"IN order to appreciate more fully the various involvements concerned in the legendary tale which a scrupulous and uninventive recorder of actual facts has selected for recital on this gratifying occasion, it is necessary to take into account the usages and conditions of primitive simplicity existing in the State of Yin at that distant era of what has been aptly termed 'our celestial and richly-embroidered country's crudely-chiselled narrative'."
Thus auspiciously Kai Lung responded to a well-sustained request that after a surfeit of round-bodied merchants, occupied chiefly with their wares, officials of not very imposing rank, unsuccessful students—no matter how hard- striving—earth-tillers, redolent of their toil, stall- keepers and beggars of the street, hired assassins, travelling minstrels, actors, sleeve-snatchers and persons of no particular kind, he would gratify their attentive ears with a story in which one of really exalted standing played an essential part, so that they might learn how people belonging to a class widely distant from their own ordered their doings. Nor when Kai Lung pointed out that a story where nobles of distinguished Line were brought in naturally involved a more sustained effort than one concerned with their own low-conditioned sort and was therefore worthy of an increased reward, had they failed to respond to the obligation.
"Yet how, seeing that the bulk of those who form your circle are ordinary persons of menial task arid unlettered tastes—how is it attainable for these to take into account, as you say, usages and complexities of whose operations they are profoundly unconscious?" asked one, an industrious crier of wayside herbs whose ambition it was to become a spokesman. "Is it not incumbent on the one professing to scatter the seed of entertainment first to prepare the soil of knowledge?"
"There is a grain of truth in the generality of your charge, but the matter is not so remote from a common understanding as your words might imply," was Kai Lung's admission. "It is perhaps sufficient to realise that in that distant and credulous age what was said was currently believed, and the more sonorously it was claimed the greater was the degree of conviction carried; that what another was seen to do was sedulously reproduced in the faith that what another did must be necessarily right, and the higher the degree of the one observed the more implicit the assurance; that those who had achieved success were the worthiest to succeed while failure to obtain material weal was the logical outcome of inferiority on the part of the striver. To this must be added that it was an era when, as the records of the most esteemed narrators disclose, whatever the appearance of a deplorable outcome meanwhile, Righteousness invariably triumphed over Iniquity in the end, but which constituted the one and which the other lay wholly within the province of the discloser."
"Yet wherein does this fabled state of affairs differ——" began a simple-minded goat-herd from the Barren Uplands, but reproving voices pointed out that Kai Lung had already spread his mat and taken the position.
IN the feudatory days of the State of Further Yin the venerable and widely-esteemed, ruler, Hysi Ming, had at length announced that it was his gracious inclination (since it was not to be imagined that so powerful a monarch could ever be constrained) shortly to Pass Above, and to confirm his words it was soon afterwards generally agreed that a flourish of celestial dragons had hovered above the palace grounds bearing a cordial invitation for Hysi Ming to join his devoted forerunners.
It is of this enlightened sovereign's humane outlook that many worthy sayings have been preserved, including the inscription on his outer gate: "When this door is freely ajar there is no need to seek justice elsewhere." Notable also is his admission that if any man was unlawfully killed throughout the land it was as though he, as their responsible Head, had committed murder; if another's goods were despoiled he was inferentially guilty of theft; and should the meanest of his subjects be wrongfully accused it was not too much to say (though none actually ventured to go to the extent of saying it) that Hysi Ming had borne false witness.
Indeed, so benevolently-inspired was the sympathetic potentate unquestioningly admitted to be that several influentially- supported risings had come to a fruitless end, when all but ready to launch, merely on it being pointed out by mutual well-wishers how seriously the intended course would wound Hysi Ming's feelings.
In this courteous atmosphere of general amity and resolute goodwill Prince Ying had passed his youth, nor did it ever occur to his somewhat restricted vision that any other state of things might possibly exist outside the palace walls, or that the universal deference which he received as a matter of official routine had any other source than as a natural tribute to his exceptional qualities. He could not fail to be aware that he outshone all others in feats of arms, for he had been instructed in the correct positions of archery by the foremost exponents of the age, and trusty attendants saw to it that by an ingenious arrangement of hidden cords his arrows never failed to reach "the yellow;" at sword-play the most redoubtable champions of that art habitually fell beneath the rain of blows that he was able to inflict upon them, and when he rode, either in pursuit of prey or along an appointed course, no other horse could—or at all events ever did—outrun the one on which Prince Ying happened to be seated. A like success invariably attended the games of chance, the contests with coloured discs, or the poetical matching competitions in which he took a part, for if by any mishap he failed to win outright a dependable slave was always near at hand so that the table became overturned or a suitable interruption broke in at the most convenient moment. Nor in the matter of his outward form had the prince any reason to distrust the opinion of those who extended praise, for his reflecting surface of polished brass disclosed that he was of an agreeable colour, well-proportioned in all his parts, and had an alert yet ingenuous expression. The jewelled profusion of his splendid robes amply proclaimed the distinguished aloofness of their wearer's high position.
The earliest faint rustling of a breath of doubt—the slenderest shaft of suspicion that everything might not perhaps be exactly so unblemished as it seemed in the most desirable of all imaginable States—would be attributable to a chance remark overheard as he stood unseen on the inner side of the palace stockade, beyond which a group of persons of the most ordinary kind expressed themselves" in very unrefined tones with distressing freedom. For the first time in his unclouded life Ying heard the venerable and widely-honoured head of their royal Line, the benign Hysi Ming himself, referred to not with deference by his many ceremonial titles but allusively as an elderly, white-whiskered baboon of predatory tastes and equivocative habits, while one whose identity he could not altogether avoid conjecturing was veiled under the similitude of a brightly-hued bird with well-spread tail or, by another speaker, an irrational-natured domestic beast of burden. Without staying to rebuke these uncouth travesties of humanity on their grotesque distortion of a flowery and richly melodious tongue, Prince Ying passed unostentatiously on but his unquestioning confidence in the essential equipoise of inherent uprightness could never be quite the same thereafter.
DOUBTLESS it was some recollection of this unworthy band's lack of culture—even though they should be only an infinitesimal fraction of those whom he must rule—that caused the prince to approach that task, when the sublime Hysi Ming condescended eventually to Pass Up, in a hitherto-unsuspected spirit of enquiry.
"It is one thing to maintain that impartiality prevails throughout the land and that all men receive satisfaction, but it is quite another whether those who are directly concerned would spontaneously assent to the declaration," was the direction of his thoughts. "This can only be set at rest by merging one's true position."
Having this end in view Ying passed through the palace gates without any premonitory beating of ceremonial drums or blowing of processional horns and for the first time in his life wholly unaccompanied by a retinue of bearers. Although he wore what he considered to be a mean and inconspicuous garb he was so much more richly attired than any person of ordinary rank that none whom he approached had any difficulty whatever in recognising a noble of exalted station.
"Being but newly arrived at your romantic and favoured land a stranger would gladly learn something of its condition," he explained, addressing himself to one who leaned with lethargic ease at an angle of the ways, waiting for the gate of an adjoining tea-house to be unbolted. "Is justice administered with a single face in Yin or would it be necessary to approach a closed door with a well-filled hand held open?"
"It is impossible to speak too highly of all that goes on around," was the discreet reply; "from base to apex the endeavour of each official is directed towards a single object. Just as the State of Yin is the most desirable point of all inhabitable space, so its rulers' virtues are practically unmeasurable, and lesser functionaries only descendingly less perfect; while the never-failing splendour of the facile-handed guardians of the ways has passed into a saying."
"Is disaffection then unknown in any form?" enquired the prince, who had his own reasons for seeking assurance on this specific detail.
"Not only is antagonism unseen from dawn to dusk but it is so remote that its face would not be recognised should you chance to meet it on the highway."
"It is aptly spoken," declared Prince Ying, and after bestowing a piece of gold, in what he understood to be the customary way, he passed on to investigate elsewhere.
A sentry standing by a weak point of the wall next responded to his call, for seeing the evident consequence of the one who spoke the warrior readily laid aside his weapons of defence and withdrew from the position.
This one in turn assured Ying that insubordination or the thought of discontent was unknown among any of the various sections of a thoroughly willing and grateful army. When the prince referred in idiomatic terms to certain forms of laxity or craft of which he had dimly heard from martial courtiers, the sentinel confessed himself as at a loss even to understand the meaning of the alien words, and almost inexpressibly grieved that such duplicity should exist, albeit if only among outside tribes and barbarian hordes strange to the scrupulousness of polite campaigning. Those in authority over themselves, he added, were so solicitous to secure a life of luxurious ease for all within their charge that during every midday rice one of high standing passed among their ranks and besought that if even the lowliest should have any cause for dissatisfaction or complaint he would openly express it; while scarcely a night passed without a head being thrust through the opening of their tent, to be assured that all were free from discomfort.
"What then is the most prevalent cause of annoyance advanced on these occasions?" enquired the prince.
"How should murmuring be heard, seeing that one and all get more, as it is, than the extent of their desires?" was the significant admission. "No more convincing testimony to the efficiency of a resolute and vigorous system need be produced than that, despite this gracious encouragement from above, no man has ever yet been known to proclaim a grievance."
Recognising that it would be fruitless to probe for that which did not exist Ying commended the sentry for the simple candour of his word and having rewarded him fittingly with a costly jewel, the prince bent his footsteps on in the hope of further discoveries.
WHAT new evidence of contentment and well-being might have been forced upon his attention it would be unprofitable to assume, for on passing into a secluded place Prince Ying stumbled upon a sight that he had been influenced to believe could not exist within the confines of his dominion—that of a strong man in the lusty prime of life who had turned aside from the more public ways to lament unseen, now beating his sinewy breast with clenched hands in reasonless despair, now again raising them in fierce challenge to the attesting sky while he called down the seven-fold curse from which there is no escape on the heads and repose of those whom he inculpated. This peculiar scene the prince observed for such a space of time as wherein a man might count five-score; then disclosing himself from the obscurity in which he had stood concealed he approached the stranger.
"How comes it," he enquired, "that in the most justly-ordered and bountifully endowed of all discoverable lands one in full possession of his years and strength should find cause to arraign authority?"
"Before we discuss that," replied the other, displaying an attitude that was neither subservient nor bold, "it is necessary that I should know with whom I speak and the definite reason for his avowed interest."
"Since you ask," replied the prince, "there is no absolute reason why I should conceal my identity behind a mask of evasion. The one who speaks is Hysi Ying, Prince of Yin, and Hereditary Brother of the Yellow Dragon, though for a set purpose he assumed this lowly garb, so that he might freely pass unrecognised about the city."
"In that case," accepted the man, with no great concern, "Sheng Yei is now as good as among the spirits. Therefore call your awaiting guard and end an existence that has already exceeded the normal capacity of misfortune."
"We are evidently involved in a mutual labyrinth," declared the prince, "in which neither sees the outcome of the other. Why should this one condemn unheard a person against whose life he has no possible grievance?"
"It is the usual course when a subject, however moved, has been led into speaking without due respect of a member of the royal lineage. Was it not for this reason that your Great Highness lurked alone in the byways of your city?"
"So far from that being the case," maintained the prince, "the sole purpose of this second-hand disguise was to be assured that universal justice was being done, or to redress the balance of right and wrong if it should appear that any form of iniquity flourished."
"Disguise!" repeated the one who had thus avowed his name to be Sheng Yei, and for the first time his voice lost its conscious bitterness. "It would be as profitable to go begging with Yen Sung's silver bowl as to expect sincerity from those who are in a position to speak, towards one wearing the obvious marks of a rich official."
"This is certainly unlooked for," admitted Ying, "since the costume appealed to this person's eye as indicating modest want, being of an inconspicuous tone and wholly obsolete in its last year's fashion."
"The test of the stew lies in what the chop-stick brings to the surface. Did any man confide to your ear of disaffection gathering from the four points of the wind or was it a smooth tale of prosperity and contentment, perchance with the expectation of a small piece of silver in return, that was flatteringly presented?"
"There may have been some negligible coin that fell unheeded from one's sleeve," replied the prince with a distant air, "but that was apart from the subject matter of our conversation. Yet if sincerity is not to be found by these extraneous means how is it possible to arrive at a true understanding?"
"It is in the nature of things that any ordinary person should seek to mislead one suspected of possessing official rank, just as certain creatures instinctively feign death on the approach of a natural enemy," was the tolerant reply. "Now had you been in this one's place——"
"The suggestion is inspired!" exclaimed Ying, stirred by new hope; "therein lies the germ of what is necessary. It is not to be denied that your general appearance is much more calculated to win the confidence of the beneath and withdrawn than this person's ill-chosen aspect. All that remains, therefore, is for us to assume each other's being."
"Pre-eminence!" protested the one thus equally involved, "is it to be thought——"
"It is useless to demur," interrupted the prince, "for not only is it incumbent on you as a vassal subject to obey your lord but it is also futile to resist, the one who commands being trained to the usage of all manner of arms and able to vanquish any adversary. Lead, therefore, to your conveniently-situated though no doubt inexpensive abode so that we may effect the change, and if possible let our path be screened from observation."
Seeing no outlet from this course Sheng Yei made his way by secluded tracks to a crumbling dwelling among the Lower Wastes and there untying a knot that held the bolt he stood aside for the prince to enter. It was dark within until the shutter was swung back but an emotion of disquietude stirred some inner faculty at the feeling which Ying encountered.
"There is an influence that pervades this place," he was constrained to exclaim as he looked round. "What are the three objects that lie there side by side and why is each hid beneath a coverlet?"
"They are all that remain of a once prolific house," replied Sheng Yei, now relapsing into his former morose mood, "and their faces are veiled because the manner of their Passing Hence was not tranquil."
"It was of this that you spoke when you arraigned authority at the meeting of our ways?" enquired the prince, and Sheng Yei acquiesced by a despairing sign, for spoken words were just then beyond his power.
"It is well that we should have come together now and hereafter all who are concerned will be held to a strict account, but for the time being I am not to be put off from my immediate purpose," was Ying's firm resolve after he had swung his sleeve ambiguously for an undecided moment. "Meanwhile, take this solace to heart, Sheng Yei: 'Iniquity must achieve its end by a sudden stroke, but justice can wait until the avenging gods are ready.' "
"Can reparation call back spirits from the Upper Air or restore the severed limbs to dismembered shadows that must now exist bereft of the common faculties?" was the outspoken reply. "How then, Omnipotence, can exact justice be rendered?"
"It may not be actually possible to do as you truly observe," admitted the one addressed, "but should you establish your charge you will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that those at fault are being punished in exactly the same heartrending way that you yourself have suffered. Beyond that, the most exalted impartiality could scarcely go. To do more would savour of malice."
Being eager to pursue his way unhampered by any outward sign of wealth or rank Prince Ying was already discarding his distinctive robes and assuming Sheng Yei's threadbare raiment. His elaborate sandals also he cast off and his well-gilt hat, taking in its place one that would have the advantage of protecting a wearer's head from the weather. When Sheng Yei sought to restore a weighty purse of gold that he found in the inner sleeve Ying thrust it heedlessly aside, though on being pressed he consented to carry a hand-count of pieces in a concealed knot of his garment.
