandals five spans deep, whereby to counterpart a race of giants, of tying written curses to the shafts of arrows, instead of merely shouting them, and so getting in the first round of imprecations from a distance, of painting the body to represent fierce creatures of the wild, and uttering appropriate cries—all these have been great military advances in their time, and each has served its turn until the Barbarian and Out-land races in due course acquired the guile to do likewise. With so much at stake no pains are deemed too great to pierce the secrets of each other's Board of Warlike Doings, and it would doubtless astonish a person of your confiding nature, Hwa-che, to learn that the ingratiating stranger who offers to the sentinel on guard a pipe of opium, and obligingly agrees to take his place so that the other may recline at ease and smoke it, is in reality the secret emissary of a Barbarian Power, misleadingly attired in a civilized style in order to distract attention."
"You unsettle this one's ability to breathe at ease," dutifully allowed Hwa-che, recognizing that such an admission was expected of her.
"Nevertheless the facts exist, and it behoves a wary general to have as many eyes as he has minions if he would preserve his counsel. Especially when secret devices of confidential import and more than usual weight are submitted to his judgment."
"This concerns the mysterious umbrella spring, of which it is well to know," surmised Hwa-che, and she resourcefully displaced a tripod stand as Pung Chu was threatening to become lethargic in his bearing.
"In order to grasp adequately the vital moment of the discovery from a military angle it is necessary to consider what inevitably happens," continued Pung Chu, seeing that something more was required of him. "For countless ages the most tenacious general in the service had been obliged to kow-tow acquiescently to the relentless forces of nature, and when it rained—or in the case of the more prudent commanders, when it threatened to—nothing remained but to go home and burn incense to the Deity of War invoking a more settled to-morrow. Not without cause was the recorded boast of a usurping prince when urged to submit after his last stronghold had been captured by our victorious army. 'Slowly; walk slowly,' was his astute reply. 'Two stalwart defenders are yet ranged on our side—Chief-General Splash- ho and the Second-in-Command, Ah-drizzle.'"
"That may have been so in those remote and archaic times," demurred Hwa-che, "but in our own enlightened days no cautious leader takes the field without an adequate supply of well-oiled umbrellas."
"Thus and thus," agreed Pung Chu. "The umbrella was the reply to Nature by our resourceful and alert Council of Martial Contrivance. But—speaking as a tactician of the most recent brand—as a mobile arm the umbrella still has many drawbacks. To get it unfurled and securely wedged in what is technically known as 'at the open' requires the full attention of two nimble-witted hands, and not infrequently the courteous assistance of several more. At this distressing moment, when all other details have been necessarily laid aside, rude and unscrupulous Barbarian hordes, to whom the rules of a politely waged battle are as obscure as the pages of the Classics, have been known to advance in aggressive order, with lamentable results."
"Yet if by some undiscovered means a device should be forthcoming——?" suggested Hwa-che, with an intuition of what might be impending.
"There you have penetrated the meat-bone to the marrow, and by a single phrase inverted modern warfare!" exclaimed Pung Chu with visible emotion. "Such a device has been unfathomed—a superior umbrella as it may well be called, which, by the compression of a secret spring, can be flung open at a moment's notice and will, moreover, remain in that position. Depict to your own mind the paralysing effect of such a move upon an alien host—when the advancing line of the now Ever-Ready, instead of being at the mercy of a threatened shower, throws up a thousand umbrellas by the effort of one hand alone, and still continues to press on, menacing them with the other!"
"You speak of this machine in a tone of sombre yearning. Does it, then, in practice, fail at the call of action?"
"On the contrary it is, if anything, somewhat too prone to lend itself to what in our new-struck phrase have been aptly termed 'shock-tactics,'" was Pung Chu's dark admission. "This one's despair, indeed, was the reflection of quite another facet. Entrusted with the secret plans, in a message of the most confidential import, he left them for a few strokes of time securely masked behind the lining of his best official hat, only to find, alas! on waking from a really refreshing sleep, that some incredibly profane dastard had stooped to the crime of laying a polluting hand on State belongings. Unless the protective Spirits of a more than usually venerated line of ancestors—who have doubtless watched the whole proceeding—disclose a means for recovering the docket before it is too late, an ignominious loss of face impends and, what is more" (here Pung Chu raised his persuasive voice, doubtless so that the Beings concerned should have no excuse for ignoring the issue), "the inevitable shrinking of this one's ability to transmit for their enjoyment in the Upper Air the considerable store of seasonable delicacies that he was definitely procuring. If, however, they have so badly managed their confiding descendant's material affairs as to allow the secret already to pass into the hands of the hirelings of Another Power, there will very shortly be the opportunity for a personal explanation."
To those who have followed the dutiful submission of Hwa-che's reverent mind it would be inept to repeat that this devout attitude won her approbation. Nevertheless she added:
"There are moments, however, when the leisurely and quiescent outlook prevailing in our unique and richly-fruited Empire seems at variance with these strenuous Barbarian methods of crime- detecting. When in addition to the meritorious pig-tail of a city Mandarin, confidential parchments of the weightiest kind disappear from the official hat of a provincial War Lord, it can scarcely be going too far to infer that the Concealed Claw has, in the melodious Out-land tongue 'become active.' This calls for counter-sleuthing of the most intensive order."
"Since you are thus employed there can be no harm in asking you to lend a benevolent ear to this one's dire misfortune," urged Pung Chu, meanwhile expressing a passionate regret that Hwa-che should speak of now withdrawing. "After all, a detached umbrella spring bears a certain resemblance to a severed pig- tail, and while you are pursuing the one you need not necessarily shut out all consideration of the other."
"Nothing would be more agreeable if it might be reasonably effected," replied Hwa-che humanely. Then recalling the essentials of her craft, she inquired, "Do your opportune suspicions extend in any particular direction?"
"'To regard all men as corrupt is wise, but to attempt to discriminate among their various degrees of iniquity is both foolish and discourteous,'" was Pung Chu's answer. "What more can be added?"
"It is well spoken," agreed Hwa-che. "The inspired wisdom of our remote ancestors leaves very little to be said worth recording. This reflection suitably recalls the venerable Kwan Yen, who together with Chin-tung may now be seen returning, to bring our attractive and congenial visit to a gratifying finish."
The egregious Li again comes to the forefront of affairs, though with an admittedly ambiguous bearing, and Hwa- che discusses with Chin-tung the trend of this arisement.
AS they again passed beneath the arch of Pung Chu's outer barrier Chin-tung and Kwan Yen betrayed a tendency to breathe more freely, but Hwa-che never varied in her assured composure.
"This involvement, O estimable Chin-tung, grows doubly attractive as its intricacies become more solid," she declared agreeably to the former person—the philosopher having at the moment tarried to admire the displayed list hung at the door of a lavishly provided rice-house. "Doubtless you experience a similar emotion?"
"Yet," replied Chin-tung, at the same time not withholding a look of general approval, "the indications that we traced having led us back to the point from which we started, the deduction to be drawn is necessarily of an inconclusive nature."
"It could scarcely have been more felicitously stated," assented Hwa-che, glancing at a reflecting surface as they passed a barber's stall, in order to reassure herself of the befitting line of her alien habit. "Your illuminating remark, Chin-tung, has the penetrating lustre of the sun at midday."
Favourably impressed by the insight of the one beside him, but unfamiliar with the exact process of her accomplished system, Chin-tung would have questioned Hwa-che more fully, but she put this aside with graceful unconcern, chiefly by drawing his attention to the specially becoming sorts of robes exhibited in a profusion which she seemed to find enticing.
"Do not despond at what might appear to be a lack of immediate outcome," was her steadfast warning, "for is it not sagely written, 'Though Truth may be buried underneath seven mountains, yet it will sooner or later be discovered when drawing water in a bucket'? If there is one thing more assured than another in this Barbarian method of crime-detecting, as revealed in the pages of their Classics, it is that something opportune will inevitably emerge when it is essential to the righteous cause that it should do so."
HER virtuous expectation was not ill-grounded. As they passed a waste spot that had been shunned both by the diggers of tombs and the erectors of houses in that it lay on the direct track of any arriving demons, two men contended there about the virtues of a camel and the price that scrupulousness required to be offered and accepted for its purchase, the owner pointing out the many imperfections that he knew it to possess, while the other sought to convince him of its merits. It had been one of the simple entertainments of Hwa-che's milk-name days to ride along a measured stretch of sand on the capacious back of a docile buffalo, but camels were hitherto outside her knowledge, and she now drew near to regard its novel details.
"Were it possible to admit your graceful assumption of the creature's worth, our variance would be of short duration," the one who led it by a cord was saying. "It is, however, a beast of many and flagrant ills, and it is but right that you should know of the disappointment that must await you. 'River of Ease' is this steed aptly named, for so powerful is its stride that you are put to the shame of leaving behind all others on the road as though, forsooth, you might be a malefactor fleeing from justice, and so smooth its action that he who rides is insidiously lulled to a precarious sleep, and more than one has thereby had his neck imperilled. It is, in sooth, a dangerous thing by reason of the firm hold that it takes upon whoever tends it, so that parting becomes an aching wrench, and three score taels and ten are the utmost that I can be prevailed upon to offend my sense of fitness by accepting."
"If its speed is embarrassingly great, the noble effort of its labouring wind plainly indicates that the ignominy will be a brief infliction," capably replied the other, who meanwhile walked round the camel and at intervals probed its frame at unexpected parts, in addition to other singular devices. "As regards the hazard of being enticed into a neglectful sleep, this spreading crack below the hither pastern—where an assuasive screen of fresh, moist clay has been so deftly blended—must soon produce a stumbling gait that would make any form of travelling at ease a negligible danger. The businesslike protrusion of its well-developed fangs and the flickering light of resolution in its one remaining eye plainly indicate, as you so humanely caution, an ever-present zeal to attach itself to all who come within the reach of its impressive caresses, but a special kind of iron gag is known to check this effusion. Taking one thing with another, nothing would induce this equitable person to accept so hereditary an animal at less than the price of thirty-two taels in weight and fifty or a hundred currencies of copper."
IN this dignified and courteous strain the bargain was proceeding, and the heat of the day not being yet great, while the disparity between them was still some score and eighteen taels, it would doubtless have worn on through many gong-strokes to an honourable adjustment had not the camel seen fit to mar their accord by an unworthy display of rancour; for, provoked at an insidious thrust in one of the buyer's implications, it abruptly seized the most convenient portion of his form and bit it. This chancing to be the impressive moustache he wore, and it—as was now disclosed—of a fictitious growth, the moustache came off between the camel's teeth; whereupon he ate it.
At this a new source of contention arose between the two, the one claiming that the moustache was a thing of some account upon which he placed a value; the other no less forcibly retorting. It was, he maintained, an established fact, well known to the judicious, that a single hair would twine itself about a camel's heart and cause it to Mount Upwards. What, then, was to be expected when a whole moustache of the most aggressive kind had been held enticingly before its eyes and passed into its being?
"If such is indeed the matter, as it stands the camel is but meat, and savourless at that," replied the first, and he reduced his offer; whereat the other took an affectionate farewell of one who had shared his hardships, invoked the Avenging Shades of an unbroken Line of intrepid cameleers, and spoke passionately of Justice.
AS their talk fell into a less polished groove, with strange words interspersed and the metaphors becoming more rural, Hwa-che discovered some object of an attractive sort positioned at a distance, but as she would have hastened on in order to observe it, Chin-tung, who had meanwhile been closely noticing the scene from behind a screening bush, stepped out and declared himself to the one who had sought to make the purchase.
"There are three hundred and seventy-two competent renderings of a single verse of one of the more cryptic Odes," he said, "and it has been aptly claimed that even the appearance of a giraffe must be capable of some rational explanation. Yet how comes it, thou prevaricatory Li, that he who should at this hour be removing extraneous dust from His High Excellence's going-about sandals, is revealed in the act of trafficking for a palpably unsound animal of burden, and why, to enhance the lapse, should he be changed by art to bear some uncouth likeness to the least attractive type of mountain brigand?"
At this Hwa-che stayed to listen.
"Recorder of the spoken word," replied the two-faced Li, "it would be idle to disclaim my own plain-spoken features, and therein lies the key to this involvement. Arrayed by nature with so sincere and credulous a face as mine, it is impossible to contend with any prospect of success against the overbearing guile of even the least experienced among camel dealers. To assume an air of borrowed truculence engenders confidence and begets mutual respect. Furthermore, it is admittedly as well not to be recognized in the avoidance of my customary labour."
"There is a certain amount of reason in what you say, though by a plain default of duty you have inevitably laid yourself open to severe correction," declared Chin-tung. "But to what end should one of your obscure state be trafficking for a resentful- minded camel at all, or by what means do you hope to gain any satisfaction from so stiff-necked and ravenous a chattel?"
"Protector of the weak," was Li's pliant reply, "it is almost incredible that a person of your high rank and literary taste should linger in conversation with a menial of my degraded habits, and this unexpected condescension draws the hidden truth up to these lips like water from the brink of a spontaneous fountain. In a village at no great distance from this spot dwells an infirm and venerable sire; it is as a provision for his declining years, and to win a more than formal blessing, that this person's entire store of savings was to be lavished on this venture."
"It is impossible not to regard so dutiful an act with a sympathetic leaning," confessed Chin-tung; "nor is it beyond the bounds of likelihood that your name should be handed down to all time side by side with that of Chang Yu, who lay naked on a frozen lake throughout the night in order to melt a space where he might net carp to tempt an ailing father's stomach."
"To a thoroughly filial-minded son no sacrifice can seem too harsh," replied Li, with ingratiating ardour.
"The observation is worthy of being set to music, and letters of pure gold could not enlarge its merit," agreed Chin-tung urbanely. "In the case of a parent who has been described as both decrepit and grey-haired, however, might not the occupation of leading to and fro a creature so notably vagarious as a camel prove an over-strenuous calling?"
"Before one who sees the inner working of the heart it would be profitless to raise a gauze screen of plausible evasion," was the outspoken reply, as the effusive Li became even more straightforward in his bearing. "Let it be freely said, therefore, that no such vigorous pursuit was intended. Attached to the scanty hut which forms that cherished parent's frugal dwelling there is a small but productive field, and in it a well- thatched hovel. Here the camel would be restrained with sympathetic care, and there from time to time, with appropriate intervals, it would become the engenderer of a sturdy line of camelets—not only a source of welcome profit in themselves, but a continual reminder of that absent one whose thoughtful bounty is thus renewed each season."
"The picture is an alluring one, being permeated with the fading light of a meritorious day, the plaintive call of cranes in homeward flight, and the all-pervading scent of honey-flowers, so that the obligation of dropping upon this idyllic scene the disintegrating slab of building material is a distressing task," declared Chin-tung compactly. "Owing to a circumscription, which in the presence of this chaste-minded youth it is unnecessary to particularize more closely, there is no possibility, however, of the convergent-kneed beast before us ever taking part in the continuance of its race, either from the standpoint of an active or a passive function. Return to a neglected bench, thou ten- thumbed porcelain-shatterer, and learn therefrom the need to prepare a more congruous excuse in future."
"It shall be done henceforth, O righter of all wrongs," engaged the fulsome Li, "for to obey your lightest word is more pleasurable than the thought of young pigs' meat, eaten from a trencher. Nevertheless, it invariably occurs that even if a conscientious person should prepare fourteen different tales to meet the call of a like number of requirements, a fifteenth will infallibly appear, for which he has no answer."
"It might be well for the soles of one who need not be indicated if a sixteenth should be ready, against the time when His High Excellence shall require it," was Chin-tung's austere parting.
"THERE is much in this that has an inner drift," declared Hwa-che as they again resumed their way, but by a more circuitous path, so that, although it was not specifically arranged between them, they failed to profit by the crystal stream of Kwan Yen's philosophical discursions. "To the unaccountable loss of His High Excellence's inoffensive pig-tail, and the defiant rifling of a notorious War Lord's personal archives, there must now be added the remarkable circumstance of a yamen underling, disguised as a hired thug of the most repulsive class, trafficking for the purchase of a wholly superfluous camel. What coherent pattern, much-esteemed Chin- tung, do these unusual happenings produce in your very average seat of reason?"
"To this person," replied Chin-tung, not desirous of failing to justify the call, "they are accompanied by an entire absence of any line of possible connection."
"It is capably expressed," agreed Hwa-che; "and the complete no-existence of any discoverable bond is often made a feature of the unravelments described by the more paradoxical school of Barbarian crime-detectors. When closely examined, however, a significant affinity here emerges."
"Continue to expound your ever-welcome views," encouraged Chin-tung politely. "Even apart from their unexpected facets, there is in your melodious voice something that is not actually displeasing."
"Since you can put up with my lamentable shortcomings, I am emboldened to proceed more fully," replied Hwa-che, modestly concealing her satisfaction at this expression of approval. "Shorn to the bone, have not all these things their roots, as it were, fixed in hair, in one form or another?"
"Admittedly," agreed Chin-tung, though in a less emphatic tone, "there might be drawn out a certain tenuous analogy on which to found a thesis. The sublime pig-tail of His High Excellence is—with the exception of a slight foundation where its stately base is thinning—pure hair from head to tassel. As regards the others——"
"It was from that most repulsive War Lord's best official hat that the missing plans were taken. The vital mask of the delusive Li was a gross hirsute appendage. The——"
"Even the creature for which he trafficked is notably associated with a prolific fur that becomes an important staple of our commerce," confirmed Chin-tung, much of his intellectual lethargy dissolving. "Hwa-che, it would almost seem as though you had disclosed a Correlative Basis! Yet how is it practicable, with so frail a connecting link as that afforded by a single hair, to maintain the Essential Equipoise that would constitute an Uncontrovertable Deduction?"
"Even the Wall was built up of single bricks, and it is said with equal force that the Yangtse begins its course as a trivial streamlet," replied Hwa-che adroitly. "When, in addition to the practical advantages of the Barbarian manner of crime-detection, we have the hypothetical benefits conferred by the ever-watchful Spirits of a band of only too-solicitous ancestors, and the questionable intervention of omens, dreams, visions, apparitions, genii, dragons, thunderbolts and earth-shivers—setting apart the influence exercised by numbers, times and positions, both lucky and unlucky—it will be abnormal if something definite in one direction or another is not shortly forthcoming."
To those who in a later age have extended the envenomed tongue of doubt at Hwa-che's effective system of disclosing, it is only necessary to point out that when it was essential for a continuance of the quest that something should emerge, this, as related by the dispassionate historians of that era, is what invariably took place. It would be well if those who search the by-ways for the hidden defiers of the law in our enlightened day should prove no less efficacious.
Even as she spoke, from a bend beyond their sight came the voice of one extolling the variety of the wares he offered—a seller of printed leaves, announcing the arrival of the latest versions. These men, by an ancient usage of their guild, call in a special tongue, so that no matter what they seem to say no binding charge can be laid against them; but—need it be expressed?—Hwa-che had learned the meaning of the sounds, and this she at once rendered into a coherent sense for Chin-tung's guidance.
THE KOCHOW DISTILLED ROSE-LEAVES OF TRUTH AND UNFAILING INK- BRUSH OF UPRIGHTNESS
ULTRA NORMAL CONSIGNMENT
Lesser Commander Ko's divinations for to-day's Kite-flying Assembly. Outcome of the two-and-a-half gong-stroke contest.
Venerable ginseng merchant and flower-boat maiden: incredible assertions.
List of arriving candidates for the Autumnal Competitions. Conversation from the desks and lottery-ticket prices. Latest omens and probable emergers.
Astounding spread of the pig-tail-cutting Terror. "Wang the Invisible Shearer" observed in several places at once. Street- guarders baffled.
"The last course of his deftly varied fare would seem to hold out some appropriate nutrition. Let us, O estimable Chin-tung, bend our inquiring footsteps onwards."
Encouraged by the Portents, Hwa-che seeks fuller enlightenment among the stalls of those who send forth printed leaves, and Chin-tung relates an instance.
THE Way into which they now emerged in pursuance of the voice was that then called the Street of the Quick Moving, the name being more applicable to the claims and business methods of those who laboured there than to any actual form of laudable progression. Here were to be found the stalls of those who sent forth the printed leaves; and formerly there had also existed a stronghold of detention for all who evaded their just bond, but this proximity was found distasteful to those whose brush continually proclaimed a pledge and the stockade had been demolished.
AT that early page of a necessarily inchoate, though already celestial, Empire's history those who vended the commodities acted with what is now recognized to have been a complete absence of logical inducement. To this era belongs the apophthegm of an enlightened Sage who in a luminous moment said, "Our illimitable Flowery Land contains four hundred million persons—all having the single characteristic of an almost entire lack of even rudimentary intelligence," and looking round, everyone was disposed to admit the justice of the censure on the others. Yet at this period, with an obtuseness of outlook that would be gravity-removing were it not morose, those who essayed to attract sought to prove that what they offered was worthy of esteem merely because it had found favour with the undiscriminating throng—and what is more truly lamentable, in general they succeeded.
How much more—not only rational but polite, is our present end-of-the-Seventh-Dynasty manner, whereby he who is addressed may feel that he has merited some distinction:
"Few, indeed, read the moss-grown columns of The Rising Sun Disclosing what has Happened, and the select band decreases daily," is the message to be seen by all who journey past waste places.
"Its views are obsolete and ill-expressed, its tidings things that took place the moon-before-last, and it invariably predicts the losers. Merchants who have bargains to declare shun its 'Make-known' space as they would the abode of lepers. How great would be your honourable condescension, therefore, if you would instruct the one who raises his voice before your door at dawn to thrust it through your shutter daily!
"Acquire merit by gladdening the eyes of the inept controllers of this short-sighted venture, and at the stunted price of two cash only secure all the questionable advantages of a thoroughly decrepit Inducement System, including a Lottery Ticket for each new adherent gained, and a seemly competence for those who mourn should you, with a congruous example in your sleeve, be made away by dragons or reduced to an impalpable white dust by thunder. Every other printed leaf offers at least twice as much: what excellence, therefore, lies in succumbing to their enticement?
"Undoubtedly the prescient Hu-yen clearly saw how things were going in the printed leaf commerce when he was inspired to write, 'It is better to enjoy the society of a single virtuous friend than to be one among many in a company of hired assassins.' At the sordid outlay of two cash daily the Rising Sun enables you to dispose yourself within the former of these two classes."
But it was not thus in the far-off days of Ming Wang, third of his high-souled Line, who rearranged the Codex, and this reasonably ushers in the conditions that Hwa-che and Chin-tung now found around them.
"IT would be well to learn all that may be said on the matter that concerns our quest," declared Hwa-che, as they came to the place where stood the stalls and placards of the issuers of printed leaves, "and to that end we will first observe what each one offers. Unless," she added, with the ingrained thrift of her native Province, "by closely following the signs displayed around, and listening to their calls, we can glean so much as is yet known without an actual purchase."
"In ordinary cases this may perhaps be done," agreed Chin- tung, "but it so happens that, having been favoured with a definite certitude by an obliging stranger, the one beside you ventured a string of cash on the very alluring chances of an exceptionally dark kite for what is known as 'the three-and-a- half-stroke.' In order to learn the outcome of this hazard it will thus be necessary to procure a leaf, for those who put them forth are too astute ever to proclaim the essential details freely."
"Whatever has taken place will be found duly set down in The Integritous Record of a Conscientious Pencil," said a voice at his elbow, "and whatever is set down in the Conscientious Pencil has duly taken place—or eventually will—somewhere. What more could be reasonably expected at the negligible price of three scanty copper pieces?" and he would have pressed what he extolled upon them.
"Our minds are not yet definitely resolved," hastily exclaimed Hwa-che, waving him aside. "The offer was well meant, though fruitless."
"The river flows according to its channel," was the dignified submission as he passed on elsewhere. "I go, O bankrupt strangers."
"There was a certain lack of refinement in the manner of his taking leave," remarked Hwa-che. "But here is one who proclaims a more definite avowal," for they had meanwhile reached the standing-place of another, who beat several drums at once by means of responsive wires and from time to time raised an accompanying voice, declaring what he offered.
"Five score thousand taels, in standard weight and of the brightest, must be dispersed anon," was the nucleus of his message. "Consider well what might not be achieved with so formidable a mass of silver. The literary-minded would be able to devote himself to a mastery of the Classics, whereby in progressive steps he would rise to various high offices of State, becoming at last the Right Hand of the Imperishable Sovereign; the litigiously inclined would be able to carry his grievance from court to court and possibly in the end obtain an admission of injustice; the commercially engaged would be able to buy the esteem of all who barred his path, or, should that fail, to hire those who would see to it that obstinacy did not flourish; while the ordinary person would be in a position to establish an enduring Line of allegiant he-children, all mindful of his comfort. Some hand will reap this harvest," he declared with engaging freedom as Hwa-che paused to listen, "why not put forth yours and take it?" But when she indicated a willingness to profit by his benevolence, a variety of hitherto unmentioned contingencies emerged, chief among them being the immediate necessity to contribute an outlay to his store. At the uncovering of this snare Hwa-che crossed the Way to examine a depicted allegory wherein one, doubtless supported by the agency of underground or overhead Forces, claimed to another that what had only just occurred at a place remote was already spread out before him.
"There is here," remarked Chin-tung, directing her glance to yet another sheet, "an ingenious arrangement of interspersive voids which, when endowed with signs by means of veiled allusions, resolve themselves into a coherent sequence."
"Doubtless the exercise affords an agreeable and not absolutely wasteful means of passing the long gong-strokes of evening for the dome-crested of both sorts," admitted Hwa-che. "Yet what bearing have these extraneous devices on what is taking place at the different points of interest?"
"A reward is held forth for the one who shall surmount the test, or if more than one, to each in an equitable proportion," continued Chin-tung, studying the diagram from varying angles. "Nothing could be more justly balanced, and to one of your admitted proficiency in following tracks, Hwa-che, there is no reason why Success should withhold her approval."
"The contingency has already been achieved," replied Hwa-che, "and the one before you, together with several thousand others who had attained an equal triumph, received an inconsiderable packet of melon seeds in place of the gold-mounted chariot that was to be awarded. Accompanying the prize was a felicitous line and an exhortation not to become faint-hearted."
"The message might not have been ill-timed in view of the event," declared Chin-tung, "for it is notorious that the young of both sorts are becoming sluggish."
"That is well enough for those who have no suitable reply," agreed Hwa-che, "but in the present case there is the timely adage, 'He who has once drunk boiling tea will blow on iced pear juice before he sips it.' However," she politely added, "doubtless you have within your well-lined mind the instance of one who, acting in a contrary manner, acquired distinction?"
"There exists among the Books the example of a ruler of the State of Lu who, being deposed by a superior confederacy of alien Powers, was reduced to the expedient of sitting at the wayside with an agate bowl to beg from the charitable who passed by. One day, while he was bewailing his ignoble lot, an earth-beetle fell into the bowl and made eleven unsuccessful attempts to climb its polished sides, each time falling back into a more undignified position. As it rose for the twelfth essay the compassionate- minded prince took up a broken straw and would have endeavoured to assist its progress, whereupon the beetle, with a meaning look, spread its neglected wings and escaped in safety. 'Obviously,' reflected the quick-witted exile, 'this can only imply that I have hitherto ignored some assured means to rise from my debased condition.' He at once called together those who were still faithful to his cause and in the end regained all his lost possessions."
"That is a very different matter from being opposed by a confederacy of those who devise intersecting-sign involvements," declared Hwa-che. "Mere alien outlaws——"
"It would appear," continued Chin-tung, still examining the chart, for this form of enticement was new to his experience, "that the word essential to fulfil the first of these divisions must be composed of three elemental signs, and the assurance is further given that this will reveal a vindictive being of the inner chamber, endowed with several tails, and associable, in a mineral setting, with whiskers. The various paralogisms involved——"
"Forbear!" exclaimed Hwa-che. "Ordinary persons have been known to lose their intellectual balance on becoming too deeply immersed in the obscurities of the more stealthy of these involvements. Bring your still wholesome mind, valued Chin-tung, to the weightier fact that so far we have not encountered any further tidings bearing on the problems that confront us."
"It is seasonably recalled," confessed Chin-tung. "From some obscure cause, Hwa-che, in your by no means remarkable society a hitherto undiscovered vein of lightheartedness asails this person, and extraneous details acquire an air of no-importance. Here, however, is a placard that should resolve your doubts," and he pointed to one exhibiting a banner traced with this valorous message:
First with the tidings; full-throated as the thrush:
Need it be said this indicates the Kochow Upright Brush?
and impressed with the sincerity of the claim, Hwa-che would have signified her assent when Chin-tung himself interposed a word.
"One yet remains," he said; "The Scrupulous-minded Ink-pot. It might be well to observe what that one offers."
AT an angle of the Way they found a little old man whose face was both the colour and the grain of a seasoned walnut, yet who sang a continuous chant as he laboured at his bench. His occupation was that of passing a well-inked brush across a stencilled surface, and from time to time he reached for a keen-edged knife that hung down from his girdle, and with this he clove so much as he required to fill a space from other printed leaves that lay about his feet, and secured it with a liquid. Seeing that he was too deeply occupied to notice those who tarried, Chin-tung deemed it advisable to hail him.
"Greeting," he called aloud. "May your virtuous efforts thrive!"
"And your pleasurable outing no less flourish," was the benign reply. "Doubtless you have stayed to make some appropriate remark about the tenor of the seasons? We who labour thus and thus both with our heads and members are always overjoyed by anything that will disturb the methodical rhythm of our task. Or perchance you have some welcome improvement to suggest in our conduct of the Ink-pot? Speak freely."
"As to that," replied Chin-tung, "we have yet to learn the texture of your fabric. We are, as it were, in the market at a free venture, and shall purchase or pass by according to the quality and measure."
"If that is all, you might have profitably listened to my uplifted voice, and I in the meanwhile should have produced three more copies of the Ink-pot," declared the ancient severely, and he fell again to wielding his efficient brush and to keeping time with the movement by a recital of his wares:
"A widow in remote Ken Su pushed off a lofty cliff by stepson.
"Avengers of a broken law surround a gang of thickset knife- men.
"Partakers of a cooling draught afflicted by unknown disorder.
"Enticed by acts of confidence, a wealthy stranger misses wallet."
"These are in the settled routine of things and have no specific application," declared Chin-tung to Hwa-che's ear, and he would have led her elsewhere. "They are of a standing type, being in the nature of fixed stars in the printed paper firmament, and were doubtless inherited by this antique personage from his father and his father's father. Let us retrace our steps lest we do worse by going further."
"Tarry yet a moment," urged Hwa-che. "Here is one hastening with what he describes as 'the most recent.' It may be——"
"Latest disclosure of the tail-denuding wonder," exclaimed the bearer of these tidings, yet scarcely pausing to greet them with respect, so unceremonious was his fervour.
"An infallible charm against hair-cutting demons, as revealed by a benevolent wizard, bestowed freely with each copy.
"Flattering suggestion from Board of Domestic Affairs that illustrious Mandarin T'sin Wong should hasten to the Capital and explain exactly what has happened.
"Abrupt prostration of His High Excellence.
"All cricket-fighting and kite-flying half-way progress.
"Outcome of the three-and-a-half-stroke."
"How thoughtless of this person to have detained you from a revered chief's stricken couch-side!" lamented Hwa-che. "Why had you not already reported this affliction to he—h—him?"
"This is the first word that has reached my backward ears," replied Chin-tung, at the same time offering Hwa-che an aromatic pastille under the belief that her breathing was contracted. "Suffer no qualms, however. If experience is any guide, the infirmity will only affect His High Excellence's capacity to undertake a journey. It would be as well, nevertheless, to assure him without delay of a sympathetic leaning."
"Our paths, then, do not yet diverge," remarked Hwa-che; and seeing that the other was still immersed in the more hastily stamped details of the sheet that he had bought, she considerately added: "Doubtless the kite on which you fixed your hopes sustained a worthy part at the encounter?"
"Without actually leading the van it would seem to have gained approval, inasmuch as it is esteemed deserving of a special mention. 'Bolt from the Blue' was its auspicious name," he said, and he indicated the line that confirmed his claim:
"Bolt from the Blue flew likewise."
Unsympathetic bearing of a Board of State towards a hard-pressed official, while conversation around a barber's stool discloses what is tending.
WHO has not seen a laborious and foot-weary ass toiling with his heavy load to ascend the stony by-ways of an uphill city, and on each succeeding time as they encountered in a narrow street has said, "Here is that selfsame hard-used ass to whom life itself must be an added burden. Surely it would repay a wise and humane man to afford it some respite so that it would come the fresher to its bondage?" Yet should the owner be a poor and rigorous man, whose rice depends upon a ceaseless effort, and having no trusty mule or lordly camel in his stall but this his only ass, how unenviable is his own position!
Similarly there is the obvious and threadbare precept, "In five short beats of time a person of deficient wit can upset a scheme on which a master may have laboured the thought of as many sessions," yet what is a scrupulous and uninventive relater of events to do about an instance that is applicable to practically two out of every three of the mischances of life? Let it not be a matter for too great reproach, therefore, if the same submissive back must once more sustain the burden.
THIS naturally concerns that well-endowed and much-enduring paragon the Mandarin T'sin Wong, now again pressed to the forefront of the record. As though it were not enough that the troubles themselves should intrude upon his dignified seclusion, like a flock of too-persistent vultures casting their inopportune shadows over his simplest pleasures, there had of late arrived a message from the offensively alert Board that constituted his superior authority at headquarters: a courteous request that he would find time to journey to the Capital, and while there would afford them the almost overpowering felicity of listening to his melodious voice and profiting by a sustained display of his now proverbial eloquence; the subject being, it was casually disclosed, the reports that had recently come in of his remarkable powers of dealing with an unprecedented situation that would appear to have of late unsettled his own picturesque city, walled and opulent Kochow.
This agreeable invitation concluded with the fervent hope that so irreplaceable an official would continue to live for at least another hundred years, and that, as some slight compensation for the widespread loss when he did at length decide to Pass Beyond, he would leave a thousand sons, sons' sons, and sons' sons' sons.