"Three things, Imperishable, rank as the necessities of life: a piece of money, a smooth-noosed cord, and a knife of superior keenness," was Sheng Yei's counsel. "Properly used, as the several emergencies arise, these should be enough to bring a resourceful man through most ordinary difficulties."
"In a pressing angle an authoritative voice would carry further than a weapon could be flung," was the self-confident reply. "Moreover, the one whom you would warn is admitted to be invincible at every kind of martial encounter. Have no fear, therefore, but should any unforeseen tangle occur make your way to the inner ward of our palace here and there discover to the trusty Captain of the Guard, Hao Hsin his name, all that you know of this arisement."
"My head shall answer for that charge," undertook Sheng Yei stoutly. "Indeed," he added, as he realised what the undertaking might involve, "that is what will probably result should this one's account be received in a misgiving spirit."
"It is very evident that affliction must have obscured your naturally clear-sighted mind or, in the most perfectly-arranged State that exists (with, perchance, an occasional lapse) you would scarcely refer continually to unpleasant happenings," remarked the prince with unshaken confidence. "However, take this inscribed ring"—and he withdrew from his thumb a jewel bearing the royal device—"and display it whenever necessary. Even supernatural Beings—unless very highly placed—would hardly venture to dispute its authority."
With this assurance Hysi Ying—now wearing a weather-beaten robe and no other sign of his regal state—proceeded on his outward path, for he had already determined to leave the city, where he had apparently been misinformed, and take the unenclosed highway. Sheng Yei, dressed as a leading dignitary of the land, his sleeve weighed down with considerable gold and a ring of unlimited authority encircling his thumb, could not entirely satisfy himself that he had not been involved in a delusive vision.
AS he proceeded on his adventurous quest, so light-hearted did Prince Ying become at the thought of the many instances of meritorious government and virtuous content which he would presently disclose that as he went he was impelled to raise his voice in an exultant song that told of bygone paladins. Hitherto, whenever he had condescended to exhibit his unique gift of melody—whether alone or blending with his voice the tones of a many-stringed zither—all those who had been allowed to share the privilege of listening had united to declare that it went far beyond anything previously deemed credible; while only the previous day a maiden of the court, on recovering from an ecstasy into which she had passed while he sang, affirmed that she had been transported to a celestial glade wherein a flock of nightingales poured out notes that changed into strings of lustrous pearls as they plashed into a crystal fountain. On this occasion, however, none whom he encountered stayed actually to commend Ying's voice although one or two did extend a passing reference to it.
In his new found release from the cares of state the prince had added li to li with no thought beyond that of discovering for himself what precise forms loyalty and contentment took in the outside parts of his territory. Not until a growing sense of insufficiency beneath his waistcloth and a realization that the great ancestor of the sky was calling in his messengers did it occur to him that never before had it been necessary to do more than strike a summoning gong for whatever he desired of the richest food and the most costly wine instantly to appear. In this contingency he recalled, not without an element of relief, that he carried a few negligible pieces of gold secured in a fold of his garment, but so far no suitable resort had appealed to his somewhat exacting taste, and of late the path had been destitute of so much as the scantiest tea-house. Had even a pedlar propelling a migratory wheel-barrow vending sweetmeats passed that way Prince Ying would gladly have interrupted his progress and purchased one.
But as it has been aptly said, "When the hills come to an end the plains begin," and it was at this point of his extremity that Ying encountered a wayfarer seated by the side of the earth-road who had built a wood fire over which a metal vessel boiled while a diversity of curious viands was spread out about him. It was as the prince was regarding this appetising fare with a covetous if politely-restrained glance that the one stirring the contents of the iron pot addressed him.
"Seeing that we are two vagrant men of the outcast tribe, one journeying from the east and the other from the west, would it not be well that we should mutually disclose what may be expected as the fruits of mendicancy when we reach a stage further?"
"It is this one's intention to diffuse enlightenment, as well as to acquire knowledge, wherever the soil is ripe," replied the prince. "He should, however, since you have spoken of rank, impart that his name is Ying, being in the elder sovereign Line of succession."
"It has never yet been said of Lee Fat that he was slow to exchange an appropriate jest," declared the other with rude approval. "He himself is of the younger branch of a very well- known but by no means unindustrious House and his own especial line is what is generally known as door-step tale-pitching."
"Is it a profitable thing, this of which you speak?" asked Ying, seeing in the encounter an occasion to learn somewhat of the arts and crafts by which his people obtained their rice. "Is it highly esteemed in Competition circles?"
"On the contrary," replied Lee Fat, "it ranks as rather less than nothing among those who hold the Courts, and its sole reward is often a harsh reference to a ferocious animal precariously restrained by a slender chain in an adjoining outbuilding. Indeed," confided the deplorable loiterer by the way, familiarly touching the liberal-minded descendant of the Supreme significantly on the forefront, and at the same time lowering his discordant voice, "between we two who are here conversing affably together and a hanging lantern, it is this one's intention to become a member of the fraternity of Associated Thieves and Bound-together Sleeve-snatchers as soon as he reaches the capital."
"Yet thereby you risk imprisonment and death," exclaimed the prince, unable to restrain his concern that one with whom he had so much as exchanged words should contemplate wrong-doing.
"A reasonably scrupulous person sooner or later finds it necessary to work, beg or steal in order to sustain life," maintained Lee Fat with a certain amount of stubborn dignity. "Having so far successfully avoided the first, this one has now outworn the second and it thus becomes inevitable to fall back on thieving. There is admittedly the chance of a sudden death by violence if he adopts this course, but there is the certainty of a lingering end by penury and need should he reject the hazard."
"But by doing so you also violate the Enactment of Yaou," urged Ying, "whose all-embracing digest speaks of theft as only less heinous than book-burning."
To this Lee Fat made a concise reply of which Ying missed the direct trend since it consisted of an elusive connection between the inspired Yaou's imperishable Code and an obscure detail of the speaker's outline; but from the tone employed it was to be assumed that it implied disparagement.
"That no doubt was well enough in a prosperous and affluent age," he added, evidently not encouraged by his companion's ambiguous silence, "but under the concave and effete administration of our present rule, by which all original enterprise is fettered, it is necessary to have the adaptability of a tapeworm."
"The air is no longer genial in its touch and the shadows are lengthening out," abruptly declared the prince. It is not to be denied that after his own fur-trimmed cloak the scanty one he now wore was a sadly inadequate covering, but beyond this he was beginning to doubt whether Lee Fat was very refined in his outlook. "As this one's chief object in being here is to seek out virtue in unlikely spots it would be well to turn his enquiring footsteps onwards."
"Restrain your abnormal zeal for instilling rectitude for another half gong-stroke of time," pressed the one who stirred the pot hospitably. "Already the rich fat that forms the basis of this stew has assumed a delicate translucent glaze," and he held up a piece of meat transfixed upon a skewer persuasively.
Doubtless the outcomes are already written in a marble book with a brush of surpassing exactness but while Ying had been resolute to continue his progress when he spoke, as an enticing odour from the slice of pork which Lee Fat thrust out assailed his nose the foundations of resistance crumbled. He recalled how few and meagrely supplied had been the tea-houses by the way, with the likelihood tending towards a still sparser choice as the path grew narrower. And although the one whose guest he would be had an unpleasant habit of noisily sucking in his lips whenever he stirred the meat, Prince Ying realised that in the circumstances it would seem incongruous to be exacting. "If you are a goat, lust; if sheep, provide wool; but do not expect to have it both ways," is a precept of wide application.
"What you offer with both hands, it would be churlish for a single tongue to refuse," he accordingly acceded. "At the same time, not to incur an obligation so heavy as to weigh down one's progress, would it be too much to ask your acceptance of a single piece of gold towards the merely material part of the entertainment?"
"The refreshment of your truly diverting society is more than a continual feast in return," replied Lee Fat, not desirous of being outdone in gravity removing. "Also, there is a sort of prejudice against accepting the last piece of gold from an agreeable stranger encountered in the ways. The superstitious hold that it has been found to turn to brass afterwards."
"As to that, it is not the last, there being a negligible hand- count of pieces," admitted Ying. "But your amiable scruple must be respected."
"There is a certain judicious wariness to be observed in carrying such things about loose in one's sleeve," cautioned Lee Fat with an observant glance, "nor is it well to display too much wealth in the presence of chance acquaintances whose outlook may possibly not be of our own exalted standard."
"Your words are well designed," acknowledged Ying, "but in this case there is no ground for concern. The trivial sum is not loose in his sleeve but securely knotted in the hem of this one's garment."
"Doubtless also," hazarded Lee Fat, "you wear some priceless gem by which to establish your inalienable right in the event of dissentient challenge?"
"There was a trifling emerald bearing the dynastic sign, but Sheng Yei, of the Lower Wastes, was vested with this in order to reassure his scruples," explained Ying. "In the event of unforeseen mishap it would be his province to alarm the banners."
By this time Lee Fat had equally divided the meat into two shares, putting one portion on a wooden dish which he blew repeatedly before he permitted Ying to accept, lest his guest should suffer any discomfort. He also added the flavour of several herbs of which he knew, these being among the remarkable assortment of possessions that he carried.
As they ate they conversed informally at their ease and the prince endeavoured to learn some particulars bearing on the more commendable qualities of those over whom he had lordship. In this he was only successful to a limited extent. Lee Fat did not appear to have noticed anything meritorious about those who had crossed his path and on the subject of any kind of work or labour with the hands his mind was an unsullied parchment. But there was no form of guile by which an occasional cash might be enticed and no variety of subterfuge for avoiding the toils of justice that was unknown to his nimble-witted mind, and on subjects germane to these he spoke fluently with vigour and precision. All those who acted on a different basis he freely described as "wound-stained earthenware vessels," and although the prince found many of his more involved allegories too elusive for his grasp he did not deem it practicable to maintain an opposing outlook. Under the combined influences of a genial fire, the gross fare, and Lee Fat's discursive voice he was gradually passing into a state of pleasurable unconcern, and presently, despite an expressed anxiety to resume his way, his uncontrolled sentience floated upwards.
WHEN Prince Ying awoke from this inopportune relapse the time of no-light had definitely arrived, only an inconsiderable scattering of the fire remained, while of the egregious Lee there was even less indication. With an emotion of self-reproach Ying realised that an unsuspected delicacy must have inspired that misjudged wayfarer to withdraw rather than be overwhelmed by the ceremonious thanks of one whom he had succoured.
"Whang-lei had the seeing eye when he declared: 'An opportune stranger is more to the point than a multitude of heedless neighbours'," reflected the prince, "and this person was very much to blame for permitting sloth to interfere with the dictates of politeness."
With the return of his senses to earth Ying found it desirable to readjust his position. It was now later than it was advisable to be alone in those exposed parts where Beings of various sorts and unknown creatures of the outside world might reveal themselves at any moment; beyond this, his limbs were stiff with prolonged inaction, his garments damp with the dew of night, and so far he could not definitely assert that he had fallen in with any access of integritous behaviour. The least hazardous course as things had emerged would be to press determinedly on and endeavour to find warmth and protection from unfriendly Powers for the remaining gong-strokes of darkness.
If the resorts had hitherto been scarce, dwellings of any kind were thereafter wholly lacking. Had it been feasible to reverse his footsteps now and seek the roughest couch Ying would soon gladly have withheld his pursuit of virtue for whatever period the return involved, but meanwhile he had covered many more exhausting li, and to go back was beyond his capacity. He was, indeed, contemplating drawing his inefficient cloak still closer and reposing by the path when an opportune flash of celestial light (released beyond doubt by the quick-witted spirit of a watchful ancestor) showed a building of above the customary hovel size standing in a well-tilled field at some distance from the earth-road. To this the prince thankfully made his stumbling way and judging from the various indications scattered about that he had reached the homestead of a prosperous farm he took up a convenient bamboo pole and beat loudly on the door-post.
"Who is he that comes at this untimely gong-stroke of the night, and what is the occasion of your summons?" demanded a forbidding voice, and the shutter of an opening in the wall was grudgingly unfastened.
"One who seeks shelter from the various Influences which may be abroad and a pallet on which to extend his limbs," replied Ying agreeably "As regards the period of dark—that was beyond his contriving."
"This is not a beggars' roost to accommodate any who pass," was the harsh response as the light from an extended paper lantern revealed Ying's deficient state. "Lie by the path-side if you must sleep—and may prowling demons take you!" Whereupon the shutter would have been inhospitably closed had not the one outside resourcefully thrust his pole into the crevice.
"This one is no suppliant begging alms though for a purpose he has seen fit to adopt a habit far below his station," gave back the prince. "Accommodate me to the simple extent of your poverty- stricken hut and when I leave at daybreak a few negligible pieces of gold shall reward you."
"Your Magnificence is honourably welcome to my sordid roof and to all that the four decayed walls enclose," declared the master of the house profusely. "The feeble glimmer of this ill-nurtured lamp was wholly at fault for I now perceive that your attire, without being sumptuous, is such as a responsible merchant might bend to assume or even a lower official. Let it not be thought——"
"To express regret is to blunt all the weapons of recrimination," generously assented the prince. "Your hasty words are as though they had never been spoken."
By this time the outer door had been unbarred and the stranger was being ceremoniously entreated to make the house worthy of becoming a temple of the gods by entering. The owner of the forbidding voice disclosed himself as designated Meen Kan, and the swart hue of his repulsive face proved the name to have been well chosen. He was not one in whom the prince would have reposed unlimited confidence had the matter not been thus and thus, for a lack of sincerity seemed to colour his attitude from time to time, but (in addition to recalling his own unrivalled feats) Ying took courage from the words with which a wise counsellor had reassured him when he had first seen a lizard: "He who has integrity on his side may safely converse with demons."
In spite of his many protests that all he required was as he had said, nothing would satisfy the obtuse-headed Meen Kan but that he must call those whom he controlled to lend their weight, and presently a well-spread meal was set before Ying. While he made some pretence of trifling with this the prince occasionally spoke to these who served his hand, and in this way he learned their various functions. In addition to the clay-souled Meen Kan himself there was Chao, his obsequious wife, an all-thumb son, Ah-woh, to whose feet the more redolent virtues of the soil still clung, and two wholly unattractive daughters of the house, Coyness and Good Looks, who thrust alternately to press forward to Ying's side, though it would have been wiser to keep in the shadow. There was also an obscure dependant of the Line, Mei by name, who was relentlessly constrained to remain beyond, although after a passing glance this was the one whom Ying would have the most willingly suffered to engage his attention.
When at length he was permitted to retire a like display of fulsome willingness attended his going. Finally he disentangled himself from Meen Kan's laborious talk and having committed his ascending essence to the protection of all benevolent Things he lay down and slept soundly.
DESPITE his exertion on the previous day the great sky light had scarcely risen before Ying's spirit was back again in its material shell and throwing off the quilted cover he rose and made to pass into the assembling room. Somewhat to his admitted surprise he found the way was barred for a wedge had been inserted at the outside of his door and though this was speedily removed when he raised his voice, and even a shallow pretext made that it was to safeguard him against intruding Beings, the incident cast an ambiguous shadow.
In the outer chamber his early rice was being laid out, and this time Ying obtained a clearer view of the gently-moving Mei who served the board, since Chao was engaged at a charcoal fire beyond, Ah-woh gone hence to control a restive beast, Coyness and Good Looks still gumming their deficient hair and the covetous Meen Kan rubbing his misshapen hands together as he stood about the door in a grossly expectant manner.
"Her eyes are like twin pools of hidden depth in which one sees fair images of noble thought glide to and fro like bright-hued fish," mused Ying, as he watched Mei (as he thought) unnoted. "Her cheeks must surely be the petals lightly strewn from breeze- stirred peach trees while she slept beneath; her teeth, when she deigns to smile, the crest of a foam-tipped wave; her hair the dark mantle of night in the Season of Great Tempest. It is doubtful whether she has any actual feet at all, so delicate are their proportions, and her movements as she brings these quite unnecessary viands are those of a golden butterfly sipping honey. Indeed," he reflected, "it must have been of one like Mei that my illustrious ancestor is reported to have said, 'If ever I can obtain Tseo Kin it will be necessary to build a golden palace for her to live in'."
By this time Ying discovered that he had taken all that was required to satisfy his need although it did not appear that any food had definitely been eaten. He would gladly have lingered to converse with Mei but the opaque-witted Meen Kan stood by, yet so far removed from all sense of what was fit that he continued to rattle a few pieces of inferior money in his sleeve so that it was impossible to ignore his squalid meaning.
"All that I have is not too much to repay what I have met beneath your attractive roof," readily admitted Ying and unknotting the pleat that held his store he would have poured the gold freely into Meen Kan's voracious hand when to his openly-expressed surprise the fold appeared to be empty. Probe the part how he would it did not yield up a single ingot.
"This is very remarkable," explained the prince, aware that Meen Kan's discordant eyes were fixed suspiciously upon his hand, "and it is all the more incredible since the knot was still intact so that it cannot be that the contents have fallen out unseen and are scattered. Possibly magic has been employed or how otherwise should the gold have passed through this substantial cloth, seeing that the fastening has held securely?"
"Possibly," assented Meen Kan, with a measurable distance in his two-faced voice, "but doubtless so affluent a personage, travelling in this state, will have other objects of value concealed about his picturesque garment?"
"As to that," replied the prince affably, "it so happens that being desirous of observing worthiness unmarked this one came away with only a negligible hand-count of pieces. That is easily set right, however. On his return he will at once command a trusty slave to hasten here and recompense you."
"This one is indisposed to imagine!" retorted Meen Kan, employing the deplorable archaism of that barbaric age in his obscene displeasure, and with this the slender cords of his never well- sustained control gave way so that his ill-assorted teeth clashed menacingly together.
"Is it not enough that you should appear in the darkest period of the night and disturb the well-earned repose of an entire household? To what end does it tend that the choicest recesses of this one's store have been despoiled to supply your insatiable throat if when the moment of requital comes you should advance an empty sleeve and pass out scathless? Indeed, by the revealing light of day it now becomes plain that you who would claim to be a substantial traveller, journeying at ease, are nothing but an outcast beggar."
Doubtless Ying might have appealed successfully to Meen Kan's inordinate greed but at that moment Chao, followed by Coyness and Good Looks, became attracted to the strife, and having learned the cause they added an even harsher voice to stifle forbearance. Coyness and Good Looks in particular shed all restraint, the one accusing Ying of impure designs upon herself, the other reproaching him for a studied disregard of suitable opportunities. When this discord was at its height Ah-woh broke in, and outvoicing the uproar by reason of his persistence and sinew he went on to tell how one who was to have stayed and laboured on the land for an agreed wage—Lee Fat his revolting name—had possessed himself of what he could in advance and failed to remain as he had promised.
"It is as though this had been arranged by a directing hand," declared Meen Kan when he understood how they were positioned. "Now is the season of our busiest need and we must have another pair of sturdy hands or the period of lengthening dark will quickly overtake us. Since he whom we hired has gone this one shall take his place and by these means he will—sooner or later—be able to pay off the debt which he has so fraudulently undertaken."
To this Prince Ying would have made a forcible demur, but his words were clamoured down, and when he endeavoured to thrust them contemptuously aside and to pass out on his way Meen Kan and Ah- woh overcame him by an ignobly-delivered stroke against which he had not been taught the parry, while at the same time Chao, Coyness and Good Looks confused his guard by throwing hot tea when his back was turned and by other unbecoming devices.
Having by these degraded means frustrated the efforts of Ying's superior skill they bound his limbs with leather cords and cast him into a strongly-built out-pen, there to remain until they could safely make use of his powers.
FOR a period of which he ceased to take account Ying laboured in the rice fields of Meen Kan or about the yard, while one or other of the offensive pair worked by his side, always with an iron- tipped staff at hand ready to strike him down if he attempted flight or maintained resistance. But neither of these expedients wore a very plausible face when regarded at close quarters. Had their outlook been more refined the prince could easily have overthrown both at once, even with his more powerful hand derisively bound down, but so narrow-minded had been their scope that neither had the most shadowy knowledge of how either attack or defence should be courteously effected. Against escape they were ever alert, and an additional precaution was observed after Ying had disclosed something of his position.
"Although it is in keeping with this one's scheme of observing excellence among the obscure paths unseen that he should toil as a bonded serf on your bankrupt patch, it is only just for you to know that he is really an exalted prince in disguise, and a strict account will ultimately be taken," he had said, whereupon the morally pock-marked Meen Kan had suffered his gravity to melt away in a grossly outrageous manner.
"Since you are a great noble of the land it is but in keeping that you should wear an emblem of high rank," had been his slow- witted taunt and soon afterwards he contrived a broad iron ring, calling it a collar of state, which, with Ah-woh's aid, was clinched securely round about Ying's neck, while Coyness and her sister stood by and exchanged derisive sayings. On the metal were stamped characters signifying that the one who wore it was, "Prince None, of Far Beyond, slave to the hand of Meen Kan, of the hill shaped like a tortoise," and to the effect that should he be found astray a price was set on the occasion of his recovery.
It need be no longer withheld that an added reason might be found for Ying's submissive role, and had not the bright image of Mei illumined even the most sordid task he would have made a more determined stand to assert his authority. But as the days went by the thought of leaving the spot which Mei's celestial presence adorned—even for the briefest span—became offensive to his imagination. Within the four walls of Meen Kan's ill- ordered home her position was very little removed from that of the prince outside it, for both Coyness and Good Looks, envious of Mei's superior grace, engaged her in the meanest toil and compelled her to wear a worn-out robe of the coarsest fabric. To this iniquity the others supinely kowtowed as the price of domestic peace, and when Ying sought inoffensively to point out, without being invidiously precise, how embarrassing would be their state if Mei should become a queen, there was no disposition to profit by the warning.
To those who would assert that Ying's plain course should have been to make his way thence at any hazard and returning with armed force dispense promiscuous justice, there are two feasible objections. Being closely held by day and in a barred loft at night the chances of escape were not outlined in coloured lights, while should the venture fail the rigours of his servitude would be redoubled. The other reason was even more a barrier to this course, for having become deeply imbued with ballads of mythical exploits and tales of romantic doings the prince was resolved that for himself alone, in the guise of a despised hireling, was it appropriate that Mei should be led to admit her affection. It is not to be denied that so far this avowal was more in the nature of a remote dream than a concrete vision, for their encounters were few and confined to the strictest terms, nor did Ying sufficiently appreciate that in the intervening days his usually smooth and engaging face had become covered with a rough, bristly growth, his distinguished finger nails robbed of their noble length and his general appearance robustly compact rather than poetically languid.
It was not until a fuller realisation of the desperateness of his quest had begun to assail. Ying's hopes that a plausible way of escape was indicated as he pondered on the various facets of his position.
"The obligation being to discharge a debt by an equivalence of toil, how can it be held that this one is any longer subject to a rightful claim?" he decided.
With this contention he approached Meen Kan and while not altogether closing the door against some more reputable task, he demanded the quittance from a state of bondage. Meen Kan affected to listen with an offensive pretence of impartial weight and then shook his double-stomached head craftily.
"How should this be, seeing that you have meanwhile consumed in food and lodgment more than the offset of your feeble effort?" he replied. "Indeed, strictly speaking, you are now, as it were, further back from going forward than you were at the beginning."
"Yet if that is so, on what does this person stand?" demanded the prince resentfully. "Logically considered, not only would it be unattainable to discharge the debt on earth but an ever- increasing load would accumulate for which this one's ghost would be accountable to your ghost in the hereafter."
"That is a matter for those who have framed the Code to expound," was Meen Kan's evasive retort, "it only being this one's affair to observe it. The Enactment of Yaou and Shun, under the Section: 'Cases wherein that which is impossible may be reasonably claimed' amply covers any trifling instances of personal hardship that may arise in its function."
WHETHER it was owing to the effect of this depressing stroke of fate on a naturally sensitive mind or due to the bite of a malignant worm on which he trod as he left Meen Kan is a matter of historical dispute but the undeniable outcome persists that from that moment Ying was stricken with an obscure complaint that undermined his power. For another day he maintained a drooping front, but at nightfall he could do no more than stumble to his depressing loft and when morning came he was unable to rise from the comfortless pallet.
In this emergency the obscene Meen Kan revealed himself to the core and by the extremity of his sordid greed he alienated the protection even of demons. Declaring that one who was too infirm to work could have no occasion to eat, he commanded that Ying should be left unattended where he lay, and then proceeded to dig a hole at the roots of a favourite plum tree.
"If he will not develop the fruitfulness of the earth in one way he shall increase it in another," was his profane saying. It would have been well for Meen Kan if he had recalled the apt rejoinder of a temperate lawgiver when pressed to adopt a doubtful course: 'If the deities are on your side you can cross the ocean on a single plank; without them you may slip and be drowned in a wayside puddle.' However devious the road it is scarcely to be imagined that a prince of the reigning House of Hysi would be permanently subjugated.
It is at this point that it becomes necessary to take into account the influence of Mei, to whose personal appearance attention has already been directed. Hitherto she had tended to ignore Ying's respectful glance, partly on account of her anomalous standing in Meen Kan's ill-balanced house and also at the prompting of an inherently refined nature. But while the tidings of a despised hireling's extremity only moved Coyness and Good Looks to shrilly-voiced mirth it had a contrary effect on the gentle-hearted menial who performed their lowliest tasks, and setting apart a portion of her own deficient bowl she resolved, at whatever jeopardy it involved, to succour the helpless captive.
It was dark when Mei unbarred the door of the squalid loft where Ying lay in an uneasy sleep for she had not dared to venture forth until the middle gong-stroke of the night, when the chief lantern of the sky had withdrawn its betraying radiance. Light as her step on the ladder had been it was enough to recall Ying's wandering spirit and he raised himself feebly on a trembling arm to receive her as she entered.
"It is either Mei or a bright Being of the Above," he whispered across the void, "since no other would come to relieve the lot of one so hapless."
"Alas, O Ying, you have been brought to a grievous plight indeed, but by the timely assistance of one or two of your ancestors' shades—hitherto, no doubt, otherwise engaged—there is no reason why you should not surmount this juncture," declared Mei with apt encouragement. "See, here is a little rice, flavoured with oil, to sustain your vigour meanwhile. From time to time, as the occasion may allow, this one will steal across with what she can obtain, so that—poor and insufficient as it may be—you shall not be wholly lacking."
"It is truly said: 'Though condemned to lie in the dust even beggars may lift their eyes Upwards,' and the present situation amply justifies the adage," remarked Ying gratefully. "Nevertheless, it would be inept to obscure the truth: not food, which it is now beyond this one's power to receive, but bodily warmth is the need of which he is perishing."
"Why should this be?" asked Mei in some surprise. "There is a roof above and four walls around while the season is yet that of open watercourses."
"Notwithstanding, if you will but overcome your high-minded repugnance to the extent of laying your delicately-proportioned hand on mine——" Whereupon Mei touched his extended hand as he had asked and a graceful shudder marked her sympathetic distress at the icy contact her own fingers encountered.
"While the great ruler of the sky is up, a little warmth pervades this hutch, and at one point a single ray creeps through an opening in the roof so that this person stretching across can revive his ebbing spirit at it. But when darkness closes in the feeble glimmer sinks down again and each time the spark of life becomes fainter. It is as all the ancient tales of romance would ordain that you should have come this night, fair Mei, for I greatly fear that for the one who speaks there will be no to- morrow."
"Surely it cannot be irrevocably written in the Book of Happenings that one so inoffensive should Pass when so little would avail," pleaded Mei, "but how is that essential life-giving glow to be procured there being neither hearth nor brazier here, even if the niggardly Meen Kan——"
"It is enough to have heard your incomparable voice express compassion," protested Ying. "Do not distress your over-indulgent mind with another regret; though there is no possible release this one can now cheerfully carry the memory Upwards."
It was some beats of time before Mei replied to this, though meanwhile Ying had heard her breathing change as if a sudden weighty thought had swept the quiet current of her being.
"Yet there is still one expedient that may not fail," were the words, murmured so low that Ying only grasped the essential meaning. "Unusual as the action might be deemed by the ill-bred and superficial this one will not shrink even from so extreme a course when a life which may be preserved for some heroic deed is suspended in the balance."
"Speak further," entreated Ying, "whatever be the outcome. To delay your going even for so much as a single step this one would gladly endure a full moon of torment."
"Although you are only an unlettered serf, making his toilsome way, it is quite evident from one or two things that you are capable of expressing very superior emotions. Yet is your pledge such that one of my defenceless sort might put implicit reliance on the undertaking?"
"Even in the ordinary affairs of State this person has never had occasion yet to eat his words," was his assurance. "How much more then in the case of one whose well-being he values above the prosperity of nations?"
"Words fade in the morning light; deeds, both good and bad, live on for ever," recalled Mei. "The one standing by your side has only one possession, yet that is more in her poverty to her than all the rest she has not. Do you, O Ying, avow as a true man that whatever may emerge from your extreme need, she who does not shrink from what may alone avail shall leave this sequestered place in the innocency with which she came here?"
"To that I will solemnly affirm," replied Ying; "calling upon five witnesses to truth—earth, fire, wood and the spirits of we two who are concerned—to bind me by the promise."
"Then there is no need of further speech," said Mei and throwing off her outer robe she lay down on the pallet by Ying's side and drew over both of them the garment. All through the night they lay together thus and thus and neither spoke nor did Ying stir, as though he feared that the slightest breath of reality might destroy some cherished illusion, but the tranquillising warmth of her radiant body permeated his and restored its natural balance. Presently he fell into a refreshing sleep that lasted until the sun returned to raise his hopes as he had said, when, awaking, he found the bowl of rice still by his side and was able to swallow a little. Meanwhile, being assured by the steady rhythm of his breathing that he really slept, Mei had ventured imperceptibly to advance one arm on either side of Ying's unconscious form so that without any undue forwardness she might the more effectually sustain him. With the first promise of light that filtered through she withdrew as guardedly as she had come and leaving the cloak of plaited grass to comfort Ying she gained unseen her own scanty corner.