Deeply touched by so flattering a meed of appreciation the ever-considerate T'sin Wong summoned to his couch-side a skilful compounder of drugs and extracts, doubtless with the primary intention of discovering from his knowledge what assurance he could give the solicitous Board of Domestic Affairs on the subject of their wishes. Judge, therefore, the obliging magistrate's profound distress to learn instead that, owing to the imperfect equipoise of the positive and negative components of his body, to take a journey towards the Capital, and opposed to the direction of the Eastern Stellar Orbits, would, until the adverse conditions were removed, be undistinguishable from self- ending. As the intrepid nobleman pointed out to the President of the Board when explaining his inability to comply with their ever-treasured summons in a communication of the most abject disappointment, merely to Go Upwards in the ordinary give-and- take of fortune was, to one of his rank and mettle, only a passing detail, but deliberately to court that eventuality in the face of their definitely expressed hope for his prolonged existence would be an act of studied incivility which no member of the punctilious House of T'sin could ever consent to have engraved upon his Tablets.
It is only to be assumed that the crude and misshapen Department of Domestic Doings had by this time become the haunt and perquisite of a sordid band of thoroughly unscrupulous officials, all quite destitute of the finer shades of well- arranged behaviour. Their grossly composed reply to this becoming protest was to the effect that it was no more than what they had already foreseen, and that in consequence the most esteem-laden remover of internal pain that the Capital possessed, Shin Pak by name, was already on his way towards Kochow, with definite authority to take whatever steps might be necessary to readjust the afflicted Mandarin's unsettled equipoise to the extent of enabling him to undertake the journey before the moon had faded.
HALTING beneath a prolific lychee tree at the intersection of the Ways, a barber had set up a meagre stall and arranged his slender store of cutting edges, at the same time loudly expressing a willingness to shave not only the face and ears but the legs and arms also of any of the leisurely inclined for whatsoever they would bestow upon him.
"Is it to be thought," he exclaimed, in a voice so persuasive that it shook the leaves of the tree above and almost stirred its branches, "is it imaginable that in a great city like Kochow, and at the very zenith of refinement, the discriminating will henceforth suffer themselves to be enveloped in a garniture of fur undistinguishable from the covering of a Manchurian ape, when at the expenditure of a single cash—or two cash perchance, with doubtless three or four in the case of the justice- loving—they can have their surfaces made more smooth than the jade cheek of the exquisite Ai-chiao, for whose befitting home an impassioned Emperor once built a golden peach-house?"
"A golden bird-cage, O superficial perverter of the inspired Books!" cast back a passing pedant who chanced to overhear. "Her voice being that of the woodland bulbul."
And he went on, protesting.
"It is well to be set right by one who was doubtless actually present when the incident took place," remarked the barber, shafting an unworthy gibe at the scholar's certainly obsolete appearance; "but a peach is more in keeping with the modern instance. Were that as it was, who is to be the first to justify the implication?" and he made some further pretence of putting an even keener edge upon an already reliant weapon.
At this invitation first one then another of those attracted to the spot submitted to the process, each contributing an apt return as the barber had stipulated. Meanwhile, since the sun was high above and the shade of the tree congenial, others, who had no intention of profiting by the offer, did not disdain to stretch themselves at ease, and to criticize whatever happened, for the day was one against which it was predicted that enterprise would be unlucky, so that there was no sense of wasted time but rather of conforming to a righteous usage.
THUS and thus it came about that presently there fell upon their ears the sounds of a more than usually impressive retinue approaching. As it drew near even the most languid raised themselves to observe the details, and the barber did not scruple to leave the one whose legs he had prepared for the blade, so that he might miss nothing of the entertainment.
Preceded by two of more than common height, who cleared the way with whips having lashes tipped with brass, came a band of slaves and personal attendants of the one who rode at ease behind them. These displayed scrolls and banners inscribed with their master's rank and virtues, a silk umbrella of several tiers and worked in many colours, and suits of his wearing attire appropriate to all occasions. Then followed instrumentalists who played on horns, stringed woods, and hollow sonorous ducks, several youths carrying trays of paper flowers, stuffed birds and other allusive objects, and lastly the one in authority himself, borne along inside a richly mounted chair and smoking a pipe of a very costly pattern. About the chair, one on either side, strode with an air of importance two special assisters of his hand. These were clad in a flowing garb of white, their badges being spiked iron rods of a full arm's length or more, and of about the thickness of an ordinary person's small finger.
When this impressive company had passed beyond their sight (though its route was still defined by the strains of far-off music), those who had not followed in the hope of some possible advantage again sought the welcome shade, and arranged themselves according to their former order.
"IT is the great and justly famous remover of internal pain, Shin Pak," declared the barber, in reply to the inquiring glances cast in his direction, for it was notorious that little taking place within the four quarters of Kochow did not reach his ears or pass through his lips again. "Lo, he has journeyed many hundred li to exercise his unfailing skill on our Mandarin T'sin Wong, who is stricken with an obscure distemper. To readjust the Fundamental Equipoise is this same Shin Pak's special office."
"Is he then more esteemed than our own Wei Ta, the healer who dwells at the Sign of the Gilded Pill, beyond the Phoenix Nest Pagoda?" asked a simple-minded cobbler who happened to be present.
"Wei Ta!" The barber had his gravity so excessively disturbed that for a stroke or two he used the wrong edge of his razor. "Wei Ta, who practises a merely general range of healing? None but a squat-legged patcher-up of worn-out sandals would refer to Shin Pak and the obscure Wei Ta within ten li of each other."
Most of the circle, hearing this, suffered a like derangement of their staidness, in order to indicate that they also appreciated the artlessness of the inquiry.
"None the less," maintained the cobbler stoutly, "the beggar who assists you from a ditch has better breath than the prince who passes by while you lie in it."
"That, certainly, makes the case look reasonable," reflected the onlookers, and they shook their heads profoundly to signify a liberal understanding.
"When this person suffered from a misplaced ankle bone it was the versatile Wei Ta who restored it to a right position," continued the ingenuous cobbler, "and that despite a serious shortcoming. 'Procure so much powdered rhinoceros horn as will lie inside the hollow tooth of an ordinary sized dragon,' had been his first demand, and with no misgiving thought this one went forth to obtain what he required."
"Now may the falsity of this incongruous tale rise up to brand you!" exclaimed the provoked barber, for it was not in keeping with his sense of fitness that so humble a craftsman should claim so much attention. "Inasmuch as you do not possess the single cash required to make you seemly, and the specific that you name is valued above topaz."
"Without your opportune voice it is doubtful if my mere word would pass muster," said the grateful cobbler. "For thereupon, as you have shown, I returned empty handed. 'All-healing,' was my plea, 'it is very clear that you are used to restoring the constituents of the affluent and free-hearted. The remedy that you described is weighed against its weight of the more precious sort of gems, while the one before you is a deservedly ill-paid repairer of the cheapest kind of make-shift sandals.' 'It is reasonably expressed,' said the charitable Wei Ta, and on a scrap of paper he traced certain words which represented, he said, the full amount of the remedy that he had ordered. Wetting this with a little natural moisture he fashioned it into a pill, and directed the one who is testifying to the reality of the event to swallow it instead. This he did, though not without some low-born embarrassment owing to the paper unfolding on its passage; but it is undeniable that the errant bone fell back into its proper groove soon after, nor would the compassionate Wei Ta claim more than the repairing of a single pair of worn-out sandals."
"Assuredly the cobbler had, within the memory of us all, a noticeable limp such as he lays claim to," was the verdict of the agreeing glances. "Let us now hear what the barber has to say against this."
"Alas," despaired the barber, wringing out his cloth with an air of resignation, "how is it possible to describe an elephant to one who has spent his whole life breeding guinea-pigs? Wei Ta and Shin Pak represent an immature leafless shrub overshadowed by the waving mountain cypress. So expert is the latter person that, guided by his unfailing knowledge, he can safely drive a spiked implement completely through the body, so that the ends protrude for all to witness. His ordinary recompense is one and a score taels of unmixed silver, to which is frequently added an inlaid coffin or an embroidered shroud by a grateful sufferer; indeed, upon a recent occasion, when he transposed the eyes of an excessively rich pork merchant, he received a hundred standard taels, a commodious chair, several gold-fish in a crystal vase, and a contrivance which by sorcery produces harmonious sounds upon pressing a handle."
"Yet why should he who trafficked in pork require so drastic an alteration?" inquired a charcoal-burner, who had stayed on his way to listen. "Is it what is called a frenzy of the swift-going contingent?"
"It may doubtless yet become so," admitted the barber, "but that was not the essence. The inner reason lay in that the one described possessed convergent eyes, so that in order to see what he desired it was necessary for him to look at an object elsewhere. For this reason, those whose office it was to hold the victims of his hand at the moment when he Propelled them Upwards continually failed to stand their ground when they saw that one advancing on them with an upraised axe and a fixed look in their direction. Now that under Shin Pak's skilful thumb this ambiguous threat has been removed by transferring the eye on the right to the socket on the left, and so in a converse manner, harmony is again restored in that discordant pig-yard."
"Doubtless the talented Shin Pak is all that you contend as regards eyes and similar details that lie open to the surface," maintained the cobbler. "When, however, it comes to a misplaced ankle bone, that requiring, as one may say, a deeper insight, the opportune Wei Ta, with a single powerful glance——"
"PEACE," said a dispassionate voice, and the pedant, on a returning path, disclosed himself among them. "Not without reason has it been written, 'A rock falling outside one's door makes a greater stir than a landslide across the valley.' Both Wei Ta and Shin Pak are doubtless well enough for the present age, but there have been no really classical removers of internal pain since the days of Wong-tain, who inserted a sheet of glass in his own stomach, so that by merely bending forward he could observe the digestive functions. Has either of those whom you regard furnished any similar achievement?"
"No such exploit has actually reached our sluggish ears," was their joint admission, though the one doggedly added a murmured reference to transplanted eyes, and the other advanced a diffident claim on behalf of restored ankles.
"Both these things are everyday occurrences in the routine of any capable remover of internal pain," declared the pedant. "But to say that Shin Pak can pass a needle completely through a person's form is to replace truth by error. Wong-tain was the most intrepid and resourceful user of spiked instruments who ever drove out an ailment, and there is no record that even he ever performed such an operation—probably because he found it more discreet and no less effective to use two needles, and, inserting them at different sides, to bring them together at whatever point was needful."
"That, doubtless, was the practice in the remote days of the memorable Wong-tain," interposed another, speaking with a certain amount of deference, for he recognized the pedant as a person of some literary distinction who had already failed so often at the Competitions that he had now acquired a status. "Yet if the matter is not as the barber claims, for what purpose were the long and formidable spikes, which all assembled here must surely have observed, carried in readiness by the side of Shin Pak's chair?"
"The argument is just," remarked many who stood by, "for we ourselves beheld them. The instruments in question were both sharp and bright, and undoubtedly of ample length to pierce the fullest man from back to front and still have something over."
"Yours is a not unnatural error," replied the pedant with a superior kind of smile, "and arises from a badly developed line of implication. Yet who has not observed that while the chariots of the lesser Mandarins are ordinary in build, as the rank ascends the wheels are placed at a greater space apart, until the carriage of a very high official naturally demands the whole Way for its passage?"
"That certainly displays the stamp of truth," admitted one who had but just upheld the contention of the barber, "for this person was once most unbecomingly compressed between the wall and the chariot of a Viceroy of State in one of the narrower side- streets of our city."
"Yet Viceroys are not inevitably of grosser build than officials of slight rank, nor were the prongs that so beguiled you for actual use, but merely to indicate Shin Pak's swollen- footed opinion of his own importance. From this learn that if you regard a tiger through a bamboo tube it will appear to be no more formidable than a house cat." With these sagacious words the prolific-minded scholar resumed his onward path, assured that he had spread understanding among the stunted.
The barber also, seeing that there was no likelihood of further profit, folded his stall, and as he did so he negligently sang an ancient lay about an iron sword and how it prevailed against a suit of golden armour.
Hearing the song, several as they went stayed for a beat of time to exchange a parting, unheard by all the rest, and to uncover a sign of knotted cord, hidden in a fold among their garments.
"The flower must wither before it can become a fruit," was the assurance each one gave him.
"At the third stroke after dark, in the ruined temple on the western hill, will the Gatherers assemble," was the message he replied with.
Inopportune arrival of the formidable Shin Pak and, despite Chin-tung's upholding arm, T'sin Wong's effete prostration.
THERE are times in the life of even the most upright person when he may be almost disposed to question the inspired System which provides that under the purest administration of the wisest authority in what is undoubtedly the best possible Empire ever devised, the Good shall flourish automatically, and the Bad be brought through a series of humiliating reverses to a thoroughly well-deserved end that shall be both painful and drawn-out. At such a moment the imperishable wisdom of our profoundest Sages wears an ambiguous face, and the protecting influence of an unbroken Line of grateful ancestors seems no more effective, for all practical purposes, than a paper fence around a well-stocked orchard.
Let it be recalled, however, that, "Though you may strip a tree of all its leaves yet it will still put forth blossom," and if matters are not readjusted on a more satisfactory basis before this mediocre chronicle is brought to a welcome close, the one who has throughout made no secret of his lamentable deficiency in the matter of relating authentic facts will have justly earned your immaculate displeasure.
NO reproach can attach to the one chiefly threatened that Shin Pak in due course effected a safe arrival. The ever-thoughtful T'sin Wong sent out some of the most trustworthy of his followers with definite instructions. That they failed to encounter Shin Pak in a lonely pass may have been due to the intervention of hostile Forces, but it has never yet been claimed that the questionable War Lord of Kwei-chang would have hung out signs of mourning if T'sin Wong definitely lost face before his people, and the one, loitering for no set cause, who met Shin Pak beyond the narrow pass and led him by a secret path has yet to be explained.
It was at this stage that the Mandarin summoned Chin-tung into his presence and freely cleared his throat of the acrimony that was corroding it.
"By an ingenious arrangement of signs and numbers, mankind, in the several walks of life, has been divided into appropriate classes," he remarked with judicial precision, "and you, Chin- tung, as a recorder of the spoken word, cannot be regarded as anything else than a thoroughly Z3 person. It now remains to be indicated what possible claim you can have upon the A1 reward of taels that has hitherto been your portion."
"High Excellence," was the suppliant reply, "the versatile brilliance of your all-discerning range makes it practically impossible for so slow-witted an inscriber as the one before you to do anything but admire your many-sided lustre."
"To assert that you have contrived to lose regard would be inexact——"
"Your ever-welcome praise is more sustaining to my weak-kneed mind than a weighty bag of silver," declared Chin-tung profusely.
"——inasmuch as it would be a logical fallacy to assume the forfeiture of that which has never had an actual existence," continued the impartial administrator, turning aside to make a grasp at a passing winged insect in order to express to Chin-tung disapproval of his untimely interruption.
"Yet, Pre-eminence," pleaded the one arraigned, "to what specific fault——"
"In the matter of our own unique and ever-to-be-regretted pig- tail," pursued the speculatively inclined official, "it is not beyond the bounds of thought that if an elderly and mentally club-footed bat had been entrusted with the search it would have failed to achieve anything more than what you, Chin-tung, have so far effected. Already the greater part of a moon has passed, and what you have yet discovered would not fill the egg-shell of a sparrow."
"As regards your traitorously abstracted queue, Benign, the matter is now in a state of commendable progression," replied Chin-tung, with a confidence that was not altogether so deep- seated as he hoped it sounded. "The venerable philosopher foreshadowed by the Augurs has become active in your cause, and, assisted by a quick-witted youth who reveals his deeper meaning, he has already unearthed a sign that points in a direction."
"The expression has a somewhat familiar ring," commented the enlightened, "but that, Chin-tung, doubtless arises from your deplorable poverty of diction. Let the accommodating pair clearly understand that if no tangible result can be produced before the moon has faded, the direction alluded to will be that leading to the underground cells for the disposal of habitual transgressors."
"Tolerance," craved the distressed inscriber of his word, "on behalf of the inoffensive youth at least, hear a spontaneous——"
"Turning to another example of your calamitous lack of foresight, it should have been obvious from the first that one so repulsively featured as the prevaricatory Li could be nothing else but a crafty agent from the camp of disaffection."
"It is inconceivable, Revered," declared Chin-tung feelingly, "that after basking in the radiance of your presence daily, even the most profligate should not have turned to a course of virtue."
"Doubtless," agreed T'sin Wong with engaging condescension, "but in an age when male unicorns have been known to bring forth singing lizards, anything may happen. What is more to the point is that the cankerous upstart, recognizing that he was about to be unmasked by this one's insight, has laid his defiling hands on certain compromising parchments from a secret crevice, and with them fled to the rebel camp among the southern mountains."
"Do not permit that to disarrange your poise, Sublime," replied Chin-tung, "the contingency having already been discounted. When the mentally congealed ingrate comes to examine what he has acquired it will be found to consist of a lengthy Ode in which he and his ancestry, as far back as the mud-and-bamboo Epoch, are held up to just derision. Furthermore, by an honourable arrangement between myself and the one with whom he chaffered, the unstable beast on which he has relied to bring him to the stronghold of sedition will founder by the way and involve the ill-balanced Li in an appropriate disaster."
"It is a befitting end for one so intellectually top-heavy, and doubtless the arranging Deities merely used you as their unwitting tool," was T'sin Wong's commendation. "There yet remains the jeopardy of Shin Pak's arrival on a mission to be confronted. The time has thus matured, Chin-tung, for you to justify your impressive wage by thinking of something really useful."
"Seeing that he comes armed with an authority transcending yours, that will not be so easy as eating peas with a single chop-stick," Chin-tung reluctantly admitted. "But however agonizing his method of removing pain may prove, it will doubtless be a fount of consolation to reflect among your acutest pangs that this one will be at hand to sustain you with compassion."
To this inspiring pledge T'sin Wong would doubtless have replied in a no less fitting manner, and he had, indeed, parted his lips more than once to find a sufficiently suitable expression when the blowing of conch-shells and the discharge of innumerable fire-crackers in the outer courts notified the arrival of some person of distinction.
SHIN PAK was at this period at the zenith of his lustre. He enjoyed the unique distinction (duly set forth on his placards, one of which was now delivered to T'sin Wong) of freeing the sacred Emperor from a Malign Influence, and to effect this he had not only been granted the overwhelming privilege (never before accorded to a remover of internal pain) of actually seeing His Omnipotence in person, but had even ventured to puncture the Imperishable's elbow with a golden needle.
Somewhat later he fell into disrepute, owing, it was claimed by those who embraced his cause, to an unscrupulous confederacy of rival groups of pain-removers. After an otherwise well-spent life he appeared towards the last at wayside feasts, where he stood upon a chair and affected to maintain, by means of coloured charts, that an ordinary person is not composed in equal parts of earth, air, fire, metal and water, but the number of brass pieces thrown into his hat by those who listened was a sufficient answer.
As yet, however, his mind was like a crystal bowl filled to the brim with pearls, and his hand was never known to falter.
In order to grasp effectively Shin Pak's unique position and particular method of extracting pain, it is to be understood that he was not one of those promiscuous healers (like the obscure and illiterate Wei Ta) who, without any definite and settled method, apply to every case submitted to their care the remedy that seems most appropriate according to the symptoms—administering a decoction of rare bones and powerful relics, removing a seemingly unlucky part, or binding up the stricken limb with written charms more or less at an admitted venture. To Shin Pak's lucid thought this diversity involved a superfluous risk, since it was not incredible that an excessively ill-destined person might go through life without ever once chancing upon the correct remedy in the case of a single suppliant: whereas by hazarding the same process in every instance it must certainly be occasionally right. To this it may also be conjoined that those who adopt a special and definite method of pain-dispelling, and persist in it throughout, receive a higher reward than do the variable and lax, and are permitted to reside in a specially esteemed quarter of the city.
Of the nine distinct branches of removing pain to which custom and the Classics give assent, none, after serious reflection, appeared to be so reasonable to Shin Pak as that which consists in thrusting needles and other spiked implements into the seat of the disorder, for by no other means is the contending element (which not infrequently takes the form of a revengeful Spirit) afforded a free and uninterrupted passage for withdrawal. Only the method of scarification seemed in any way comparable with the obvious advantages of acupuncture, and to Shin Pak's thorough and resolute mind the former expedient did not go nearly deep enough into the subject.
Up to that time needle-thrusting confessedly had one weak point, and this became apparent when the cause of the malady resolutely declined to avail itself of the channel for escape. Some who pursued the art were driven by this defect to use implements, when obstinacy arose, with barbs attached, by which they hoped to drag out even the most stubborn ailment, but added to the defect of never being quite assured at what stage they had secured their end was the continual loss incurred through the barbs becoming too firmly embedded ever to be extracted. It remained for Shin Pak's ready wit to overcome this flaw by gradually heating the protruding end of the inserted shaft until a condition was attained that not even the most obstinate and self-opinionated demon could resist. On hearing of this notable advance in pain-expelling progress the liberal-minded Sovereign conferred on the one concerned the privilege of adding the word "Accomplished" to his name, and also of depicting an appropriate sign upon his Tablets.
THE position of the long-suffering Mandarin T'sin Wong at this emergence was that familiarly described as being between the bottomless Hwang Hai and the Chief of Evil Beings.
To proclaim that his essential constituents were now completely balanced would be to forgo the one sound excuse against proceeding on the journey, and Shin Pak carried in his sleeve a strict injunction to see that, when sufficiently restored, he took it. On the other hand, to plead his sustained affliction would be to place himself unreservedly beneath that one's succouring thumb, and T'sin Wong had a profound emotion of no-enthusiasm towards any method of removing pain that went beyond written charms or suitably coloured liquids. Those of Shin Pak's school he was wont to describe as mendacious water-fowl from the lusty assurance with which they voiced their pretensions; nor did the appearance of the two stalwart assisters clad in white, who accompanied the needle-thruster and bore his roll of spikes, tend to compose his stomach.
"The case is one of no great depth," pronounced Shin Pak when T'sin Wong had been induced to submit himself to various simple tests, "and it may be said to have a certain kinship with that affecting our idolized Sovereign until this one restored him"; for it was noticed that thereafter every case upon which Shin Pak embarked bore some resemblance, either in what it was or was not, to that which he indicated. "There, however, the demon concerned was naturally of a much higher rank than one that would be satisfied to inflict itself upon a mere city ruler. Not until a full regalia had been laid out, with the appointments for the retinue of eleven attending demons, could it be induced to leave its royal quarters."
"Yet why should any demon penetrate into this one's system?" protested T'sin Wong, though somewhat shaken in his doubt by the disclosure that he was following so illustrious a pattern, "seeing that he has consistently observed The Precepts? Never from milk-days upwards has he molested hard-working bees, stamped on ants' nests, torn up printed leaves of any sort, consumed the meat of efficacious beasts, scoffed openly at shooting stars, thrown stones at mating birds, sneezed when crossing running water——"
"These things are well enough as far as they go, but it is necessary to remember that, 'Although you may draw a leopard's teeth it keeps its claws in hiding,'" replied Shin Pak, with a certain amount of impatience at being called upon to explain such obvious pitfalls. "It may be that you have dug a little deeper than usual and disturbed the repose of an influential Spirit, or built a wall thereby annoying one who had been accustomed to resort there, or dropped a bucket down a well without first giving warning. As there are upwards of eleven thousand different kinds of Beings, all very hasty and tenacious of their boundaries, it should not be so much a matter of surprise that one has taken up its abode inside your spaciously proportioned outline as that there should be anyone wholly free from their intrusions. If indeed," he added with a sombre look of yearning, "there is anyone."
"Out of the diffusion of your knowledge is it possible to decide exactly where this creature is?" inquired Chin-tung, with what seemed to T'sin Wong to be a questionable interest.
"How otherwise would it be feasible to drive a sharp iron prong down into the very core of the disorder?" replied Shin Pak, throwing off his outer garment and testing the unimpaired vigour of his thrust by a series of impressive movements. "The Malignant Influence is definitely beneath this spot," and he indicated a point somewhat lower than the agitated Mandarin's waistband; "at about the depth of four or five full-grown fingers."
With this assurance Shin Pak turned to the two assisters of his hand and required them: the one that he should whet the spikes best suited to the task, the other to prepare the lighted charcoal brazier.
"Chin-tung," murmured the person to whom he owed allegiance from behind his shivering teeth, "get the one who is speaking out of this, demon or no demon, and your yearly sufficiency is doubled."
To this, however, Chin-tung made no direct reply, partly because he was endeavouring to pierce Shin Pak's exact method, but T'sin Wong received some consolation from what he took to be a sign of acquiescence, and there can be no doubt that the inscriber of the word bore an efficient if obscure part in much that followed.
WHEN Shin Pak had satisfied himself as to the point and temper of his piercing irons, and had seen that the charcoal fire was glowing with a steady fervour, he again approached T'sin Wong, this time with a requisition.
"To drive out the Being from its lair is this one's task, and even should it involve fusing every skewer of his store into a shapeless mass the hand that has pierced the incomparable elbow of the Supreme himself will show no flinching."
"All this is very reassuring," declared T'sin Wong, "but there is another facet——"
"It is unnecessary to urge the compliant buffalo downhill," interposed Shin Pak with a consequential air, "and the reminder is superfluous. As you would say, to drive the demon out and leave it to its own devices would be a backward service, as it would probably return again as soon as the disturbing influence was lifted—perhaps to an even more secluded nook in your distinguished structure. It would be an unbearable infliction if it should become necessary to pursue it from cranny to cranny, after the manner—if the crude simile may be allowed in the case of so transparent an official—of an elusive eel hiding among the recesses of a muddy river."
"Before it is too late——"
"Assuredly," was Shin Pak's ready assent as he tried a favourite prong by a dexterous thrust that pierced a leather cushion, "due provision shall be taken. When the unaccomodating Being is once expelled it must find ready for its use an outfit sufficient to induce it—if only in the way of vanity, to which these creatures are ever subject—to go off to exhibit itself to less fortunate relations."
At this Chin-tung drew near, so as to be at hand for the requirement.
"It is proverbially inept to glue a boat together to save the price of iron rivets, and the suit of apparel put out to tempt the demon to go elsewhere must be of the richest order," continued Shin Pak, speaking, despite the thoroughness of detail, with a conspicuous lack of interest; "silk of the most expensive kind, and trimmed with a choice fur border. All the lesser appointments should preserve a harmony in keeping, and in order to give a convincing air of naturalness to the display a score or so taels of silver should be placed negligently in one sleeve, and a few rare jewels, such as high dignitaries would usually possess, secured in the other."
"Might it not also tend to preserve an appropriate semblance if a black mask were to be hidden in a concealed fold of the robe and a heavily weighted bludgeon likewise added?" asked T'sin Wong in a dignified access of high-souled bitterness as he recognized the description of his most treasured ceremonial attire.
"There is no indication that a good-class demon would have any use for such possessions," replied Shin Pak, for his acuteness did not extend beyond a dexterity in needle-thrusting. "Two suits of coarser fabric must, however, also be laid out, each one with its fit and proper attachments."
"Your admitted knowledge of the ways and manners of Beings of this class is both curious and profound," declared T'sin Wong, who was beginning to recognize that he was destined to suffer equally above and below the waistband in the matter of Shin Pak's visit, "yet the day being reasonably close and oppressive, and the spot which the gifted Personage's warm-hearted clan frequents presumably no less sultry, would not the burden of three complete sets of wear prove a harassing infliction?"
"Your angle is obtuse," declared Shin Pak, "for no well- connected demon would be guilty of so embarrassing a lapse. The one suitable to attach itself to your exalted framework would naturally have attendants of its own, and the two inferior suits are for their enticement."
"There is an established rule that any demon of a certain rank can adapt itself to all requirements," remarked Chin-tung, who had meanwhile effected some slight arrangements, "but in the case of low-born Spirits this is doubtful. What bulk, therefore, should the size of the humbler outfits assume?" And while he continued to regard Shin Pak his observing eye did not ignore the two assisters of that one's labour.
"Let them conform to an ordinary person's height," replied Shin Pak, with a negligible glance also in the same direction. "The one somewhat above if the occasion fits, the other proportionately smaller."
"It is as good as done," was Chin-tung's ready claim, and he went out to procure what had been required.
CHIN-TUNG allowed no stint to intervene between himself (or, more exactly, between T'sin Wong, since it was necessarily from that one's store that the attractive display was provided) and the success of Shin Pak's venture; nor was the latter person sluggish with approval.
"This is a garb of which any demon might reasonably be proud," he exclaimed, as he felt the quality of the silk pleasurably—not neglecting the opportunity to make sure that the contents of the sleeves were also of a satisfactory nature—"and it is incredible that this particular one should not fall into the snare and vanish."
"If your exacting taste is gratified it is no less assured that the demon will be equally contented," agreed Chin-tung politely. "If he accepts the bait is it beyond all element of doubt that your enlightened skill has triumphed?"
"Inevitably," replied Shin Pak, "for how else should the objects disappear? One thing alone could jeopardize success, and as to this an indiscretion would be fatal. All Spirits of this part are abnormally resentful of observation and cases have been known——"
"It is superfluous to proceed," was Chin-tung's free admission. "How shall we best avoid this danger?"
"When the crucial point is reached every eye must turn away, and not the most fleeting glance stray in the direction of the shutter. Otherwise——" And without any actual indication of what would emerge, Shin Pak performed a gesture that fittingly conveyed his warning.
With this understanding the appointments of the room were rearranged until the effect satisfied Shin Pak's requirement—based on his long experience of outcast demons' habits. All the attire was attractively exposed upon an inlaid table, and this stood by the shutter—the shutter being widely open so as to offer no obstruction to the headlong flight that would certainly mark the thwarted Being's departure. One of the white-clad assisters had already been sent forth—doubtless to verify the winged passing of the creature from a place of safe concealment. The other stayed to accomplish Shin Pak's bidding. Thus it arose that Chin-tung was actually the one to discover a triumph that is now admitted to be unique even in the truly remarkable annals of pain extracting; for as they clustered round about T'sin Wong, to exercise a reasonable amount of loyal constraint upon that harassed and still protesting noble, the one in question plucked aside Shin Pak's descending hand and pointed to the empty table.
"Behold, O prince of needle-men, your might!" he cried in tones of homage. "At the bare menace of your upraised arm the baffled demon has confessed itself outwitted. This may fittingly be inscribed in letters of pure gold upon a marble background."
For an appreciable expanse of time the four involved continued to regard themselves from various angles though none hazarded a statement. Then the relieved Mandarin began to caress his lower bulk reassuringly, while Shin Pak, though still oppressed by this tribute to his powers, turned towards the assister with an ambiguous guise to which the one concerned replied by a disarming look, accompanied by the repeated exposure of his hands, palms outwards. Chin-tung alone continued to maintain an undeviating outline.
"Yet how——" began Shin Pak.
"Nothing, O wonder of the age, could be more transparent," declared Chin-tung, with a flattering determination that the full glitter of the exploit should not lack a herald. "It is very evident that your indomitable reputation—once bounded by the Bitter Water on the east and the Barbarian Uplands in the west, or confined between The Barrier and the Nan-lings—has now spread to the Beneath Parts of the earth, where your dreaded skill in needle-thrusting is doubtless told by hushed voices at dusk in order to reduce contumacious young demons to submission. Is it to be wondered at therefrom that even a Being of sufficient influence to have two medium-sized attendants should incapably retire when he recognizes the arch pain-expeller advancing to measure needles with him?"
"Commander of our task," exclaimed the second of the assisters clad in white, entering at this point with a markedly downcast bearing, "let it not be laid to this one's charge that something of the usual routine should have deviated. As he went to perform an allotted part he was suddenly propelled by an unseen Force into an evilly arranged bush of pricky growth, from which he has just emerged to find it too late to effect a useful purpose."
"Thus and thus," confirmed Chin-tung, delicately conveying to Shin Pak by his respectful glance an added tribute. "As your prescience foretold, the discomfited outcast wrecked his capricious spite on this inoffensive menial before he had reached his station. Could anything be more convincing?"
"Can it really be," stammered Shin Pak, who despite his other gifts was never a nimble-fingered thinker, "that, as you would seem to affirm, the Being has already fled rather than face the issue?"
"Inevitably," replied Chin-tung, not altogether without a tincture of reproach, "for how else could the suits have disappeared?" Then turning to T'sin Wong, haply to afford Shin Pak a breathing space in which to realize the full radiance of his triumph, he solicitously inquired how that one felt now that the cause of his infirmity was routed.
"It is as though an oppressive weight had been raised from this person's mind," was the generous admission. "And," he declared, gathering in time the trend of Chin-tung's suggestion, "from off the region of his waistband also."
"It is the worthy pinnacle to a tale of wonder," pronounced Chin-tung. "Doubtless, as this inspired provider of restored ease—to whom we owe so much—would say, a rational period of repose must pass, after so drastic a strain, to harmonize the essentials. On that understanding, Revered, there would seem to be no absolute barrier why, within the appointed span, you should not make the essay of this journey. Unless," he added with characteristic prudence, "an entirely new set of unpropitious influences should meanwhile be engendered."
To this plain invitation Shin Pak had no reply suitable for the occasion, but T'sin Wong was more explicit.
"It is as the All-knowing may direct," was his devout submission. "Few can exactly say what happened yesterday: who, then, shall predict the morrow?"
The compassionate Chin-tung explains to Hwa- che the subterfuge by which he hopes to preserve her freedom, and the dilemma in which this involves her.
A PERIOD had elapsed since the day on which the Mandarin T'sin Wong had been so auspiciously delivered from infliction, and the Moon of Much Gladness had meanwhile shrunk farther and assumed the proportions of an all-but-consumed melon. The intolerable Shin Pak still lurked about the city, awaiting the time when by the Tables of Exorcism the one whom he had freed could safely undertake the journey, for the self-opinionated Board of Domestic Doings continued by repeated messages to urge a flattering anxiety to feast their eyes on their unobtrusive official's elusive outline. Doubtless this narrow-minded zeal was in some part due to the now almost open threat of the Branching Lotus, the Avenging Knife, and other rebellious confederacies that menaced order, while the questionable poise of Pung Chu, War Lord of the Province, still further eroded their polish, but, as T'sin Wong courteously pointed out in the course of a dignified rejoinder, none but an assembly of clay-souled despots would so unfeelingly harass one who, in addition to the loss of all his silk-worms, the humiliating abstraction of an essential detail of his person, and a natural and patriotic anxiety about the continuance of his trustworthy Line, was still, as it were, in the process of rebuilding his shattered framework after the visitation of a morose and covetous-minded Being.