The following night Mei came again, as Ying had dared to hope, though on this occasion even less was said between them than before. Six times in all she ministered to his need throughout the night while daily Ying contended against the infection that had possessed his being and with each recurring day grew haler. Occasionally the effete Meen Kan climbed up the ladder and looked through a crack in the door to see whether Ying still lived or had yet Passed Beyond but that was all to mark the course of time from dawn to nightfall.
On the morning of the sixth night of her being there Mei paused for a moment at the door as if uncertain in her mind, and seeing that Ying was now stirring on his bed of straw she turned and spoke to him from a little distance.
"Now that you are almost restored to a normal state of being, Ying, and can well maintain your own, it is no longer becoming that this one should support your constituents through the night, though until you have renewed a compact with the unendurable Meen Kan she will endeavour to replenish your bowl daily."
"All that remains of this one's life is henceforth yours, inasmuch as you alone have preserved it, and it is only fitting that you should decide the outcomes," replied Ying submissively. "Yet it would be more endurable to abide stricken down and have you nightly at my side than rise to the most assured health without that celestial presence."
"Since you have expressed yourself to this extent," declared Mei, "there is nothing indiscreet in the one standing here also going a step further and admitting that with each day an increasing propensity to linger in this not otherwise attractive loft warns her of the advisability of avoiding it, beyond the bare bounds of necessity, for the future."
"How should that be," demanded Ying, "unless this wholly unprepossessing one's society might in some way have become not absolutely repulsive to your charitable imagination?"
"To concede so much, seeing that we have of late been brought, as it were, more together, might not in the circumstances be going beyond the bounds of strict propriety," confessed Mei, with a glance not entirely devoid of encouragement.
"That being the avowal for which this person has submitted himself to bondage so long, very little more remains in the way of a formal exchange of mutual plighting gifts to regulate the position. It may now be fittingly revealed that he who speaks is Hysi Ying, Prince of the State of Yin and Hereditary Custodian of the Three-tiered Canopy. Hitherto it has been his usage to sign official decrees with the aloof: 'I alone'; will you, lovely Mei, by becoming a queen, henceforth enable this to be: 'We two together'?"
"It is impossible to deny what is so poetically besought—if by our mutual toil we can earn a sufficiency to provide our scanty living," replied Mei, though with rather a far-removed expression. "In any case, beloved, be well assured that after the necessary rites have been performed this one will watch over your various moods—whatever you may decide upon becoming."
IT was a few gong-strokes later that hearing the sounds of an unusual stir the prince looked through a cranny of the ill-built wall and saw in the distance a noble company of heavily-armed men approaching. In the forefront, even at that distance, he had no difficulty in recognising some, among them Hao Hsin the trusty Captain of his Palace Guard, Sheng Yei, with whom he had changed attire when he set out, and the ever-resourceful Lee Fat who appeared to lead them.
"It is not too much to assume that Lee Fat, by putting together this and that, has contrived to join up the various threads of life which meet eventually outside these very ordinary walls at what might be called the appropriate instant," reflected Ying. "The least we can do will be to create Lee Fat a provincial duke—unless he is already too deeply involved in crime, in which case the custodianship of the palace hold might be more in keeping. Sheng Yei, in addition to receiving justice for what he has hitherto suffered, will merit a special grant, and some recognition in the shape of a coveted military badge—possibly the Yellow Scabbard or the Rat Skin Glove—must mark Hao Hsin's devotion."
By this time Ying had completed his trifling preparations for the day and opening the door—which Mei in her becoming agitation had thoughtlessly left unbolted—he set forth to meet his company. In the outer space he encountered Meen Kan who bared his voracious teeth at the sight of the prince's cheerful guise, and Ah-woh, who displayed a not unsympathetic face, for the latter person, though subservient to his father's rule, had never been really contentious.
"It is well that you should at last have cast off your torpid sloth," exclaimed the obtuse Meen Kan, "seeing that your task has meanwhile been steadily mounting. The time has now come when if you would escape the knotted cord you must bend your stubborn back to the neglected furrow."
"It is not my time but yours that has come at last, O most concave Meen Kan, nor is it this one's back but your own headstrong neck that will presently be bent—and that over the sawdust bucket," replied Prince Ying, in a tone that was strange to those who listened. "Pending that moment you are dispossessed of all your lands and goods and as soon as an assembly can be formed to look on and acclaim, your Tablets will be burned amid public derision."
"My lands!" cried the still opaque Meen Kan, standing alternately upon the right foot and then the left, so unbalanced was become his emotion. "Learn, O one destitute of reason, that I hold my farm direct from that high functionary, the Mandarin Wong Quong, for the yearly quit-rent of three full measures of bullock's dung, presented on a pewter salver."
"Who himself holds his rank from me, and in fealty thereof must appear at stated times and lay his submissive head beneath my pressing sandal," continued Ying, in a voice of ominous foreboding. "Lift your eyes from searching the ground for your annual tribute, thrifty Meen Kan, and behold my approaching banners!"
"This is what comes of ignoring the Essential Principles!" exclaimed Meen Kan, when at last he understood the pitfall into which his parsimonious thumb had led his devious footsteps (for by this time exalted officials were approaching Ying with every mark of deference); "something of the sort having been predicted by a holy anchorite on seeing this person, at an early age, spit impertinately in the direction of a comet. Plainly there is only one thing to be done." With this resolve Meen Kan gradually withdrew amid the ceremonial greetings that were in progress around, and providing himself with the most suitable implement he could find, he succeeded in committing self-ending in the trench that he had intended for Ying's disposal. To those who found him there it did not seem necessary that one so execrable should be given honourable burial. The earth was therefore hastily thrown back, but ever afterwards it was noticed that the fruit from off that tree had an acrimonious flavour.
Nothing could exceed the respectful joy with which the adventurous prince's return to his distracted capital was greeted by all classes, and when it was understood that in the interval he had discovered a captive princess in disguise, who was henceforth to be his queen, and had rescued her unharmed from the lair of a particularly repulsive giant, there was no form of gratuitous entertainment in the long round of public celebrations that followed which they did not willingly attend in order to demonstrate their pleasure.
Seated together in a crystal chair, richly jewelled at every point, Ying and Mei slowly advanced by leisurely stages towards the city. No doubt to both of those chiefly concerned a more expeditious form of progress would not have been disdained, but as Ying explained to Mei's attentive ears, on these occasions ceremonial ordained that the longest possible way round should be the route undertaken. Meanwhile, he endeavoured to lighten the tedium of the march by pointing out the various objects of interest that bordered their path, so that, indeed, when at length they reached the end, Mei declared the period to have melted like a summer mist before the sun of Ying's dazzling eloquence and far-flung word-painting.
"Had there not existed a regrettable inadequacy among the State Department of our Personal Sleeve it might have been a golden palace to which you more fittingly would have come," declared the prince as a prolonged outburst of loyal sounds announced their arrival at the courtyard, and he described how his imagination had built for her a more worthy edifice of priceless gems and precious metals, its graceful minarets piercing the middle air, on the occasion when they had first encountered.
"A hundred thousand welcomes, nevertheless, to our ramshackle ancestral hovel," he encouragingly concluded.
"A wind-swept loft roofed over with affection and which has its foundations embedded in mutual trust has hitherto sufficed to contain the four corners of this one's most extravagant ambition," was Mei's unassuming answer. Then regarding Ying with an alluring glance she added: "One thing, however, admittedly remains. Why should you into whose hand the choice of all the earth is freely poured, have descended from your dragon throne to fix your eyes upon this very ordinary person?"
"As to that," conceded Ying with a responsive look, "why should you, who are the choicest of all the inhabitable earth's fair gifts, have risen from the material ground to bring life and hope to a nameless outcast who had no possible claim on your inclinations? The answer to both these heart-searchings, adored Mei, is that in our exceptional case no answer can ever be, for, as the noble Li Chiang replied when asked of what this enchantment might consist: 'When you can explain love you will have killed it'."
IT was the custom of Prince Ying to dispense justice freely to all his subjects and in the exercise of this usage the discriminating ruler did not only bend his ear towards those who were at variance with their fellows but willingly lent his weight and authority to every kind of happening. Should one, even of the most menial class, by his superior craft propagate a new species of herb which proved to have healing virtues, or another compose a felicitous ballad for which he received inadequate praise, or a third discover to the benefit of mankind that by suitably attaching a circular block of wood to a hollow box one man could readily transport a load which otherwise would have taxed the laborious efforts of many—all these could attend at the open court of Prince Ying and there dutifully prostrating themselves while pleading their cause, each receive the verdict of his deserts. Thus the skilful gardener to whom reference has been made was given full charge of all the prince's enclosures of cultivated ground and allotted a monthly sufficiency of taels, together with a sign added to his name signifying distinction; the poet who was so much in advance of his era as to be incomprehensible to all but the chosen few was permitted to shave away an added breadth of hair beyond that ordained by law so as to enhance the lofty prominence of his noble forehead; while the ingenious toiler who had stressed only the material profit of his device was given so much pure silver from the royal store as his "wheel" (the name by which the innovation was soon called) enabled him to carry.
On the other hand the idle, the pretentious, or those merely inspired by any unworthy aim found the prince's face turned towards them with a very different bearing, for by some undisclosed means he possessed the attribute of being able to see beneath and beyond their spoken words and his mind pursued and explored what was claimed to an ultimate conclusion. For this reason, while one man would be met coming away from the court with a joyful step and loudly proclaiming the triumph of justice another might be seen painfully making his way along inconspicuous paths and pausing from time to time to assuage his smarting outline. Thus was amply justified the modest inscription that Prince Ying had caused to be written above the entrance of his hall of audience: "Here all who present themselves shall receive according to their due—either in one place or another." Even while he slept this painstaking sovereign was amenable to his people's needs, for outside the palace gate there was suspended a massive copper gong and it was generally understood (for so far there had been no occasion to put the privilege to an actual test) that in any case of sudden stress it was within the prerogative of whosoever would to beat upon the gong and by that act summon the prince to rise from his onyx couch and descending to the court of impartiality there and then administer promiscuous justice.
SO great indeed has become the repute of Prince Ying in the course of succeeding years that many minstrels have extolled his fame in appropriate verse and his name has been associated with a proverb. Yet to the heedless passer-by in these days of profane haste a reference to Hysi Ying, of the State of Further Yin, conveys nothing but the dim recollection of a forgotten song and the aggressive challenge is proclaimed, "But what did he do, this much belauded prince of a bygone race that we who are in every way so much advanced beyond that barbarous age should pay him deference? There is an apt saying, 'What a man is becomes dust when his breath departs, but what he does lives on for ever.' Expound this acclaimed wisdom."
In order to discountenance these presumptuous witlings, therefore, this obscure but tenacious relater of actual facts has dug deeply beneath the obliterative crust of intervening time and brought to light something of the amiable monarch's middle period.
THREE instances of Prince Ying's just and statesmanlike treatment of affairs within his hand are recorded by Mou Tao, a literary mendicant of that era who lived in a cask on a fortified angle of the city wall. From this elevated post Mou Tao was able to take an impartial view of all that went on below, and his disquisitions are simply expressed, temperate and sincere.
The first narrative records the audience given to Quang-hi, an unlettered craftsman in hard wood, who diffidently explained that what he had stumbled on by chance might haply relieve the tedium of an occasional gong-stroke of his imperishable ruler's leisure.
"Say on," encouraged the prince, "but what you so enticingly refer to as gong-strokes of leisure might be more accurately described as moments precariously snatched from ceaseless labour. He whom you call Supreme is unable to command what every wayside beggar freely squanders."
"The length and breadth of your High Majesty's devotion to affairs of state is a perpetual beacon to all your subjects," declared Quang-hi. "Nevertheless, as will presently emerge, it is this specific circumstance that has emboldened your presumptuous slave to venture here, for the method of removing tedium to which his involvement refers is one that may be taken up and laid aside and again resumed as circumstances favour."
As he spoke the ingenious-minded carver in the hard was extracting from his sleeve a variety of wooden forms of different shapes and sizes and these he next proceeded to arrange on a level surface before Prince Ying, explaining as he did so the occasion of their being. The Lady Mei, according to her wont, was also seated there to lend, if encouraged, her voice to any issue. As seemliness required, her position was at some distance behind that taken by the prince yet not so far removed but that by the one leaning negligently back and the other reaching studiously forward their hands might not infrequently encounter.
"In the process of his menial toil," continued Quang-hi, "it is inevitable that a certain amount of rejected material should fall unheeded to the floor. Working as he does with staple of uniform shape and size, producing to a consistent rule, it naturally results that the bulk of this, as it may be termed, waste should conform to a few recurring patterns. Until the occasion of a recent day it was the custom of this one's lesser half to store these in a sack and with them replenish the hearth from time to time in the absence of a more profitable disposal."
Remembering the period when she herself had performed this lowly task Mei would have interposed an appropriate remark, but recalling that she was now a queen she decided that it would be superfluous.
"Chancing on that day to which reference has been made to gather up these, fragments himself, the one who is now recounting the circumstance, was struck for the first time by the undoubted resemblance which certain of the blocks might be said to bear to easily recognised types of our complex society. By a few considered strokes of the incising tool these identities can be assured, so that even an ordinary person of no particular capacity or knowledge would, as Your Omniscience may see for yourself, have no excuse for missing the allusion."
"It is not to be denied that there are here certain attributes which seem to indicate clearly marked orders of our subject people," encouragingly agreed Prince Ying, touching as he spoke the several carved figures which Quang-hi had by this time spread out before him. "In this short, squat, and essentially commonplace type, we have the unpretentious, simple-witted passer-by, such as you yourself, worthy Quang-hi, might fittingly example. These martially-accoutred, dragon-faced beings are obviously masked warriors within their fear-inspiring gear, and in the attenuated, sombrely-robed, shaven sort it would be inept not to recognise devout priests of the higher orders. Great territorial nobles could scarcely be more clearly meant than by the representation of strongly-built towers with embattled walls, but there are here two of superior height but no precise individuality of line who do not seem to conform to any particular character."
"It is for that reason that it has been thought more discreet to leave that commanding pair unspecified by any sign or badge, representing as they do one of each sort of the rulers of our land—a supreme prince and his royal consort," submitted Quang-hi readily. "But this, Most High, comprises only a meagre fragment of the device, for having fashioned these several effigies to typify an entire Empire in their limits, it next devolved to contrive how they might be brought into entertaining action."
"Thus and thus!" exclaimed the prince with enhanced interest. "The creation of these likenesses, diverting as they admittedly may be, is not then the full measure of their function?" and even Mei drew imperceptibly towards the front in order to miss no detail of what might follow.
"Their scope of tedium-dispelling may be said to be only yet, so to speak, in the embryo," maintained Quang-hi. "And since they naturally fall into two distinctive bands—those formed of ebony representing an alien race of some barbarian out- land—it was inevitable to regard them as the ranks of two opposing armies."
"So much may be readily allowed," agreed Ying graciously; "and now, under your arranging thumb, they take up their assigned positions."
"For this imagined strife it is more convenient to allot each to an indicated square, defined by rigid boundaries but with a sufficient space between the forces to allow them to unfold their tactics. Thus in the front row, to withstand the opening shock of arms, are arranged footmen of the common stamp, each reassured by a comrade's shoulder. Behind this screen of bow-and-arrow fare of the least expensive sort lurk those in higher command—banners, martial prelates, barons possessing embattled keeps, all clustering about the persons of the king and queen whom they are sworn to protect and guard at any hazard. Thus are they to be regarded now as being drawn up for battle."
"This, to a very remarkable degree, depicts the actual disposal of both sides at the opening of that memorable encounter resulting in the great victory named after the mountain pass known as the Wild Goat's Horn," declared the enchanted prince, considerately indicating to the queen that she should approach still nearer to his side, so as to miss no detail of his satisfaction. "By that overwhelming stroke the rebel hosts were finally thrust back and the power of the usurping Sheerat of Must definitely broken. Had only these unresponsive forms been amenable to the words of command it would not have been beyond the powers of one who had some negligible share in the outcome of that day to indicate the progress of the battle."
"Even that, to a certain extent, may be deemed within their scope, Pre-eminence," was Quang-hi's modest claim, "for to each combatant has been allotted an agreed sphere of activity, suited to his living counterpart's powers. Thus the footmen in their slow advance can only progress a single square each march, and be the danger what it may they must ever press forward. All other ranks can come and go according to their circumstance but their movements likewise are ruled by a strict adherence to their normal usage. By this scale of their different spheres the heavily-accoutred knight-at-arms is not permitted to strike an adversary beyond two squares away but to compensate this imposed restraint he is free to leap unexpectedly into the thickness of the fray by a sideway movement. The holy men of action, silent yet swift, are only limited by the confines of the field of battle; their progress—as it were to indicate one eye being turned towards a material goal and the other fixed on the Upper Air for celestial recognition—is oblique, but in any advantageous direction. Secure in their massive towers the hereditary nobles of the land are no less potent in their range, but their influence is limited to the straight paths of direct onslaught, though to them alone is given the unique privilege not only of succouring their sovereign lord in his shift of direst need by interposing their bulk between him and the foe but even at the same time of drawing him away from the point of danger."
"So far," observed Mei pleasantly, as Quang-hi paused to illustrate this feat, "you have spoken only of those of subordinate rank. In the case of the two whom you have so discreetly left, as it were, in the rough, doubtless an even greater latitude of influence is permitted?"
"All that the rest may do lies within a queen's sphere—save only that it was not thought fitting for one of that degree to advance with a sideway movement."
"That is as well," agreed the prince, though the Lady Mei did not at first seem reconciled to this curtailment of her prowess, "for the actions of the one towards whom all eyes are turned should not be anything but straightforward. Now as regards the omnipotence of a sovereign of divine descent——"
"It is no more than a matter of general remark that one so endowed would be capable of anything," was Quang-hi's outspoken admission. "Yet in this mimic scene of strife a certain convention has to be imposed or quite ordinary persons might in the vigour of their zeal be led into assuming a regrettable freedom. Inasmuch as a rightful sovereign is superior to the common lot of death it would manifestly be a treasonable as well as an illogical act to subject his defenceless effigy to that infliction. In order, therefore, to safeguard the outward person of a king from the dangers of a pronounced valour, such as your Majesty is burdened with, this representative of the Supreme is restrained from thrusting himself into the hazard of the fray by more than a single boundary."
"Up to this point logical exactness has marked your plan and thereby raised this device for dispelling tedium far above any of the other monotony removers," declared the prince. "How then can you maintain this congruity now seeing that you must either suffer one of imperishable nature to be slain or else by allowing the two opposing monarchs both to maintain their ground to reduce the outcome to an untenable dilemma?"
"Such a contingency has not been overlooked, Supreme, and the subterfuge by which the involvement is, so to speak, flattened out, has been admitted by impartial lookers-on to be apt and not devoid of cunning.... When the king on either side has been driven into such an extremity as would in the case of a warrior of mortal cast be presumed to involve his end and necessitate removal from the field, it devolves upon the player who achieves this point to draw attention to the distinguished combatant's lamentable plight by a sharp but respectful movement of the combined tongue and palate. At the sound of this admonitory 'Tcheck!' it is still feasible for his Majesty to escape from the snare, but should he be unable to extricate himself, although he has not suffered the indignity of actual demise, he and his band must be deemed to have been vanquished."
"You would truly seem to have foreseen every arising doubt," remarked Prince Ying, "and all that remains is for us to marshal our opposing hosts and make a practical test of what will follow."
"Forgive the ill-timed interruption of one so negligible as she who speaks," ventured the Lady Mei, "but is it conducive to a seemly regard for authority throughout the land that in this imagined strife even an illiterate serf should be permitted to assail the Very Highest?"
"Even that eventuality has been known to take place in our justice-loving realm," was her lord's concise reply, and his hand unconsciously was raised to verify the ancient scar left by an iron collar. "Since the versatile Quang-hi has ingeniously sought to embrace all phases of our complex State in one decisive clash the contingency you outline cannot reasonably be excluded."
"My Omniscient's words are, as usual, gemmed with truth," Mei hastened to reply. "This one's contention was unworthy of discussion."
Assembling their respective groups that truly broad-minded sovereign, Hysi Ying, Prince of Further Yin, and the low- conditioned craftsman, Quang-hi, engaged upon the first recorded game of Tcheck (or "Tchess!" as it afterwards came to be popularly styled from the menacing threat of the admonitory sound when uttered by enthusiasts with aggressive vigour), the latter person fittingly seated upon the floor while the prince naturally occupied a considerably higher station. Drawn into the orbit of this engaging rivalry the queen viewed the field of contest first from one side and then from the other, nor did she refrain from freely offering advice impartially to either player whenever her sagacious mind detected a flaw in the method of attack or her ready eye found a weakness in the menaced line of defences.
It was not long before it emerged that the force controlled by Ying must inevitably succeed, though it is not definitely expressed whether this should be entirely ascribed to that prince's admitted superiority in whatever he undertook or possibly in part to the lowly Quang-hi's assumption of a position that restricted his range of vision. Be this how it would, before the hostile ranks were favourably deployed Ying's oncoming host had swept through a disorganised foe so that one of his front line had reached the limit of its allowed movement.
"Yet what arises now?" enquired the prince. "Inasmuch as this adventurous thrall is not permitted to turn and reinforce his fellows it would almost seem as though our arms are to be at a loss by reason of his dexterity and valour."
"That indeed is an eventuality for which no provision has been made," admitted the one who had devised the method of dispelling lethargy, betraying some confusion. "Hitherto no other has succeeded in bringing about what your High Majesty's inspired skill has so deftly accomplished, whereby the situation had not so far arisen. Manifestly an adequate reward for a signal feat of ability must accrue, but it is not altogether easy to suggest the equivalent."
"Seeing that by patient resource and devotion to a cause one of low estate has reached the limit to which an ordinary person can aspire, would it not be a fitting mark of distinction thereat to proclaim a queen?" was Mei's opportune proposal.
"For what must be regarded as a mere drudge or unit in the game to attain so high a rank might almost seem beyond the bounds of what is credible," maintained Quang-hi, he being as artless as he was unassuming.
"Nevertheless, such a transition is not unknown in the annals of our romantic Court," declared the queen, regarding Prince Ying with a descriptive glance, and caught by the look the prince struck his capable hands together in emphatic accord as he exclaimed:
"Thus shall it be in memory of this and that occasion. The obscure pawn who triumphantly surmounts all obstacles and gains the further bounds shall attain the full privileges of queenship!"
Meanwhile the test had been proceeding to its destined end and after that the field was rearranged, the prince affably rallying Quang-hi on the outcome of their first encounter and graciously enjoining him to cast obsequiousness aside and display his inner metal. Not until a full hand-count of games had been played (all to a like result) did the gratified ruler admit repletion.
"This method of tedium-dispelling that you have contrived, Quang- hi, is superior to any other device of its kind for a variety of reasons," was his considered judgment. "Devoid of the haphazard elements of fan-tan and other games of chance it inexorably results that victory is the outcome of a superior skill, and this principle of justice naturally precludes any sediment of rancour lingering in the mind to embitter even the most self-opinionated loser. By assembling so many diverse types, all with a kindred aim, and met on a common ground, a sentiment of mutual good-will and trust is forged, which, adequately maintained, should go far to make our flowery and phrase-strewn land a country suitable for paladins to inhabit.
"Turning to the more material side of the innovation it is obvious that with accessories of so primitive a stamp the profit on the sale of sets at even a moderate cost should be considerable, so that, in return for an Imperial decree appointing you alone the only allowed maker (together with the privilege of hanging out a yellow banner embellished with our personal sign) you will account for a score and five out of each hundred taels received, as a due to the Royal Treasury. As every loyal subject will be advised to make himself proficient in the new method of beguiling leisure without delay the success of your opportune contrivance may be regarded as assured. An inscriber of our spoken word will draw up the necessary document free of taelage; meanwhile if you will inconvenience your naturally upright feet to the extent of descending to the beneath parts of this ill-constructed palace a sufficient if not very appetising repast of rice and wine will enable you to refresh your no doubt by this time severely taxed endurance."
LEST it should be thought that on this occasion the high-minded Prince of Further Yin betrayed perhaps even too acute a grasp upon the commercial possibilities of Quang-hi's timely diversion it would be well to record the lack of encouragement extended towards Lao San who unfolded an even more attractive project.
It was, moreover, at a time peculiarly apt to suit Lao San's scheme for owing to an altogether unforeseen deficiency of taels in the Department of the Private Sleeve it had been found necessary to issue an unusually large number of edicts connected with extraneous sources of revenue and the like, and the labour of inscribing these at the hands of the various takers-down of spoken words and of tracing thereon the royal characters and style by the assiduous prince himself, had stretched the capacity of their sinews to the utmost. When, therefore, Lao San professed himself able to compress, so to speak, all the entailed labour into a single stroke it is not to be doubted that Prince Ying readily turned both ears towards so attractive a promise.
"Enlarge the outline of your words more fully," was his gracious command. "It has ever been the privilege of the rulers of our obliging Line to listen at any length to whatever even the most concave-witted of our subjects claimed the right to lay before us."
"Omnipotence," was the assured reply, "this is no mere artifice for beguiling time or verbal snare such as removes the gravity of the light and fantastic. By means of a hitherto unthought-of plan it will henceforth be feasible to produce as many copies as you will, none differing from the parent stock or from each other by the variance of a single line, with as little fatigue as now concerns the tracing of a solitary example. Whether the matter involved should be a complex edict, a lengthy ode, or merely an attesting stroke of the Vermilion Pencil does not disturb the assertion."
"The claim is a sufficiently vainglorious one—setting aside the Forbidden Arts—and it next remains for you to make good the boast," pronounced the prince. "Whatever you require in the way of accessories towards performing the ingenious feat will no doubt lie within the capacity of our royal attics."
"There is no need to inconvenience the hallowed palace dust even to that extent," was Lao San's polite assurance, as he produced a diversity of quite ordinary objects from within his ample sleeve, and these he proceeded to display before Ying. "This very commonplace block of wood—as your High Majesty's quick- witted eyes will at once detect—is substantial to the touch, containing neither inserted cavity, deceptive bulk, nor secret appliances. Upon this, by means of an adhesive paste, the extremely clumsy-thumbed individual who is so imperfectly explaining the act proceeds to fix a strip of in-no-way unusual rice paper bearing the symbols indicating, 'Assured honour rewards the inventive.' From the surface of this, by means of an exceptionally keen-edged but not otherwise remarkable knife he now shears away the superfluous space, leaving the auspicious sentiment alone protruding. This pledge being next smeared with some convenient pigment of the most ordinary kind and successive layers of an identical stamp produced on innumerable sheets of undoubted parchment by mere contact, it may suitably be claimed that the essence of the vaunt has been established."
"It would be futile to deny so much in the face of what appears," confessed the prince, closely regarding the half-score or more identical prints which Lao San had achieved with the speed and dexterity of a three-handed magician. "Yet one sufficiently obscure peculiarity exists to mark these productions out from among all others: that while in our ornate and flowing script the characters extend from east to west and progressively upwards, here a converse direction is maintained and the linear trend is downwards."
"Your divine Majesty's powers of vision would pierce a mountain side, nor could the deepest secrets of the unmeasurable earth remain long hidden," loyally declared Lao San, although the general impression conveyed by his harmonious voice might be as of one who sought to gain a respite in which to formulate a solution. "It must indeed be accounted one of the inscrutable paradoxes of this newly-discovered art that while the original inscription maintains a normal course and the lines are thereafter adhered to with undeviating exactitude, the product is in every case mysteriously reversed, as though by Unseen Forces."
"The suggestion casts a forbidding shade," observed the prince. "One never knows to what anything may lead when it comes to dealing with the other world Beings."
"The analogy was only in the way of a simile of words, Pre- eminence," hastily interposed Lao San, deeply annoyed with himself for having made so indiscreet an admission. "No doubt in the endless process of time some expedient may be found whereby the systematic inversion of all that is thus reproduced may be ingeniously frustrated, though to our restricted capacity to-day the problem may well seem insoluble. Meanwhile, even ordinary persons by the exercise of no very great amount of imagination can so, as it were, adapt their mental poise as to transpose the characters with ease, all that is required being to stand on the head—emblematically speaking—and look backwards."
"In the case of a prince of the Predominant House—Brother, moreover, of the Sun and Moon and Upholder of the Canopy—to stand upon one's head, even as a mere figment of speech, would be unsupportable. In the case of the lesser ones of our noble and scrupulous Line——"
"The matter was ill-expressed, Benign," pleaded the abject Lao San, trembling at the thought of the profanity into which he had all but stumbled. "Let it be as if the Hoang Ho in flood had swept seven times over the indiscretion. No need exists for so strenuous a course in any case, as by holding whatever is so reversed before a reflecting disc it at once assumes a normal position."
With much in the same persuasive vein for the greater part of a gong-stroke Lao San sought to induce Prince Ying to assume a benevolent interest towards his device for multiplying examples; for in spite of all that could be advanced some element of prudence warned the prince against what might be the final outcome of so far-reaching a measure. But it was not until Lao San, in an access of pride at what he could achieve, again turned to his engraved block and without a pause showered copies to the four points of space in an unending stream, so that the audience chamber took on the appearance of a prolific but wind-swept orchard in the Season of Ripening Blossom, that Ying came to a fixed decision.
"Return the various belongings to your commodious sleeve, Lao San, and go hence in peace, but claiming no especial mark or benefit of our royal approval," was the prince's formal message. "Yet had your undoubtedly noteworthy advance on existing methods been confined to some process whereby a hand-count or perchance even a score of copies should be produced it would have been impossible to withhold commendation."
"Seeing that this power for good is increased a hundredfold, Sublime, should it be reasonable to maintain an ambiguous face, in view of its benefits to mankind at large?" pleaded Lao San, realising that all hope of gains and advancement must fade if denied the prince's countenance.