An added care, although one to which the conscientious Mandarin did not explicitly allude in his temperate communication, was that, despite a continuous pressure, the inscriber of his word had so far been unable to discover any further pretext against embarking on the journey—or none sufficiently argument-proof, as he liberally admitted, to retain the moisture.
IT was scarcely more than dawn when Chin-tung, walking in the out-parts of the palace garden, as his custom was at such times as the harmonious structure of an Ode escaped his ink-brush, found that he had strayed into the remote paths where the philosopher, Kwan Yen, and the straightforward youth who read his message, had their lodging. Judging from the indication of sounds within that one person was still floating in the Middle Air and the other engaged in simple occupations, Chin-tung light- heartedly essayed the sportive call by which the young of either sort indicate their presence and tapped upon the lattice. In spite of the intellectual pleasure that the recorder of the word professed for the society of the grey-haired and weighty, he made no expression of regret that it was Hwa-che who looked out from the shutter.
"If he whose hand you serve does not actually require your presence, why should you not lay aside your normal task and, while the air is fresh, improve your mind by observation?" was Chin-tung's apt proposal.
"The sage of whom you speak is wrapped at the moment in a deep internal contemplation," replied Hwa-che, raising her voice somewhat to shroud, if it might be, the exact nature of the recluse's preoccupation, "and the suggestion is one in which this person will gladly follow your conducting footsteps. Unless," she added becomingly, "he who depends upon your brush can no longer endure the separation."
"As to that," replied Chin-tung, "His High Excellence is similarly immersed in a profound abstraction. . . . At a negligible distance to the east there winds a placid stream where, beneath the fostering shade of gracefully inclined willows, a tangled net of richly endowed growth spangles the glassy surface with a proud blazonry of many-tinctured lilies."
"The picture is an alluring one," confessed Hwa-che, leaning still farther from the shutter, "nor will this one's trivial preparations detain us long. Perchance it is your aim to enshrine the tranquil scene in the melody of one of your delicately expressed verses?"
"The chance is well recalled," agreed Chin-tung, "while an ample provision of unwritten tablets invites it. But our first concern will be to procure an adequate supply of the full- flavoured water snails for which that halcyon spot is justly famous, so that His Excellence's early rice may include a toothsome feature," and he disclosed a spacious earthenware jar, carried for that purpose.
"It is almost incredible," declared Hwa-che, swinging the wooden shutter with well-arranged annoyance, "that one who has it in his grasp to pass the examination for the second degree with acclaimed distinction, should be content to turn from the ambitious task of writing Odes to that of filling a commonplace earthen vessel with water snails for the gross delectation of a more than usually obese official. Furthermore, Chin-tung, your consistent habit of affecting to regard his offensively designed remarks as expressions of esteem does not enlarge your face in at least one direction. Since the obvious attraction that bent your presumptuous feet towards this not otherwise inviting spot was the degrading pursuit of a repulsively glutinous mollusc, there is nothing further to retard your ever-welcome departure." With these unpleasant words Hwa-che made as though she would have closed the shutter, and doubtless she would have done so had it not resulted that thereafter she would have been unable to observe Chin-tung's movements.
"Assume your going-out sandals with as little delay as possible, Hwa-che, for the gong-stroke about dawn is the best time to ensnare these creatures as they forsake their lairs at the call of nature," was Chin-tung's discreet rejoinder. "While thus engaged consider also the harmonious balance of the wise remark, 'He who is compelled to share a cavern with a tiger learns to stroke fur in the right direction.'"
AS they made their way together side by side towards the tree-fringed stream, Chin-tung refrained from any direct allusion to the object of his quest, nor did he display the jar in a provoking manner, but in order to atone for her ill- considered outburst, the one who shared his march from time to time caught insects of the soil which she insisted on adding to their store, although admittedly of a sort quite unsuited for the purpose.
"There has been a set design in bringing you to this sequestered dell," declared Chin-tung when they had reached a pleasant sward where two persons could recline at ease and converse at their leisure, and under the pretext of selecting a position he took the opportunity to overturn the jar unseen and tread upon its contents, "for it is essential to the case that nothing should transpire."
"There is an air of mystery about your voice that lures," replied Hwa-che, reluctantly permitting the escape of a large and unprepossessing beetle. "Both ears are turned towards you."
"Mankind at large has been appropriately compared to a diversity of creatures of the wild," Chin-tung continued, "and for the purposes of general reference the advantages of the analogy are obvious. When it is grasped that there lies within the spacious form of a high functionary, who may be nameless, the complex nature of a panther, goat, fox, jackal, gorilla, mule, rabbit, tortoise, goose, magpie, golden pheasant, ringed-snake, musk-rat, and common earthworm, blended in equal parts, the need to step warily becomes transparent."
"Admittedly," replied Hwa-che, "yet how is it possible to discern which of these various parts is at any given moment in ascension?"
"It is owing to the difficulty that you have so efficiently implied that the necessity exists for always assuming them to be in operation together. This closely affects your own position."
"It has certainly been said, 'The ear of a man, the eye of a woman, and the hand of an official are never satisfied,'" was Hwa-che's endorsement. "But it is no less truly stated, 'Shrubs have nothing to fear from the axe of the wood-cutter,' and this one's lowly growth is an adequate protection."
"Up to a certain point that cannot be gainsaid," agreed Chin- tung, "but the unfolding of events has drawn aside the curtain. In spite of every pretext it would now seem to be reasonably assured that the Last of Much Gladness will see His Excellence setting forth on what it is impossible to regard as anything but a thoroughly unpalatable journey. To his intense annoyance at being compelled to go at all there will be added a narrow-minded rancour that he must exhibit himself to all who cross his path with a humiliating curtailment. In this extremity resentment will be spent on many undeserving quarters, and you, Hwa-che, as one closely involved, are marked out for oppression."
"It is undeniable that up to now the Barbarian manner of discovering crime has not yielded a prolific harvest, but the ground may be said to have been cleared of obscuring stubble," replied Hwa-che, with unchanged determination. "Footprints, the betraying ash of extinguished opium pipes, and the significant behaviour of the gold-fish in the ornamental tank all having failed to reveal the slightest shred of evidence in any direction whatever, it accordingly devolves upon the subtler method of inferential deduction to expose the motive. From this it will be but a short step to the doorway of the actual transgressor."
"It may be an even less devious path that brings you to the strong place reserved for those who fail to come up to expectation, though your stay there will doubtless be more lingering," was Chin-tung's gloomy forecast. "On that account the one now by your side has determined upon a course of action, for the prospect of seeing you led off in chains, or condemned to wear the cang, is for some reason unendurable to his imagination."
"Perchance," suggested Hwa-che, "he who speaks reminds you of a frail and venerated sire, for whose sake you would be willing to impart protection? Or it haply arises that some feature of this unshapely face resembles in a faint degree that of a much- desired maiden of your choice, to recall whom, even on so inferior a plane, is a passport to your favour?" And in order that he should have no opportunity of ignoring the implied likeness she placed her by no means unattractive face in a convenient position.
"There is no maiden such as you describe, and the one to whom you otherwise refer is a hardy—not to say thick- skinned—chair-carrier, most of whose features have suffered obliteration in the usual routine of his exacting calling," replied Chin-tung.
"Why, then, should you inconvenience yourself by guarding one who has no claim on your esteem?" persisted Hwa-che, with what seemed to Chin-tung to be a superfluous thirst for detail.
"Let it suffice," was his concise reply. "'When escaping from a dragon it is not the time to pluck violets by the wayside,' was uttered by Lin-fa, but in the present case the danger impending bears a sufficient resemblance to His Excellence T'sin Wong, and your inopportune curiosity, however fragrantly expressed, completes the instance."
"Say on," enjoined Hwa-che with commendable restraint. "It is also aptly written, 'One cannot both avoid the pips and enjoy the pomegranate.'"
"Inasmuch as you have a malapert reply to every deep word spoken there would seem to be a kind of natural fitness in your grain for the part that lies before you," declared Chin-tung obscurely. "It is also to the point that you are lithe of build, with both hands and feet unformed, and your face devoid of all the sterner graces."
"Explain yourself more fully, thou ambiguous Chin-tung," was drawn from Hwa-che's foreboding. "What is this new involvement to which the Fates are tending?"
"It is recorded in the pages of the 'Forest of Conspicuous Virtues'—the precise Epic of the three hundred books eludes me at the moment—that when the indomitable Sheng was ringed in by ten thousand hostile spearmen——"
"Assuredly, profound," interposed Hwa-che adroitly; "and our richly nourished past is heavy laden with these appropriate fruits of wisdom. But there is a time to charm the activity of a serpent with the honey of sweet sounds and a time to lull it with the more summary persuasion of a well-aimed bludgeon. As regards this sudden qualm you raise, the more humane course will be to employ the latter method."
"Since you are a new-comer from another Province and have, moreover, an irrational nature, it would be discourteous to refuse," replied Chin-tung, "although the recital will be correspondingly threadbare. It is necessary for you to understand, therefore, that after full deliberation, not omitting special offerings before the Tablets of his race, this one has formed a plan to protect you at all hazard. To do this it will be necessary to convey you hence, for should you fail in your now hopeless quest it is a fixed resolve of the one whose word is law to condemn you to a rigorous test, on the ground that having fallen short in what you undertook it is fitting that you should yourself be shortened as a warning."
"There yet remain a full hand-count of days," declared Hwa- che, though her voice had lost its customary sparkle. "It is inevitable that the guilty should be traced by a timely application of the right Barbarian method."
"It would be well not to place too great a reliance on that chance while you still retain a hand to count with," was Chin- tung's meaning counsel. "On the last of the days you name T'sin Wong will hold a final Court before he sets out on his journey: impugned at that, your cause is past redemption."
"What, then, is the nature of this plan by which we may hope to snatch a respite? You, as recorder of his spoken word, will doubtless be away to attend him on the journey?"
"That is how the matter stands, the choice thrust on this person not being essentially diverse from that confronting the integritous Shek-kwang when——" But at this point the nature of Hwa-che's glance caused him to forgo the instance.
"On the night before the Last of Much Gladness a tumult will be raised about the chief gate of the yamen enclosure. This will originate from a profane and contentious-minded chair-carrier who will pugnaciously demand something grossly in excess of his equitable hiring, but insidiously fanned the Way should soon be in an uproar. When this is at its height the two conversing here together will pass the strict watch that will by then be set, and, guided by the stars, may hope to find an eventual refuge."
"There is a romantic element about this scheme that is not without allurement," confessed Hwa-che, after she had regarded Chin-tung for an appreciable moment, "yet none the less it behoves us not to lose our feet unduly. In the darkness of the night we cannot expect to progress more than a few short li beyond the outskirts of the city. An immediate search being made, and our appearance known, how can we hope to escape it?"
"All this has been foreseen, and to elude pursuit we shall both assume appropriate disguises. This one will thus become an erratic monk, and you, Hwa-che, to simulate a part the farthest from your own, will pass as a young person of the inner chamber."
"One of the other sort!" exclaimed Hwa-che, becoming involved as she recognized the complexities impending; "yet how can this——"
"Have no fear of your ability to pass the test with this one to direct you," was Chin-tung's benevolent assurance as he noted her misgiving. "An adequate supply of suitable attire has been discreetly got, both of the upper and the under layers, there being two of each denomination. Not to impose too severe a strain on your ingenuity this person will himself instruct you in their use, at a convenient time, and assist with their method of attachment."
"It is well expressed indeed!" declared Hwa-che, quelling a becoming impulse to conceal her high-minded confusion behind an opaque screen had one but offered, "seeing that he who speaks has, in a necessitous home, been the helpful one among seven. Yet how comes it, O strangely versatile Chin-tung, that you, who have professed a secluded and austere life, should claim a familiarity with such ambiguous details?" and she looked at him in a questionable manner.
"It is not necessary to have had actual experience to a certain type of mind," was Chin-tung's contention, "it being a spontaneous gift, like the ability to see objects in the dark or to discover winning numbers. It is scarcely to be imagined that one who can repeat the nineteen thousand couplets of Shan-ping's 'Symposium of Counterparts in a Garden of the Spirit' without a stumble would be thrown out by the mere measure of a band or the textile assonance of two opposing edges."
"It is simplicity itself," agreed Hwa-che, "and for that reason not beyond my own inferior limit. Suffer no apprehension on this score henceforward."
"Yet there are new conceits that lie in wait, as it were, to trap the inexperienced. Thus, among the subtler kinds of gear there is a kind of frilled habiliment of which the use is dubious. Should this be worn at an inauspicious angle——"
"Be content that exactness will prevail," said Hwa-che, not in an encouraging manner, and to lead Chin-tung's thoughts towards a less jeopardous path she added: "Having thus arranged our going, it would be well to consider what may ensue thereafter. Even to the simple-minded peasantry of our romance-embroidered land a wandering monk and one of the other sort, reading their way by the stars, would cast an incongruous shadow."
"That also has been thought of. It will be sufficient to explain that he who craves their succour, out of a virtuous affection for one above his state, has disclaimed his former vows, and having snatched her from a mercenary and unyielding father's arms, they now seek a distant port to escape a gross- hearted suitor. On learning this, who would be so destitute of true poetic fervour as to withhold a plate of rice and the narrow seclusion of an inner room where we may lie in safety?"
To this Hwa-che had no adequate reply beyond the conventional, "Your grasp is all-embracing," and even in that she betrayed an absent-minded poise that implied either an insufficiency or a superfluity of concentration; so that when Chin-tung recalled the neglected replenishment of his jar she forbore to demur and even lent her weight, though not with any real interest.
To suppress no essential fact let it be frankly admitted that not until then had it suddenly occurred to her how one whose devoted care was the Groove and Mainspring of her structure had been unaccountably lost sight of among these arrangements—the philosopher, Kwan Yen, still wrapped in a dispassionate contemplation of immeasurability, to a point wholly oblivious of terrestrial influence.
"It would serve no worthy end to drag that one in now," was Hwa-che's wise reflection, "since Chin-tung would only advance some new detail of an even more distressing kind to reconcile the conditions. Between the dangers of remaining here alone and the difficulties of escaping hence befriended, it becomes more than ever necessary to cleave a middle course by triumphantly establishing my pretensions."
Convinced of the soundness of her ground, Hwa-che visits the stall of Tso Tun, the cutting-edge restorer. Her bold resolve, inspired by what she learned there.
WHEN Hwa-che regained their meagre hut—where Kwan Yen was by this time lifting up his voice to proclaim that those who neglected the just cravings of honourable grey hairs would themselves have their natural wants ignored by rebellious children's children—her supple mind had already formed a project. As she braised a few small fish in oil, to be his morning rice, and peeled an orange for herself, she considered this more fully.
"Where there is a way in there is also a way out," was the context of her thoughts, "and every road, no matter how short, must necessarily lead in two directions. Because the Barbarian plan of measuring feet, examining the dust that collects on sills, and revealing guilt by the illogical presence of an alien herb has so far failed, it does not imply that the path is delusive in itself, but that this one has hitherto been exploring it on a misplaced assumption."
"Seeing that the knife you hold is the only one we have, why should you seek to impair its use by beating the edge repeatedly against the door-step of our ill-provided hovel?" demanded Kwan Yen with some annoyance. "To you who are well equipped this is perhaps of slight account, but had you no more than two teeth in all to chew with, and they not in complete accord, the matter would assume a very different bearing."
"Compose yourself, esteemed," replied Hwa-che, "for nothing could be farther from this person's mind than to disturb the balance of one who is both the Lever and the Fulcrum of her simplest movement. But it is expedient to approach the stall of the worker who restores cutting edges, and in order to do this rationally it is necessary to have a pretext."
"Doubtless it may seem reasonable to those who ignore the Usages to destroy an efficient cutting edge in order to have it ground again at an outlay, but in the days when the immature were content with their elders' footsteps it would have been deemed a sufficient proof of mental aberration," maintained Kwan Yen severely. "If an excuse is sought what could be more fitting than an accidental stumble in the press, necessitating a dignified and leisurely apology from which mutual regard would spring and an exchange of cups be fostered?"
"Because wheels have been evolved it does not result that boats are no longer to be trusted, and in the same grove the sycamore and a poplar may grow side by side as compeers," Hwa-che responded. "In any case," she added, with a regrettable lapse from the pure classical standard which betrayed only too plainly the Barbarian influence, "seeing that the knife is now as it now is, whereby does it profit either to create gristle about the happening? Put on your hat and outer robe, revered, and take up your staff and satchel. In search of a portent it is your mysterious whim to be drawn towards the Lower Mart, and this one will, as usual, attend your inspired feet to read your cryptic message. Provided that no inopportune word escapes your profound lips, there need be no misgiving."
"This is very much of a piece with what has gone before, and doubtless it will correspond to all that will ensue hereafter," repined Kwan Yen as he took up his reluctant staff and bent his desponding footsteps as she had directed. "Authority becomes a woman as a saddle fits the back of a monkey. There is a virtuous satisfaction in the thought, however, that no matter what may emerge this one will be in a position to remind Hwa-che that it is exactly what he has invariably foretold her."
ON their way towards the Lower Mart, where Hwa- che expected to find the stall of the one who ground the shears, knives and cutting edges for the city, she lifted a corner of the obscuring gauze that cloaked her action, to encourage Kwan Yen, if it might be, to take an intelligent curiosity in the process.
"The deductive method is the most highly sustained of all the Barbarian systems of unearthing crime, and in its results it is only excelled by those revealers who have been driven through the congested state of all other fields of detection to achieve their ends without any process whatever. Consider, esteemed, what took place on the eve or the early morning of the day that concerns our inquiry. A permanent attachment, of a material without equal for tenacity and strength, was sundered from the head of one whose unseasonable indulgence in rich, late evening rice promotes repose that is neither deep nor settled. In the light of this conjunction what would be the first precaution of a heedful man before he made the venture? Thus, by insinuating yourself into that one's place, you may assume a stable basis."
"The first requirement of the one whom you define would be to compose the most feasible apology he could, to advance if detection overtook him," was Kwan Yen's assertion.
"Your surmise, venerated, is a typical example of the confusion of ideas that too often goes by the name of thinking," said Hwa-che, though not unkindly. "To suggest behaviour such as you outline is not to put yourself in another's place, but to merge him in your own. The far-seeing must try again."
"May the Books perish if this one does!" replied the ancient, falling into a sudden obstinacy, for he had expected another sort of viand for his early rice, and he had not yet ceased to nourish a resentment. "Is a second-in-ascent to be instructed thus and thus, thou sacrilegious she-child? What next, indeed, may very well be asked, for it will be no great step therefrom to be assembled in a circle and expected to secrete a hunted sandal underneath his hams for the gratification of the young and futile, or to obscure his vision with a cloth and pursue the clamorous and light-hearted. Nor were the fish appropriately seasoned."
"The foremost need of the one whom we conceive—a resolute and adventurous man, as the various indications prove, though not over intellectual or shrewd—would be a more than ordinarily sharp-edged knife or shears with which to effect his purpose," continued Hwa-che, not really hearing Kwan Yen's lament owing to an absorbing interest in her own angle of the problem. "With so much hanging on the severance of every hair without a betraying wrench, nothing but the very best would serve, and who could assure this but he whose sole care it is to restore the cutting edges of an entire city? It ensues, as inexorably as curdled milk follows the passing of a female dragon, that he who despoiled T'sin Wong of his much-lamented pig-tail sought this stall on the eve of the First of Much Gladness, for to have had this done before would be at the risk of it losing its superlative edge among the various exigencies of crime life."
"It seems harmoniously exact," agreed Kwan Yen. "Or at least," he added more circumspectly, "one has frequently heard narratives of mystery at the lips of hired minstrels of which the structure was based on a no less unsound groundwork."
"We are now approaching the stall of the one whose aid we seek, and it is therefore necessary to assume a casual bearing," warned Hwa-che, with a convincing air of no-interest towards the direction in which they were proceeding. "A distant arrow-flight, mayhap, esteemed, this cast, but is it not somewhere written, 'She who draws her bow at a twinkling star may perchance hit the eye of a passing bullock'?"
THE stall of Tso Tun was a place of some account and had for its sign the emblem of a Golden Sickle. He paid what was required of him with an uncomplaining face, so that no other of his craft was allowed to carry on the trade within the city boundaries. In addition to the Imperial tax, by virtue of which he was allowed to exist at all, the city levy, in default of which he would have been driven out homeless, and the strictly personal claims which assured to him the benevolent unconcern of a variety of capable officials, there were a few lesser interests to be suitably appeased before Tso Tun could feel reasonably secure—his own Brotherhood of Cutting-edge Restorers to which an agreed percentage of his gain was due, the recognized Guild of Property Despoilers who in return for tribute granted him an immunity from pillage, the authorized head of the Fraternity of Mendicants and General Street Importuners whose company would otherwise have sat down around his stall and driven away all others, and occasional bands of Highbinders and Hatchetmen whose bearing implied a menace.
To those who pointed out that by complying with these demands very little of the effort of Tso Tun's hands remained to cheer his labour, the one in question would fittingly reply that by not complying nothing at all would remain, and that, in any case, "He who counts in with the right hand and counts out with the left has his own thumb to blame if he is eventually the loser." But this apophthegm he did not repeat to any of those who claimed his contribution.
WHEN Tso Tun understood the object of their visit and had shaken his head misgivingly over the knife that Hwa-che brought, he courteously pressed both to enter, remove their sandals, and rest themselves by reclining. "For," he said, "this threatens to be a task out of the common, and why should you not freely accept what costs so little to provide?" and he indicated the floor for them to sit on.
"We will cheerfully assent," replied Hwa-che (and Kwan Yen concurred with even less reluctance), "the path being steep and toilsome. Furthermore, I have long cherished the desire to learn something of your art, for it must imply a very special merit."
"In what respect?" inquired Tso Tun, surprised. "But that is doubtless only your well-bred way of speaking, for in reality it is a paltry and despicable trade, exceedingly ill-paid, and bankruptcy its only outlook."
"Yet do you not brighten what would otherwise be dull, impart a keenness to the obtusest point, and diffuse a general lustre? What more can be gained even from the Classics?"
"That is certainly a reasonable view to take of the actual case, and this one now perceives that in spite of a simple look you are both sincere and liberal-minded. In the circumstances, perhaps it would not be going too far to offer you a cup of tea, while your aged friend, being of a somewhat austerer mould, might prefer his from a stoppered vessel?"
"Although it is over three thousand years ago that the verse was said, 'Wherever the tree of Virtue has its roots the ground cannot be too assiduously moistened,' the need remains the same to-day," replied Hwa-che, and Kwan Yan was even more emphatic.
HARMONY being thus established within the four walls of the dwelling, a variety of subjects were disposed of, until Hwa-che was able to bring up what concerned her most in an inconspicuous manner.
"If, as you assert," she said, "your illiterate method of keeping count is more than equipoised by an exceptionally retentive mind, it is a claim which without much discomfort to yourself can be readily weighed in the balance."
"How shall this be done?" inquired Tso Tun, who was not unwilling to maintain his expertness. "You, as the requiring one, should frame a challenge."
"So long as it is understood that no taels hang on the issue either way there can be no objection to an amiable contest," agreed Hwa-che. "The eve of the present moon might form a convenient trial. State definitely, therefore, who on that day employed your notorious skill, and what were the several natures of their requirements."
"The date that you have picked chances to fall on the particular day when by immemorial rule it is ordained for every shutter to be closed at midday. Few, therefore, were the calls on my ignored office, so that perhaps, as things are, you would like to claim another?"
"The word was spoken: let the test remain," replied Hwa-che with graceful indifference.
"At daybreak, then, a cooper brought an axe which he had struck against a staple, and as he left a farmer came with a scythe that had corroded through the winter. Somewhat later an elderly woman, reputed as a witch, required a set of skewers pointing, but we differed at the price and ever since this one has, on and off, experienced a blunt stab about his lower members."
"If she whom you describe could do this at a distance, would not the power beneath her hand have been enough to sharpen the skewers unaided?" inquired Hwa-che, but Tso Tun shook his head and spat with determination.
"That would never do at all," he replied compactly, "it being an interference with what is justly termed a vested interest. These creatures have their scope, as one may say, but they must not unsettle business fundamentals. Well, following after there was a scholar's paper-knife which from excessive use required re- shafting, a case of needles belonging to a baker's wife, who, since her portrayal in a printed leaf as one of Kochow's Queens of Outline, had allowed them to grow rusty, and a high-class concubine's jade comb, blunted by reason of her variance with another, whose design was to supplant her. Interspersed with these were several children of both sorts, to whom the exact stroke of the gong was a matter of some moment, and, to complete the tale, one who, under the cloak of a fluent tongue, sought to exchange a piece of ambiguous silver."
"Your claim is well maintained," allowed Hwa-che, "yet were there none requiring the actual replenishment of lethal blades, seeing how many now await your hand?" and she indicated a profusion of knives of various sorts, assembled on his table.
"That is in the nature of things, brought about by the swing of the situation," replied Tso Tun, at the same time raising his own cup on high and expressing the wish that both of those before him would secrete vigour in their loins and continue to live for ever. "Up to the first of the existing moon the noble High Mandarin's proclaimed word held sway, forbidding one and all to carry arms, and undertaking, by the solemn oath of his inviolable pig-tail, to discountenance the Three Societies and to eradicate sedition."
"Enlarge your opportune remarks more fully," exclaimed Hwa- che, scarcely able to disguise her surfeit of emotion at this notable disclosure. "We are, as it were, on the outside, and this goes to the very tap-root of the matter."
"It is quite evident, indeed, that you must certainly be distance-men if none of this has reached your behindhand ears," declared Tso Tun, assuming a superior manner. "There is the selfsame edict on the wall, proclaiming the enactment."
"Your guidance is precise," replied Hwa-che, "but some detail must have varied. What you indicate is merely a pious supplication addressed to the unfruitful and its message reads, 'Consume more loquats.'"
"This is one of the drawbacks of the illiteracy to which I have freely pleaded," confessed Tso Tun, becoming rather crest- fallen. "Perchance the next one is the official order?"
"That is a patriotic antithesis in the later T'ang manner: "Purchase Celestially and so uphold the handiwork of those around,' it runs; 'what have the Out-lands to supply that your own illimitable Empire does not offer?'"
"Then she—my inferior part—has doubtless taken it to serve as a nucleus for some more than usually elaborate arrangement of her hair," declared Tso Tun with a pessimistic gesture. "Be assured, however, that the facts have been rightly told. Doubtless you know what occurred thereafter?"
"We know, worthy Tso Tun, that on the present First this high official's wisdom-laden head was discovered to have been denuded. Is it claimed that these two things have some root in common?"
"Why, as to that, one whose only wish is to live in peace and turn out weapons for others has no call to probe the surface, well remembering, 'An open mind and a closed mouth go far towards an empty coffin,'" replied Tso Tun obscurely. "It has been pointed out, however, that as His High Excellence swore by something which may no longer be put in evidence, his oath cannot logically be held to bind him. Nor is it to be denied that on this hint the Societies have once more raised their heads and every disaffected man throughout Kochow is refurbishing his weapons."
"REVERED," exclaimed Hwa-che, when they had come from the stall again and were once more on a homeward journey, "this is the very pith and acme of disclosing crime in the Barbarian way, whereby, whatever happens, one is led on therefrom by further traces to a final and triumphant culmination. It is plain that we were drawn to Tso Tun's stall to learn this from his lips, for nothing could be clearer now than that it will be necessary to look for what we seek among the rebel camp, where it is doubtless securely held as a present pledge and a potent future hostage."
As they were at that moment approaching the street where Kwan Yen was accustomed to point out to Hwa-che the store of inexpensive delicacies suited to his failing sinew he judged it better to confine his reply to an open-minded gesture, but the nature of his real thoughts ran in a different channel.
"Following one of this sort is like pursuing an active goat along a rocky path by moonlight, at which the certain ills inevitably preponderate a very doubtful profit. 'Led on therefrom,' she said, and the word was truly spoken, for whether the indications next point to a stew-house of the city by-ways or to a nest of brigandage among the mountains it is equally certain that this enduring one will have to drag his footsore knees to attend her despotic elbow."
Hwa-che is warned by the Calendar Tree that time presses and, sustained by the consciousness of merit, sets out on a dangerous mission.
TO those obliging persons who have followed this depressingly related narration of events thus far, it will occasion no emotion of surprise to learn that Hwa-che did not allow the lilies to blossom in her path once she had formed a resolution.
In spite of a profound assurance that by conducting her quest strictly on the Barbarian model all would emerge worthily in the end and virtue ultimately triumph, her deep study of the obscure wisdom of the mysterious West conveyed the warning that in all probability it would be an extremely near thing at the finish, and it did not need the reminder of the miraculous Time-recording Tree—now almost wholly bare of foliage—to urge her forward.
This useful plant, it may be endurable to recall to a later generation (for owing to the intervention of a usurpatory and not divinely accredited Dynasty it very naturally gave up its exceptional functions soon after), at that Golden Age marked the passage of time for the benefit of humanity in a simple and convenient manner. The beginning of each moon found it destitute of growth but prepared to exercise its useful function, and therefrom it put forth a single leaf each day until the great sky lantern reached its zenith, when by a converse process a leaf was shed with the same docile regularity; thus enabling even the most superficial and illiterate to observe the appointed festivals and to discharge their lawful debts with honourable precision; and no more striking proof of the justness of the system and of the harmonious relations existing between the Upper and the Lower Spheres could be desired than in the present instance, for when at the beginning of Much Gladness it was found necessary to regard two days as one, no sooner had the Edict received the impress of the Imperial Pencil than the tree was discovered to have produced a second leaf, though no one actually observed the process.
It is maintained by some historians of a later date (none of whom, however, could claim to have really witnessed the occurrence) that as Hwa-che passed by the tree on this occasion the five remaining leaves shook in a peculiar manner, although at the time there was no breath of wind to produce the movement. This, it is affirmed, was to warn her of the danger of procrastination, and it is further held to have shown that the one thus singled out was supported by very powerful Beings, but though the incident is likely enough to have a substantial base, it is not insisted on by the present relater of events, who, whatever his regrettable deficiencies of style and method, has never failed to adopt Veracity as the Ruler guiding his lines, nor ceased to dip his brush into the clear Ink-well of Exactness.
TO an ordinary person, at this intersection of the conflicting lines of Fate, the necessity of burning a sufficiency of joss-sticks before the Tablets of his race and invoking a few of the more convenient omens would have seemed an essential duty, but let it be recalled that Hwa-che was conducting the enterprise from an entirely varied angle.
Her only preparation, therefore, was to wash her feet from the dust of the morning's toil, darken her face for the purpose of disguise, and rearrange her somewhat too attractive hair on a more rebellious pattern. A single fruit, hastily consumed, restored her inner nature, and after thoughtfully inviting Kwan Yen to take for his midday rice anything suitable from their store that his ingenuity could discover, she would have set out on her adventurous quest when that one sought to detain her.
"If it is no new thing for the control vested in an exceptionally patriarchal beard to be denied submission, even a more than usually wrong-headed she-child will scarcely venture to impugn the authority of our imperishable ancestors, some of whom have been dead upwards of ten thousand years," was his contention. "Yet how will it be reasonable to invoke their aid when danger threatens if you neglect to inform their attending Shades of the precise course of action that you are contemplating?"
"The argument is not unsound," confessed Hwa-che, "and coming from one who is both this person's Rudder and Sheet-anchor it has a two-fold grapple. In the circumstances nothing could be more appropriate than that you yourself, revered, should spend the afternoon explaining to the sympathetic Shadows the urgent need why, at this approaching crisis of our attenuated Line, they should all, so to speak, pull together. If there should be any comment on this person's absence at the time, one of your persuasively arranged apologies would certainly establish concord." With this dutiful submission Hwa-che lightly placed the lower part of her face against the upper part of Kwan Yen's, in the picturesque Barbarian manner, and after resourcefully wedging the outside of the door so as to forestall the venerable's emergence, she definitely set off on her intrepid mission.
IT was not until the official quarter of the city had been left behind that Hwa-che recalled a necessary detail.
Hitherto a high conviction of the part she was to play had been enough to fill her imagination, but it now emerged that in order to ingratiate herself into the rebel council it would first be necessary to discover where the leaders of sedition held their meetings. Passers-by to whom she addressed the courteous inquiry—and of these she took care to question only those whose furtive mien and repulsive looks indicated that they were probably outlaws of the worst description—either answered in an evasive strain or in a way which, while conveying a variety of personal information of an extraneous sort, avoided the essential detail.
"Gold in its native state does not lie usually upon the surface of the ground, and that which is acquired for the mere asking is scarcely to be esteemed even at so insignificant an outlay," was Hwa-che's sage reflection. "All this, however, points to a right direction, for it is in the essence of Barbarian crime-detecting that difficulties should intervene until the time is ripe for an opportune disclosure." She did not, therefore, suffer her confidence to become unduly blunted, but proceeded to explore the less reputable by-paths of the city, at the same time striving to convey by an expectant poise that she was a person to whom something might reasonably happen, so that no one should be debarred from approaching her on any subject whatever.
Her trust was not misshapen. It so chanced that beneath an obscure arch in a dark angle of the Ways two persons who conferred together had been watching her approach, and after a dubious word aside the leader of the two stepped out and gracefully inquired whether it lay within their power to assist one who was obviously suffering some acute discomfort.
"Far from that being the case," replied Hwa-che, "this one's reckless stride is merely designed to express that he is intrepid and alert, so that anyone requiring a person conforming to that mould might be encouraged to come forward with his project."
At this admission the two strangers exchanged suggestive looks and the one who has already been spoken of continued:
"It is just possible that our meeting has been specially arranged by the Powers—whichever they may happen to be—who are concerned with such details, since we are—not to throw the cloak of Evasion over the crude outline of bare Truth—seeking a person such as you describe. Would it in any way be out of harmony with your habits or condition to associate with those who have adopted rebellion as their profession?"