"It should not," courteously agreed Ying, "but he who sets out to benefit mankind at large would be well advised to leave all thought of reasonableness on his own door-step. Good may admittedly come of this untried device, but so, to an even greater extent, may evil ultimately follow, and the enlightened prince who hopes to have his name written in letters of pure gold as the patron of a humane and peaceful art may find it traced with messages of blood and fire across a devastated Province."
"Yet how can that which makes for order, learning, and a healthy competitive spirit lead to so detestable an issue?" besought Lao San. "Whereas to-day a solitary edict may well escape the eye, royal proclamation of State import would appear on every wall, copies of the Immortal Classics be multiplied a hundredfold and of a score of hard-striving students who must now share a tattered scroll at the cost of hunger and cold, henceforth each one might readily possess a camel-load of books and suffer no privation."
"It has been said by those who have tested the result, 'Call no day your lucky date until the arrival of to-morrow,' and it may haply be premature for we two who are seated in an enclosed chamber at the inception of an event to speak with any definite assurance of what may be the final outcome," replied the prince, with a tolerance and restraint rare among monarchs of his dynasty. "If official decrees are thereby multiplied, to penetrate remote and distant ways, may not also subversive leaflets and treasonable advice incite revolt at every turn and even be thrust in at open windows? Can it be definitely assured that those who begin by applying this new facility to spreading works of the imperishable Sages will not sooner or later find it more profitable to supply writings of a lewd or questionable trend and thus gradually assail and undermine the high standard of our ancient culture? In the past learning has been hardly won at the cost of patient toil and ungrudged sacrifice and thereby justly esteemed with relation to the laborious process of its acquisition. Who is to assert that with all that is treasurable to be procured at the price of a paltry ballad the Classics may not fall into disrepute and our golden age be followed by an era that is unable to discriminate between literary style and what is ephemeral and meretricious?"
"Whatever you may say, Revered, is notoriously inspired," dutifully conceded Lao San, "and is not therefore to be either weighed or measured. Nevertheless, beneath your ruling thumb, the day may yet emerge when the ink-brush shall be spoken of as more formidable than the spear and the imprinted word admitted to outrange the swiftest arrow."
"It is for these reasons that so momentous a decision imposes too burdensome a test on any but the All-Seeing Ones whose impassive eyes can discern the ultimate issues," assented Prince Ying, with an appropriate gesture. "To endorse a cause that must readjust the standards of the inhabitable world for good or ill, give sovereign power to those who would otherwise be weak and countermine the undisputed prerogative of monarchs—who but the Deities themselves should venture?" Whereupon the one who had come exultantly to plead an obvious cause, understanding then that there was nothing to be gained began his reluctant departure.
"Your onward path promises to be a rugged one, Lao San," was the final message he received; "may the directing spirits of your race guide your footsteps with prudence."
IT was an ill-arranged moment for Chang Won, who beneath the sign of a gigantic severing tool performed the healing processes, when mixing together certain obscure earths in an iron pot something occurred of which he could have had no premonition. It would have been well for the too-persistent enquirer into matters best left alone had he there and then renounced all traffic with these hidden powers, but Chang Won was urged on by a revengeful Being (who saw in this turn an occasion to gain his ends) and did not rest until—despite his crippled hand—he had probed the matter to a satisfactory basis. Then with his mingled earths, his tubes of hollow brass and carefully selected pebbles from a river bed he sought the presence of Prince Ying, and foreseeing such gain and honours as a deeply grateful sovereign might well bestow, he revealed the nucleus of his message. "Only the foolish pig exults when he finds that he is being taken to the fair," was the saying that might well have conveyed a doubt, but Chang Won was more familiar with the secret properties of alien soils than with the higher classics.
"I bring for your acceptance, Mighty Prince," he proclaimed, "a device by means of which you can, without incurring any danger to your own arms, destroy all your enemies at one blow in a single battle."
"Had your contrivance been one by means of which this person should have no enemies to destroy," replied the humane prince, "then in return he would gladly have shared with you the bulk of his possessions."
"Yet when all that are shall have been destroyed, your Great Highness will indeed be in that enviable state," maintained the other.
"So far from it being the case, their ranks will be increased," was the morose reply, "since for every one who is removed by violence two of his kinsmen step into the opening. However, disclose this new stroke of swordsmanship or spear thrust by means of which victory becomes automatic."
"It concerns neither of those obsolete weapons, Mightiness, but involves a hitherto unsuspected force by means of which, though your band might otherwise be inferior in every arm, you could infallibly strike down every foeman, if necessary from behind, at such a distance that they would have no apprehension of your presence."
"There is a certain etiquette to be observed in our polite method of waging war which you, Chang Won, as a distinguished member of one of the exclusive trades, may be excused for overlooking. To transfix an enemy from behind implies no reproach on either side, but it must be done within such a space that if he should be sufficiently alert to turn he has a least a speculative chance of retaliating."
"That is beyond the instance, Omnipotence," Chang Won sought to explain, "the purpose of the contention merely being to indicate the immunity of the assailants. A face-to-face onslaught would be even more conclusive."
"Let such a combat be assumed," agreed the prince, "and on that basis proceed to explain the method."
"If there should be about the palace walls an infirm or aged slave of either sort, whose end would entail no actual loss, it would be a convenient and effective way of establishing what is - claimed," suggested Chang Won, busily arranging his contrivance.
"Those who have served us with their strength are not to be cast aside to become the food of homeless dogs in the season of their weakness," was the prince's firm rebuke. "Some apter thought must assail your inventive mind, Chang Won, if you are to make good your promise."
"Things were very different in the stirring days of this lord's great ancestor, Tien the Thunder Cloud, when a half-score thousand stalwart men, every one of them worth a full bar of silver in the public mart, were relentlessly used up and flung aside in the process of building the river barrier," murmured Chang Won deep inside his two-faced throat. "It is quite evident that our present ruler rather resembles Min Sing, called 'of the Yielding Knee,' who in the proverb apologised to the nail for using a hammer." But aloud he said:
"Nothing could be more opportune than your High Majesty's charitable demur. The body of an ill-nurtured slave would provide a very inadequate resistance. Now if, instead, a substantial balk of timber, of about the thickness of three fingers' breadth——"
Under such conditions the first (and as it subsequently emerged, the last) essay of Chang Won's elaborately prepared "tubedust" (as he fondly referred to what had the appearance of being an innocuous grit) took place in Prince Ying's audience chamber and, regard it as one will, the result was overwhelming. To the prince's unbounded surprise the formidable mass of hard wood was pierced through at about the spot previously indicated by Chang Won and the missile hurled forth by the brass tube was found embedded in the wall beyond it. But such was the force of the outburst of pent-up violence at large that the rich silk hangings of the hall were torn from their firm hold, the close-fitting windows of well-oiled paper blown to the four winds, and the deep foundations of the palace itself shaken; while an extremely offensive smell, not unlike that left by the passage of a malignant spirit, permeated the air for several gong-strokes afterwards. Nor was this the full extent of the confusion wrought by the ill-judged display, for the ominous sound and some of the unclean vapour penetrating beyond the walls a variety of disturbing rumour filled the ways, which sent men, both official and of the common sort, questing to the eight quarters. While some affirmed that an army of invading Khings had entered by stealth and now possessed the gates others no less determinedly maintained that a celestial dragon had appeared to escort Prince Ying Above so that a change of sovereignty was imminent. It was not until an increased force of guarders of the routes appeared and with whips of knotted cords proceeded to assail all those who failed to secure their esteem that the populace realised there was nothing to be feared and that matters were going on exactly as before.
"Chang Won," admitted the prince, after reassuring himself that he had not Passed Hence when his faculties were somewhat restored, "you have this day fired such a train as would, if it were permitted to exist, engulf the whole world in ruin."
"Such as opposed your invincible Majesty's triumphant arms," amended the short-sighted Chang Won obtusely. "It is not to be thought that the secret process and composition of tubedust would be at the call of others."
"For how long?" demanded Ying sombrely, "and by what miracle could so vital a possession be safeguarded? Are there no traitors of our land who for all that—and more than—they should ask, would not yield up the essential information? Are our outposts so strong at every point that by a concentrated effort one or another should not be overcome, their arms and equipment seized and the secret of this all-powerful grit dragged from its constituent particles by patient tests and skilful investigation? What would be the plight of Further Yin when other and more aggressive lands possessed the knowledge?"
"Being the first to become invincible in arms by reason of this power your Omnipotence would naturally attack each one in turn, conquer and reduce all to the condition of vassal States and then proclaim your Empire from the Khin-ling range to the barrier of the trackless seas—one Land, one Prince, one Banner! May he whom we revere live for a thousand years!"
Overcome with passionate loyalty at a vision of the martial predominance thus obtained (and the amount of merchantable tubedust involved in the process of obtaining it) Chang Won cast himself bodily upon the marble floor and struck it repeatedly with his intellectual brow in an ecstasy of homage.
"And is it to be imagined," continued the prince, indicating by a suitable gesture that while he appreciated the sentiment expressed such details could be more conveniently postponed to a more ceremonious occasion; "is there indeed the most shadowy chance that all ingenuity would meanwhile halt at this one stage, or that bold and resourceful men of other tribes would not push on beyond your puny tubes of brass, Chang Won, and harness this genie which you would have raised, to every form of menace? Who would not foresee great warrior ships of the Seven Pirate States, their sides overlaid with metal shields, their tubes perchance as thick as a grown man's thigh and casting iron weights that nothing could withstand, ride boldly out at sea beyond all danger of retort, and leisurely destroy our coastal possessions? What avails the protection of the insuperable Khin-ling range—the immemorial buttress of our fertile land—if monstrous kites, each charged with death-dealing loads, can be so contrived as to shed their burdens promiscuously upon defenceless cities?"
"That would transgress the permissible bounds of recognised assault," warmly protested Chang Won, to whom the direction of Prince Ying's thoughts was becoming obnoxious. "The predominant sovereignties of the civilised earth would interpose: an all- embracing Confederacy of Realms would thereupon be formed to which the weak and unprepared when assailed by lawless force could look for succour."
"Admittedly they could look," agreed the prince, "but to discover the expected army of relief might overtax their vision.... For where then would be the might of the Confederacy itself when some headstrong Power, bolder than all the rest and more devising, should presently resolve that the use of missiles however propelled—deadly as you have shown this energy to be—is too slow and uncertain a specific for its own insistent needs, and proceeds to flood a tardy and by that time helpless world with some new and corroding form of life- destroying vapour?"
"At last it appears that your Great Highness is wittily outvying the fantastic imagination of a distraught story-teller's or ballad-singer's mind to give edge to a jest," declared Chang Won, relieved to find that all that Prince Ying had so far implied was to be taken in a gravity-removing spirit. "Even Nameless Things respect the source of life itself, and not even during the invasion by Gholls and Daiks of the Dark Outer Lands have the wells and watercourses been poisoned. Plainly, if the normal forces of nature could be threatened in this unendurable way and the Immortal Principle of Essential Equipoise endangered, the Ruling Deities themselves would step down from the Upper World in their just wrath and breathe on the offenders."
"It is well to know from a source so intimately concerned exactly what would take place," acquiesced the one who thus indicated the role which by that time he had determined to accept, "though it is frequently said with no less truth that for their ends the Deities sometimes choose unexpected appliances.... Since the opportunity may not arise again, Chang Won, avow for my ear alone at what extremity of space one of your metallic tubes could be relied to inflict its load on a well-proportioned person fatally?"
"Assuming that the tube-wielder attained a vital point even the distance of a li, or perchance two, would afford little or no protection."
"Thus and thus!" assented the prince with an acquiescent look. "In all our future wars a li or two will then afford a defeated general no protection. It is very truly said that what actually takes place is more remarkable than that which is devoid of precise existence. No man, whatever his degree, will henceforth be really safe on the field of battle: even a prince, completely surrounded by his chosen guard, and theoretically imperishable, may be laid out, so to speak, by a chance or a well-directed missile."
"It is as lengthy as it is far across, Esteemed," maintained Chang Won with easy unconcern, "or, as the adage runs, there is a sharp edge protruding in both directions. Henceforth, great nobles and rulers of high degree will doubtless find that the conditions of modern warfare demand their presence behind what might be termed the yamen line, where their exceptional qualities will be more valuably employed hastening supplies, devising awe- inspiring uniforms, tabulating records and similar work of essentially national import."
"It then falling to this one's lot perchance to maintain the supply of tubedust unimpaired?" suggested the prince, with what impressed itself upon the other as truly refined condescension. "In such an emergency where should the secret of its component parts be found, Chang Won, or is all knowledge of it that exists haply contained beneath the base of your own pig-tail?"
"There is a single account, traced in a cryptic form, which as a last resort might be found in an intricately screened part of this one's moss-grown dwelling," replied Chang Won. "Beyond that unique record this unserviceable head alone is the sole repository of the secret."
"So that," thoughtfully considered Prince Ying, "should you, to the inexpressible loss of all the civilised world, meet with a fatal mishap, and by an unparalleled stroke of destiny your well- appointed residence be, at about the same time, wholly consumed by fire, what you have now achieved must be irretrievably destroyed for ever?"
"Were so incredible a happening to assume an actual form, any hope of this person's epoch-making discovery again seeing the light of day is remote in the extreme," admitted Chang Won. "Yet this frail chance persists: that Faithful Branch, the first-come of our obscure Line—all unwitting of the purpose of his youthful aid—oft-times attended this one's hand, while the lesser one herself and others of our simple but harmonious stock might contribute stray crumbs of knowledge. Thus, by adding this to that, perchance——"
"You possess a stalwart band of sons, Chang Won, who—in the ordinary course of what a man foresees—will support your failing years and provide for you in the Hereafter?"
"Six well-formed and obedient he-children assemble round our Tablets, Supreme, not counting two of the negligible sort, who, however, in a gentler way are scarcely less engaging. Even now," added Chang Won, recalling the gong-strokes that must have passed, "they and she to whom a reference has been made await round the door, impatient to greet this one's long-looked-for return with welcoming cries of gladness."
"They await!" came harshly from Prince Ying's overburdened throat, as he struck a silver bell that conveyed an insistent message. "It is well that this should be added to what has already gone before, for are there not some everywhere who await each one's return? And, to expose another facet of your precarious case, what may await each one on his return if that which you have contrived emerges?"
"Omnipotence!" besought the one who found himself thus suddenly arraigned, for with these threatening words the prince's compliant attitude had changed to that of an accusing judge, "if anything in my homely speech has been repugnant to your well-bred ears let it be accounted as a deficiency of taste and not to any access of presumption."
"We are neither of us here to give or to take affronts in our respective offices of life, but in obedience to a destiny that has been laid upon us," replied the prince remotely. "You, Chang Won, have no doubt served a high purpose in being led to attempt what you would do; it remains no less for me, as paramount ruler of the State of Further Yin, to do my princely work and thwart you."
"Commander of our services," announced the Captain of the Palace Guard, appearing at the door, "every entrance to and fro is held, the leaders of all companies are being warned and he who speaks awaits your charges."
"It is well done," replied the prince, turning aside to avoid Chang Won's beseeching glance, "but let nothing unusual outwardly appear and reassure all those beyond your personal authority while keeping a sufficient band in readiness. This effected, remove Chang Won, whom we have already judged, to a secret place apart and there, as painlessly as can be done and with every mark of honourable regard, suffer him to Pass Upwards. Afterwards..."
"Afterwards?" questioned the Captain of the Guard with due respect, seeing that the prince had lapsed into an introspective state, while Chang Won hung breathless on the next spoken words. "What is to follow thereafter?"
"Take all those of his immediate Line who dwell with him—a strict reckoning of a double hand-count save one must be returned—and submit them to the same compound of stern necessity and due consideration. This done, burn down the house with the Sign of a Hanging Blade so that no tangible trace remains, and finally disperse the ashes. You have our warrant."
"All-powerful!" was torn from Chang Won's trembling lips, "it may well be that either in this or a former life your suppliant slave has unwittingly provoked a stern and relentless Being. But what should be said of the nine that you equally condemn—whose inoffensiveness would cause tigers to forgo their nature? Cannot——"
"It is better for ten to suffer a decorous and painless end to- day than that ten thousand—equally devoid of guilt—should be doomed to the torturing pangs of what must otherwise result hereafter," was the dispassionate rejoinder. "In taking the prisoner hence, Hao Hsin, let it be a charge laid on your life that he exchanges words with no one."
"It is for your Sublime Excellence to command and for others to obey," replied the Captain of the Guard compliantly, and he approached Chang Won for a specific purpose.
"There yet remains a last resort under our ancient laws," abruptly claimed Chang Won, resolutely confronting the two who opposed him; "and before the gag is placed this person, being condemned by one voice alone, invokes the Enactment of Yaou, the Founder."
"The miscreant is within his right, Most High," confirmed Hao Hsin, temporarily laying aside the cord and the spike from their interrupted service. "Since only one—albeit your omnipotent self—has assessed his guilt, by Yaou's imperishable charge he may require an analogous case to be laid promiscuously before twelve of his own condition. Should not even one of these in turn pronounce that ruling to be just, he who appeals must then go free nor be subject to any oppression."
"It has ever been our function to uphold the existing law and doubtless an anachronism such as Chang Won has invoked originally had its tap-root spring from some actual grievance," declared the liberal-minded ruler freely. "Unlatch the shutter most convenient to your hand, Hao Hsin, and call in to our conclave the first—being neither noble nor of outcast rank—whom chance leads past the opening."
"That will be Ming Yon, chief gardener of the public lands," reported the Captain of the Watch when he had done as he was bid. "He sees and obeys the summons."
"Everything would seem to be admirably arranged," was the prince's assent, "since one who by the nature of his task must be familiar with the principles of life and death is hardly likely to be swayed by extraneous matters. Ming Yon" (he then being present), "there is a subject on which we would profit by your advice, it lying strictly within your province. Should you discover among the plants committed to your care a prolific but deadly herb which by its influence must contaminate the rest and ultimately destroy many, how would you safeguard the helpless growth around from what you saw impending?"
"Surely that, Sire, only entails a simple and elementary act, as instinctive as voidance at the call of nature. The poisonous weed must be at once plucked up and cast aside to die so that it neither robs the profitable growth of its sustaining earth nor chokes it with rank profusion."
"That is as we deemed appropriate to the case," agreed the prince, "but Chang Won here has a special doubt which goes a little deeper. Would it not, he asks, do all one needs to cut off this malignant plant at its parent stem, since that is the visible source of its being?"
"Such a course would be (as it is not your Majesty's view) supine in the extreme," warmly declared Ming Yon, "for thereby the roots are left to thrive unseen and each of these is capable, in the fullness of time, of sending out a vigorous shoot partaking of the same injurious nature. Indeed, a conscientious husbandman (such as he who speaks) would not be content until he had dug up and consumed by fire not only the weed itself but all the contaminated ground around so that neither seed nor root of that pernicious growth should survive ever to flourish."
"You have expressed yourself capably and resolved all our doubts," said Prince Ying, dismissing him with a suitable present. "Hao Hsin, this disposes of the Enactment of Yaou since one has already endorsed our ruling. Chang Won is such a destructive influence within the realm as that weed which Ming Yon would utterly uproot would be in a garden. Proceed to fulfil your office."
THESE are the three judgments of Prince Ying that Mou Tao preserved, writing them down as he begged for alms at his station by the city wall, each described without any presumptuous afterthought as to whether it made for ineptitude or for wisdom.
"It will all," sagely propounds Mou Tao on the margin of his unique scroll, "be as one a thousand years hence; why, therefore, offer gratuitous comment on matters that are irrevocable now and will concern men even less hereafter? The far-sighted preserve a level mind as events pass by, just as a capable swimmer is not engulfed by the waves that overtake him."
What really matters, the conscientious chronicler seems elsewhere to imply, is that the unsullied purity of the ink he uses should be maintained and the precise outline of the characters he formed never lose its firmness. It is much to be regretted, as Mou Tao spoke the obscure dialect of his time and province and wrote in an archaic script, that when repeating what he tells it is necessary to recast the form, so that much of his flawless diction and sincere yet simple style is lost, while the deplorable inadequacy of the one who now narrates must inevitably repel the discriminating listener.
FOR a score of years and nine Prince Ying had ruled over the State of Further Yin so that the land had prospered, but this is not to say that all were contented with his wise and lenient sway, for is it not aptly said, "Few there are who find shade beneath a tree of their own planting?" and while men cry out for tranquillity and settled ease in a time of urgency and stress, they no less lament the bygone adventurous spice of risk when the age has become peaceful. Merchants counting their knotted cords of gain behind closed doors and women hopeful of rocking the cradles that would contain sons' sons might have reason to commend Ying's politic course, but the voices of these are seldom raised in the ways and market spaces, where, indeed, the more turbulent and vainglorious a man should be the greater would become the volume of his following.
In the immediate time succeeding the day when, taking Mei also by the hand, Prince Ying had ascended the steps of the ancestral Dragon Throne of his Line, there had been a conflicting activity of tongues, which presently diverged into two pronounced streams of endless comment, the one upholding their ruler's attitude no matter what he might do, the other to an equal length decrying all his actions. Even so chivalrous a thing as the sovereignty of Mei was not exempt from unfavourable review, after the first burst of gladness, for while the better-instructed maintained that it was only befitting for a champion to espouse one whom he had rescued from a voracious monster's lair, an opposing faction claimed this account to be largely a delusive tale, and suspected Mei herself of being the questionable offspring of a changeling she-fox, who had been able to infatuate the prince by magic. This, needless to relate, was in the care-free days before the salutary practice of shortening at either one or both ends those who allowed incautious tongues to outrun the dictates of loyalty had induced a more charitable outlook; indeed it would have been unseemly to have referred to so offensive a report at all were it not that from this implication of traffic with the forbidden arts there eventually emerged the uncertainty that was one of the decisive influences in the clash of contending ambitions.
Scarcely less, unpopular than that he should be associated with doubtful Beings was the prince's decision, shortly after he had ascended the throne and looked round to survey his realm, to dismiss the entire staff of palace concubines.
"Is the State of Further Yin sunk to so low an ebb that it can no longer maintain this honourable appendage of royalty?" was insidiously dropped into receptive ears by intriguing tongues at the meeting of the ways, and fanned into a spreading flame by those who had personal aims to serve, what should have been nothing more than a purely domestic affair became a public contention. Husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, friends across their rice and strangers at the barber's stall—even those of both sorts who had not yet braided their hair or taken distinctive names—all disputed over the seemliness or not of what Prince Ying had done and left undone, so that the routine of official work and the harmony of family life were shaken. Most regrettable of all, the ones chiefly involved were drawn into the broil, and being assembled as a continuous line paraded the city in that form calling attention by means of inscribed placards and the banners of the ancient Guild to the indignity of their present position. By these ignoble means an atmosphere not favourable to Prince Ying was maliciously contrived, for the venerable appearance and infirm gait of many of those concerned (some of whom had maintained their exacting office from the time of the previous dynasty) evoked sympathetic comment as they passed, nor was the prince's liberality in bestowing on each a sufficiency of corn and wine to support her remaining days referred to by the ill-wishing.
For more than a score of years the punctilious sovereign had observed a conciliatory and straightforward course, putting very few to death and inflicting torture only in persistently stubborn cases, and that as a last expedient. With the surrounding Principalities he had preserved an abiding peace and even untutored barbarian chiefs of distant Out Lands—some so illiterate in their native state that they were quite unable to compose their gravity at the sight of our refined etiquette—these also reposed confidence in Prince Ying's uprightness. It remained for one of his own race and heritage, Lin T'sing, until then the obscure head of a small and unruly clan, to foment dissent and by uniting all the elements of discord from whatever cause it sprang, to threaten the ruler's authority.
Lin T'sing had always been of a crafty, grasping cast, seeking his ends by devious paths and in the event of a miscarriage of his plans invariably leaving others to incur the burden. His mother, of distant kinship with the Line, had been ambitious for herself at first, but being compelled to marry an outside man of no particular wealth or esteem she had thereafter attributed their obscurity to his deficiency of caste and fixed all her hopes on T'sing's advancement.
It required no great stress of persuasion to convince the latter person that he was well qualified, at some future moment, to usurp the throne—not on any right of descent which was admittedly remote, but by claiming Prince Ying's inability, through flaccidity of character, to maintain a puissant rule, and instancing his own lack of scruples. With this in view he sought persistently to ingratiate himself among the passers-by, occasionally distributing small pieces of money with what might appear to be a lavish hand, promoting contests of skill to which he contributed the awards, declaring assemblies of those who strove to provide monasteries with the means to subsist open for all to frequent, and willingly affixing his thumb-print to the parchments of misguided ones whose passion it was to amass a variety of such emblems. Not content with these meretricious lures, Lin T'sing is credibly declared to have invoked the activities of members of the Make-known Gang—a sinister organisation which in return for a specific reward extolled the doings of those whom it upheld by means of approving words dropped casually in frequented ways, complimentary messages inscribed on public walls, likenesses of the one concerned (depicted as though caught unawares in charitable acts); toys, sweetmeats, lotions and improving essences bearing the commended name and a multiplicity of unworthy shifts all tending towards advancement. To those who, a little more discerning, said: "Why should we rely on this belauded one by reason of his extremely commonplace face and a blend of opium associated with his discordant name?" the reproof would assuredly be cast, "His praise is on every lip: what better evidence that he must therefore be praiseworthy? In any case is it not wiser to be wrong surrounded by a multitude than right standing on one's own midden? Would you alone make yourself out to be more dependable than many, O boaster?"
WHEN Lin T'sing, bound, heavily manacled, and charged with many crimes was, in the fullness of time, brought up before Prince Ying, the latter person commanded that his cords should be unloosed and the chain that made escape impossible slackened. He then threw an unsheathed dagger upon the ground between them, saying:
"He who first stretches out his hand to take it up admits the weakness of his cause. This one relies upon integrity alone for his authority to rule a nation."
"The word is aptly used by one seated upon an alabaster throne and hedged in by a company of spears," retorted Lin T'sing, meanwhile computing the distance between his ready hand and the open knife lying before them. "He who speaks has no other assets than the essential principles of truth and uprightness by which all men are ultimately measured."
"It is as though we possessed a single voice," politely endorsed the prince. "Yet it has somewhere been observantly remarked, 'Snails and bulls both have horns but their natures are not similar.' It is easy to raise the standard of revolt, Lin T'sing: it is another matter to keep the flag of settled authority continually flying."
"You are evidently referring to the irregular levy which this person, as Warden of the Outer March, enrolled in a time of threatened trouble," glibly advanced Lin T'sing, forgetting for the moment that this had lain beyond his province.
"Is the offence of which Lin T'sing has made admission laid to the prisoner's charge?" asked the prince of the official who kept the roll, and that one, after referring to the tablets beneath his thumb, signified the deficiency.
"It is not specifically arraigned, High Majesty," he was constrained to allow, "though without any undue distention of the bounds of statutory form, the crime: 'Conduct in general whereby the voice of authority might be stifled' may be held to entangle the delinquent."
"Let the omission be rectified with as much clearness as the necessary legal terms admit," was the command. "Meanwhile, since it is not our unreasonable practice to assume the transgressor's guilt until he shall have been declared innocent, it would be illogical to allow Lin T'sing at large, as must presumably be the custom where the converse rule is maintained. Short of that, provide the recreant with whatever threadbare amenities our obsolete walls contain until such time as we who speak have considered his position."
IT was the practice of both Prince Ying and also of Mei his queen to withdraw themselves to a certain room built high on a castellated tower whenever they would be apart from those around, and this gave rise to many ill-formed reports and misleading sayings. As no one beyond the two concerned had ever glanced inside this room (for its bolt was secured by an agreed word and, moreover, the approach was complicated by a ladder) it became necessary for those about the palace who would profess familiarity with all that went on around to substitute what could be the most readily adduced for what would otherwise have been a humiliating admission. From these causes it was generally maintained about the city ways and the spaces beyond that in this high and wind-gnawn place (1) Queen Mei practised the Forbidden Arts with which her name was linked; (2) Prince Ying sought to discover the process of converting clay into gold; (3) they applied their united powers to devising a system whereby time was, so to speak, held poised, with the result that no one need grow any older. For in what other manner (ran the word) could it be reasonably explained (1) that Mei, though of obscure Line, could do so much that others failed to do and was in many ways immeasurably wiser; (2) that the in and out amounts of the National Sleeve had never yet adjusted, so that, sooner or later, something miraculous would have to be done about it; (3) that while all others shrunk and grew bent with the pressing burden of years, for the half cycle of time that these two had been before their eyes neither had lost a scintilla of the bright attributes of youth nor had the gallantry of their bearing faltered.
It was further maintained that the room itself was decked in the most lavish taste with costly furs and richly embroidered silk; that it was plainly furnished but massively built to withstand attack and stored with an extensive variety of meat and drink so as to form a secure retreat if at any time beleaguered; that in an ordinary sense the room did not actually exist at all, being but the occasional creation, for such periods as it might be required, of magic.
WHEN Prince Ying withdrew the bolt and entered the forbidden room, after contriving the expedient by which he need not pass judgment on Lin T'sing at once, he found the queen already waiting there, for it had always been his custom to meditate in that reminiscent place and surrounded by rude evidences of the transient nature of royal state whenever an issue of exceptional complexity or doubt required decision. On all these occasions Mei professed a willingness to contribute the weight of her advising voice, and although the prince sometimes felt that this was beyond what he could reasonably expect she herself never professed any incapacity.
"The burden of his iniquity being already disclosed it is difficult to see how Lin T'sing can legitimately retain his head," explained the prince. "On the reverse side his acceptability to the throng is such that any attempt to make the occasion of his execution a public holiday might result in an unbecoming fiasco."
"Is it not said that on occasions when a person's moral obliquity rendered such a course well-advised the one involved has been, as it may be expressed, constrained to go on a journey and then through some obscure circumstance found himself unable to return?" suggested Mei resourcefully.