"On the contrary, I have long desired an opportunity of studying the various grades of insurrection from an inside angle," was Hwa-che's frank admission. "Assuming that there is nothing in your high-minded revolt contrary to the Five Essentials of a Virtuous Life, or antagonistic to the Seventy- seven Primordials of Meritorious Achievement, there would seem to be no good reason why this one should not join his negligible effort to your attractive cause."
"No complaint on the score of either of the categories you mention has so far reached our directing Circle," declared the obliging stranger. "In any case, whatever you disapproved of would doubtless be set right, for, as the adage suitably has it, 'Steel chains may not restrain the onslaught of a frenzied lion, but a single word, well put, is sufficient to control a reasonable person.'"
"With that understanding lead me to your den," agreed Hwa-che, assenting perhaps too readily to a course of which she could not see the actual outcome. "The requirement, whatever it may be, shall not find this one lacking."
AS they made their way through a maze of the less frequented streets of walled Kochow, Che Lan—for this he now described himself as being—passed a variety of agreeable remarks of an obvious nature, partly because he had a natural trend that way, but also with the set purpose of involving Hwa-che's mind so that she might not again recognize the path they went by. Later he began to speak more definitely of the advantages of being a rebel, and to urge the one he led not to become faint-hearted at the difficulties that might perhaps have to be surmounted.
"The League of the Hanging Sword has always maintained a certain exclusiveness among the revolting factions, and for this reason we are doubtless less on the general tongue than the Lily or the Heaven and Earth, for instance, which are, in our opinion, nothing more or less than illiterate rabbles. Devices such as restoring a certain amount of the yearly exaction each must pay, as a reward for procuring a stated number of new adherents, or of offering to the one who contrives the most original oath of initiation, free conveyance to the shores of the Hwang Hai, and rice and repose within a tea-house there throughout a moon of gladness—these and other clap-trap forms of enticement have never polluted the Things-to-be-done Parchments of the Hanging Sword."
"What, then, are the chief characteristics of your old- established sect?" inquired Hwa-che, not unwilling to learn something of their rites before she found herself more deeply committed to the venture.
"It is a little difficult to explain in a few short beats of time what has taken countless cycles to establish," was Che Lan's rather evasive answer. "The illustrious founder of our Order was an enlightened patriot of his time whose practice it was to suspend a two-edged sword as a descriptive badge directly above the wicket entrance of his stronghold. To those who came in peace he extended the firm grasp of welcome, but if at the same time he had reason to suspect treachery or guile, by releasing a hidden spring the hanging sword could be made to descend with accuracy and penetration. The analogy with our fraternity is obvious. In an age when the simple ideals of primitive justice are tending to become more and more obscured by the complicating machinery of legal forms it is refreshing to have an institution whose unlacquered boast it is that once inside its doors the Good are rewarded without formality or stress, while the Bad, by the useful expedient of not calling them to trial, can be disposed of without being given the opportunity of outwitting uprightness."
During this remark Hwa-che had formed a definite resolution that before passing a certain point it would be desirable to learn by what standard those concerned were tested. While she was considering how this might the most tactfully be represented, a door that she had imagined they were passing, opened unexpectedly, apparently of its own volition, and without exactly following the sequence of events, the one who thus had her commendable wariness impaired found that she had been drawn, as it were, into a moist and uninviting vault between the two obliging strangers.
IT was some moments before Hwa-che grew sufficiently accustomed to the effete light that a single scanty grille provided to see the flight of steps towards which Che Lan—a little less politely than in his bearing hitherto—now urged her.
"However," was her broad-minded extenuation, as she hastened to comply, "there is an apt saying that when visiting Tientsin it is desirable to conform to the ways of the Tientsinners, and if it is a custom among the insurrectionary classes here to induce animation by pinching the more salient features of a neophyte's outline, it would perhaps be illiberal to demur at what is doubtless purely a local usage. Assuredly there is also a certain lack of delicacy in some of the Barbarian annals, and if a parallelism is to be maintained——" But at this point they reached the upper floor and Hwa-che was again thrust forward.
This time she found herself in the midst of an assembly whose attitude towards her presence while tolerant was reserved. All were persons of the other sort, and without seeming to betray too close an interest in their doings, Hwa-che at once recognized that they were middle-class rebels of not too unduly pronounced views or too exacting a standard of insubordination. In order to gain a breathing space in which to arrange her mind she therefore bowed obsequiously to each in turn and continued to shake hands with herself repeatedly, until the foremost of the band begged her to desist as he had that day crushed several of his fingers in a hatchway and politeness compelled him to respond with equal vigour.
"As you have now done all that courtesy requires, dispose yourself in the seat of initiation while we proceed to examine your fitness for the task you essay," he continued, and Hwa-che, with a willingness to accede to whatever test was set in her determination to reach their inner council, was about to occupy the chair in question when an unpleasant detail aroused a sharp misgiving.
"It is easy to understand that the martial emblem of your redoubtable founder has a wide significance at these rites," she generously admitted, "but is it strictly necessary that it should be suspended, point downwards, exactly above the unprotected head of anyone accepting this otherwise attractively upholstered dais, or if that is deemed essential, could not the sustaining cord be something more reassuringly substantial than the single thread of silk that at present constitutes its entire substance?"
At this demur the leaders of the sect conferred together, though it was plain that Hwa-che had not enlarged her face by questioning their practice. Presently one who bore a wand advanced and gave their ruling.
"The League of the Hanging Sword," he said, "has a very ripe tradition and is jealous to preserve its simple, old-time customs. So far as the bamboo records of the Order go the sword has always hung exactly where it is, although it is not denied that the chair may from time to time have been set elsewhere, but the position of the chair has not been called in question. With regard to the sustaining cord even less exception can be taken. Several patriarchal members of the Cause can testify that for at least three score of years the same piece of silk has served the purpose. Why, then, since it has proved its tenacity through an unbroken cycle, should it fail ignominiously during the next half gong-stroke? The plea was ill-advised on either side and fails in both its facets."
To this rebuff Hwa-che made no response beyond a hasty sign of general acquiescence. She was, indeed, far too occupied with a new and overwhelming proof of the effectiveness of tracing crime in the Barbarian way to have been disturbed just then by anything less marked than the hanging sword actually descending. For in response to the plain indication of those around she had begun to dispose herself upon the couch when something in the unusual luxury of the seat sounded a clear note of warning. Accustomed to refer all extraneous details to the judgment of senses trained beyond comparison with those of ordinary persons, Hwa-che had only to sit upon the cushions of the dais to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they were stuffed with hair. If hair at all, then why not human hair? and thus in direct progress to the heads of the innocent victims of the Society of the Hanging Sword's unscrupulous design—its purpose yet unfathomed—countless pig-tails snatched by the secret emissaries of this far-reaching League and ingeniously concealed in the one place where they would most naturally be overlooked until the time was full for their dark use in some sinister project. At that moment the ill-starred Mandarin T'sin Wong's missing queue seemed almost within her grasp—as, perchance, it might be.
From a narrow court below there rose the intoned voice of a melon-seller, proclaiming that his wares came direct from the Garden of Heaven's Queen, and describing in some detail their cultural process; about the parchment window of the upper room an acrimonious bee, detained against his will, noisily claimed the right of passage. The official of the Order, with a reassuring nod, tapped his lengthy wand once or twice against the hanging sword to prove that it would not fall—nor did it. The elders of the Circle drew apart to settle what exactly was to be their next procedure, and Hwa-che, veiling her deep emotion, continued to sit among the cushions of the throne, more than ever assured that ultimate success was only a matter of swerving neither to the right nor to the left from the rigid Barbarian manner.
Further complications with the League of the Hanging Sword and the circumstances that led Hwa-che towards the camp of the Avenging Knife in answer to a challenge.
"IF there is one thing upon which we Hanging Sworders pride ourselves above another it is the elasticity of our Constitution," was the chief of the assembly's unpretentious boast (Chung was the name by which those nearest to his rank familiarly addressed him) when they were again reclining. "We can thus assimilate whatever comes our way—in reason."
"The noble proportions of your exalted waists have not escaped my notice," replied Hwa-che, still occupied with endeavouring secretly to find an opening in any of the cushions within reach, so as to confirm what she already had measurable assurance of. "One can see that you eat with gusto."
"It is quite true that for the most part we are appreciative feeders," admitted the gratified Chung, "but that was not exactly the trend of this one's meaning. Other illegal bodies surround their rites with ceremonial forms that are not only grotesque but wasteful. How can the tenacity of purpose of a recruit be upheld, or his fitness for credence proved, by cutting off the head of an inoffensive domestic male bird, shattering a useful article of culinary ware, or extinguishing an unnecessarily lighted taper?"
"Your well-lined mind is a rich store-house of profitable wisdom." Hwa-che spoke somewhat absently, for she thought that she had at last found a weakness in the fabric of a cushion, but the ordinary training of social usage would have enabled her to carry on a polite conversation practically to an indefinite length even when deeply immersed in several other occupations. Besides, is it not somewhere written, "He who can rule his lips when others open theirs will come to hold a kingdom?"
"The essence of the thing is that we demand of each whatever he is the most competent to render," was Chung's ready illustration. "To prove his fitness for our badge a baker must bake a round of loaves and do it well, a musician chant an Ode in appropriate tones, a fisherman cast a widespread net—or at least relate how on some bygone date he enmeshed a phenomenally prodigious monster. Thus we command an efficient band on whose specific services we are able to rely. Now as regards your own highly distinguished calling——"
IT has been freely claimed that in giving but a superficial ear to much that followed—for she had by this time discovered an opening in a seam and could actually grasp what felt like a pig-tail—Hwa-che was remiss, and but for this lapse she might reasonably have avoided all that arose thereafter. It is not to be denied that in allowing herself to be formally enrolled as an active member of the body of Hanging Swords, under the delusion that she was taking part in a friendly literary contest, the one who thus became liable for whatever sacrifice was required of her in the cause of insurrection added a complicating ingredient to her quest, but from what has already been disclosed of Hwa-che's general manner of behaving is it to be imagined that she would have shunned an involvement however grave merely because it contained a risk and presented no possible loop of extrication? Rather—but it would be more courteous now to allow the urbane-tempered Chung to proceed, for several of his well-turned phrases have been already lost through this unpolished interruption.
"WHAT is it that is at once both the smallest and the largest thing on earth," propounded Chung—and by the lack of association with his preceding words it is only too plain that Hwa-che's unfortunate abstraction had entailed the loss of some connecting medium—"and which similarly while lighter than all else is equally the heaviest?"
To this obscurity Hwa-che was able to reply after a single cast of thought, for in a mouldering coffer she had once unearthed an ancient scroll in which every sort of enigma was set out and its interpretation rendered. There were also short pointed sayings calculated to remove the gravity of even the most austere, ingenious wiles connected with mystic numbers, beguiling ways of supporting the attention of guests cloyed after a feast, by means of chopsticks, orange peel and the stoppers of wine vessels, and the metrical arrangement of curious facts relating to persons of both sorts who were stated to have been natives of various towns and cities.
"That which is at the same time the smallest and the largest thing extant is the heart of man, and it is no less so the lightest and the heaviest of all matter," replied Hwa-che profoundly. "For while in moments of despair it is as less than nothing to his call, under the inspiration of a brave and generous thought it is capable of embracing all creation. Correspondingly, it is so light that a breath of confidence will raise it to the skies, and yet so heavy that devoid of hope it will drag the one who wears it down to the lowest parts of the Underneath World."
This answer was deemed adequate by most of those around, and there was even some slight applause from a few of the less exacting, but Chung raised a withholding hand to indicate that there was a more searching test to follow.
"The growth of a tree: when the sun has shone and rain nourished its roots the flowers may seem to wither, but in due course the fruit matures to satisfy the hungry."
To this it was necessary that Hwa-che should furnish an analogy of equal balance, so that the two sentences would harmonize as though they had been split from a single piece of rock, one forming the upper and the other the lower layer.
"The progress of a State: after a leader has arisen and heroes shed their blood its glory may appear to be extinct, but when the time is ripe justice shall be found for all men," was the apt response she offered.
No one ventured to challenge the accuracy of this solution; indeed the one who contrived it would have been surprised at the expressive looks that passed between the leaders of the band had she not then been more deeply involved with her own conclusions. It was at this moment that she succeeded in enlarging a weak space sufficiently to draw out some of the contents, when it at once became plain that she would have to rearrange her ground as the substance thus exposed was a short end of rope, and the bulk from whence it came, material of a similar fabric. A person of less scope would have been dismayed at this reverse, but Hwa-che was not to be easily unsettled.
"After all," she reflected, "this is so much to the good since it is obvious from it that one must look elsewhere for the missing pig-tail. This is evidently what in the Barbarian plan is meant by 'circumscribing the outcome.'"
"AS you are now a full member of our clan it is as well that you should learn the hidden signs and passwords of the Order," declared the officious Chung, coming forward with an emblem. "Afterwards you will be instructed in your dangerous task and given directions for the facilitation of a notoriously trying journey."
"But surely a generous enthusiasm for your subject carries you somewhat too far beyond the warrantable facts, estimable Chung," demurred Hwa-che, to whom the prospect of having an attesting badge secured to some inner portion of her garments was not devoid of hazard. "In a not ignoble pursuit of the Higher Principles this one confessed a willingness to be present at your rites, but it is several steps from that to subscribing to an oath, while no mention had hitherto been made of an impending task or journey."
With this dignified protest Hwa-che would have left the chair in order to emphasize her becoming disclaimer had not two offensively mannered rebels of a particularly aggressive type seized her at the most convenient angles for their uncouth design and compelled her to remain seated.
"It is a little late to cavil at the pattern of the cloth when the robe has been cut to measure," declared Chung in a less agreeable manner. "Nor is it easy to explain what more a band of brothers could have done to prepare you than we have done in this matter. Professing to be a student of the Literary Excellences you have been afforded an opportunity of distinguishing yourself on those lines, and by the universal voice of the Inner Circle of the League you have justified admission. Becoming thus one of ourselves you are subject to our code, and however liberal we may be in the way of coffins, burial robes, lotus wreaths and other marks of appreciation for those who have come to need them in our service, there is only one reply to disobedience."
With these temperate but at the same time sharply pointed words Chung indicated to Hwa-che the hanging sword above her, and a masked attendant who had appeared to do that one's will in a single negligent, but by no means difficult to interpret, gesture.
"Restrain your accomplished henchman's agile-fingered hand for yet a breathing space," interposed Hwa-che, "and it is quite possible that this unfortunate misunderstanding may be amiably settled."
"If, as it is said, two men are necessary to induce dissension, this one will never willingly be the other," replied Chung, motioning his vassal to delay whatever he had been on the point of doing.
"You spoke of the literary form just now, and that serves to remind me of a congruous instance," resumed Hwa-che, who was less concerned at what she said than that the conversation should not be allowed to languish. "Somewhere in the pages of the lesser Classics there occurs this wise precept, 'It is better to remove a fallacy than to establish the foundations of a city,' and if ever there was an occasion when he who is now striving to obliterate an erroneous impression was convinced of its inspired truth, it is when he finds himself at variance with one who seems to possess qualities of so forcible a nature."
"All this is very agreeable hearing and there is no reason why you should not seek to put yourself in the right," replied Chung, who, apart from his office, was both of a mild and sincere bearing. "'Rules are rules,' is the adage of the Hanging Swords, and one cannot quell insubordination with a cardboard dagger, but is it not also humanely stated, 'Even a beetle, despite its horny case, may not be destitute of softer feelings'? Declare yourself quite freely."
"THE circumstances," explained Hwa-che, when harmony had thus been restored among them, "may be very simply stated. For reasons of the most confidential obscurity it was necessary that a High Dignitary (whose titles must be omitted) should recover what has been abstracted before a given date or the cause that we all have at heart might be gravely menaced. Trustworthy indications seemed to point towards a Certain Place as the key to the complication, so that when your obliging associate, the prescient Che Lan, encountered the one who is unmasking how it is about the Ways with a carefully veiled suggestion, nothing seemed more opportune than to fall in with his proposal."
"From the tactful ambiguity of what you leave unsaid I recognize that you are well qualified for a diplomatic mission," observed Chung, "and this brings me to what may, after all, be an honourable adjustment of your distinguished troubles. Had you been equally discreet before, the path might have been less tortuous, but nothing can alter the fact that you are now one of ourselves and must justify your selection by some useful purpose."
"This would seem to be not unlike Mei-ho's famed banquet of sixteen courses—the same meat under another cover," was Hwa-che's reflection, but she thought it better to put on a gratified expression.
"The particular errand that I now have in mind is a task of the most attractive nature," continued the egregious Chung, doubtless with the best intentions. "For some time past it has become distressingly clear that as a secret society we of the Hanging Sword have been drooping somewhat; indeed, no farther away than yesterday an unmentionable dastard suggested in this one's ear that the Hanging Fires would be a more appropriate designation."
"Doubtless the profane scoffer will himself be struck to earth sooner or later by the fires of celestial retribution," declared Hwa-che with sympathetic indignation.
"Doubtless—sooner or later," agreed Chung, though with less displayed emotion. "Meanwhile, those who are lukewarm towards our cause are not disposed to let the saying wither. . . . Reticence and obscurity may have been well enough in the spacious days of our Great Forerunner, but, say what you will, in these hard-striving times a secret society that neglects to proclaim itself to the four quarters of the city might as well unroll the shutters."
"Perchance a placard widely spread, or a leaflet dropped lavishly by some device from a far-flung line of kites——" Hwa-che would have urged, but Chung was not disposed to rearrange his set intentions.
"What I have for some time had in mind is a confederacy of all the dissentient elements into one common bondage. The Spreading Lotus, the Heaven and Earth, the Avenging Knife, the Spotless Pure, and our ineffectual selves—the 'Large Hand-count' as we are aptly termed by the brighter paragraphists of the daily printed leaves—though individually vulnerable, would make an all-powerful union."
"Yet if the menace of your strength should compel Authority to move——"
"If Mankind were sufficiently to weigh every risk before advancing, Progress would consist almost wholly of walking backwards," was Chung's notable rejoinder. "In any case, our rear and flank are reasonably guarded. Pung Chu, War Lord of the Province, is one of our oldest members, while the incorruptible T'sin Wong, High Governor of the city, is a deputy-president of the Heaven and Earth—both, needless to say, with emergency powers of repudiation. The time being ripe, further delay is supine. We will boldly sound the Avenging Knife and you, Hwa-che, to prove your allegiance to our cause, shall have the distinction to bear the message."
EQUALLY poised between a willingness to melt from the ill-arranged situation into which she had been drawn and a disinclination to thrust herself into another that might prove even less alluring, it was a few gasps of time before Hwa-che could sufficiently compose her mind to meet this hazard.
"Nothing could be more attractive than to enlarge the rightful cause," she accordingly declared; "in the present case, however, is the initial step well chosen? It is impossible to avoid the reflection that a society with so inauspicious a name as 'Avenging Knife' might have little in common with our blameless aims and method, whereas the tranquil promise held out by the 'Spotless Pure' would seem——"
"Let it suffice," interposed Chung with an air of finality, but on a more affable thought he added: "It is quite true that while the Spotless Pure is courteous, mild, and indisposed to acts of violence, the Avenging Knife has never yet been known to miss an opportunity of treachery, indiscriminate bloodshed, and violating the sacred laws of hospitality. That is why our first aim must be to gain its alliance."
"Yet their diversity from us——"
"That is the crux and essence of the situation," replied the gifted Chung, who had, indeed, been seeking for an opportunity to explain his astuteness, for he was inordinately proud of contriving this solution. "To form an alliance with the Spotless Pure—the Order most like ourselves—would be so easy and obvious a course that its effect would be practically fruitless. With each of the others in its turn the process would have to be repeated with increasing laboriousness and vigour. If, however, it can be shown that we are at one with those so antagonized from our mode as the Avenging Knife, the intervening ranks must necessarily come within the scheme of their own accord, having nothing left to dissent from."
"There is something to be said for your point of view," agreed Hwa-che, "yet by what inducement can the truculent Avengers be brought to join our force?"
"That also has been thought of, and the difference between us will not seem to be insuperable once a reasonable atmosphere of give-and-take has been engendered. What we aim at is the restoration of the immortal Dynasty of Tang, rightful Wearers of the Imperial Yellow. The Avenging Knife—not unnaturally, perhaps, for a comparatively fungoid growth measured by ours—fix their hopes no farther back than the ambitious Line of Wang, which flourished considerably later. These mutual claims would appear to be irreconcilable at first, but restrain your enlightened scepticism for just an added moment. Between the never-to-be-forgotten Tang and the respectfully mentioned Wang came the wholly inconspicuous House of Hang, which so far appears to have been overlooked by any restoring body. Now if we agree to stretch a point forwards and pledge ourselves to restore the succession of Hangs—and, after all, so long as one is rebelling about something, does it really matter to the sincere patriot about what?—could not the Avenging Knives be persuaded in an equally accommodating vein to go a like distance backwards, so that we might find a common treasonable basis?"
"It is not too much to ask—though the suggestion might come a little dubiously from one a stranger to your council," was Hwa-che's deft submission. "Now if a leader of your own should go, who through long acquaintance with the rites would be able to speak with authority on niceties of detail, how much likelier in every way——"
"That is not the point," interrupted Chung, "the only issue being whether you conform with cheerful alacrity or put our official sword-user to the deplorable necessity of exercising his now almost obsolete weapon. As a matter of fact," he added, with the straightforwardness of manner that dispelled any suggestion of impoliteness, "we have already sent two or three envoys with a friendly message, but as one and all have failed to return from then to now, we determined, in view of this drain on our higher command, to entrust the preliminaries of establishing cordial relations to—shall we say?—casual sympathizers."
"This is sufficiently surprising," declared Hwa-che, "and will shed but little glory on your family name or Tablets. Even among Barbarian people, to whom refinement is unknown——"
"The word is well recalled," exclaimed Chung, who was doubtless not unaccustomed to similar reproaches, "for in one respect it is necessary to supply you with a caution. In their defiance of Authority the Avenging Knives may be said to exemplify a familiar proverb, for if they do not actually bite off their tongues to humiliate their palates, they certainly cut short their hair, seeing in its length an imposed badge of shame and bondage—thus reducing themselves to the condition of Out-land men, who are notoriously unable to grow more than a short span owing to the feeble nature of the soil it roots in."
"What is this?" demanded Hwa-che, scarcely able to believe the length and breadth of her good fortune. "They voluntarily renounce their honourable and dignity-conferring pig-tails?"
"Not only that, but it is claimed that they secretly deprive others under the cloak of night, and it is darkly held that their actual goal is a nation of pig-tailless men and large-footed women, who will thus be amenable to no restraint but revert to a state of primitive simplicity. It therefore behoves you——"
"Say no more," exclaimed Hwa-che, to whom this revelation was as an inspired beacon calling her to follow. "Your honied voice has triumphed."
"It is almost incredible," ran the fluence of her thoughts as she hastily gathered up a few essentials for the venture, "how by this Barbarian system of crime-detecting one disclosed indication leads with unrelenting precision to another. From her virtuous chamber in a mimosa-embowered homestead in far-away Lo-ngo to a remorseless chieftain's highly questionable tent in the rebel camp of the uncurbed Avenging Knives is indeed a distant call, but looking back, this one's progress would seem to have been strictly normal. From our arrival in Kochow to the misunderstanding around T'sin Wong is in the nature of an obvious pass, and from T'sin Wong to Chin-tung's presence follows as an almost inevitable gradation. But for the sympathetic inscriber of the word's gratifying concern about her safety would this one have sought out Tso Tun? And the inexorable sequence of that illiterate person's hint leads direct to the council of the Hanging Sword, whence she is now being, as it were, automatically passed on to the stronghold of an even more bloodthirsty and uncompromising horde of ruffians. As an eminent Barbarian verse- maker had occasion to remark, 'There is a well-intentioned demon that bends our feet, no matter in what direction we may think we are proceeding.' Certainly in this matter of leading one discreetly on towards a destined end could magic have gone much farther?"
An encounter by the way and the conditions under which Sun-jen and Yun-yi each relates an instance.
THUS with less than a full hand-count of days to run, Hwa-che set out to convey the ingenious Chung's carefully worded message to the stronghold of merciless sedition (those of whom she inquired the way asserting that where demons left off the Avenging Knives were no more than just beginning), upheld by the thought that here at last she would achieve a meritorious end to her praiseworthy endeavour. That an event which was destined to be of some historical importance in the progress of the Triad should have received so little notice in the pages of the Records can only be ascribed to a discreditable tampering with the Annals at the hands of jealous-minded rivals, who have evidently erased the rightful names and inserted their own superfluous descriptions.
Little wonder that the rectitudinous Kuo-shang, living in that age, composed the following line as a warning to his race, to be carved above the door of their temple, "It is easier to obtain justice at the hands of strangers hostile to your cause, than to win commendation from the lips of those who have known your father's father."
AS Hwa-che made her way along the rugged path that led to the Avengers' fastness she stopped from time to time to enjoy any feature of the landscape that seemed worthy of regard, and she sang now and then a song of courageous doings, partly because she was looking forward to a successful emergence from her task, but generally when the overhanging vastness of some forbidding gorge made her realize more than before the admitted insignificance of her presence. Later, when turning to admire the effect of raindrops that spangled the wings of a golden butterfly drying itself on the broad leaf of a wild fig, she noticed two who lurked in the shadow of a rock, and recalling that she had already marked them more than once in the progress of the journey, she waited. Seeing no alternative, the two who thus delayed came on again so that soon the three encountered.
"As our faces are in each case set towards the west, why should we not proceed together?" was Hwa-che's affable suggestion. "Very little now remains of this one's tasteless store, but whatever there is shall, he insists, be shared equally all round," and to the first she held out a quince, while the other impartially received an onion.
"That is the basis of all mutual endeavour," declared the leader of the two, "and we will equally be open. The one beside me has, it seems, a little snuff, and I, fortunately, have but lately filled this bottle with pure water from a health-giving spring. Had we met sooner our share might have been of a more solid grain, but in this case goodwill must take the place of action."
"The pleasure of your enviable society amply outweighs any trivial shortcoming elsewhere," replied Hwa-che with magnanimous indulgence. "Yet have we not already met under another aspect? The fluty quality of your melodious voice strikes a reminiscent tone, while it seems almost incredible that there should be two faces so entirely devoid of human expression as that of your estimable comrade. This suggests the assemblage of the Hanging Sword, of which you are doubtless——"
"Since you have guessed so much there is nothing to be gained by further pretence, for who having the cup of achievement dashed from his lips can profess any interest in what happens to the saucer?" confessed the spokesman. "He who speaks is Sun-jen, the person by his side being known as Yun-yi."
"Both names have a distinguished ring; my own commonplace one is Hwa-che. The purport of my errand cannot be unknown; it only remains for your own sympathetic aims to be, as it is said, laid on the carpet."
"That seems no more than fair," agreed Sun-jen, "since we are all sharing freely. Know, then, that we both are Chung's attending men and pledged to do his bidding. Our instructions in the present case are to keep you well in sight, and should you waver in your task to dispose of your admittedly picturesque form by some neat and concise but, at the same time, unmistakably fatal method."
"In that case your energy need not be widely taxed, seeing that henceforth we proceed side by side to the very stockade of the Avenging Knives' enclosure. As there are still some few li to be advanced, why should we not lighten the rugged path by each relating some personal incident of note, in the romantic bygone manner?"
"IT is difficult at a moment's spur to recall anything out of a markedly epochless and threadbare life that would not fall with an entire absence of sparkle on ears doubtless accustomed to the legendary splendour of the Middle Kingdom Epics," apologized Sun-jen when Hwa-che had indicated that upon him devolved the office of the first narration. "In the circumstances an ill-disposed event that compelled this one to abandon a right-minded and strenuous career and to throw in his lot with law-contemning rebels may prove no more wearisome than any other.
"Up to the age of two score years he whose purpose it is to explain what then happened cultivated the prolific soil of a single field, which by its fruitfulness, added to his own unceasing toil, enabled him to support in their virtuous old age not only his own two treasured parents, but the no less prized veterans who stood in a like relationship to those ones also.
"The field thus referred to lay on the gentle slope of a conveniently arranged hill, whereby the Malign Influences were turned away and deflected elsewhere, but the benevolent Forces, well disposed to husbandry, were encouraged to remain and foster. For these reasons the produce of the land was brought to an early fullness so that this person was able to forestall all others in the markets of Li-yang, a neighbouring town to which at stated times he bore his crops, and in return took back the commodities he stood in need of.
"In order to realize the unfolding of events it must be fully grasped that about the middle of the field an auspicious cave provided a home and harbourage for the various personages who have so far been brought into the recital. Let it be freely granted that if it fell short in some respects it went beyond in others, and in any case, the more infirm the aged are, what could be more appropriate than that the earth should form their dwelling?
"Thus positioned, on a certain day that by the usual tests had not seemed ill-suited for the venture, the one who speaks took up his carrying pole and brought what merchandise he had down to the open market of the place he told of. The business of its disposal being done and the replenishment of his own store concluded, he had already turned his feet upon a homeward path, it then being middle light and, as the season fell, darkness fast approaching, when with no more warning than is contained in a serpent's voice a sudden storm descended. Not only did the rain come down, but from the countless pores of earth it also spouted upwards, while winds of unnatural force and malice blew continuously from all the eight directions into which extraneous space can be divided. Subterranean and overhead Beings made their presence known in various threatening ways; from the High Places set among the sky frolicsome Spirits hurled celestial fireworks and devastating bolts against any thing or creature to whom they took exception. Throughout that night he who narrates lay in a scanty wayside shrine, and it is doubtless owing to the sacred nature of the spot and a cryptic amulet he wore suspended by a cord that he suffered no more than an ill-nurtured stiffness of a single unprotected joint, where a resentful gnome must have been able to get a purchase.
"The next morning the force of the storm had been recalled and long before the dawn this one was hastening homeward, not scrupling to enlarge from time to time the promise of so much joss-stick that he would assuredly burn if those dependent on his arm should prove to have escaped the menace. Alas, an entirely contrary state of things was revealed as he approached the modest holding. Not only was there no single member of the venerable community left to relate the happening, but the cave was no longer there, while to insert a final coping to this fabric of destruction even the field itself had vanished."
"This is sufficiently unusual to excuse the incivility of checking your spontaneous flow of eloquence for a single beat of time," exclaimed Hwa-che, who was following the recital with expectant ears, though Yun-yi, having doubtless already grown familiar with the unfolding of events, maintained a more sluggish outlook. "It is not beyond the bounds of natural thought that six venerable and decrepit persons, such as you describe, should be carried hence in a storm of unprecedented violence, and even a cave, by reason of its hollow build, might be susceptible to obliteration. But how could it ensue that a field, which by the nature of things is a given area of corporeal space, should cease to be, or, to pursue the obscurity to another dimension, if that which was a field no longer endured, what would be the nature of the vacuity that occupied its place?"
"This plainly comes of one who is not intrinsically endowed attempting something that lies outside his province," admitted Sun-jen, who was not prone to deny his failings. "The field, it is true, was no longer there, and with it had gone the fruit and industry of this one's labour, but the space whereon it formerly had been was now a naked waste of solid rock, that being at no great depth the soil's substratum. The field, in short, whether merely by the energy of moving springs or the malignity of Beings, had slipped hence in the night and was now brought up and stable at some considerable distance to the south, farther along the valley. In its progress it had sealed up, as one might say, the entrance to the cave, so that the whole of this one's cherished stock and ancestry had passed for ever beyond his devotion."
"The solution is reasonably explained," admitted Hwa-che. "Proceed with your engaging tale: the dilemma facing you is sufficiently enticing."
"The blow was indeed an unbecoming one, but after a suitable period of ceremonial grief over what had to be henceforth regarded as the temple of his race, it became necessary to suspend this devout exercise in order to safeguard the future.
"By dint of some inquiry and even of fruitless chase the one who is endeavouring to bring his low-born sufferings to a welcome close at length came to and recognized what in the eyes of the justice-loving could not but be still regarded as his unalterable possession—although it now occupied an alien site in the lap of a fertile valley. Rejoiced at the discovery, he would have entered in and gathered some of the ripened crop that was of his own planting when an unscrupulous-minded bandit, armed with several formidable weapons, appeared and stood before him.
"'Forbear,' exclaimed the inopportune arrival, brandishing an aggressive dagger. 'Who are you who encroach on this one's land, and by what claim do you seek to filch away the produce?'
"'Inasmuch as it is the fruit of his own tilth and this ground the soil inherent to his holding also,' was the reply, delivered with as truculent a front as a naturally fainthearted stomach could muster. 'Behold the melons and the cucumbers that these hands have sown, and propped against a bush there is this person's hoe, with which but yesterday he earthed up these ridges.'
"'If, as you say, you have done all this, it must plainly be by intruding within another's limits,' exclaimed the avaricious leper, 'seeing that the boundaries round about us have ever marked Lu-shun's enclosure. Yet are you not that Sun-jen who scratched a barren patch of waste to the north beyond the lime- kilns? Can it be that the storm has overcast your reason?'
"'It is quite true that until yesterday this person's field—which of its kind, being richly dunged, was in more than ordinarily prolific bearing—was somewhat farther to the north, as you have stated. Owing to the influence of undisclosed Forces, however, during the night it admittedly drifted elsewhere. That being so, the established sanctions of our land still hold: as that he who has had a goat stray hence may follow through all obstacles and claim it. If this is logical about so tractable a creature as a goat, which may be securely curbed by a light cord around its neck, how much more does it apply to an unyielding field, which no man can hold back, and upon which he must depend for his subsistence?'
"'It is one thing to pursue a goat and lead it back; it is quite a different tale to advance a right to establish it upon another's land and still continue to enjoy its produce. Take your hoe, therefore, and go in peace, or this quite sufficiently long- enduring one may be tempted to reply in terms of other weapons.'
"'But,' protested he who was thus placed, seeing unless he made good his claim nothing but penury before him, 'the hoe does but touch the outer crust of this matter. Not the tool alone, but the crops and the field itself, wherever they have strayed, are equally inherent to their established owner.'
"'Because you have sat upon a chair does it ensue that where you have placed your form becomes your own, thou insatiable Sun- jen?' exclaimed Lu-shun, beginning to display his rightful colours. 'If the analogy of an errant beast is to hold good, what reparation is not due to me for the blameless lamb that your uproarious goat has overlaid?' And he drew this one's attention to the eviddence of his effaced possession, which doubtless did, as he affirmed, now lie at a certain depth beneath this person's tillage.
"As it was impossible to carry on a satisfactory conversation with one who had a weapon within reach of every movement, aided, moreover, by the united voices of his assembling clan, nothing remained but to make a formal charge before the presiding magistrate of the district court and to beseech him to proclaim an edict. For this purpose the one who craved justice employed a skilful pleader, whose special privilege it was, when clad in a silk robe and wearing a complicated headdress, to stand forth before the Mandarin and speak as one denouncing oppression.
"What was a person's field, said this inspired fountain of uprightness, remained that person's field through all unlooked- for hazards, even including its transference to some extraneous site by outside Forces; and he spoke familiarly of others who in like case had similarly owned fields which evil men had come to covet, and of integritous Mandarins of those bygone days whose names had come down to us as upholding the cause of virtue.
"So assured of the scrupulousness of what he maintained was this obliging person that he urged the one who wore the button to raise his voice forthwith and declare that lawfulness still flourished.
"Doubtless this would have resulted, for no unbiassed onlooker could doubt his message, had not at that juncture another voice, belonging to one inferior in every way but similarly clad, been raised on behalf of corruption.
"The feeble contention of this despicable hireling, who had obviously been lured by gold to enact a sordid part, was that what was another person's field remained that other person's field no matter what—even should this include a further field of similar extent—had been deposited upon it, and he also spoke in an off-hand way of comparable instances from earlier times where corresponding fields had been analogously buried, and how straightforward judges of those epochs had invariably given their voice for the one in the position of that Lu-shun for whom he who spoke contended."
"How entrancingly balanced a state of things emerged!" exclaimed Hwa-che, as Sun-jen paused to shake grit from a sandal, "and what an enticing problem of law for that enviable justice. How did the broad-minded administrator decide, and on what specific point at issue did he ground his ruling?"
"He listened graciously to all that was being said, and with so profound an air that had the thought not been profane one might have assumed he slumbered. That this could not have been, however, his words attested, for he had, he then declared, listened to a case so ably conducted on either side that it was impossible to make any distinction. Merit accrued to everyone concerned, and the venerable precedent each side advanced exactly equalized and counteracted the established authority quoted by the other. As regards the field itself, the only thing in the circumstances was to be swayed by the weight of evidence produced, or to simplify the process by the number of witnesses attending; and as the clay-souled Lu-shun had hired nine, while this one's straitened means did not enable him to bring forward more than seven, the former person was proclaimed the rightful owner. The usual number of congratulatory fire-crackers was then discharged, and he who speaks went forth to earn his scanty rice by violence."
WHEN Sun-jen had finished the curious recital of how his errant field went hence upon him, a little philosophical discussion took place among the three as to the most likely Beings who would be responsible for such a visitation. This having been agreeably settled, Hwa-che next turned towards Yun-yi and called upon that unpretentious guard to reward their imagination.
"For," she observed pleasantly, "during your rebellious life many peculiar and informing things must surely have arisen to relieve the tedium."
"On the contrary," replied Yun-yi, "the occupation may be fitly likened to the Tien-li road, in that it is flat and monotonous in all its aspects, characterized chiefly by lavishly splashed mud and largely the resort of the idle and profligate classes."
"That is a very different picture from the one drawn to attract the unwary," declared Hwa-che. "Perchance, however, as was the case with the Prince of Kin's seven metal canisters, neither extreme is the most consistent with the details. At all events, Yun-yi, why should you not, following the indication of Sun-jen's pointing feet, relate to us the circumstances that first induced you to embrace sedition?"
"It would be difficult indeed to state exactly when that took place," replied Yun-yi, "inasmuch as from his milk-days upwards this one has always been, on and off, an outlaw, alternating banditry with the more ordinary sort of cattle-dealing, according to whether the season promised to be a rigorous one or fruitful."
"If it is the case that you are, as you would say, a life-long ally of rebellion, how is it that you are so newly of our band?" demanded Sun-jen, with a trace of ill-judged suspicion in his manner. "It is not well that discrepancies such as these should intervene, Yun-yi, for, as neither can deny, 'Confidence is a tree of deliberate growth, but a tiny shoot of misgiving will throw its shadow over a whole multitude by evening.'"
"It is just as well that you have mentioned this, since it provides the excuse for an explanation," replied Yun-yi, whose bearing had throughout impressed Hwa-che as being both scrupulous and acquiescent. "Otherwise, anything to do with so contemptible a personality as mine would have seemed beyond the likelihood of your indulgence."
"How should that be?" Hwa-che protested, for by her sympathetic outlook Yun-yi stood in some need of reassurance, "seeing that we are all three of a common mould? Or at least," she added with the strict regard for exactitude that proclaimed a virtuous upbringing, "so far as would appear to a casual observer."
"That is only your excessively good-natured way of putting one who is obviously unmannerly more at his ease," maintained Yun-yi; "but fortunately the point need not be pressed to a variance between us. In order to assure Sun-jen it is now needful to disclose that for many years the one who speaks was pledged to the rites and practice of another Order. Why he came to incur the odium of this resentful League, and how, by the lucky intervention of the Spirit of a benevolent ancestor, he was able to effect a miraculous withdrawal, may—subject to your enduring compassion—serve to provide an instance."
"So dutifully expressed a subject could not fail to attract our ears," becomingly declared Hwa-che, and Sun-jen contributed a more laconic welcome.
"THE powerful and far-reaching Guild which owned this one's allegiance, and the commonplace-sounding name by which he was then known must necessarily remain unsaid, since 'Trees can both hear and speak,'" began Yun-yi, after he had faithfully shared his last particle of snuff among them. "Let it suffice that through a simple cause he incurred a grave displeasure and two of the Order were told off to acquaint him with his failing. There being no hope of any respite, the one thus concerned came to an agreement with the two described so that he should retire into an adjoining wood and there self-end to everyone's advantage.
"This arrangement he would have honourably observed had it not been for the pressure of arisements. It can only be assumed that a protective Influence of his race overheard the compact, for no sooner had he passed into the grove than he was drawn out of the direct path to a secluded sward for no apparent purpose.
"As the event unrolled, however, this was far from being the case. Beneath the branches of an aged tree sat one who ground his teeth, while every now and then he tore his hair or bit his thumb to indicate extreme displeasure. 'Here is doubtless one who believes his lot is hard,' was the thought this scene inspired; 'yet how superior is his state to mine did he but know the difference.'
"With the charitable intention of reconciling the downcast stranger to his plight this one then stepped forward.
"'Consider before you abandon yourself to so lavishly displayed a show of efficacious grief whether your case might not be harder. Behold the rope with which it is the intention of the one before you to self-end himself as soon as our pleasurable conversation has run its course, and compare your own prospect with one that has so inflexible an outlook.'
"'As to that,' replied the stranger, 'it is just as well not to be too assertive. You at least have a suitable cord with which to effect your welcome end, whereas this invariably ill-nurtured outcast, having come here with a like resolve, now finds that he is without the means to accomplish his ambition.'
"'It must be seldom that what is called the extensive grasp of resemblance is so literally maintained,' remarked the one who is relating the surprise with which this disclosure filled him. 'My own negligible case is that having incurred the resentment of an all-powerful League self-ending is the simplest and least painful way of settling the issue. Is your necessity equally oppressive?'
"'There is no basis of analogy between the two, seeing that you are harassed by men but I am pursued by demons. Owing to an act of indiscretion while digging the foundation of a house, followed by a slight miscalculation in the position of a family graveyard, the enmity of a particularly rancorous tribe of Spirits was incurred, and these have ever since made it their affair to attend and thwart me.'
"'In what especial direction do their discreditable efforts tend?'
"'Chiefly by making success seem logically within the grasp and then in some ignoble way frustrating its achievement,' was the morose admission. 'Obliging traders have revealed to him lucrative schemes of gain, but once he has joined in the right to share their profit the demons have—much to the well-meaning promoters' distressed surprise—contrived some wholly unforeseen weakness in the project. Cattle that experienced owners have pronounced to be robust and sound no sooner changed hands than they developed mysterious defects and fell into a languor, while merchandise, bought on the direct understanding that it could be sold for more, would be found to have meanwhile deteriorated to a loss by the malice of these insidious Beings.'
"As he paused even a churl would not have withheld a sympathetic word, whereupon the funereal wayfarer recalled another hardship.
"'Favourably disposed strangers, who had expressed the utmost confidence in this one's faith, have been known to disappear completely at a crucial stage of our intercourse—pushed off the earth by the malignity of this persecution. The very air is laden.'
"'It would almost seem as though you would be wise to abstain from all enterprise while these conditions last,' suggested this one, rather at a loss to know what advice to offer. 'Have you tried the effect of wearing written charms well spread about the body?'
"'It is not ineptly said that he who has bruised his knee by a sudden fall will never lack a trusty friend to point out what he slipped on,' was the not altogether tactfully chosen answer. 'The time has long been past when the one whom you enjoin had any further store to hazard. For a period now he has won his stinted rice by serving others as a hireling vassal, and even in these lowly tasks the enmity of the pursuing fiends has always succeeded in having him thrust out with expressions of dishonour. Latterly he has tried his hand at pilfering, embezzlement, threatening to haunt, and other simple forms of crime, but never with any credit, and it is indeed his latest failure in this respect that has brought him to a limit.'
"'If the subject is not in any way distasteful perhaps you would satisfy my ill-bred curiosity as to what took place,' I said, and the one addressed obligingly consented.
"'It can matter very little either one way or the other now,' he replied, 'and as I equally have a request to make it is just as well not to be too unbending. In the hope of some small gain I had for a time past been loitering with a set intent about the courtyard of a certain War Lord of the Province. At last the chance occurred, a silver cup from which the general had drunk wine being left unguarded. Even while my hand was stretched out the one described came by that way in an indecisive manner, then taking from his sleeve a treasured roll he sought a hiding-place, which presently he chose in the lining of a hat, and thereafter he fell asleep, being, so to speak, in an absorbed condition.
"'This sudden chance threw a never balanced mind into an acute dilemma. Whereas the silver cup had up to then seemed a princely recompense for this one's pains, it now appeared as though it might be meagre compared with what so affluent a chief took such trouble to conceal where none would think to examine. The uncertainty, added to the risk of being seen, grew more and more distressing.'
"'Yet if the way was clear, as you have shown, why should you not have possessed yourself of both and so turned doubt into assurance?' was this one's natural inquiry.
"'That is only another instance of the lamentable power the demons wielded,' confessed the stranger. 'So harassed between the two was this one's mind that not until now did he grasp the possibility of so obvious a solution. All this merely adds to his resolve, for when he came to observe the roll, which in the end he fixed on, in place of the expected gem or rare jewel of worked gold, some worthless parchment sheets of meaningless designs emerged to mock his high hope of riches.'"
"Did the disheartened stranger indicate that War Lord more exactly, or say at any time what happened to the roll?" exclaimed Hwa-che with interest, for a circumstance connected with Pung Chu began to have a meaning.
"He described him in certain general terms whenever he spoke of him, but nothing that would serve for a specific guide, being such as an outspoken man might apply to gny high official."
THIS interruption did not seem altogether grateful to Yun-yi, for he coughed several times before he continued the narration, so that Hwa-che forbore to press him further. Nor was Sun-jen's behaviour wholly free from doubt, as from time to time he struck with a club at overhanging shrubs, and he had a way of blowing loudly through his teeth for no apparent reason.
"When the one sitting beneath the tree had told me this," resumed Yun-yi, "as neither had been shaken in his design and the day was drawing on there was plainly nothing to be done but to go about our business.
"'Since I have told you all you ask it now rests with you to grant a trifling service,' said the stranger. 'Divide the rope you carry on your arm and give me half, so that each may effect his purpose.'
"To this I willingly agreed, but when the rope was shaken from its coils it was plain to see that allowing for the necessary knots and loop it would come short of our object. Thereupon the other fell again to denouncing the malignity of the Beings ever on his track to thwart him.
"'Be that as it is,' was my reply, 'it will go hard if two resolute men cannot outwit an unsubstantial Shadow. Seeing that the rope falls short of a dual length we will take its use in turn, and you, being as it were a valued guest, shall have the first preferment.'
"'That would never have occurred to me,' declared the other, 'and clearly shows what I have all along contended. But as to go first would imply some sort of merit, you must inevitably take precedence.'
"At this it began to appear as though night would fall with our variance unsettled had not the thought come to the one now left that politeness might be met by leaving what we argued to the outcome of a hazard.
"'Your aptitude for contriving ways and means covers my head with shame,' he said, and we presently casting a round and a flat stick at a venture, it fell to the stranger to be the first to Pass himself Upwards.
"'It is very odd that I who have hitherto always been the one to lose should score this success as the last act of my misspent life,' he remarked, with a certain touch of distrust, as we both arranged the rope in a suitable position, 'and I cannot altogether cleanse my mind of a qualm that there may be a concealed snare somewhere. Perhaps before——' But at this point, the support being suddenly withdrawn, he passed immediately into the state of his next existence.
"It was not until then that the one who sat waiting until he could prudently unknot the cord grasped how this happening might rearrange his future. It has never been claimed that he himself had any ambition to Pass Up, and the undertaking to self-end was more in the nature of a general convenience. It now appeared that this stranger might opportunely take his place when those charged with the case should come that way again to see that the sentence had been accomplished.
"This, then, he very simply did, changing what things he wore with the other, who would scarcely have been so unreasonable as to raise a dissenting voice after the way in which this one had assisted his endeavour, and he also made it as though birds had altered the expression of his face somewhat and harmonized the details.
"Thereafter, realizing the need of a powerful confederacy to bear the part of one who had neither name nor Tablets, he sought the mantle of the Order of the Hanging Sword, claiming to be newly from a distant Province and keeping aloof from all who might question this pretension. Doubtless there are certain incongruities that a more accomplished relater of actual things would have easily avoided, but there is a saying that elephants do not tread on earth-worms, and in any case, O incredulous Sun- jen, it will be seen that a claim has been established."
AFTER Yun-yi had recounted the instance of the calamitous stranger whom he so charitably helped on, Sun-jen willingly agreed that his integrity was plentifully maintained and amity was again re-established between them. Hwa-che also contributed approval and, as she was not desirous of being called upon to relate her case (the peaks of the marauders' citadel being now in sight), she purposely added:
"It would be difficult to judge evenly between the ingenuity of Sun-jen's tale and the attractiveness of Yun-yi's recital," although at the same time she gave each an expressive glance that plainly indicated in which direction lay her verdict. "Certainly it would be worth a footsore march to visit that same field, while this one would willingly forgo a three-coursed feast to have seen the delusive scroll that so misled the inauspicious stranger."
"That can be accomplished without depriving yourself of so much as a single grain of millet," declared Yun-yi alertly. "Being in that other's sleeve when the things I spoke of happened, that I still have it is a check as to whether I have or have not displayed exactness."
"There can be no shred of doubt that this is indeed that most unsavoury War Lord's missing plan," considered Hwa-che aside, as she recognized the geometrical design and the official style of writing. "Its reappearance here is evidently some detail of the quest, but it is a little difficult to know just how it fits into the fabric. In this rebellious camp its service would be obscure, and it might even prove a pitfall: how, then, if some prudent friend who understands its weight could be given the chance to use it?"
"Thus and thus," she accordingly replied, "this is evidently a treatise based on some abstract theme, written in the obsolete manner. Being neither a system of winning numbers nor a romance of unfettered passion few would bestow two glances, but an occasional student here and there might doubtless be found to venture a piece of silver on the chance of an apt expression."
"To one who cannot read, an inscribed roll it is no better than an outworn horse—it takes up space but can convey no message," was Yun-yi's lament; "whereas a piece of current silver carries a universal meaning. . . . Perhaps some of your distinguished kin who have sound literary tastes——"
"None of this one's belated stock take any interest whatever in the remoter paths of learning," was her admission. "There is said to be, however, an obscure scribe in the Mandarin T'sin Wong's suite who is easily beguiled by outlandish inscriptions. Chin-tung the pedant's name is; it might repay your toil to approach this confiding scholar."
"You share my rice henceforward. Yet if the one you cite has an official rank is it to be thought that I, who have straw shoes on my feet, should procure speech with him?"
"There is a way—I have chanced to learn—that admits you to his presence. The password with those who bring him curious wares is this, 'I come from him who wore the scarlet feather.'"
"All that I have is yours, now onwards. My only doubt hangs on the tale I have to tell, and as to whether one who is not by trade a receiver of stolen things may or may not imply a danger. If this can be safely met——"
"It can be met by reason of my knowledge of such traffics. On the outer cover of the scroll I will now write, 'No questions to be asked,' that being in the nature of a talismanic greeting. This will safeguard your part, and to complete the toll an added sign implies that he who brings it is to receive an ingot of good weight and standard."
"While you are doing that why not make the ingot two?" suggested Yun-yi briskly. "Be assured that on anything received your share on a reasonable scale will not be called into question."
A notable absence of refinement on the part of the Avenging Knives leads to Hwa-che meeting one whom she had seen before, and what he disclosed thereafter.
BY this time they had come to the strong places among rocks which formed the barrier of the rebel chieftain's outpost. Beyond this, the path shrank to a narrow ledge leading to the gate, with the drop a windy space on either side where eagles had their combats. To mark the limit of disputed ground a row of posts was set, and on each a head, which had formerly been a hostage. Sun-jen spoke reminiscently of some of these but it is doubtful if he really knew, for small grey birds had made their nests where reason had once been, and continually went in and out with an incessant twitter.
It was here that all three paused, for if Hwa-che went on she must inevitably come into the gateway, and neither of the others had any wish to meet the armed keeper of the door, who could be seen across the tenuous way, swinging a threatening blade as he stood before the postern.
"From this point we can mark you in and so report to the one whom we obey that we have, in fact, seen you enter," explained Sun-jen, indicating the distant gate across the causeway. "You cannot turn aside for there is no aside to turn to. Farewell, Hwa-che: put your trust in the high protective Beings, but at the same time it is well to remember that a small knife carried inside the nostril never comes amiss when danger threatens."
"It is scarcely to be thought that one so slight will carve a way out either by force or cunning," was Yun-yi's speculation. "However, as you have pointed teeth, Hwa-che, you need not altogether give up hope, for 'An ounce of luck is better than a hundredweight of wisdom.' May you yet make the destined one the happy mother of three score vigorous he-children."
"Without that being actually probable it would be bootless to despair, since 'Though you cannot see through a stone wall there are things the other side,'" replied Hwa-che discreetly. "We have come together on a toilsome march and now our feet bend elsewhere. Prosperity attend your going!"
Sun-jen made no response, though he disguised the expression of his face by continuing to blow loudly, while Yun-yi turned aside on the pretence of catching a passing insect.
WHEN Hwa-che came to the keeper of the gate she made the sign of peace and indicated that she bore a written message. At this he lowered the bar and struck an iron gong to warn the guard inside that there was no immediate necessity to discharge their weapons. He was a harsh, misshapen man, who had the appearance of having been crushed downwards, so that the greater part of his excess bulk protruded sideways. To indicate his sphere he wore an iron collar.
"To one who comes unarmed is there any formal reason why your hospitable door should not swing freely inwards?" was Hwa-che's greeting, more for the sake of expressing a polite form than in any apprehension.
"To those who come unarmed there is never any difficulty whatever on that score," replied the dog-like keeper. "Whether at a later period you will discover a similar facility when you wish it to give outwards may be another matter. However, since you are come, you are honourably welcome."
INSIDE the high stockade Hwa-che found the ordinary affairs of a rebel camp being pursued with regularity and method. To one who showed a wand she fully declared her errand, requiring to be taken to the leader of the force at once, but for some reason it appeared that this was not the custom. Instead, the letter she displayed was not received entirely as she had expected, but before she realized that her ceremonial formalities were not being returned with courteous precision a door behind her opened and then closed and, without knowing exactly who had been concerned in the perfidious movement, she found herself confined in a small, unwholesome den which she was unable to identify more clearly owing to the absence of both grille and shutter.
"This is rather an unpolished reception for one who has come bearing an emblem of goodwill," was her not unnatural reflection, "and it is far from clear at the moment how so incongruous a development fits in with the scheme for discovering the missing pig-tail. It is perhaps too soon, however, to expect this to be revealed in detail, but nothing is more secure than that according to the rigid Barbarian plan something very definite must emerge from so drastic an adventure."
"If it is not absolutely necessary for your refined convenience that you should stand on this superfluous person's unprepossessing face, he would, for his part, willingly forgo the gratifying pleasure," came an interrupting voice from the dark spaces about, and Hwa-che hastily varied her position. "This obscene lair being in any case straitened for even one, it was not to be thought that a new-comer could at once adapt himself to the requirements of its limits," the unseen continued when Hwa- che expressed a seemly regret for her inadvertence. "Presently you will discover that the only endurable way of passing the time until execution is to lie extended on the floor, in the hope that sleep will perchance mitigate your torments."
"All this has a very abrupt and disquieting air to one who has only just arrived on a mission of fraternal greeting," exclaimed Hwa-che, in no way reassured by her companion's pessimistic outlook. "Who speaks of execution and a defiance of the ordinary laws of conduct?"
"So far as this one's experience goes, no one here takes the trouble to put the intimation into words, the matter being assumed as settled," was the morose admission. "'Cold iron, not hot air,' is the apophthegm engraved upon their sword of office, and any intruder from outside is deemed to have automatically come within their code of vengeance. Ill-destined that he ever was, the yamen cellars of the Mandarin T'sin Wong were as the shady courts of paradise compared with this fetid abode of anguish."
"You speak of the Mandarin T'sin Wong, so that it is to be presumed you are from Kochow also," exclaimed Hwa-che in some amazement. "Who, then, are you, and what is the chain of circumstances that has brought you towards this strange encounter?"
"The unpleasant name I bear is Li, that being equally applicable to my father and many of our kindred likewise. Until a recent day my fit and menial task was to remove the accumulated dust from His High Excellence's surroundings. Thus and thus I toiled, although the ineptitude of those who cast their faults on me led to much ill-directed censure."
"This seems to be tending towards some noteworthy disclosure," was Hwa-che's deft assumption. "Proceed," she added, "to unwrap your attractive verbal package. It has all the appearance of being mentally sustaining."
"After a period of endurance for the wrongs of others it became necessary to make an appropriate gesture if this one was to preserve the inherent dignity of being. This took the form of getting together whatever he could amass, and leaving the palace for a distant part of which he had made assurance."
("Without seeing the acrimonious hireling his identity is reasonably secure, and all that he has so far said fits in with a known pattern," Hwa-che considered. "It can no longer be ignored in what direction developments are hastening.")
"Owing to the depravity of one who forswore his father's tomb, however, the intractable animal upon which this person had relied to carry him to safety foundered by the way, and he himself was deposited with lavish unconcern among the more rough-edged of his belongings. In that plight he besought succour among this nest of misbegotten vipers, with the result that you see before you—or would if this ill-constructed pest-house did but possess a lattice."
"It is absolutely incredible the way in which the necessary encounters are arranged when once mysterious arisements are being pursued on the Barbarian system," was drawn from the depths of Hwa-che's unstinted homage. "It being an essential detail of the plan that you should be here to reveal some material circumstance within your knowledge, not only are you, as one might say, enticed to commit a fraudulent retirement but a wholly disinterested camel-coper is drawn into the scheme, and even an irrational and generally contradictory-minded beast induced to perform its allotted function. The conjunction that you are shortly to Pass Upwards removes the last possible objection to admitting in this one's ear all that you know about the missing pig-tail. First, however, since time may come to press, have you learned from these polluters of ancestral Tablets when they are likely to end your meritorious state of being?"
"Their regular times of execution, it has been hinted, are alternate seventh days of each moon, during the open season. In this your lucky number has come up, as you have not long to wait, whereas he who speaks has already endured what seems an æon of persecution. But what is this about a missing pig-tail, or why should we, who are shortly to Pass Beyond, concern our minds with such superfluous matters?"
"What you forecast as regards yourself is reasonably assured," replied Hwa-che, "but it is quite different with the other of the two who are here conversing. One entrusted with unravelling a complicated crime in the profound Barbarian manner has never yet been known to perish by the way, though they who cross his path may drop around like over-ripe li-chi in the Season of Great Tempest. Thus, being here to trace and restore His Excellence's despoiled appendage, it necessarily follows that something is destined to intervene in time so that romantic impartiality may be established. Whether this will take the form of human authority, demoniac control or celestial manifestation does not concern the issue."
"This is somewhat beyond the scope of my everyday experience," declared Li, who has never been represented as high-strung or quick-witted. "Why, however, should you, living within a bow-shot of the object of your quest, have come on an untamed duck hunt to a hostile rebel camp among these barren uplands?"
"You say that because your mind has not been trained to fathom the logical sequence of revealing indications," replied Hwa-che severely. "Every step has followed unswervingly upon another, it being finally shown that the one who must inevitably have performed the crime is the member of a secret band whose practice it is to discard the queue as a pledge of insubordination."
"Let that be how it will as regards betraying footsteps, disclosing signs and not what, the one who speaks speaks only of his knowledge," was the mule-like Li's rejoinder. "His High Excellence—or the ancient male bird, venerable goat, obsolete tin bead, superannuated metal waver, as may be chosen—undoubtedly cut off his own moth-eaten appendage for some obscure purpose that is outside this one's reason, notwithstanding the outcry that signalized its disappearance."
"What is this that you express in actual words?" demanded Hwa- che, scarcely able to rely upon her usually well-conditioned ears. "Yet how should you, who measure by your thumbs, presume to set up your own grotesque opinion against the inexorable deductions of the precise Barbarian method?"
"There is an adage that 'Truth is more unsettling than an earthquake,' and your shaken voice would seem to indicate that there may be something in the saying. Come what shall, the essential fact was as this one has crudely stated, for on the night involved he and certain others of his band conspiring to pass the time in gladness, he who admits the fact wedged up both the shutter bar and the handle of the door of his lordship's inner chamber, so that he might not by any chance come forth and interrupt the revel. Thus, the obstructions being undisturbed at dawn, it emerges that none can have passed in or out under cover of darkness."
"This has so strange an air as to be only credible by reason of its extreme improbability. That a menial slave should dare——"
"As to that, everyone knows that when the watch-dog snores rats no longer have to walk on tiptoes, and a good deal takes place in the monastery that you do not find recorded in the book of virtuous doings. This was not unthought-out and there was a ready answer on our tongues—as that his safety was assailed—if he whose freedom we controlled had discovered the position."
"There can no longer be a doubt——"
"Setting aside the motive, which still remains obscure, doubt is neither here nor there from one end to the other. That his Outstanding Prominence had this tail at such a time, and that at another it was hence, these far-seeing eyes can bear specific witness, while between the two stages none but Chin-tung had access to the room or could have gained admittance. As regards Chin-tung—even if one so notoriously subservient should harbour a dark revenge—he whose helplessness must be essential to the scheme was by then alert and wakeful. It thus ensues beyond all contradiction——"
"There can no longer be a doubt," resumed Hwa-che coldly (though the distance of her glance at hearing one whom she esteemed described as she had herself defined him was necessarily lost on the undiscerning Li in the obscurity of their prison), "that here is the ultimate bedrock line of investigation which has been ordained from the outset for this one to pursue, and that everything befalling hitherto has been relentlessly leading up to the moment when the two who are now discussing it should meet as condemned prisoners in a rebel chieftain's lair among the inhospitable mountains."
"Though," she added for her own ear alone, "why the same result could not have been obtained at an earlier period in the more health-giving environs of walled Kochow, it might be arduous to explain to ordinary persons who have not enjoyed the advantages of studying the classic Barbarian models."
Despair of the considerately inclined T'sin Wong and the means whereby he sought to avert frustration. His encounter with Chin-tung and that one's subsequent behaviour.
WHILE Hwa-che was thus employed in pursuing crime by a strict adherence to the profound Barbarian system, things in the meanwhile had been far from pleasantly arranged as regards that humane and much-enduring nobleman, the Mandarin T'sin Wong, chief authority of walled Kochow and all its Outer Limits.
It may be recalled by those who have had the exquisite condescension to follow this halting and poverty-stricken chronicle through its various badly told involvements, that the dignitary in question, after being met by the extinction of his treasured flock of silk-worms, was at once brought face to face, in a way of speaking, with the humiliating and prophetic loss of his uniquely distinguished pig-tail, and almost immediately afterwards entangled with the presence of a grasping and contumacious Being that had insinuated itself among his remoter organs, while over all a well-grounded apprehension about the orthodox continuance of his old-established Line corroded his rest and robbed even the most glutinous courses of a feast of their normal relish.
Staggering under these accumulated evidences of the Powers' resentment the distressed official shunned all outside contact and spent the interminable gong-strokes of the day wandering from room to room, now absent-mindedly burning an aromatic joss-stick before the shrine of an image or influential Tablet, now lethargically watching the flight of some passing winged insect that he lacked even the energy to grasp at. Equally poised between a continuous desire to consult the Omens and an ever- present dread of knowing what they foretold, he sought to encounter portents in a roundabout way, so that while accepting them when they seemed propitious he could affect not to have noticed anything unusual if the indications were threatening to his prospects. This chiefly concerned the Lady Fa's approaching endeavour, for having come definitely to regard himself as fated, nothing but the arrival of one of his own sort could hold out any promise. In this emergency even to encounter any of his inoffensive she-children (and as they were both numerous and affectionately inclined it was difficult to avoid their presence) was sufficient to engender choler, which led to frequent dissensions between himself and the one who invariably upheld their prestige.
IT was in one of these spans of white and funereal dejection that T'sin Wong bent his down-hearted steps towards the inner chamber of his lesser one, to suggest, perchance, yet another specific towards bringing about that which alone could assuage his dire misgivings. As he had already pressed upon her notice a variety of beneficial charms and guaranteed devices, none of which she had actually received with songs of gladness, T'sin Wong now thought to impart to his latest spell an extraneous air of authority when he found the one he sought, she being engaged in embroidering a scanty robe and attended by a privileged dependant.
"At last, O Cluster of Lilies, I come with confidence clasped in one hand and well-tried experience in the other," he exclaimed, after their more formal greetings had been exchanged, at the same time affecting an absence of concern that might have been misleading. "Last night, as this one floated in the Middle Air, he was favoured with a vision, which in the circumstances should carry more than ordinary persuasion. This took the form of one whom he at once recognized as the Spirit of your revered mother, wearing, however, an expression both benign and reassuring. Pointing on the one side to a lusty, newborn he-child that she urged forward, and on the other to a fragrant dish of stew, she delivered the following message, 'The eyes of three male toads, found towards dusk beneath a stone at the gate of an ancient temple, mixed with a little saffron growing in the shade of a spreading banyan, and the scales of an average gudgeon. These, baked to a rich consistency in a paste formed of flour and scented water, should be eaten by the expectant one in the last moon of her trial and are an infallible specific.' The apparition then dissolved, still wearing a look of unnatural indulgence, whereupon he who is stating exactly what occurred came back to earth and at once took up a brush and wrote out the injunction."
"The interest displayed by the one whom you thus met was natural and well-timed, but the opportunity for sustained conversation is seldom a feature at such moments, and this would seem to have been no exception to the routine," replied the Lady Fa, turning aside for an instant to part a silken thread between her teeth of jade-like lustre. "Otherwise you would doubtless have explained in turn that a generous sufficiency of the decoction of bull's horn and chopped goat's whisker—recommended by the wandering monk whose sanctity impressed you—still remains on hand, while as a further influence towards an end your wholly devoted one is wearing next herself the talismanic—and extremely uncomfortable—girdle formed of alternate mouse and lizard skins, prescribed by your own household diviner. Then—as your high-born nose will inevitably apprise you—there are the triple-power pastilles continuously burning before the image of Koom-fa, Universal Mother; the bells of a metal symbolic of virility rung with appropriate sinew whenever this one is on the point of seeking a refreshing slumber; the incantations several times a day to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals, fireworks, broken saucers, ceremonial mutterings——"
"All this is doubtless as you truly say, Fountain of Delight," interposed T'sin Wong with ingratiating mildness, for although the Lady Fa's enchanting voice did not appreciably vary from that in general use, the one who was familiar with its music could discriminate the finer shades of warning, "but that which is worth achieving at all is worth effecting aptly, and any slight thing that we can do while there is still time is merely, so to speak, an added weight pressed down in the scale of assurance. The particular quality inherent to a toad——"
"It is no less to the point that even of excellence it is not impossible to have a surfeit," was the suitable rejoinder. "Who is to say at what specific stage we may not have reached, as one might call it, the limit of saturation, where-after all that is added is an unbecoming excess of what may be conveniently described as he-ness? It is one thing to bring into the world a sturdy offspring who in due course should develop all the appropriate insignia of his species: it would be distressing beyond words to be the engenderer of an unnatural sort, who in place of the sparse covering of our civilized state should be thickly garbed from head to foot with fur, to warm affection reciprocate the phlegmatic outlook of the gelid frog, prefer existence gliding through the wave to the firm resistance of his native soil, or with an armoured skin like some uncouth saurian perhaps even disclose the caudal appendage inherent to a newt."
"The reference to a tail was, in the existing circumstances, both ill-timed and of doubtful flavour," declared T'sin Wong, who, on this subject, was becoming prone to bias. "Seek to acquire tact, O Scatterer of Discord."
"The flavour of stewed toad might prove even less attractive," the Lady Fa retorted. "Let each respect his boundaries. Is it not on record that when in the days of the Great Inundation a well- inclined but irrational official sought out the Dragon that had wrought the mischief and begged him to desist, this was the Being's answer, 'I am a Dragon and behave as Dragons do. You are an official: go and get on with your official business.' Thus and thus, Exalted. You are a high authority of justice in the land; the one who shakes before your glance is again, and for the seventh time, about to become a she-parent."
At this the Mandarin T'sin Wong prudently withdrew, not feeling that he could very well unveil his inner thoughts before the eyes of an undiscriminating attendant.
AS His High Excellence was returning from this well-meant quest he chanced to encounter the inscriber of his word, who was performing his usual task, though with a somewhat preoccupied leaning. Chin-tung would thereupon have approached T'sin Wong, but the harassed Mandarin thrust the advance aside by briefly stating his own view of the occurrence.
"It is a lamentable fact, Chin-tung," he maintained, "that whenever it is essential to a greatly overworked superior's tranquillity of mind that nothing of a disagreeable nature should obtrude, you invariably contrive to draw attention to your exceptionally unpleasant features."
"It would have been an ever-present source of bitterness among this one's future joys had he indeed missed the opportunity to take down your limpidly strung phrases," replied Chin-tung, uncovering his tablets. "Continue, Buttress of Pure Style, to expose your mental fabric."
"But since you are here," pursued the talented administrator, overlapping the greater part of Chin-tung's graceful compliment in a determination to show that one what weight attached to anything he might say, "there are certain details of your neglected office that require supervision. What, for example, is being arranged to obviate the necessity of this bodily afflicted person having to set out towards the Capital before the existing moon has faded?"
"Alas, Benevolence," was the downcast admission, "short of a stroke of the Imperial Pencil it would seem to be inevitable that an acquiescent face should be turned towards that venture. The last Order from the controlling Board is both precise and final."
"It has been sometimes claimed," mused the accomplished law- giver, yet so modulating his impressive voice as to afford Chin- tung the unquestionable felicity of missing no syllable of the inspired dictum, "that every high official's inner self may be accurately gauged from the character and behaviour of the person whom he employs to record his spoken sayings. Let it be openly conceded, however, that if the one who is making every allowance for the low state of intelligence prevailing among the inferior literary classes accepted such an adage, he would at once beg to be relieved of his cognizances and button and retire to an unknown part, so long as you, Chin-tung, continued to exhibit the combination of ineptitude and vice that has long made your name a by-word among the derisive of this city. Having thus cleared the ground of any possible misunderstanding on the subject of your annual surplusage, it would be as well that you should arrange in tabular form the daily routine to be carried out in view of our forthcoming journey."
"A thousand unwritten pages await your commanding voice," replied Chin-tung inertly. "The brush is new and the freshly crushed ink of an intriguing smoothness."
"Owing to the long-throatedness of judicial forms," continued the profound authority, with an expressive gesture tending to convey that while these details were of essential weight it was unnecessary for Chin-tung to draw attention to himself by recounting them, "there is a heavy accumulation of court business that must definitely be cleared off before we leave or the rumour may precede that laxity obtains in Kochow legal circles. Let the various grades of prison underlings be warned that, if necessary, they must toil beyond their stipulated limit, for the agreed sufficiency of one-and-a-quarter portions."
"High Excellence, this has——"
"Replenish the store of rope, lead, iron, wood, liquid fat, inflammable oil, pitch, tar, resin, sulphur and other necessary combustibles. See to it that the different racks, ladders, blocks, cages, harrows, pillories, tanks, barrels and similar engines of persuasion are well greased and in good working order. Go over and check the stock of rods, whips, chains, hooks, shackles, pincers, branks, manacles, thumb-screws, cangs, gags, branding irons, mouth-openers, nose-closers, wrist-holders, ear- distenders, chest-compressers, spiked collars, screw-boots, heavy hats, metal spiders, elastic caterpillars and so forth."
"Great Eminence, already in the past——"
"Compare the lists of those awaiting justice with the number of persons actually in hand and ensure a business-like consistence, either by striking out so many as are superfluous to the list or else by procuring the requisite balance of persons accused of crime from the idle and otherwise unoccupied loitering about the by-ways of the city—whichever course is the more convenient at the moment."
"Most Exalted, before the word is spoken——"
"Time being the essence of our state, all frivolous excuses must at once be frowned on. The accused, under our logical and well-tried system of jurisdiction, being deemed guilty until his innocence is proved (for why else, indeed, should any be arraigned and held captive?), a considerable winding up can be effected by not going through the formality of bringing them up for trial. In particular, I have in mind two whose offence suffers no extenuation. The elderly, goat-like impostor and the persuasive youth of his dissembling Line, who, under the guise of philosophical attainment, have drawn free rice and quarters since they came, have all but reached their limit. By failing to restore what they undertook to find they have, by a broad analogy, been guilty of its abstraction. Their offence is that of the original despoiler, since obviously, unless iniquity is to triumph and our faces be eclipsed, someone must be found to expiate the outrage."
"Illustriousness, it is of these very ones that I would raise my ineffectual voice," pleaded Chin-tung, clearing his oppressive throat profusely. "He whom you so aptly liken to a venerable horned sheep has left behind the lust to do actual wrong; his only crime effeteness. The youthful one, Hwa-che by name, has in all things a becoming and ingenuous air that is incapable of offending; furthermore, he has neither by night nor day avoided both danger and fatigue in your ennobling service. Suffer this once, High Excellence, strict authority to slumber."
"You will, therefore, since my unbending voice has said, take due precaution that all roads, tracks and outward paths shall be closed to these particular offenders," continued the even-handed ruler, with no indication that a single word of this modestly composed appeal had reached his usually not thick-skinned imagination. "Meanwhile, take heed, Chin-tung, for against the due appearance of two so easily secured your own by no means unchallengeable loyalty stands hostage."
IT did not need this encounter to remind Chin- tung that he had seen neither Hwa-che nor Kwan Yen for upwards of four-and-twenty gong-strokes, so assiduous had he been in the discharge of T'sin Wong's business, and though he might have foregone philosophical discussion with Kwan Yen to an indefinite extent, there was an added incentive to seek out Hwa-che now that the Mouthpiece of Justice had disclosed his teeth in so threatening a gesture. What he had so far merely assumed in outline was thus filled in with a very lurid colour, and Chin- tung recognized that his loosely woven plans of flight and escape must soon take a deliberate pattern.
It was in this frame of mind that he was bending his downcast feet towards an out-part of the gardens when the sound of dispute before a gate that gave admittance to the purlieus of the yamen reached him. Thinking no more than that this was the usual altercation between the hand of the one who kept the bolt and the sleeve of him who sought admission, Chin-tung was passing by when a reference to himself created interest. He therefore turned aside and presently discovered how the matter stood among them.
"Behold, inscriber of the spoken word," exclaimed the guard, with the habitual looseness of respect of the callous-palmed towards the literary classes, "here is one who evokes your name and has besides some hen and buffalo account of the magic that may be wrought by wearing a crimson feather. Further, he demurs the established usage."
"Not to impugn your ancient right I will myself pass out," declared Chin-tung. "There is a hint beneath this surface," he surmised, and he stepped through into the Way outside the wall where there was little traffic.
"It is the same as one," was the keeper of the gate's pensive reply as he swung his thwarted sleeve morosely. "'Hair by hair you may pluck even a tiger bald,' and Shun-Ho has all but reached the limit."
BEYOND the wicket Chin-tung found one who withheld his name but professed a pleasure that they should have encountered. He had, he said, a cryptic scroll, such as the learned buy, and for this, he had been assured by one who knew—a straightforward youth wearing a scarlet feather—that any in the position of a great lord's scribe would feel it as a humiliating slight to be asked less than three taels of current silver.
It was not for some beats of time that Chin-tung could rearrange his mind to meet this new condition. Knowing nothing of Hwa-che's latest quest, it was difficult to reconcile with that one's inoffensive tastes an associate who was obviously a brigand of the worst-paid description, but this reference to the badge she wore was definite and exact, nor, from what he had already seen, was it outside the bounds that Hwa-che might by this time have engaged a nest of pirates. He would have inquired on this and other matters, but the stranger who had come pointed to an injunction traced on the cover of the packet.
"No question shall be asked," was what Chin-tung then read there, and he could not but admit the genuineness of the inscription. "Equally with this?" he capably resumed, and he indicated a further line of which the meaning was, "This for a single piece of merchantable silver."
"That is plainly a slip of the brush, born from the stress of the situation," claimed the other, recognizing that he had been short-sighted. "Two and one, as the basis of exchange, were certainly spoken of between us, and Hwa-che must have carelessly put down a single sign instead——"
"It is of Hwa-che that I would chiefly learn," interposed Chin-tung, "nor would this ban seem to refer to him, but rather to the means by which you have come to possess this confidential transcript. However, by setting one thing against another we may yet achieve a profitable understanding. Ignore the one and I for my part will equally forgo the other," and he shook three silver pieces together in a suggestive manner.
"Your argument rings true," confessed the one who stood before him. "Thus and thus is Hwa-che's hazardous position."
WHEN Chin-tung had drawn out all that could be learned and understood, the precariousness of Hwa-che's slender hope among that unruly haunt of malefaction, an emotion of despair for the time robbed him of all effort, that one so slight and light-hearted should be brought to such a pass, for between his present case and his further prospects there did not seem to be so much chance of escape as would lift a prayer to the throne of the Pearly Ruler.
Even had his nimble-witted and influential High Excellence been on their side it was more than dubious whether, as the occasion stood, his authority would have carried. Had it been the Hanging Sword, the Fragrant Pure, the Strongly Bent Bow of Wisdom—Chin-tung knew them all, and as a matter of detail in T'sin Wong's service he had gleaned sufficient of their Oaths and Constitutions—had it been one of the analect-and-lotus- water Societies a tactfully framed hint would have been sufficient. But the object of the Avenging Knife really was to avenge—using incidentally for that purpose any ill- considering person who strayed within their barrier—and neither T'sin Wong's lordship nor T'sin Wong himself would have—in the deplorable apophthegm of the period—split any bamboo beyond the rebel causeway.
It was at this juncture of the Fates, when matters seemed so far gone that there was nothing left but to fold one's acquiescent arms and trust to the intervention of the Forces, that a faint glimmer of hope—no more substantial at that pause than the quiver of a newly lighted joss- stick—flickered into being among the despairing shifts thronging Chin-tung's imagination. In his grasp he held the plans whose loss had so greatly perturbed Pung Chu's assurance, and he had no further doubt that Hwa-che had contrived for them to reach his hand for this specific purpose. Pung Chu, War Lord of a Province, was the one man who—if he chose to move—was in a position to bring the outlaw band to terms of reason, and Chin-tung, as he retraced his steps, was digesting in his mind the most effectual line of strategy whereby the admittedly sluggish "master of proceeding backwards" should be, as it is said, spurred into vigorous action.
AS he bent his feet in the direction of the War Lord's fastness, Chin-tung had to pass at no great distance from the yamen outer buildings, and to that extent he turned aside to learn if, perchance, Kwan Yen could add further to his knowledge.
He found the philosopher seated on a log within the shadow of his doorway, cherishing a cup and smoking a short pipe from which he noisily inhaled the fragrance. When he recognized Chin-tung he wished to point out to him the peculiarly delicate effect of sunlight filtering through a screen of young green leaves and falling upon a velvet mass of fungous growth that clung about the dead trunk of a cypress, but the one in question put the design aside, nor would he be drawn into a discussion with Kwan Yen about the nature of paraheliotropism.
"My only cause for being here is to glean anything I may of Hwa-che's purposes or movement," he declared briefly, for he had begun to suspect that something in Kwan Yen's poise was not wholly free from moisture. "If haply you can shed a light upon his reason for consorting with the malign Avenging Knives, or what he hopes to gain from so desperate a move, it may assist this one in an effort. For it can no longer be withheld that his state by now may be one of extreme peril."
"As far as that goes," replied Kwan Yen, "we are all more or less in a paper boat crossing a swollen river. Sustenance reaches this weak-stomached person at prolonged and irregular intervals, nor is its selection in any way broad-minded. Life in Kochow is not what it was in obsequious Lo-ngo, where a well-expressed apology was both understood and treasured. The accommodation afforded by a dilapidated cow-pen attached to a third-rate yamen of a bankrupt magistracy at an obscurely moss-grown village in a remote and sterile Province is far from——"
"Yours is doubtless one angle of the plight, but it is neither this nor that at the moment," interrupted Chin-tung severely. "While Hwa-che remains in a hostile camp——"
"Have no fear for the one you name," counselled Kwan Yen, and having again assailed the cup he held, caution for the first time definitely forsook him. "Hwa-che will escape by the hair of her toe-nails, as in the past has invariably happened. Her sort is not born to be overcome by merely human means, though nothing short of this one's care has so far preserved her from a voracious Being."
"This, surely, is the result of our high-flown but ambiguous tongue," exclaimed Chin-tung. "It is of Hwa-che, the youth of your own Line, to whom my words were pointing. Or can it be," he added, as several obscure details in the past began to assume a meaning, "that under the relaxing influence of wine you have now exposed a deep-set scheme that has hitherto succeeded?"
"Since you know all," replied Kwan Yen, "there is plainly nothing to be done but to compose a suitable extenuation. Hwa-che is not one of your sort but a she-child of our House, in whom the hopes of an effete and dwindling Line are ultimately centred. In order to avoid a curse and to delude a rapacious-minded Shadow we have acted thus and thus, and this and how is the outcome of the situation." With these surprising words Kwan Yen, on whom the spice-laden air of Kwei-chang had for some time been operating in a peculiar manner, slipped from the log and passed at once into a profound abstraction.
"So far from this turning my feet aside it is indeed an added stimulus to proceed in an even more intensive fashion," was Chin- tung's thought as he hastily drew a coverlet of straw over Kwan Yen's patriarchal form so that the oppression of the fiery ruler of the sky should not affect his reason. "Ever since our first meeting Hwa-che's influence on this one's life has been continual and far-reaching, but it is now plain that what has so far been taken for granted as a disinterested affection for one who appeared to be high-spirited, sincere and candid must now be regarded as having its origin in quite another subsoil. It is evidently what those who dissect our inside feelings in their less attractive forms would term this one's spontaneous response to Hwa-che's unconscious she-call—little as either of the two persons concerned know of what has been in progress. This involves an even added zeal in rearranging the position."
PUNG CHU, War Lord of all Kwei-chang, was imposing on himself a well-earned span of rest after the fatigue of settling with the comptroller of his board the exact order and composition of an impressive feast that he was giving the next day in honour of a few influential high officials.
At such a time it was inexpedient to disturb Pung Chu for any cause whatever, and so deep was the regard in which he was held by all those of his house that this very rarely happened—unless, indeed, the one concerned could first remove any weighty objects within reach which the aroused and ever-resourceful commander-in-chief might in the first moment of surprise use to convey displeasure.
It was for this reason that Chin-tung would have found obstinacy to beset his path had he sought admittance to Pung Chu with dutiful submission. He therefore turned aside after he had passed the outer gate (which he did by a plausible evasion), and made his way to the living parts by the light of his previous visit. Here he was able to establish the fact of Pung Chu's presence by the robustness of his breathing, whereupon Chin-tung pressed his way through the paper window of the room and greeted the one who was now thoroughly alert with becoming ceremony.
"Nothing but the extreme urgency of what is about to emerge would have induced this respectful person to approach one so high up by a process so low down," he declared, removing the more obvious shreds of oiled paper from his outline. "Have I your gracious permission to make my voice heard, Commander?"
"To demur would seem discourteous," replied Pung Chu, recognizing that Chin-tung had already withdrawn the gong from beyond his reach and was standing in such a position that escape was fruitless. "Yet if that which is spoken of as preparing to emerge should be even more urgent than your own gratifying entry——"
"The expression was ill-formed," confessed Chin-tung, "in that all that is necessary to convince you of our common cause is ready for your judgment. Need it be said, Mightiness, that the reference is to the missing army plans, and to the length that you would be prepared to go to ensure their restoration?"
"Can it be that you have really achieved this end?" exclaimed Pung Chu, starting up violently from his couch (partly in surprise, but also to be in a better condition to outwit Chin- tung if the occasion offered). "Make good your hopeful words, and whatever reward you care to name will be sympathetically turned over."
"Because you have scented a bear it does not necessarily mean that you will be wearing fur this winter," replied Chin-tung profoundly. "Satisfy yourself, however, that the one before you is not, as the saying is, talking around his collar," and he took from his sleeve a single written sheet and placed it for Pung Chu's inspection.
"This is unquestionably a portion of the abstracted script," declared Pung Chu, his degraded instincts at once seeking to devise a plan by which he might repossess it without payment, "and the remainder is doubtless safe about your enviable person? So impressive a moment cannot pass without appropriate rites," and he would have struck the gong and summoned his attendants, under the pretence of bringing snuff and wine, had not Chin-tung capably forestalled him.
"The occasion does not yet arise," he said, removing the gong still farther from the scope of Pung Chu's influence, "but when, under our united efforts, it does, nothing will be more harmonious than to join you in your note of gladness. Meanwhile, the immediate need is to recover the bulk from those whose offensive aim it is to use it for the purpose of bringing your Excessive Highness into regrettable ill odour."
"All this has a less attractive ring than at first appeared on the surface," demurred Pung Chu, whose normal impulse was at once supine and grasping. "Since you have come to possess what you have already shown, why cannot you equally obtain the remainder?"
"As to that," replied Chin-tung frankly, "it is essential to recognize that there are cogs beyond cogs in this mysterious case, and by their unpleasant clutch your Full Prominence has been drawn, so to speak, into a plot of exceptional scope and malice."
"Say on," enjoined Pung Chu. "This one had already suspected the unseen hand to be scheming his disfavour."
"The activities of the Avenging Knife are the crux of the situation. For long that sinister and despotic tribe, under the ambitious lead of the redoubtable Tze Sze, has been striving to an end, and when the time was ripe the mask would be discarded. Meanwhile, one danger paralysed their arms. Need it be said that this was the military genius of your Extreme Excellence, lurking here at Kochow and ever barring the route of their rebellious passage?"
"You put the matter so uncommonly well that there would seem to be no actual reply needed to your flattering proposition," was Pung Chu's free admission. "Continue your unprejudiced disclosure."
"Chance at last placed an ignoble weapon in their two-faced hands—the confidential plans entrusted to your lordship's keeping—and it is lamentable to what degraded use they are prepared to put this trifling indiscretion. Inscribing the unsigned message 'From a Trustworthy Well-wisher' it is their noisome scheme to expose the facts to the Supreme Board of Warlike Censors, at the same time associating with your untarnishable name charges of gross carelessness, rank professional ineptitude, fundamental stupidity of outlook, abysmal immorality of conduct and ordinariness of character to an unbelievable degree. On public grounds your immediate recall and reduction to the condition of a street scavenger is to be demanded. That achieved, it will be promised that the restoration of the plans shall follow: otherwise they will be sold to the highest bidder among the unfriendly nations. By this unscrupulous alternative it is hoped to force the action of the Board and so remove the one who constitutes their menace."
During this recital Pung Chu rolled from side to side upon the couch as the different emotions swayed him, and from time to time he emitted a baffled roar as he recognized what was likely to take place and his own practical effeteness. Afterwards he approached Chin-tung in a more quiescent manner.
"Since you have pierced the share," he said, "it is not incredible that one so adroit should be able also to devise the means to effect an extrication. When the time for a suitable reward arrives——" And Pung Chu repeated several encouraging movements of the head and hands without, however, committing himself to any definite figures.
"It is not to this one's craft that we owe the unravelling of these schemes, but to a supple youth whom you doubtless have forgotten. Hwa-che——"
"The name has a faintly echoing ring," maintained Pung Chu. "An engaging one, as you would rightly say, but somewhat lethargic if this one's memory carries."
"At your own gracious request Hwa-che has flung himself into this dangerous mission. Step by step he has traced the line of crime until the trail has brought him into the very citadel of the Avenging Knives' dominion. There success of a most overwhelming kind has adorned his resourceful effort. At last, concealed behind the warrior chief's umbrella rack, he has unearthed the precious quarry. . . . It is a matter for extreme regret that having attained so much Hwa-che now finds it impossible to withdraw from that hot-bed of oppression."
"The development is in many ways certainly distressing, yet if it is examined from all round it may reveal some loophole with a not too hopeless facet," was Pung Chu's suggestion. "Whereas the difficulty of conveying so large an object as a living being from a closely guarded camp may be excessive, yet if the endeavour is concentrated on, say, a reasonably small roll——"
But at this point Chin-tung indicated that the proposal was not one that could be feasibly accomplished.
"How, then," persisted the calamitous War Lord, who, when his own safety was assailed, was neither obtuse nor feeble, "does it come that a single sheet has reached your hands, and why should not the whole be secured by a similar proceeding?"
"It is necessary to understand that when detecting crime by Hwa-che's unusual method, results are achieved, as it were, in the bulk, and it is desirable to ignore any trifling inconsistencies of detail. Otherwise," affirmed Chin-tung with reason, "we should never get where we set out to finish."
"That is, or is not, as may arise," replied Pung Chu with a certain stubbornness of outlook. "The point remains unanswered."
"Yet nothing could be more transparent," was Chin-tung's claim, now that he had gained sufficient time in which to determine what might rationally fit into the requirement. "Hwa- che was accompanied by a favourite bird, and attaching to its wing a single sheet—the limit of its power—she was thus able to indicate success and at the same time proclaim her desperate position."
"In that case," insisted Pung Chu, "could not the docile creature be persuaded to go back, and by repeating the process at some length, transfer the whole of the plans to safety?"
"It would seem that it is the habit of these fowl to retrace their way home, no matter from what distance, but once they are there no inducement will prevail on them to seek any other station. In this pass, High Mightiness, a blend of force and strategem must dominate our council."
"The great thing——" Pung Chu would have said.
"The only thing," amended Chin-tung, "is at all cost to preserve your distinguished person from the unmentionable buffets that will attend exposure. Of the ten thousand 'Ever Ready' for whom your Uprightness draws daily rice and silver, how many could be leaned against to march out at a gong-stroke's notice?"
"The point is raised at rather an ill-fitting time," explained Pung Chu, "the bulk of those who waved a wooden sword and answered to a name when the yearly test was made having now gone back to their usual occupations. Perchance some fifteen score might still be found about the various gambling haunts and opium floors of the city."
"Would these be self-reliant men, not given to argument among themselves when action is impending?"
"To be on the safe side it is customary to gag the more eloquent among their ranks when business of a really serious kind is found to be essential. To add a certain thickening to the force the domestic staff might well join in, as these are all of a facile cast and inured to being commanded."
"The number should suffice," agreed Chin-tung. "Has every man a trustworthy weapon?"
"Undoubtedly," replied Pung Chu, "though perhaps not quite of a pattern. After all, for the purpose of display it is more effective that no two should be alike, and if it comes to actual blows they are the better able to meet any sort of onslaught. There is, however, one serious drawback to menacing Tze Sze by violence——"
"Speak freely," urged Chin-tung. "It may be that you have something in your mind that merits hearing. Is it not said, 'Danger sharpens the wits as a rusty knife is brought to an edge by grinding'?"
"The parallel is just," agreed Pung Chu, "and the case in point may be briefly stated. If this one's banners cross the River Ming, Yu Fu, Governor of rich Kong-sin, may accept it as a challenge. Should Kong-sin decide to take up arms Kuo Mei, War Lord of Che-ngan, must reassert his headship, and once Kuo Mei has threatened force nothing can hold back Chun, ruling Prince of Hyi, from hurling in his legions. When invasion thus takes place the Imperial Guard must march to counteract aggression, whereat the neighbouring Power of Shang will mobilize in strength to vindicate its borders. This will be the sign for all—not only the civilized nations grouped about our realm, but even remote Out-land tribes—to seek a cause of quarrel, so that towards the end the Deities themselves might be drawn into the conflict."
"That may perhaps result, due to our complex modern state of being," was Chin-tung's deft reply, "but wherein does it affect the merit of your cause or the need for speedy action? Is it to be stomached that you should suffer in your three most tender spots lest an Out-land race should overstep its landmarks?"
"It is well recalled," confessed Pung Chu; "Justice is the door-step of every man's own dwelling. The order shall go forth. . . . Yet is it essential to the scheme that this one in person should direct the carnage?"
"If you can endure to miss the fray it would be better that your High Headstrongness should remain behind to safeguard the lines of connection—your signet on this one's thumb being sufficient to depute him to the simpler task of leading."
"You have removed the last shred of doubt—a wise commander's post being necessarily where he can see what is going on in all the four directions. In the meanwhile—continue on. A trumpet and two drums shall go before you."
Hwa-che's unenviable plight in the camp of the Avenging Knives, and the surprising turn given to events by various unforeseen arisements.
IT is a humiliating fact that while even a third-rate juggler can, without undue stress, maintain half a score or more fragile vessels in the air at once, so that gratified onlookers are moved to reward his bowl uninvited, the torpid-witted relater of this confused affair (who has, however, never advanced a claim beyond that of being hard-striving) is wholly inadequate to the task of keeping even two given protagonists of these historical events clearly in view together. It is thus necessary to submit the obliging circle of those who have so far followed the monotonous intrigue to the mental constraint of returning to the mountain stronghold of Tze Sze, where—it may be recalled by the more accommodating—Hwa-che, having apparently been drawn there under the Barbarian plan to receive the benefit of Won Li's admissions, was now lying in an unsanitary den with every prospect of being led out to immediate execution.
IT was early morning of the second day when Hwa- che received a summons, and being brought out into the light she was given to understand that Tze Sze, the chieftain of the League, required her presence.
"This is an unwonted honour which only falls to those who are thought to have useful information to divulge or are suspected of possessing knowledge of a buried treasure," imparted the one who bore the message. "The general practice is to dispose of all interlopers in a clean and effective way without either argument or unnecessary comment," and he pointed towards the ill-plighted Li, who, accompanied by one who displayed a well-poised axe, was being led away to a convenient part of the enclosure.
"It is certainly pushing matters to rather an attenuated edge—to-morrow being the last day of the Moon, and neither the solution of the mystery of T'sin Wong's missing pig-tail nor the even more pressing business of this one's deliverance from an admittedly vigorous grip showing the least sign of presenting an auspicious facet," was Hwa-che's sage reflection as she accommodated her step to the pressure of the rope about her person. "However, it is not unusual in the more rapidly moving of the Barbarian models for success to be withheld to the very extreme of human endurance, and something of the sort may be in progress here, for it is incredible that after conforming to the system in every particular it should omit support in so essential a detail."
"There is nothing to be gained by uttering charms or incantations here," declared the one who led the way, "the whole place being ringed in by a special process against Influences and magic. But as you have shown yourself to be compliant and profuse, if you should have any Last Expression to set out, Mou, the son of Koo-tang, will see that it Goes Upwards."
"May your obliging roots expand," responded Hwa-che, "but the emergency is not yet so pressing. Tell me rather, since your nature would seem to be humane, what are the material facts regarding Tze Sze's mysterious past?"
"This is the first time that such a phrase has reached me," declared the worthy Mou. "Why should you have reason to believe in any hidden doings?"
"Such cases are by no means rare according to the Barbarian records," was Hwa-che's reply, "and if Tze Sze should presently appear to be haply this one's missing kinsman, it would afford a suitable excuse to round off the imbroglio here and provide an appropriate climax."
"Your angle is plainly beyond my mental grasp," admitted Mou with a gesture of resignation. "However, on one point there is fortunately no room for any difference of opinion: this is the door of Tze Sze's private quarters, and my office is to see that you pass in alertly."
TZE SZE was about that time at the apex of his surprising prestige, his name, both among the law-abiding and the criminal classes of the Province, being one—as the archaic phrase went—to perform illusions by: indeed, on account of its harmonious rhythm it was frequently repeated several times rapidly by street conjurers to throw observers off their guard at the crisis of each manifestation.
After the lapse of so many eras it is a little difficult to account for Tze Sze's unusual sway, as no particular feats of valour are entwined about his name, and his intellectual process is admitted to have been feeble. But in that illiberal age personal appearance ranked even before literary merit with the impressionable of both sorts, and Tze Sze's romantic outline was made familiar to the mass by the peculiar and now lost beguilement (stamped out by the wise Yi Han as "incompatible with reason") known as "the illustrations."
Standing in height at least eight times the length of an ordinary person's foot, even without his sandals, Tze Sze was in several other ways no less distinguished. His teeth were strong and rounded, lying behind full lips like the seed of an uncut melon, the nose restive but assured, while his eyes were said to have the quality of emitting sparks of fire both straight and also when glancing in an oblique direction.
The armour that he always wore was massive and untarnished, and from a chain about his waist there hung many kinds of weapons. None of these, however, performed a useful end, as Tze Sze's finger-nails were of such an impressive length that he feared to mar their grace by using either of his hands in any vigorous action. For this reason he was accompanied whenever he went about by a confidential slave who waved an unsheathed sword, and he also dressed and undressed Tze Sze when it was considered needful.
Lastly, he wore a profusion of costly gems, and his voice, while arrogant and shrill, was rarely sympathetic.
WHEN Hwa-che found herself in the presence of this notorious chief she regarded with interest one whose exotic charm was symbolic of romance in the eyes of every tea-house maiden and six-cash bazaar attendant throughout the Empire. Even to herself, despite a very exceptional training and the preoccupation of immediate death, with an ever-constant recollection of Chin-tung's unassuming features, the occasion provided several definite throbs not altogether in keeping with her rigid purpose. The emotion passed, however, when Tze Sze began to speak, for she quickly recognized that with heroes of this type sinew and an entire absence of words are essential to maintain the illusion.
"It has been claimed," declared Tze Sze, and Hwa-che could not fail to notice that he glanced repeatedly at his own image, reflected on the arm-plates of his trappings, "that your object in venturing here is to bear a written message from Chung of the Hanging Sword. This is so palpably a fabrication—seeing that none within our bounds can either read or write, and we invariably put to death those tinged with such questionable endowments—that it must certainly disguise some deeper object. In order to save yourself the unnecessary pain of having this dragged from you by torture, why not make a frank avowal and earn from our gratitude a comparatively painless ending?"
"It is undeniable that to be the bearer of such a letter as you have said was this suppliant's original intention," replied Hwa-che. "Yet it is equally precise that there may have been another motive."
"When the egg-shell is once cracked it is impossible to keep back the chicken from emerging," declared Tze Sze. "What was this secret mission?"
"Surely to one of your advantageous build it cannot be a matter of surprise that any should incur substantial risks merely to inspect your prepossessing person," was Hwa-che's meek contention. "Otherwise to what use do you put your all-subduing eyes, O noble chieftain?"
"That is certainly a not unreasonable explanation to advance," confessed Tze Sze, and doubtless he would have continued to relax had he not unfortunately, while making the movement to stroke his upper lip in an approving way, scarred his forehead with inopportune severity. At this leniency faded.
"As you have made your tea, so you must drink it," was his harsh pronouncement, but even as he would have given the order to press on, a noise outside cut short the words, thereby affording an opportunity for one who led the recreant Li by a substantial rope to enter.
"YOUR tolerance, Lord of the Rocky Wastes," craved the one who thus intruded, "this misbegotten offspring of a promiscuous she-dog has invoked the Ancient Use. Kneeling before the block, with the axe already raised, he has claimed the right to disclose whatever may affect your well-being. Subject to what ensues, he is within the Rule of Ngou, the All- foreseer."
"Say on," commanded Tze Sze, bending on Li a glance of the most compelling lustre. "The unchanging Rule of Ngou supports you."
"Yet none the less, things being as they are, is your word firm that should the claim be sustained my neck is henceforth free of any penance?"
"My iron word goes forth," replied Tze Sze, raising a hand in token. "It now remains for you to establish your contention."
"Thus and thus," replied Li freely. "The youth who shared my cell is other than he seems, and doubtless a hired spy to detect some fancied weakness. From certain remote signs it has gradually emerged that he is not one of our sort but disguised to affect this function. Let a searching test be made and he who speaks stands or falls by the outcome."
At this inopportune exposure Hwa-che's self-reliant poise for the first time wavered, and sinking to the ground she frankly bewailed the day of her father's father's being.
"Justice shall be done," declared Tze Sze, "and that with an unsparing profusion of appropriate local colour. As for this unsavoury offshoot of the heinous affection between a mud-loving turtle and a yellow-tailed baboon, the unbending Code of Ngou protects him—that is to say, from beheading. At sunset, therefore, let him Pass another way; the particular process of his Upgoing being that generally described as piecemeal slicing."
WHEN they were again alone the rebel chief turned towards Hwa-che with a more interested look than he had yet assumed, and signified that she should shake off her dark misgivings.
"For the first time," he declared, "this one now observes that you have a wayward grace surpassing that of a young untamed heifer, while the dangerous path you took to secure his glance shows that good taste is interspersed with valour. Your hair is like a mountain stream that winds through a sunless gorge, and the attractive angle of your entrancing eyes forms a delightful curve wherein fireflies might seek to nestle. The texture of your jade-like cheek exceeds the lusciousness of woven damask, nor do you seem to possess any feet at all, so delicately proportioned are the extremities of your lower details. In the circumstances it is only fitting that your devotion should be rewarded by making you this person's eleventh wife, with a suitable corner of his inner tent and an appropriate endowment." And to indicate the unstinted profusion of his mood, Tze Sze tore off a handful of priceless jewels from his cloak and cast them in her direction.
"Magnificence," murmured Hwa-che, scarcely able to rearrange her thoughts to engage this new involvement, yet not failing to secure such gems as reached a convenient position, "is it becoming that one who has——" But at this point a further happening afforded her a brief space for a much-needed process of introspection.
"UNDER your suffering thumb, High Ruler of the Expanse, there is a pious monk at hand who invoked the Law of Hsu the Sage, the framer of our Charter," announced the one who thus broke in upon them. "He maintains the Fundamental Pact as justifying his intrusion."
"Speak freely," conceded Tze Sze, though it cannot be affirmed that his voice was wholly devoid of annoyance. "What does the devout-minded hermit want here now that he has claimed the safe- conduct of Hsu's Enactment?"
"That, he declares, is for your ear alone, and it is undeniable that he has already told this hitherto impervious one many surprising things connected both with his past and with his future. Also he can do perplexing feats with cord and splints of wood, and cause that which is not to assume an actual state, and again, at a commanding word, to melt out of existence. Further, he has a message."
"It is among the many disadvantages of living in a primitive and unsophisticated age that this sort of thing is always liable to interrupt one's most confidential moments," repined Tze Sze. "However, it is to be imagined that the venerated Hsu had some good reason for his otherwise grotesquely framed sanction. Permit the ever-welcome harbinger of universal amity to enter."
"GREETING, Tze Sze, Chief of the Waste Expanse," was the unknown's salutation as he stood before them in his meagre robe, grasping a staff of unpolished bamboo. He appeared to be an elderly recluse of inoffensive mould, yet he did not seem oppressed by the splendour of the scene, nor likely to be detracted from his purpose.
"Prosperity attend you no less in return," replied Tze Sze. "To what felicitous chance does this one owe your high-born visit?"
"The answer to that lies in your own breast," was the remarkable pronouncement. "The summons came that you had use for one who could control a lucky outcome."
"That is sufficiently striking to excite comment," confessed Tze Sze, "seeing that this one was, in fact, in need of such a holy man to perform an impending function. Is it within your power to join together two who would henceforth share one common lot and, further, so arrange the rites that the Forces would be propitious?"
"Such was my purpose in coming to this wild," replied the opportune intruder. "Procure the crimson cord of mutual consent, select a plighting gift becoming to your state, and see that none but the three who are concerned intrude upon our formal ritual."
"It shall be done without delay," engaged Tze Sze, hastening to comply, and Hwa-che and the unknown monk were left alone together.
"After the amazing turn that has been given to this one's quest in the last few counts of time it would be presumptuous to say what is and is not vital to the issue," was the trend of Hwa- che's anxious consideration. "Otherwise it might perhaps be legitimate to wonder if it would not be clinging even too rigidly to the strict Barbarian plan to go to the length of actually marrying the preposterous Tze Sze in order to develop the situation to its utmost. Would that the resolute and dependable Chin-tung were here"—and at this point it is to be assumed that a fragrant recollection of the past involved Hwa-che in that she mused aloud—"so that this one might lean against thy never-failing front, O my dragon-hearted hero!"
"When the wolf is gorged the lambs can pass in safety," came the guarded response, though the solitary appeared to be wrapped in contemplation and none else had meanwhile entered, "and a fool is more voracious of conceit than a sponge is insatiable to hold water. Be wary!"
WHEN Tze Sze returned he brought with him a roll of silk, some jewelled clasps, a bowl of fruit and the ceremonial cord by which their spoken vows would be figuratively made binding. Being directed, the two stood face to face with their hands conveniently disposed. "Whereby," it was explained, "the right hand of he who leads shall be attached to the left of the inferior one so that she merely follows."
"But," protested Tze Sze, who up to this point had been involved in the rapidly increasing look of yearning that Hwa- che's expressive face had been powerless to forgo, "by some slow- witted oversight, thou frozen-fingered priest, it is my two hands instead of ours that you have succeeded in confining."
"'There are horns and horns, it seems,' as the bull observed when he trod upon the snail, and you yourself will doubtless soon experience a certain numbness in your compressed members also," declared Chin-tung (as he may now be fittingly revealed), imposing a final knot upon the already effective bondage. "Conceal your graceful hands within your ample sleeve, great chief, for to walk through your own impenetrable camp like some errant-hearted goat led on a restraining cord would bring tears—of one sort or another—to the eyes of myriads."
"The foolhardy puts his head into the indulgent tiger's mouth," quoted Tze Sze, recognizing that for the moment he was at a disadvantage, but not doubting a timely rescue to be very speedily forthcoming. "When the creature sneezes presumption is effectively corrected."
"The prudent man keeps a hand upon his sword hilt in spite of scrupulous appearance," replied Chin-tung, accepting the implied challenge to match the saying. "When threats arise his fingers automatically function," and with lethargic ease he disclosed a formidable blade that he pressed against an opening in Tze Sze's armour.
"It is impossible to describe your father's son without forgetting that you still honour my sordid roof-tree," retorted Tze Sze, turning, meanwhile, a profusion of worn-out colours. "Be assured of this, however, as from one well-brought-up person to another, that before the next gong-stroke of time has sounded your extremely repulsive body will have been submitted to all the seventy-seven definable varieties of humiliating pain, and will thereafter have been beheaded, quartered, dismembered, burned, ground to an impalpable grey ash and, as a last indignity, irretrievably scattered."
"Preserve your breath until such time as you have occasion to blow froth off," was Chin-tung's apt reply, and taking Tze Sze by a convenient ear he led him beyond the door of his pavilion. "Bend your eyes to the four corners of fixed space, O doughty champion, and consider then who is the more likely to be the next one of we two to Pass Upwards."
"This is a very surprising turn of events indeed," confessed Tze Sze, "and it is a little difficult to know exactly what to do to regain my power of being offensive," for the sight that spread around was that the various heights above the camp were peopled by armed men, and all of these had their weapons accurately fixed so that at a given sign they could discharge the missiles—the javelin-men with arms upraised, the slingers gently swinging their thongs, the bowmen crouched with bolts well drawn—so down to the very bandiers of taunts and obscene gibes whose throats were already cleared for a nerve-destroying volley. It was quite evident that in the darkness of the night they had somewhat deceitfully crept up, and it did not escape Tze Sze's dejected eyes that they also controlled the causeway.
"Their instructions," explained Chin-tung, "are necessarily both broad and elastic, and in effect they will take it as the sign to discharge their various weapons and assail your camp in the event of almost anything happening. Indeed," he added as a thought occurred, "the leader of the band is somewhat slow to grasp, and it would be safer to assume that he may pass the word to launch even if nothing happens."
"It would be a distressing circumstance if so many agreeable persons were put to the exertion of discharging their trustworthy weapons through a regrettable blunder," protested Tze Sze, seeing nothing but a mortifying loss of face on either side before him. "Why should you not return to the indomitable captain of the force and explain to him that a ludicrous misunderstanding has occasioned this unworthy lack of concord?"
"Since you put the matter so attractively it would be ungracious to dissent," replied Chin-tung. "Only in that case you must confer the unprecedented honour of our walking side by side until the gate is passed, so that should this one stumble amid the brilliance of these scenes he will have your sustaining arm as a safeguard," and under the screen of their united sleeves Chin-tung pressed the dagger that he held somewhat deeper among the armour.
"May the scalding boils of Hor——" invoked Tze Sze, but recovering his poise he added, "assail those who cloud your face." And as if this blessing should not be enough, "Your name and those of all your consanguineous race shall never be forgotten."
As they walked towards the palisade Chin-tung spoke approvingly of such details of the camp as he found worthy of esteem, and Hwa-che frequently agreed—or not—but Tze Sze seemed indisposed to argue. While so engrossed they met two who crossed their path, whereupon the one who was being led broke from his guard and, with face pressed to the ground, besought protection.
"It is that most unnecessary Li," whispered Hwa-che, "who thought to benefit at the cost of this one's peril. Nevertheless, let him escape also if it may be done, for is it not declared, 'Worms have no actual meaning'?"
"Walk closely in our steps, thou father of many untruths," counselled Chin-tung, and Li tremblingly obeyed, for although Tze Sze showed his teeth he did not venture to throw out a challenge.
At the gate there was a moment of constraint, for the custodian, who had marked their moods, was not without suspicion. Nevertheless, Tze Sze made a sign and the bar was duly lowered.
"Henceforth, Tze Sze, it would be well to improve your ways," remarked Chin-tung as he delayed for a brief space of time so that the others might prudently increase their distance. "Doubtless to one of your vainglorious tastes to defy all authority attracts, but remember that bees are not respected because they carry stings, but on account of their industrious habits."
WHEN they had come to a convenient spot and all danger of pursuit was over, Chin-tung called a halt, and taking Hwa-che aside, he made known his mind towards her.
"The return now to Kochow as things exist would be undistinguishable from madness. To-morrow his Great Excellence begins his forward march and ere he leaves he will inaugurate a ruthless purge among which innocence will be the surest sign of blemish. On that predestined list, Hwa-che, your name stands first, and I am well content that Chin-tung should stand next with it. We should therefore——"
"Esteemed," broke in a resolute Hwa-che, "before the word is said let my weak and ineffectual voice obtain a lowly hearing. Wisdom controls your lips and prudence stimulates your palate, but against the obvious urge two preponderate cords draw this one on in spite of certain danger."
"The danger was never more assured and the need of flight more pressing. Since all is now made clear, fair Hwa-che, would you not be content with rice and curd and mutual affection in a meagre dwelling, set in some distant Province?"
"The vision lures," confessed Hwa-che, "but the time is not mature for such enchanting prospects. At his penurious door a lonely and feeble sire (whose just reproach would be the Storm and Pestilence of this one's conscience) awaits a glad homecoming; while somewhere about the palace walls the mystery of T'sin Wong's pigtail still requires solution."
"It is undeniable that the plight of the venerable Kwan Yen had for the moment escaped my moss-grown wits," was Chin-tung's penitent admission; "yet it should not be unfeasible to snatch him, in a manner of speaking, from jeopardy into some harbourage of safety. But as regards the other claim—does that chimera still beckon?"
"It is this one's destined call. Nothing is more certain—to-morrow being the Last of Much Gladness—than that the dark problem of that obscure crime is on the eve of its astonishing disclosure. Step by step, under the precise Barbarian rule, everywhere else has been cancelled out by this exacting process. Only sufficient time remains to probe the yamen itself, and only the yamen itself remains as the one place to be sifted. Could any manifestation of a logical significance be more convincing?"
"Since you are so resolved," declared Chin-tung, "my feet shall go with yours to the extreme end of this journey—but whether to stand upon a scaffold or beneath a canopy of silk only the Shades of our protective ancestors and the unfolding of events can definitely settle."
The Last of Much Gladness and what emerged thereon within the walls of T'sin Wong's yamen.
WHEN the two with whose respective happenings this trite record has chiefly been concerned arrived outside Kochow it was already fully light, for the path had proved rigorous and steep, and Chin-tung encouraged Hwa-che to lean on his assistance. The forces of Pung Chu had been dismissed with a suitable blessing, but Won Li still hung about their steps, protesting that henceforth his life was theirs to squander, and several times when the track was exceptionally foul he lay down in the mud that Hwa-che might not pollute her feet, so that she could not feel a full measure of resentment. Chin-tung, however, recognized in this a device to share their rice, and he foresaw that the one involved would presently implore his aid to soften T'sin Wong's displeasure. In this way they reached the Gate of the Eight Directions without adventure, but as regards the immediate outcome none of the three could see a span beyond the end of his little finger.
IN the neighbourhood of the yamen a scene of unusual energy prevailed, and it was clear that the preparation of His Extreme Excellence's journey hence was already well advanced. In the great Open Space before the Temple of Ten Thousand Cart-loads of Mercy the stalls of the relic sellers had been brusquely thrown aside and a roomy platform, on which several people could at once be submitted to the tests, was all but complete under the willing hands of hired men, who chanted songs that were either lusty or of quiet joys (as each himself inclined) while they hauled the weighty timbers.
Still nearer to the palace gates were other scenes of movement, and here the doings were more nearly concerned with the Mandarin's actual departure—messengers being sent on ahead to ensure outbursts of loyal welcome, the ceremonial chair of state scraped free of the encrusting mud of several previous journeys, silk umbrellas restored where the rents were sufficiently large to be worthy of attention, banners reinscribed with signs appropriate to the unusual honour of the Mandarin's special summons, and the other essential details that might reasonably arise at the eleventh gong-stroke of so momentous an occasion. Everywhere there was an emotion of pleasurable instability abroad, since it was equally uncertain (and entirely immaterial to the mass of those who might presently take part) whether it would be said with flowers of T'sin Wong that he was the upholder of their rights, or emphasized by fruit that he was regarded as the betrayer of their liberties. In any case, there was on every hand the gratifying anticipation of seeing one who was notable for the correctness of his air compelled to pass through their midst denuded of his pig-tail, and many were the gravity-removing sayings tossed from lip to lip both by the classically inclined and those devoid of literary refinement.
Meanwhile, in the convenient background, with his eye pressed to a crevice, lurked the contemptible Shin Pak, doubtless yet hoping that he might be able to take back a report of official delinquency to the decayed employers of his labour.
IT is only to be imagined that although T'sin Wong remained secluded in his office he had those without whose eyes were at his service, for as Chin-tung approached the inner court with Hwa-che by his side he was met by the guarder of the Way, Ah-Fang, who displayed a thumb-signed parchment.
"It is well that you are here at last, recorder of the word," was that one's greeting, "seeing that he who speaks was entrusted by the captain of his band with this officious edict. Herein you are described at length, and all, not rebels to the state, are commanded to waylay you. This one is certainly no outlaw, but at times it seemed to him that you would never justify his allegiance by enabling him to comply."
"Yet now that this has been achieved," inquired Chin-tung, "what is the exact nature of your errand?"
"Why, as to that," replied Ah-Fang, "there would seem to be no further charge, seeing that we have now encountered. But on this and similar points doubtless you, who are of a literary turn, can indicate what should be next required," and he ungrudgingly pressed the warrant into Chin-tung's keeping.
"It so happens that I am but just now come back from a journey," professed Chin-tung, "and much may have happened meanwhile. What is afoot of any note?" And he made an understood movement towards his sleeve, so that Ah-Fang might know how he would not be unrewarded.
"Things go on from ill to bad, promotion depending less upon strict merit than the possession of a sinuous tongue, and it was never better exemplified that 'If all who do wrong were branded, a crowd of men would resemble a drove of oxen.' Is it to be held as an offence against us of the club-bearing force that standing by a grille in the execution of one's task, a portion of cold puppy-pie may haply be thrust into a receptive hand, while a shutter is prized open and merchandise withdrawn at a point where this one might otherwise have been observing?"
"It is undeniable that the mind of the one next above each is less susceptible to reason than seasoned teak is to admit a wooden spigot," was Chin-tung's sympathetic adage. "But putting our own affairs aside, what is, in a more general sense, going forward?"
WHEN Hwa-che saw that Chin-tung and Ah-Fang were immersed, she gradually withdrew until she could prudently efface herself altogether. Beckoning to the now docile Li she explained that it was her purpose to venture towards the more secluded apartments of the palace.
"And in this," she said as they went, "I lean against your arm, for it is essential that until the time arrives I should not be impeded."
"Trust me for that," was Li's reply, "evasion, as one might say, being the mainspring of my scheme of service. There is not a bolt-hole in a single door of which I do not know the range of vision, while my experience of the various angles of the walls whereby one may crouch unseen has been gained by years of unassuming practice."
"Then I would penetrate as far as the inner chamber where His High Excellence habitually reclines, and where he was on the night when this mystery had its beginning."
"It is as good as already done," asserted Li, "that being perhaps the one spot above all others on which my inoffensive surveillance has been focused. We press close in here to pass the buttery door and then——"
"But what of he himself? What assurance have we that we may not disastrously encounter?"
"Dismiss that fear. I have already had some talk with one who does not avert his eyes or close his ears, and from this and that it is reasonably secured that the elderly ruminant will be elsewhere at this period. We now ascend a stairway——"
When they were come to a certain door that had a special sign the one who led the way stopped and listened. This eliciting no cause for qualms he stood aside and indicated that Hwa-che should venture in while he himself kept watch, but to her touch the door proved to have been securely fastened. Won Li, however, produced a pliant wire from his sleeve, and after a persuasive movement of his mendacious wrist the bolt fell back from the detaining socket.
"You are too ingenious a one to leave on the other side," demurred Hwa-che, and she required him to go in with her.
The room was indeed T'sin Wong's own inner chamber, and despite the graceful emotion of virtuous confusion with which she recalled its use, Hwa-che at once applied herself to the task of disclosing clues, sustained by the thought that in no record which she had so far perused was a Barbarian maiden ever deflected from her path by the fear of discovering that with which she ought to have no actual acquaintance.
"If it is a similitude that you crave, nothing could have been more apt, for in no detail are the surroundings changed from what they were on the first morning of Much Gladness," declared Won Li, peering into one object after another as his unstable nature prompted. "The jar of priceless jade is still propped up against another piece as this person himself resourcefully contrived it, and on the board the remains of His Excessive Voracity's late evening rice testify to his habitual practice. If, as is extremely doubtful——" And Li greedily approached the spot to see whether perchance what was left of any of the more attractive dishes held promise.
"Ah-ai!" exclaimed Hwa-che despairingly, as something slid from the table and scurried past her feet, and with no thought of the hardy Barbarian front, she leapt upon T'sin Wong's couch and wrapped his ample reclining robe about her lower portion.
"They are but mice, attracted by the morsels," declared Won Li, flicking at one—more daring than the rest—that lingered. "Stewed water snails, of which these are the shells, they esteem above all else, and should even a little of the liquor chance to be spilled on the cloth, the creatures will gnaw the fabric to a shred so that they may secure the flavour."
"They will gnaw——" repeated Hwa-che, her eyes following the last of the tribe as he disappeared behind the loose wall-covering. "Won Li, on you devolved the task of removing extraneous matter from the floors: when was the last occasion that your disturbing brush explored behind these hangings?"
"Behind!" pronounced Won Li, pausing with a finger clogged in the syrup remaining round a bowl, so distressing was the implication. "Where the eye of none would reach? Five years this person toiled displacing superfluous dust yet never during that exacting span was it so much as whispered from afar that he should bend his laborious back collecting that which may, after all, only exist in the gross thoughts of the unclean-minded."
"Then here at last——" proclaimed Hwa-che, but even as she spoke the brightness of the promise faded.
The one whom Li had trusted was palpably unworthy of regard, as this was the extremely ill-arranged moment chosen by T'sin Wong for returning to consult his silk-worms on some detail of the journey, and at his clamorously upraised voice armed myrmidons ran forward.
"Here is the very crux and quintessence of detecting crime on the Barbarian lines, since now there can be no further shift between this and execution," was the subject of Hwa-che's chief concern as, chained hand and foot, she was urged on towards the Hall of Judgment. "It is excessively gratifying to find how scrupulously the system works, but," she added "it is no less important that it should hold to an appropriate climax."
ALTHOUGH in the impressive words of the most venerable person of Kochow when he beheld the scene—or, indeed, any other scene—"Things are not as they were in the felicitous days of the sublime Hwang-te," the spectacle presented by the vast Hall of Judgment (the Court of Legal Exaction as it was colloquially referred to) was sufficiently imposing on ceremonial days to excite awe among the uncloyed and usual.
It is not to be denied that on this occasion several of the more popular attractions were experiencing eclipse, for it was widely understood that—due to the stress of time—it would not be needful for any of the accused to confess their crimes in order to ratify conviction, thereby, under an obsolete clause, dispensing with any further necessity for their presence. It was also recognized that owing to his untimely loss the appearance of their great T'sin Wong would be, let us say, shorn of much of its characteristic robustness. It was not to be expected, for instance, that in the circumstances the deeply ill- used Mandarin would repeatedly dispel their gravity by his inimitable touch of turning round and affecting to catch flies when one who did not rejoice his face rose to submit a pleading; nor could it be hoped that, as things now stood, the eminent law- giver's barbed shafts of wit would play so entertainingly on the physical deficiencies of those whose features he distrusted.
In spite of these shortcomings, however, there was the indubitable charm of looking on while something was accomplished by others, and when, at the actual stroke of the gong, the alluring rumour spread that two, not hitherto arraigned, were to be publicly submitted to what was known as the "third process," not only the appointed standing place was congested throughout the Hall, but every stanchion and upright pole that afforded a foothold had its dependent cluster.
The two—need it be said?—were Hwa-che and the pusillanimous Li, who was now freely professing a willingness to admit whatever it was desired to impugn him with, nor did he hesitate to include Hwa-che in all that was claimed against him. At this T'sin Wong would have pronounced upon them both, but the alert Chin-tung, rising at his elbow, unrolled an ancient scroll and pointed to the enactment of a bygone administrator as bearing on the juncture.
"Under the Digest of Tsung-hi 'the Mild,' All-Excellence," he said, "it would appear that these two being jointly charged it is not sanctionable to condemn the one unheard merely on the unsupported endorsement of the other. In view of the District Censor's far-reaching arm, Revered," he added for that one's ear, "it would be well to accord Hwa-che a hearing."
"The digestion of Tsung-hi," declared T'sin Wong, narrowly regarding the faces of those around to see that they caught his spirit, "is undistinguishable from what in others would be described as acute dyspepsia. Had the incomparable legislator in question appeared before this admittedly second-rate justiciary, on the charge of suffering internal disorder in his sphere, he would have had occasion to sing in a key the reverse of lofty, and in spite of his flattering epithet he would be more accurately described as a mixture of mild-and-bitter." Having thus discharged his function to the entire satisfaction of the assembled throng, the conscientious magistrate closed his eyes and indicated that the formalities should go through the normal process.
"Before a disproof is framed," required Hwa-che, in a voice with the compelling melody of an expertly touched zither, "it is desirable to know with what this one is charged, and so far the detail has been lacking."
"The oversight is trivial," replied the person who had control of her indictment—an official of abnormally repulsive outline—"seeing that unless an offence was claimed you would not be in your dishonourable position. However, to remove all doubt let it be known that the charge is one of lingering in an enclosed space with the design to act corruptly."
"To assign that as a fault is to hew the solid rock from under the very feet of the Head of our Day-spring of perennial Well- being," replied Hwa-che concisely, "seeing that the badge which this one bears has the authority of his Illuminous Highness in person," and she held up the seal that had been granted to Kwan Yen to aid his philosophical endeavour.
"To disown the warranty of your own thumb, Eminence, would be to darken the lustre of the face of prerogative henceforward," counselled Chin-tung. "Sun Chi must withdraw the rash impeachment."
"The malefactor's discreditable contention is upheld," announced T'sin Wong, "but it would indeed be a travesty of our boasted legal system if some other way could not alternatively be found of bringing him within the clutches of retributive justice. In advancing this the criminal has—so to speak—impaled himself on the points of an incompatibility. This pass was granted on a specific pledge: that what was missing should be restored within the limit of Much Gladness. By failing to conform to that he who claims its privilege has—in a general sense—been guilty, as it were, equally with the original abstractor."
"Yet, Mightiness," affirmed Hwa-che, "here in your formal Court this one repeats the plight, and calls on you no less for the exact fulfilment of those generous recompenses."
"How so?" required T'sin Wong, who has never been described as nimble at the ingress, "seeing that we have already reached a decisive issue. The Last of Much Gladness has come——"
"But not yet passed," was the memorable retort, "and the baffling mystery of Your Extreme Benevolence's matchless tail has at length been disentangled."
MANY scenes of a widely conflicting range have found their stage in the venerable structure of Kochow's celebrated Hall of Judgment, but none, it may confidently be said, surpassing in its poignant grasp that now taking place, when (in the adequate words of one who from morn to morn recorded the city's daily life under the enticing title "That Which is What" in the Kochow Pearls Freely Offered), "after a pause in which it was distressing to be jarred by the thud of a thistle- down alighting, there ensued a term during which the trumpeting of an enraged elephant was undistinguishable from profound silence."
When some semblance of order was restored and the more important among those who had suffered in the press were being removed for treatment, T'sin Wong again sent out his voice, and using his hands to simulate the office of a conch-shell, he contrived to make himself heard across the distance.
"Is it then claimed——" he would have asked, but the exertion was so great that Hwa-che deemed it compassionate to forestall him.
"It is," she interposed. "That is to say, it is, as one might assert, practically. Whatever remains is merely in the nature, so to put it, of harmonizing the extraneous details."
By this time, a way having been cleared, Hwa-che was brought up to the dais from which T'sin Wong issued his inspired rulings, and for the first time the two were positioned, it might be said, face to face, though in the exercise of her arduous quest the one thus honoured proceeded to regard the Mouthpiece of Wisdom from a variety of other angles.
"Pre-eminence," she declared at length, "it is a regrettable lapse for which this one cannot wholly escape just censure. Had it been recognized at the outset that neither shears nor cutting blades were responsible for the severance of your picturesque but now-becoming-somewhat-attenuated pig-tail the line of inquiry would have been directed into a less adventurous channel."
"All this is getting away from the edge," demurred T'sin Wong severely. "If, as you affirm——"
"That will presently appear," undertook Hwa-che, "but there is a certain form to be observed in arriving at the promised achievement. Transport your enlightened mind back, Sublime, to the night before the First of Much Gladness. Did you on that occasion partake freely of stewed water snails for your evening rice before retiring?"
"It is not to be denied," agreed T'sin Wong, mellowing graciously at the pleasurable reminiscence. "When in season this one invariably partakes of the delicacy if it is to be procured, and the year has been propitious."
"Then doubtless from time to time you may perchance have wiped your polished hands on your no less becoming hair, either in a moment of dignified abstraction or as the process might have seemed expedient?"
"Inevitably," replied T'sin Wong, "in the ordinary course of eating. It has a tonic property for hair—their fat—as well as being a cleanly act when one is wearing rich silk garments."
"The structure is complete," declared Hwa-che, "and nothing now remains but the actual disclosure. This takes us hence, High Dignity, to your own especial chamber."
IN T'sin Wong's private room, to which all those chiefly concerned pressed on, no matter how base their station, Hwa-che's words were awaited more eagerly than are the first drops of rain when a time of drought is ending.
"In order to grasp how the result must definitely emerge it is necessary to recognize that, in this revealing what is dark by the secret Barbarian tests, reliance is placed not in the admittedly vagarious reading of demonstrably ambiguous charms, but on the inexorable trend of circumstantial details."
"It is by no means ill-expressed," declared a voice among the throng, "though unnecessarily dogmatic. A more deferential tone——" And the grey hairs of the venerable Kwan Yen—though little else of him—might be seen in a far corner.
"Remove the vindictive cang or this one's lips are sealed," was Hwa-che's bold requirement. "It is not due that he whose voice I am should be submitted to an outrage."
And since there seemed to be no other way of learning what they wished this was at once effected.
"Like all abnormally bewildering crimes the involvement of His High Excellence's vanished queue is really a model of simplicity when reduced to its essential base, and the fact that in the process of unravelling the knot it has been found necessary to undergo a variety of distressing trials, to involve a number of blameless persons in a diversity of humiliating ills, to create a state of ferment undistinguishable from riot and civil breach, with, incidentally, the employment of a beleaguring force and the probable development of international warfare—this is merely what may be described as the preliminary axe-work, necessary to hew away the obscuring foliage."
"Seeing that the greater part of a moon has already been spent in resolving this simple process, would it not be well to withhold your undeniably harmonious voice from consuming yet another in recounting the various details?" was T'sin Wong's courteous suggestion. "The appointed time for setting forth is past, and chair-carriers, as a race, are notoriously close- tempered when frustrated."
"The remonstrance is just," declared Hwa-che, "and I will retard the all-too-copious flow of my superfluous verbiage. Let it suffice that from a certain cause it presently appeared that none save His Eminence himself could that night have had access to his sacred person, while the nature of the severance, when observantly approached, made it clearer than a crystal stream that it was by no human hand that the wrong was perpetrated. To act as the offender did and—if the crude homology may be permitted in the stress—'cut a long tale short,' this one will now lift the concealing veil, when—except in the incredible event of all precedent abruptly fading—the much- sought treasure will be definitely recovered."
With this inspiring pledge Hwa-che found the spot already marked by her, and drawing back the arras she stooped down in the high-minded certainty of finding what she had foretold would not be wanting. A murmur of appreciation was on every lip at the exactitude of this convenient process, and when it was seen that she had something in her grasp there was no person who did not repeatedly shake himself warmly by the hand to express deep satisfaction.
"Great Excellence," she said—and it was widely marked that her richly toned voice had, if anything, a faintly surfeited languor—"probed on the undeviating Barbarian plan it was inevitable by all the laws of fact that what we sought should be here, and here accordingly we find it. By the aid of a few bent metal skewers it can, for all practical purposes, be restored to its inherent place on your upright-minded head, and thus this period of unjust reproach among your fellow-men is ended."
"Ask what you will," proclaimed T'sin Wong aloud, "and it shall—if in reason—be freely granted. The thing itself is now all that remains to complete the lustre of this scene——" and he stretched out his hand to receive his own from Hwa-che's keeping, for, as all began to note, she still lingered as if reluctant to surrender the possession.
"Favoured of the Highest," was the almost awed response, "the climax is yet untold, for it is plain to read that you have been made the recipient of a very pregnant omen. Hitherto it had been shallowly assumed that your loss implied the cutting off of your noble House in tail line of direct succession. Learn now how entirely opposed to this is what the presage actually foreshadows. For here, coiled into a neat abode at the warm maternal promptings of a creature that is the most fecund among races, this tail, the emblem of manly vigour, has become the depository and home of no less than sixteen sturdy offsprings, many, if not all, doubtless of your own lusty sort. Could any portent be more auspicious for your virtuous hopes or stimulate the gracious Lady Fa to an even tenser effort?"
"This happening," declared T'sin Wong, as he diffidently received what Hwa-che now offered, "almost exceeds in wonder the romantic stories of the Golden Age as told by wandering poets. To celebrate so miraculous a turn and memorize the day a general holiday is called, all debts wiped out, and the various tea- houses and places of resort are commanded freely to dispense their store so that a loyal populace may have occasion to shower down grateful blessings.
"These sixteen prophetic harbingers of promise, instead of being crystallized with honey in the usual way, become a special charge on the public sleeve, enjoying, from the roomy security of a conveniently arranged box, a mounted guard and a suitable display of banners.
"All prisoners—whether guilty or merely condemned—shall be mercifully set at large, to go on as before, and the scaffolds erected for their use had better be fired at dusk: thereby providing a spectacle of lavish splendour and at the same time avoiding the considerable expense of dismantling these structures.
"As it is inconceivable that the heaven-sent Wearer of the Yellow should not require to hear of this prodigy occurring in his realm from the lips that can relate it at first-hand, the philosopher Kwan-che, and the accomplished youth Hwa Yen, shall accompany our ceremonial progress. Everything being thus suitably arranged let the usual salute of explosives be discharged and the forefront of the procession set in motion."
Ill-accorded reception of T'sin Wong when the Capital is reached, and how it devolved upon Hwa-che to arrange his extrication. The divergence of their paths henceforth, with something of what followed after.
THE season was one of growth and promise as T'sin Wong's lengthy cavalcade wound its tardy way across the well-sown fields and among the fragrant valleys where flowering trees abounded, so that it is not to be a matter for surprise that the mutual affection of Chin-tung and Hwa-che prospered.
By this time, thanks to the loquacious tongue of the flaccid- minded Li—for despite the professions of devotion to her cause his unfettered lips were analogous to an ever-open sluice gate—it was widely known that the one implied was not strictly in accord with her semblance, but so great was the enthusiasm she aroused that this was never openly referred to.
At intervals the impressive train of chairs and carriers passed through seemly villages where their progress was observed with gladness, and from time to time temples and monasteries appeared where priests and monks willingly produced their most potent relics to help them on their journey, while everywhere were thriving farms and in the air the sounds of fruitful labour. T'sin Wong spent the greater part of his time computing how much more, under a really benevolent system of local taxation, this land might feasibly yield. Doubtless he would have imposed the heavier share of this task upon Chin-tung's docile shoulders had it not been, owing to the restrictions of the track, that the two could not proceed together. The inscriber of his word was therefore free to roam throughout the journey, and this led to the one in question, with Hwa-che by his side, forsaking the narrow isolation of their respective chairs for a more secluded pathway. As they leisurely advanced in this engaging manner Chin- tung would have composed Odes in Hwa-che's praise and on like attractive subjects, but she, while confessing an admiration for his undoubted gifts that covered him with modest rapture, imperceptibly led their conversation round to topics of a more definite application.
Nor were other causes of a widespread joy by any means deficient. At the obstruction of a swollen ford one of the yamen guard, riding a small but resolute horse, succeeded in reaching the column. The message he delivered was that two well-knit he- children were now added to the Mandarin's reviving Line, for the bounteous Lady Fa, as if in answer to the sign, had thus outrun all expectation. T'sin Wong at once bestowed an onyx bracelet upon Hwa-che, and Kwan Yen also received an appropriate though a less enduring present.
Even the added tidings that in the course of the public rejoicings instigated at his call, the fires of the burning scaffolding had eluded their control, and the larger part of walled Kochow was by this time a blackened ruin, failed to shake the enlightened justice's now firmly established trust in the righteousness of the Powers.
"A house, a street, or an entire town," he declared, "can always be rebuilt, and, indeed, in the incumbent process furnish a health-giving occupation for a number of otherwise sluggish and unemployed toilers, not to mention a welcome addition to the reasonable dues of a variety of deserving officials who add the weight of their approval to the project. But by the failure to consolidate a strong and enduring Line even the most scrupulous may find himself cut off, so to speak, from all sources of supply in the Hereafter. Taking one thing with another, the controlling Deities are impartial."
IN that book called "The Pagoda with the Conscientious Outlook" there occurs this instance: "An earth-worm once heard referring to a towering palm-tree as 'the cabbage' was reproved by a passing swallow. 'You say so,' replied the earth- worm, 'but for myself I can see very little difference,'" and this, from a certain angle, might not inaptly be applied to His Excellence the Mandarin T'sin Wong, now approaching the Capital with every assurance of satisfaction in his well-filled outline.
In a not discreditable relief at escaping from the ills overshadowing him at home, the short-sighted administrator of order wholly lost sight of the lowering menace awaiting him beyond the journey and, indeed, was looking forward with a keen prospect of mutual enjoyment to the time when he would be able to entertain the even-handed Monarch with a detailed account of his recent cares and their miraculous removal. Alas, he who first wrote, "A just ruler will cause more trouble than the invasion of an army," must have lived in those incorruptible days, for even at that moment Ming Wang was seated on his jewelled throne encircled by a band of enthusiastic Censors. These it was who, ever on the look-out for delinquency and vice, enabled Ming Wang to spread indiscriminate justice right and left, and in the end to earn the becoming title, "the Unswerving," from a later generation.
"Having disposed of the case of Yung Tsu, whose method of conducting burial lotteries left so much to be desired, T'sin Wong would seem to come next on our list," announced the Sublime, reading the name from a golden tablet that hung at his pliant wrist. "Apart from the denounced's certainly inauspicious name, what is the exact nature of T'sin Wong's transgression?"
"Omnipotence," replied the Censor within whose scope the Mandarin's district lay, "this is one of those clearly established cases in which it would be a mistake to be too circumstantial. The low standard of integrity prevailing in Kochow is the best indication of this morally decrepit official's unfitness for his position."
"Yet if the one accused has no definite misdoing laid against his door, how will it be possible for him to controvert the charge?" asked a newly appointed Censor, one who had not yet adapted himself to the responsibilities of public service.
"The difficulties of a situation like this may be very briefly stated," explained the Imperishable himself, with a truly magnanimous resolve that no possible harbourage for a suspicion of prejudice should linger. "If the perjurious outcast is arraigned on a special count he may bring forward a number of unscrupulous-minded hirelings who will repeat his voice in all that he asserts, so that, not to stultify the face of Justice, it would then be necessary for us to procure an equal number of public-spirited witnesses to counteract his fictions. This might be prolonged indefinitely with a man of T'sin Wong's obstinacy and wealth, each side automatically cancelling the effects of the other. Doubtless you now begin to grasp the thorny growth besetting the path of uprightness?"
"Pre-eminence," declared the misgiving Censor gladly, "it is now as lucid as the far-famed waters of the Wei, which make all other rivers muddy, and with a beaconing light——"
"Admittedly so," interposed the business-like Sovereign firmly, "and it now only remains to decide upon a course of action in view of T'sin Wong's perverseness. Whose guiding voice obtains?"
For a moment none was raised; then it was seen that the lips of the most venerable counsellor among them all were moving.
"Upholder of the Earth and Sun," he was understood to say, "this one himself may be, as some allege, scarcely distinguishable on superficial lines from some uncouth, night- haunting beetle, but his discretion is a deep and never-failing well at which many have drunk freely to repletion."
"Say on—but take your time," urged the ever-considerate Monarch. "Your mind, Kuei-pan, is as compact of profitable wisdom as a bee's comb is filled with honey."
"Inasmuch as the prevailing forms of law may fail in T'sin Wong's case, was not the Code of Yaou and Shun framed to meet such an omission?" asked Kuei-pan with an air of triumph. " 'Conduct of an official whereby——' Is it not said that three chariot-loads of pundits moving abreast could not break through its slenderest meshes?"
"It is well recalled, the Code of Yaou and Shun," agreed Ming Wang, "for it has often been the support of a not invariably straight-edged Ruler in what might be described as many a congested angle. 'Conduct of an official whereby the established felicity of his greatly indulgent Sovereign is endangered'—that would seem to catch the skewer on the protruding end, as the saying is, Kuei-pan?"
"There is no single word of the charge, High and Mightiness, that could not be substantiated."
"That being so," declared the All-doing briskly, "we will regard the point as settled. The nature of his offence being clear"—here the August turned to the Keeper of the Books—"what is the statutory nature of T'sin Wong's correction?"
"It would appear that the lines of a strictly retributive justice have been closely pursued, Supreme, together with a due regard for the traditionally imaginative flavour of our romance- encrusted Empire," replied the one consulted. "Inasmuch as the offender has occasioned you distress it is ordained that he should do something to contribute to your entertainment. This is particularized as a game of chess with the Court Grand Chess Master. Should the delinquent triumph he is held to have maintained his cause; if not, he suffers the usual——"
"Agreeably so," thrust in the Wearer of the Yellow with decision. "No one has yet come within the powers of our nimble- witted Chess Master by the burden of four men-at-arms or an embattled tower. Yet it would be well to know before we call the trial what repute this Mandarin has among those who have moved ivory with him."
"Illimitable," volunteered a member of the Imperial suite, who stood by to effect his wishes, "your wholly obedient has himself a kinsman in walled Kochow and we duly exchange tidings. The chess-play of the one concerned is said to resemble an ape endeavouring to lift hot cockles from a griddle."
"Then it goes forth. In the case of T'sin Wong let the Code of Yaou and Shun take the place of normal jurisdiction. Now as regards"—here the Indefatigable again referred to the golden tale of misconduct at his wrist—"as regards Chou- hong, who is stated to be denying that the earth is upheld by a celestial tortoise——"
IT was some time before the now much-perturbed T'sin Wong could be brought to realize that he was not arriving at the Capital in the part of an honoured guest, and at first he insisted that the masses thronging the Ways were drawn up to pay him homage; later he ceased to incline graciously forward at the sight of the uplifted hands and sought to withdraw as completely as possible from their importunate attentions, but it was not until he reached the austere building set apart for the reception of himself and his entire band, and fathomed the full nature of the absence of all good taste on the part of those who should have espoused his cause, that the restraining links of his indignation were freely loosened.
"It is rightly said, 'You may boil drunkenness out of a sot in time, but ingratitude goes down to the very marrow,' and Ming Wang's bearing since he ascended the Dragon Throne makes it impossible not to think of him spontaneously when anyone chances to recall the proverb," he remarked morosely as he surveyed the offensively commonplace fare offered to him upon arrival. "It is doubtless too late in the day to repine, but if this person had joined a hatchet gang instead of devoting himself to an official career, he would certainly have been able to look forward to eating meat in his old age instead of the humiliating allowance of a small measure of rice gruel, cooked in a noticeably unappetizing vat and served up from an iron skillet."
"Great Excellence," ventured Chin-tung, who had meanwhile been outside opening his ears widely, "so far is ill enough, but even worse remains to be imparted."
"Do not hesitate to scatter the flowers of your herbaceously bordered mind in acceptable profusion," was T'sin Wong's moody comment. "Does this mean in effect that the fruit course of our lavishly arranged feast will consist exclusively of dried raisins?"
"Alas, Illustriousness," was his inscriber's pensive admission, "it is greatly to be feared that the only desert accorded to your grace will hang from a more substantial timber. To darken your offence the Code of Yaou and Shun is about to be invoked, whereby, as a test of guilt, you will be called upon to match your skill at chess in a passage with Lao Pun, the invincible Court Grand Master."
"A surfeit of lukewarm gruel does not promote clear thought," remarked T'sin Wong, pushing aside his almost untouched allowance, "and if you, Chin-tung, should cherish any need to consume a double share you are hospitably welcome. Now as regards this grotesque travesty of what masquerades under the cloak of prehistoric justice—how may the issue be successfully complicated?"
"It was with the Code of Yaou and Shun in view that the saying has arisen, 'It is thriftier to leave your robe in the hands of a stubborn robber than to plead against a charge, clad from head to foot with rightness.' There would seem to be no actual evasion of the Code, and only one—it is scarcely worth the relation."
"You have a distressing habit, Chin-tung, of arresting the usually copious flow of your generally quite negligible voice at the exact point where it promises to assume an effective climax. To counteract this vice closely observe the action of a well- trained race-horse, and in the meanwhile disclose, in as few words as is compatible with your customary diffuse style, the contingency to which you have already so flaccidly alluded."
"There is a seldom-recalled Appendix to this section of the Code, Benign, by which it is lawful for you to appoint another as your proxy. But inasmuch as you are equally involved in his failure to achieve, while Lao Pun has never yet been known to lose a game of chess—on several occasions, indeed, playing three score chosen rivals at a time, his eyes being meanwhile swathed and between the moves repeating pages of the Classics—the concession holds no promise."
"Why, then, should you insist on wasting otherwise valued time in enlarging what can obviously be of no material service?" exclaimed T'sin Wong, whose sense of due proportion was rapidly dissolving. "Had you applied yourself in the past to studying the systems of the great chess masters—as this person continually urged—you might now have been in a position to repay a lifelong fostering of your interests. As it is——"
"Have no fear, Esteemed," declared a voice surpassing in melody the ripple of a woodland brook in springtime, and Hwa-che revealed herself from behind a lacquered screen, where she had doubtless been engaged in some charitable office. "As it is, this one will take up the issue with Lao Pun and proclaim herself your champion."
"This is remarkably agreeable—in a general sense—and the manner in which you have already conducted the enterprise holds out a modicum of promise," observed T'sin Wong when he had brought his never very agile mind to realize the project. "Probably you have already attained a wide repute among masters of the game in your own isolated Province, but it is as well to recognize that it may be one thing to discover the hiding-place of an inanimate object that has no facilities of movement, but quite another to drive into an untenable attitude one who is endowed with the varied qualities of an eel, a fox and a limpet. The first essential——"
"Assuredly, High Prescience," agreed Hwa-che alertly, "and it is beyond the bounds of fancy that after being brought successfully through a course of admittedly hazardous snares this one should be, as it were, deposited lower by her unfailing system in so pacific an encounter."
"Should you by any chance succeed," proclaimed T'sin Wong, "there is neither length, breadth nor depth to the extent of this one's bounty, and whatever you may afterwards demand——"
"It is ungrudgingly expressed," endorsed Hwa-che, producing an ample parchment, "and that being your open-handed mind, the bond—which, among other details, will include the freedom of Chin-tung from every kind of claim, together with the payment of his arrears of inadequacy down to this day—may be set out in words and pressed by your own undeniable thumb equally before as after."
"Yet," demurred T'sin Wong, to whom this dispatch was for some reason uncongenial, "as among scrupulous friends——"
"It would be just as well not to misuse our time in fruitless speech," counselled Hwa-che, trying her brush against a thumb- nail of shell-like texture, "seeing that we do not even know the moment of the summons. Meanwhile, it devolves upon the abler of the two to explain for this one's guidance what the exact strategy of this game of chess consists in."
THE chess-room of the Royal Palace was—though rarely used—an apartment of exceptional splendour. Not only the floor but the walls and ceiling also were composed of squares of priceless marble, matched in appropriate shades, so that at first sight it was a little difficult to judge where one part of the room ended and another began, and diffident-mannered strangers had been seen attempting to walk up the wall under the impression that they were still in the middle of the floor. This arrangement was commonly declared to be a crafty snare devised by the base Lao Pun, for while he, having familiarized himself to the scene, could remain unmoved, it was no uncommon thing for even expert rivals completely to lose their poise at the inability to rest the mind from the ever-present succession of geometrical repetition.
About the hall were the couches, forms and benches for the various ranks of Court officials who were privileged to be there, and on a dais overlooking the board the emblematic throne, with carved elephant supports, from which Ming Wang, in the interests of the national game, made a point of watching the more desperate encounters.
"It is well that the taste should be nourished," was his far- seeing reply to a courtier who had once spoken of this habit, "for it is beyond the province of wit to think out the moves of a warmly contested game and at the same time elaborate the plans for a successful outbreak of rebellion."
This reply had a two-edged significance with relation to Lao Pun, for it need be no longer kept back that the crafty Master of Ceremonial Chess was in reality a dangerous conspirator playing a double game with both the black and the white forces. Under the affectation that the terms he used were the language of his office it was not difficult for Lao Pun to communicate to his friends outside all that was taking place among the Palace circles, and even to indicate what should be their own most effective movements. Nor was this hidden from Ming Wang, who was both alert and gifted, but so far Lao Pun's guile had enabled him to avoid any open charge, while his influence was so wide that it might prove a hazardous course to dispose of him abruptly.
Thus may the position be outlined when T'sin Wong was called up to receive judgment.
IN accordance with the wholesome rule which then obtained, not only the Mandarin himself, but all those of his suite were similarly involved in whatever sentence should await his misdoings—"If the tree is evil the fault lies equally with the soil it grew in"—and to their unaccustomed eyes the scene presented by the assembly of high nobles and consequential chiefs was one of transcending lustre. Even T'sin Wong, who maintained an impressive demeanour of unconcern, was heard to admit that he could see more complete fur suits before him than there were rat-skin vests in all Kochow. Silk, jewels and cloth-of-gold were both lavish and abundant.
Cups of spiced tea and slight viands of an easily manageable kind had already been passed round on costly plates of jade by uniformed attendants. Snuff and melon seeds were now being pressed by all upon each other when T'sin Wong and his band arrived, but none advanced to offer this simple rite of welcome to an illustrious guest, while from other marks of disrespect it was only too plain that as a commodity the hapless Mandarin's once buoyant scrip was not in the ascendant. Even the crude Lao Pun, by this time seated at the board, affected to be engrossed in an attempt to balance one piece upon another.
Heralded by the strains of a processional march (which, however, he at once cut off as soon as his voice could prevail above it), the picturesquely disposed Emperor—Ming Wang, last of his sacred Line—briskly entered, unceremoniously thrusting into his sleeve the grateful address of passionate loyalty which it had been the purpose of a chosen knot of the elders of the city to read for his enjoyment. Nor did the sight of every head of the hundreds gathered there, submissively striking the marble floor in perfect time and precision, to the beat of the Court Musician's wand, seem to afford him the intellectual pleasure that might be reasonably contemplated, for after a delicately expressed elevation of the Imperial shoulders he struck his capably formed hands vigorously together and commanded T'sin Wong to approach and all others to resume their set positions.
"Inasmuch as it is perfectly well known to every person here—the criminal included—exactly how the matter stands, it would plainly be an empty abuse of time to go into its superfluous details. Let the miscreant take up the accustomed stand," and he indicated the floor opposite Lao Pun, who displayed his ill-assorted teeth in his antagonist's direction, "and may the cause of virtue triumph."
"Omnipotence," declared T'sin Wong, "your iron word is law, but the enactments of the Code are even more unbending. Under the wise provision of Clause Thirty-four, Sub-section Eight, it is sufferable to claim a deputy to fill the delinquent's place, and that alternative this person now requires."
"The turn is a novel one that has not hitherto been mooted," announced Ming Wang, after he had conferred apart with an official of exalted button. "However, it rests with each ox to look after his own tail as best he can. What is the precise arrangement?"
"Great Majesty," proclaimed a voice of such melodious purity that to everyone who heard there came the thought of a carillon of silver bells touched lightly by the stirring breeze at evening, "this' concerns the trembling suppliant before you," and Hwa-che, now revealed as one of her own sort and appropriately—if somewhat noticeably—clad, pressed to the front among them. "After a succession of incidents sufficiently marked to imply ancestral guidance, she who droops at your mere glance was led to the walled city of Kochow, where, disguised for an adequate cause as one of your own all-conquering sort, she became involved in a further course of action. Now to complete the cycle of appointed things she comes forward of her own accord in His Excellence T'sin Wong's place, either to share in that one's fault or equally to restore his prestige."
"This is an extremely interesting development of what had so far threatened to be a very ordinary case of judicial routine," remarked the broad-minded Sovereign, graciously indicating to Hwa-che that she should come still nearer to the throne to enable him to judge if she was physically equal to the proposed encounter, "and fittingly exemplifies how desirable it is for a really conscientious Monarch to shirk no by-path of administrative detail."
"Alas, Magnificence," was the discreet reply, as Hwa-che looked vainly round for some suitable object with which to cover her becomingly arranged confusion at this unprecedented honour, "never before was it more keenly felt that 'The smaller the foot, the more precarious the footing.' Nothing but your truly regal presence offers any support for my naturally weak-kneed resolution."
"Do not hesitate to lean against it then, to the fullest extent of your requirement," enjoined the sincerely outspoken Ruler. "Indeed," he added, after an approving glance in a direction not unconnected with the subject matter of Hwa-che's apt proverb, "it would almost seem that if the adage is to be literally accepted it may become necessary for you to be entirely sustained by some extraneous foundation. Lao Pun, in so exceptional a case does it not occur to your behindhand mind that it would be more in keeping with one of our chivalrous sort to offer your comfortably upholstered stool to the—technically—misdemeanant?"
"Your gracious word prevails, Benevolence," replied the one addressed, as he proceeded to sit upon the marble floor on the spot reserved for transgressors. "That is to say," he added with dark intent, "if it is the Royal Will that your Grand Master of the Board should suffer the indignity of being matched on any terms with an ambiguously styled fledgeling."
"The Code must be rigidly upheld," declared the exacting Ming Wang, "and so far she against whom your skill is to be arrayed has been studiously forbearing. We live in a progressive age, Lao Pun, and in any case, seeing that all, from men-at-arms to kings, are adroitly swayed by their lesser ones behind closed doors, it would be a little illogical to deny in them the right to move our graven counterparts about a pasteboard arena."
THE field of combat being now set Hwa-che took up her station, and on every side there was a general edging-on to obtain a better view of what it was soon recognized must inevitably prove an epoch-making contest. The ceremonial rules of precedence had very little weight after it was presently observed that the Immutable himself was seated on the lowest step of his throne so that he might obtain an uninterrupted view over Hwa- che's becoming shoulder, and inferior nobles did not scruple to thrust elbows into the sides of more important, rounder-bodied men if they could thereby secure a better standing.
The deciding lot for order was next cast, and it fell upon Lao Pun to unmask his line of battle. He sent out a man-at-arms to test the ground, to which Hwa-che at once replied by one of a similar condition, but it is to be inferred that the point from which he sprang was surprising to Lao Pun, for he looked twice before he reopened the attack, this time with a martial abbot. To his onset Hwa-che brought up a second trusty skirmisher, and the clash of encounter thickened.
The first wave of conflict had scarcely fairly passed when those who watched foresaw a sharp reverse to Hwa-che's arms if she failed to support an outpost. The more observing also noticed that at the same moment a loose strand of her otherwise carefully arranged hair floated gracefully above her pearl-like ear, and the impression grew that the ever-attentive Potentate was blowing lightly in that direction in order to warn the one implied of her jeopardous position. If so, however, the device fell short, for Hwa-che neglected the essential move, and with a most offensive look of ill-concealed elation the contemptible Lao Pun advanced an armoured knight by a far from straightforward path and forthwith raised a low-conditioned cry suggestive of directing a team of fractious horses. An emotion of despondency shadowed every face, for already Hwa-che's unassuming qualities had endeared her to the throng, nor did it seem as if the ground could be conceivably retrieved, while there were few who would not have rejoiced to see Lao Pun meet a thoroughly well-earned disaster.
"Your opportune remark?" she courteously inquired. "My bankrupt mind was elsewhere."
"Your emperor is assailed by this one's lord," replied Lao Pun, indicating the treacherous line of assault with a consequential finger, "and his very existence menaced. It will be necessary for you to remove him to another space since none can be insinuated between them."
"To one not steeped in treason there is a more befitting way," came the bold retort, and Hwa-che was seen to pluck the encroaching knight up from the board and cast it into a brazier of glowing coal that tempered the chill of evening. At this undaunted move, and the engaging gesture of high-minded disdain that marked the act, a mingled cry of esteem and deep regret was forced from every lip as all now recognized that Hwa-che had gone beyond the limit. Lao Pun's unworthy hand was at once raised to indicate that he claimed victory by forfeit.
"Let the game proceed," directed Ming Wang, unmoved. "It is incumbent on even a rigorous judge to alternate severity with mercy."
"The consequence is of no account," declared Lao Pun, "though the precedent is doubtful. By advancing this contiguous man-at- arms your sovereign is again reduced to flight," and he repeated the annoying sound as he moved the piece in question.
"A man-at-arms, thus now!" exclaimed Hwa-che, and, despite the fact that the least costly of the ivories were set with gems and gold, the bowman followed the armoured knight into the devouring furnace. "All-powerful!" was her cry, as she faced the Sublime again, and by the picturesque vigour of her stride scattered both board and men over the insufferable Grand Master, "it is time that a loyal voice be raised, since one is strangely lacking. The Code of Yaou and Shun has been invoked, Most High: let the Code be strictly followed!"
"It is impossible to doubt the sincerity of your latest poise, Hwa-che, though not absolutely transparent in its purport," declared the Illimitable mildly. "What exactly is the burden of your engaging choler?"
"This and no less, Supreme: arch-treason!" was the daring challenge. "In the hearing of your assembled Court—before your own Celestial eyes—it has been claimed that not only an accoutred knight but a servile man-at-arms is competent to assail the Elect of Heaven—yourself, Pre-eminence—and compel him to an ignominious surrender; and what is more, the vaunt has been used in actual practice. This affects Clause Ninety-six of the Code in point, with which your Omniscience is of course familiar."
"Undoubtedly," replied the profound Monarch, "but it is questionable if all the host are equally proficient. Tan-yang, for the benefit of our less informed subjects standing about, announce the terms of the Ninety-sixth Clause of the Immortal Statute."
"The paragraph in question, Mighty Head, is briefly this," replied the Keeper of the Books, flinging his tablets right and left in an ecstasy of briskness: "'Conduct of a Court functionary whereby the ability of his Anointed Majesty to do anything or be anywhere in whatever circumstances is directly or obliquely questioned.'"
"Well, Lao Pun, you would seem to have brought yourself within the clutches of the Digest in no ambiguous guise," remarked the August as he rubbed his hands in a gratified way at the cheer- diffusing fire. "Is there anything that you may wish to say before your last move, as one might say, is made across the congested board of existence?"
"Imperishable," besought the clay-souled Pun, "this game is but the counterfeit of an actual state and has therefore no solid meaning. Whatever——"
"That plea can scarcely hold, Lao Pun," reproved the Great, "inasmuch as the shrewdest pundits of our favoured land have invariably maintained that actionable obloquy may be conveyed not only by words—written or said—but equally by signs or abusive shrugs or significant omissions; by gestures, attitudes, or meaning looks; by the compound of things innocuous in themselves, as when naturally decorous fingers are spread out from a part not inherently discourteous; by the allusive angle of a hat aggressively thrust on, the understood contumely of knees made insultingly to bend; by horns and hoofs and tails; sticks and stones and vapours. In short, there is little or nothing by which traducement may not be expressed, so that to claim exemption for so subtle a medium as chess is but to enhance the outrage."
"Yet the rules and fixed observance of the game, Benign——"
"Rules, Lao Pun," was the fitting reprimand, "and you the Grand Chess Master! It is tenuous indeed for the Head and Authority of the game himself to plead that under the cloak of a philosophical exercise an insidious brand of disloyalty should be fostered. Henceforth propriety will be observed by the emperor on the one side only being vulnerable to his compeer on the other, and all lesser ranks will maintain a respectful distance. This trifling rearrangement of the plan of our great national pastime shall be the first care of the next in office. Tan-yang, ensure that this goes forward."
"It is poised on my awaiting brush, Serene. Proceed to elaborate your edict."
"The Couch of Chess being vacant, let a trial be made and the most expert in all our realm be chosen for the office. Hereafter, the Grand Mastership will be for life, on an automatic base, it being sufferable for any ambitious aspirant to blow three times on a bugle hung outside the Board of Chess street door, and this to imply a challenge. Should he who has called the issue make good his claim, he becomes in turn Grand Master."
"But if not, All-just?"
"If not, he demonstrates that wise provision of Nature known as 'the continuance of the adroitest.' Thus by a single short ordinance we tend to discourage pretension among the headstrong and unfit, encourage an increased state of proficiency in an improving relaxation for both young and old, and, so far as is humanly possible, contrive that the holder of the office does not by slothful ease become lethargic and slow-witted. Now as regards Lao Pun——" Here the Upholder of Rightness considered.
"Proceed to distribute justice, Immaculate," was that one's acrimonious taunt. "Yet it is better to have feasted if only in a dream than to live on husks awaking."
"Alas, Lao Pun," replied his deeply excusing Majesty, "it may well be said of you, 'He whose hands are cold need not fear to handle hot dishes.' In these oncoming days the authority of a ruling Prince is very straightly lined, and not pictorial tolerance but the hard-and-fast of law is rigidly exacted. What, Tan-yang, Lao Pun having tacitly allowed his guilt, is the formal nature of the decreed expiation?"
"The crime, Illustriousness, would appear to be one of a rather unusual type, and the details in consequence are a little ambiguous in their archaicly legal rendering. This much is explicit, however: the transgressor, it would seem, is condemned to be taken to your Imperial Large Game Sanctuary beyond the walls, and there employed by the guardians of the park—there is a slight textual obscurity about the sign used—'to feed the Royal dragons.'"
"Thus and thus?" murmured the humane Ruler with a sympathetic nod. "Lao Pun to——? Surely a distressingly active rôle for one of our late Chess Master's speculative predisposition?"
"From a certain point of view that cannot be denied, Most High," agreed Tan-yang, "but taking into account the looseness of the phrase it may not, after all, be one of immoderately long- lived duration."
AFTER Lao Pun had been led passively away by an official charged with the dispatch of his case Ming Wang again resumed his providential throne with a more carefree expression.
"The eradication of vice must always be a necessary part of a truly constitutional Sovereign's office, but how pleasurable it is to turn from this squalid task to the always attractive province of recompensing virtue," and the painstaking Monarch's eyes strayed in the direction of Hwa-che, who had meanwhile modestly retired to T'sin Wong's band, where she was endeavouring to obliterate herself among her fellows.
"The case of the Mandarin T'sin Wong is singularly free of any complicating tissue," resumed the Mouthpiece of Light, graciously indicating that the one he named might now assume a less horizontal position. "The charge that he had been guilty of originality unbecoming in a high official having been proved to be devoid of a single shred of truth, his undimmed button is honourably restored to him and (after satisfying the usual Court fees and suitably rewarding the various obliging persons who have smiled upon his cause) he is at liberty to return to thrice- fortunate Chokow——"
"Kochow, All-knowing," murmured the attentive Recorder of the Most High's Right Hand, coughing slightly to obscure the interruption.
"——to the place which we have already thoughtfully renamed to signalize the unique occasion," continued the Imperturbable, without varying his tenor. "There still remains the lotus-cheeked Hwa-che, to whose unswerving loyalty most of this happy development is very largely owing. Doubtless there is some coveted distinction—not, let us hasten to disclaim, anything of a sordidly pecuniary stamp—but the privilege, perchance, of carrying a yellow silk umbrella in the presence of a Viceroy of State, or of keeping a few sacred ducks inside a prohibited area——?" And the accommodating Emperor indicated by a look that he would not set his face against any request in reason.
There was a moment of constraint, the one chiefly concerned being too delicate to speak on such a theme, and the decorous Chin-tung too scrupulous to imply his own advancement. Among this variance it fell upon T'sin Wong to thrust his own voice forward.
"Beneath your Imperial thumb," he craved, "this one, being in the standing of a natural guardian to the two young persons involved, may without impropriety put forth a commonplace suggestion."
"Say on," was the courteous assent. "In any case, it cannot be less helpful than a general silence."
Thus encouraged, T'sin Wong cleared his insidious throat still more profusely.
"It would appear," he said, "that she whom you would raise and an indifferent taker-down of this slow-witted person's very third-rate words—Chin-tung his paltry name—have reached a stage of mutual understanding. From some obscure impulse the short-sighted Chin-tung would now forsake my fostering roof and thus that other one's virtuous hopes would be brought to a barren limit. If, however, your commanding foot came down——"
"Say no more," declared Ming Wang, who prided himself on an inspired grasp of whatever was implied, "the misshapen thing shall not escape the issue. An inferior literary post is never hard to find about the Royal In-and-Out Department and Chin-tung shall be assigned to one of these, which carries with it adequate residence actually within the Palace grounds both for himself and Delightful Vision. Could anything be more conveniently positioned?"
"Since the question has been raised," interposed a musical but at that moment not altogether pleasantly intoned response, "an alternative scheme suggests itself which might perhaps be described as even more becomingly situated," and the clear- sighted and vigorous-minded Royal consort (on a description of Hwa-che's striking progress reaching her inner chamber) now makes her brief but effective appearance. "No farther away than middle rice to-day did not Your Industrious Majesty speak of a vacant office of reasonable gain in a remote and tranquil Province?"
"There was some negligible reference to a Collectorship of Dues in far-away Su-ying," was the overcast admission, "but there are five score clamorous applicants in view, all of them well supported."
"Here, then, is the opportunity to tread on two beetles at a single step—avoid an invidious choice while giving offence to none, and at the same time recompense these two who have a claim on our united sufferance."
"There is a certain rigidity of form to be observed in these affairs of state, Bright Star," maintained the Heavensent, though it was plain he was being far from easy. "The one in point may fall short of the prescribed stage of honour inseparable from such a function."
"That is ascertainable by the not very elaborate process of addressing yourself to his ear," observed the tenacious Empress. "Or is it to be held more seemly that this one should herself exchange speech with a stranger of the other description?"
"'Beauty is forgotten at dusk but hard words endure for ever'—Harbinger of Rapture!" spoke back Ming Wang, but he nevertheless questioned Chin-tung very much as she had indicated.
"Are you a man of full degree, Chin-tung," he asked, "or only as yet an 'Aspiring Genius'?"
"Alas, Illustrious Head," was Chin-tung's shamefaced reply, "in spite of persistent trials my mediocre efforts have not so far been rewarded with any status beyond that of 'Meritorious Promise.'"
"There, Chaplet of Pearls, it is even as——" the Imperishable would have said, but the one who shared his couch had by no means reached her limit.
"Since the authorities have been lax it remains with you to rectify their omission," she capably declared. "Confer 'Advanced Scholar' on Chin-tung, for the honour of his cause, and you become at once a liberal patron of the arts (whom less enlightened faculties will press forward to repeat), and the one concerned is qualified for office."
"Confer—a literary degree!" stammered the Supreme, dumbfounded. "Why, Pristine Object, it is beyond the power of man——"
"But not of the Regent of the Gods," was the alert retort, "or whereon stands your prestige? The Code of Yaou and Shun has been invoked. All-high, is it, or is it not, to be regarded?"
"Have it your own way then—as heretofore," conceded Ming Wang, and he closed his fan with which to perform the ceremony of striking Chin-tung's shoulder. Then taking the inscriber of the word aside, under the plea of an initiatory phrase, he whispered in his ear, "It is aptly said, Chin-tung, 'Men will face fire and flood but not the voice of a clamorous woman,' and although it would theoretically be profane to refer to the one hinted at as either clamorous or—in the ordinary sense—a woman, there is, as you will doubtless learn some day, a certain amount of context in the application."
THE rising sun was emerging from the clouds above the Eastern Gate as a small but capable group of travellers satisfied the expectant guard, and leaving the Capital behind came out upon the great unswerving earth-road that maintained its relentless course over every sort of obstacle until it reached the impenetrable barrier on the outer edge of the terrestrial ambit. It was Chin-tung and Hwa-che, now definitely joined in marriage, together with the venerable Kwan Yen, making their leisurely way towards the distant Province. There was no sense of stress since Chin-tung himself carried his authority of office, which he would deliver in due form, but meanwhile the novelty of the scene and the engaging freshness that each of the two discovered in the society of the other enticed them continually to linger.
This prospect, however, failed to allure Kwan Yen, who consistently deplored the hardships of the way, the insipidity of their fare, and the temerity of penetrating at all into so uncivilized a region; for it can no longer be withheld that under the corrosive test of life in voluptuous Kochow, with a glimpse of the even more rapidly moving Capital added, much of the external gloss of the impressive patriarch's complaisant front had, so to speak, peeled away, and the one who formerly was content to observe the changing hues of an autumn-tinted hydrangea now spoke familiarly of the conflicting merits of rival lantern-boat attractions, lamented the absence of latest tidings from the more fancied tanks of gladiatorial gold-fish, and, even in his sleep, seemed to be on terms of flower-name intimacy with a variety of tea-house maidens. Somewhat later he began to display an unbecoming obstinacy of outlook, and if reasoned with would lie down in the Way and kick, to indicate annoyance. Thereafter he was borne along on a wheelbarrow propelled by the supple-jointed Li, for that ingratiatory person had now definitely attached himself to their rising cause and was being allowed to convey their possessions.
"It cannot but be an element of bitterness in this one's throat that he who until recently was the Zenith and Nadir of her firmament should behave in this peculiar manner," remarked Hwa- che on an occasion after the stubborn-willed Kwan Yen, taking unreasonable umbrage at a wholly illusory slight, had lain down on his back in the dusty highway and spun round and round on the ground, saying that this was only fitting as he had been treated as a beetle, "and it is her persistent hope that among the artless and invigorating surroundings of primitive Su-ying he may recover his former balance."
"In any case," agreed Chin-tung, "there will always be reserved for him the chief seat at our board and a corner of the fireside ingle. During the day he can fly kites, compose apologies or exercise the birds according to his several moods; in the evening drowse by the hearth remembering his bygone prowess. . . . It is a little strange to realize, Hwa-che, that scarcely more than a moon ago we two who are now walking familiarly side by side were totally unaware of each other's existence."
"That only goes to show, dear one, that all this had been definitely arranged for us in advance by the protective Forces, and that we were being guided along a destined path towards an appointed end and influenced in a preordained manner," rather surprisingly replied Hwa-che, and Chin-tung now recalled that for some time past she had made no reference to unveiling crime nor extolled the Barbarian method. "Thus and thus, beloved," she continued, holding Chin-tung's hand, indeed, but speaking rather as in the unchecked thoughts that from a well-filled heart rise upwards. "The Wheel turns and our faces must ever be set onwards. Kochow, the Mandarin T'sin Wong, the Capital, the Imperishable himself—these are fast assuming the distorted perspective of an unsubstantial dream: even memory-held Lo-ngo is fading. The future narrows its vista to a small but very cherished home, an inner chamber set with our household gods, and, perchance, a——"
"It is happily expressed," declared Chin-tung, "and there, auspiciously disclosed through a cleft in these dark hills, is our first glimpse of the sunlit valleys of Su-ying, where felicity awaits us. For whatever may befall, is it not wisely written, 'Even a rag-picker, though compelled to toil with his face fixed on the earth, can always lift his thoughts to heaven'?"
THE essential story of Chin-tung and Hwa-che, even if written in this ill-equipped relater's usual bankrupt style and with no particularly improving reflections drawn from each event, would fill seven and thirty volumes of a really distinctive size, but, alas, towards this attractive plan they who send forth the printed leaves have turned a wholly repulsive ear and extended hands from which it is impossible to interpret a blessing. It was very different in the spacious days of the meticulous Chung Fou, when five score and three compendious books were considered insufficient to express all that could be said on the precise meaning of the Harmonious Balance.
"Brick upon brick," declared the enlightened Sage, "it is possible to erect a tower by which you may reach the stars," but all the words that have been written since the indomitable Yu's age are not adequate to provide an enduring foothold in a time of deluge.
Let it suffice, therefore, that all the good and meritorious persons encountered in this prosaic and short-coming tale lived to a virtuous old age and Passed Upwards painlessly at last, in agreeable circumstances and surrounded by their children's children, while the bad and exacting were either devoured by ferocious beasts, suffered humiliating tortures, or came to a sudden and mortifying end in some other revolting way that would earn the most refined hearer's gratified approval.
Justice having thus been impartially weighed out and the fundamental equipoise suitably maintained, nothing remains for an admittedly tedious and obsolete describer of unvarnished facts but to roll up his threadbare mat once more, bow right and left with ingratiating submission, and—not, perchance, without an inoffensive glance at his ill-lined collecting bowl—await your distinguished judgment.