"We understand that in the past there have been one or two instances of, so to speak, metrical retribution working itself out in the manner you describe," admitted Ying. "But in order to justify such a measure it is essential that the unseemly misdemeanant involved should be sufficiently low caste as to preclude too close an enquiry into the details of his absence."
"Yet is it to be endured that between these two extremities so abject a delinquent as Lin T'sing should pass through scatheless?" protested Mei, equally concerned that vice should not seem to go unchecked or the prince's equitable rule be challenged. "If those who rebel are not held to strict account how is it feasible for the more active of your Illimitable's loyal subjects to feel that their services are adequately requited?"
"It not infrequently happens that slight but gratifying gifts may be suitably bestowed," replied the prince, "and the creation of titular honours—even when accompanied by the usual pecuniary obligation in return—is seldom unappreciated."
At this palliation Mei arranged herself in an attitude of profuse yet graceful demur and extended a jade-like hand impressively.
"What greater gift than life itself can be devised, that being the outcome when a justifiable doom is irrationally averted?" she claimed. "What higher honour may be obtained than that, when arraigned on a shameful charge, of being triumphantly acquitted? It will be necessary for you to consider anew, Revered, if a satisfactory answer to those who plead a natural acrimony should be forthcoming."
"There are occasions when a really satisfactory answer from a perfectly conscientious informant to a quite legitimate enquirer cannot be forthcoming," declared the one who thus outlined his untoward position. "He who would not be unjust to any must himself put up with much injustice."
"What then is it your inspired course to pursue in the concrete instance that is occupying your refined deliberation?" dutifully importuned Mei. "Provided that your guiding footsteps lead towards any specific point this one will faithfully conform to the impression."
"It has been profoundly said, with the engaging ambiguity to which our harmonious tongue is fundamentally prone, that 'He who can keep his own counsel lives in an impregnable castle'," observed the prince, swayed between an ingrained disinclination to commit himself to what did not yet exist and a sympathetic desire that Mei should on all occasions share his deliberations. "There are occasions, however, when the accomplishment does not involve any strain beyond a purely negative effort. Be content, adored," he added with a reassuring glance, "that should any particular danger arise your claim to bear a part will be neither grudged nor restricted."
IT was at about the darkest gong-stroke of the same night that Lin T'sing, being called from an uneasy sojourn in the middle air by the door of his ill-constructed cell creaking, prepared to lace on his sandals, never doubting the nature of the summons. On seeing by the wavering light of the torch which the other carried that it was Prince Ying alone who came, the gross-minded rebel noisily inhaled a sprinkling of snuff from the phial carried beneath a finger nail and sneezed offensively towards the prince's direction.
"There is a suitable apothegm to the effect that what is imbibed with the milk will only be relinquished with the breath, and the nature of this greeting, Lin T'sing, clearly indicates your connection with the one from whom you have derived your nature," fittingly rebuked the prince as he placed an assortment of articles upon the floor. "Had it been possible to establish a mutual amity in the past this one's hand would not have been withheld, but what he is constrained to do now must inevitably earn even your undying detestation."
"The excessive refinement of your elevated verbal style—setting apart the low-conditioned reference to this one's venerated she-parent, which even the polluted imagination of a tomb-haunting leper would have shrunk from—is so melodiously involved that it is beyond the slow-witted capacity of this very illiterate person to extract the solid honey of fact from the flowery convolution of hyperbole by which it is surrounded," replied Lin T'sing superciliously. "Compress what you must relate within its narrowest possible limits, Hysi Ying, for this one would return to the preferred society of a pest- infested pallet."
"Had it not been for the evidence of your case, Lin T'sing, it might have been thought that a rebel could also be a person of some delicacy," was the prince's becoming rejoinder. "In conformity with the requirements of your stunted mental growth, however, let it be crudely said that here is a suitable disguise to take you past the guard, a sufficiency of both fruit and wine to last you on your path, and that the pass-word for the night is, 'Unworthiness may be found wherever a painted door stands ajar, but integrity must be sought beneath a narrow opening'."
"This is sufficiently astonishing in view of our respective claims," confessed Lin T'sing, in some embarrassment how he should readjust himself to meet the new conditions. "The object of your coming apparently being this one's release why should you, who are thus conferring a boon, assert that he who speaks would thereafter detest you beyond oblivion?"
"Inasmuch as your revolting ways must have made you loathsome even to yourself it inexorably proceeds that whoever should extend the period of your degraded life must be regarded as your worst enemy," replied the prince frankly.
"The subtlety of your inductive process is a shade beyond an illiterate rebel's intellectual range," confessed Lin T'sing, passing his unshapely fingers through his coarsely-arranged hair despairingly. "His own spontaneous impulse is to take whatever lies within his grasp and beyond that distance to go for it with an uplifted spear. Since this person has admittedly fallen into your power, and his existence is an impediment to your peace, what have you to gain by diverting the natural course of injustice?"
"The position is a little complicated by the conflicting currents of circumstance, with the result that your disposal is not the simple affair that you would affect to regard it," courteously explained the prince, at the same time graciously assisting Lin T'sing to assume the disguising robes, which, as it chanced, were those of a female fish vendor. "Owing to your offensive popularity with the ever-credulous and easily-swayed throng a public execution involves an element of disquiet, while to convey you secretly away might prove equally jeopardous. Yet, to put on the other glove, should it go to the length of producing you for trial, this incorruptible administrator's deep-rooted zeal for impartiality would oblige him to condemn you to an ignominious end, that being the only recognised sentence in the case of one so tainted."
By this time Lin T'sing had assumed the outward appearance of the one whose character he was to feign, and his uncouth nature did not entice him into any elaborate leave-taking, such as a person of more ceremonious trend might have thought becoming in the circumstances. He only tarried to make one remark of any significance, though the very thorough transformation of his mien detracted to a certain extent from the impressiveness of the warning.
"It is a common saying among those whose affairs bring them into contact with the official class that door-keepers hold out an open hand even in their sleep," he asserted: "The idiosyncrasy under which you exist, Hysi Ying, is that you are beset by an overwhelming sense of justice and this in the end will bring about your ruin, for most of those by whom you are now opposed (including the one who is hereby predicting your overthrow) have no hesitation in using any underhand device that offers.... May your essential constituents preserve a harmonious blend hereafter."
"And your principles of equipoise be no less tranquilly maintained for ever," politely responded Ying, though scrupulousness constrained him to add:
"Henceforth, Lin T'sing, your position will be that of an escaped criminal with a price set on your head. By this means it should be possible to contrive your Passing Beyond without incurring any direct responsibility."
IF without too much fatigue to their refined imagination the honourable circle of listeners who are so graciously disguising their feelings of despair at the laborious unfolding of this badly-arranged romance will condescend to have their interest transported, as it were, from Hysi Ying's many-towered and massively-walled capital to the wild recesses of the Khin-ling range it will be possible to follow the sacrilegious Lin T'sing's corrupt designs—on the understanding that a sufficient period may be assumed to have elapsed since that occasion when the large-hearted prince magnanimously set him free, so as to render the situation feasible.
At that time the more inaccessible passes of the mountain slopes were the haunt and refuge of Fang Wang, a notorious and blood- thirsty robber chief whose ordinary daily life included every nameless kind of outrage. Fang Wang is described as having three rows of teeth on either side—six rows in all—and eyes so fierce that when he glowered famine-driven wolves slunk back into their bone-strewn lairs trembling. By continual exposure to the penetrating mountain storms and raging torrents the miscreant's outer surface had acquired an unyielding quality that would turn aside the sharpest arrow. Relying on this, and to express his contempt for the prowess of those who sought to destroy his band, the intrepid chieftain frequently went into the thickness of the fray completely naked.
Fang Wang had taken to brigandage as the outcome of an act of justice on Prince Ying's part, and although the amiable monarch had no personal feeling in the matter at all (regarding himself merely as an instrument of the Higher Purpose) Fang Wang very illogically thereafter cherished a bitter and unceasing rancour against the prince himself, and undertook, by a series of very binding oaths, to undo him. How little resentment Ying, for his part, bore is well displayed by the fact that although he was required by the Enactments to set a price on the proscribed outlaw's head, he charitably assured him a practical immunity from pursuit by estimating the value of what was sought as the equivalent of ten small copper cash or, alternatively, as much refined salt as could be taken up by a single hand with the fingers held downwards.
When an account of this humane proclamation reached the opaque- witted bandit's ill-conditioned ears he ground all his offensively-arranged teeth together for upwards of a gong-stroke, and passed the remainder of the day tabulating the various indignities that he would impose on the Prince Ying in turn when that one should have fallen into his power. Thereafter no one ventured to take salt before Fang's eyes or to shake a handful of copper cash while he stood by until several moons had faded. Yet beneath his somewhat forbidding exterior Fang Wang was of a simple and ingenuous trend, and if approached in a discreet and gradual way, especially when replete, he would freely converse on a variety of themes and express tolerant and even high-minded opinions. In this respect he was at a disadvantage when trafficking with the two-headed Lin T'sing, who in addition to being coarse by nature was both insinuating and disloyal.
Lin T'sing had long regarded Fang Wang—commanding a resolute and well-armed band—as a likely tool towards his own rebellious ends although at the same time he mistrusted that one's adherence when the existing dynasty should have been overthrown and the country in a state of confusion. Judging the brigand by his own corroded mould it was not unreasonable to assume that Fang Wang might then himself usurp the power, and it was not until this point in their intermingling lines of destiny had been reached that Lin T'sing's wiliness foresaw a way by which he hoped to make use of the other's help and at the same time put it beyond his capacity to become unpleasant.
Fang Wang, for his part, had for some time marked Lin T'sing's subversive policy with interest so that when one of his outposts on a certain day (of the period now graciously assumed) reported the approach of the pretender's banner, by this time reduced to a meagre throng of followers, he not only commanded the barriers to be raised and the paths assured, but he killed several fully- grown pigs and prepared a lavish entertainment in his visitor's honour.
When they had all eaten to excess and their adherents withdrawn, Fang Wang and Lin T'sing both unloosened several knots of their under-robes and, stretching themselves at greater ease, prepared to discuss their projects. The jars of distilled rice spirit were again refilled and at every pause each ceremoniously pressed a superfluity upon the other. Fang was the less susceptible to the stupefying effects by reason of his hardy frame, but Lin T'sing had taken the precaution to chew the root of a certain herb and, moreover, from time to time he contrived secretly to pour the greater part of the contents of the horn beneath his neck-cloth.
"Everything points to a growing disaffection in the north and west," declared Lin T'sing, "while the increased salt dues"—at the ill-omened word he guardedly observed the other's face and was satisfied to note that Fang spat several times noisily—"the iniquity of this should alienate the frugal-minded. At the first marked success of those who stand for integrity and the abolition of every form of tax the entire nation will respond heartily. As the proverb opportunely says: 'When the fruit is ripe the time has come for the tree to be shaken.' To what extent is your hand grasping the trunk, Fang Wang, since we are now alone and both mutually trustworthy?"
"This person's attitude is a common saying throughout the countryside and his sincerity has never yet been called in question," replied Fang Wang a little rashly. "To oust the presumptuous upstart from the existing throne and write his offensive name in fading characters on the windswept dust the one now replenishing your cup pledges himself and his band to the outside limit."
"Would you then," negligently demanded Lin T'sing, affecting to forget the words and rolling uncertainly in his seat, "would you even at the cost of your head itself maintain that oath, provided that a reasonable likelihood of success upheld you?"
"Assuredly," replied Fang Wang although he had not previously understood until the other specified an oath that his vaunt had been of an irrevocable nature. "He who speaks has never yet been wont to cover even his most vulnerable parts in the fiercest hand-to-hand encounter. How then should he forbear to risk the same sacrifice in a matter so closely affecting a cherished ambition?"
"The word has been spoken and the plight confirmed," declared Lin T'sing, meanwhile performing the simple rite by which he accepted the other's pledge as binding. "From their high pearly retreat the spirits of your departed ones look down approvingly on their worthy descendant's indomitable resolve and prepare to welcome him with gratifying effusion."
"The display, though honourably conceived no doubt, is manifestly premature in its scope, since the one chiefly concerned has no intention of proving inferior to any in the forthcoming struggle," demurred Fang Wang, not altogether gladdened by the sympathetic forecast. "He who has never yet lost so much as a single finger in countless desperate affrays is hardly likely to yield up life itself when pitted against palace hirelings."
"The position is not quite so simple as your words would imply, and the undertaking to sacrifice your extremely attractive head in our virtuous cause has been accepted in something more than a figurative spirit," explained Lin T'sing. "Crudely described, this is the outline of the strategy to which you have given assent and sworn adherence."*
[* Though inspired by no element of rancour, a painstaking if admittedly mediocre chronicler of actual facts finds it necessary to disclose that Lin T'sing's strategy of gaining admission by the subterfuge of an accomplice's severed head did not take place until performed under different circumstances by two other persons several dynasties later.]
THE plan by which Lin T'sing hoped to surprise the capital and possess its strategic points was both bold and ingenious in design, nor did it entail any particular hardship for those who led the van—with the exception of Fang Wang himself who, however, by that time would be enjoying an unalloyed surfeit of felicity Elsewhere.
Inside the city walls Lin T'sing had many friends and adherents, but in order to reassure their confidence in him it was necessary that he should be able to produce some evidence of success and be in a position to justify a rising. Even to lurk among the outer ways as things were then would be in itself a hazardous task, and if he should his part must be that of an indicted outcast with whom it would be dangerous for any man to exchange a greeting. But if he could boldly present himself before a fortified gate displaying the severed head of a notorious and fear-inspiring robber chief on which a price was set and demand the right to pass through to claim his due, no question of the sincerity of his motive would be raised and so far as a thoroughly loyal but simple-minded garrison was concerned he would be greeted with shouts of approval.
Following, at a respectful but convenient distance, a mere hand- count of picked stalwarts from their united camps would attend with evidences of the encounter in which the brigand leader had met his end—his sword and shield and the velvet flag, silk- embroidered with his personal motto. Spears and javelins from his store-house cave would be brought, all testifying to the thoroughness of the band's defeat, knives and clubs of various sorts and the umbrella beneath which Fang sometimes—to express contempt—passed his time during a battle. Carrying these trophies in an unskilful way these chosen few would stray into the gate-house as though unwilling to be there—and then at a preconcerted word from T'sing, being armed at every point themselves and their antagonists unmindful of their weapons, fall on the scanty keepers of the gate with silent dexterity and despatch each one whatever his professions.
The first gate held, nothing stood in the way of an entry by the entire united force, who during the preceding interval of no- light had occupied a leafy ravine that extended to within a bow- shot of the city wall, and until the moment of being called upon to play their allotted part had lain unsuspected among its many rocks and crevices.
From this point, on an arranged and well-concerted plan, chosen companies of men would swiftly penetrate the ways, and falling suddenly on the guardians of the other gates from a side which none foresaw would make themselves masters of all the essential routes and thereby hold the city. Meanwhile those allegiant to Lin T'sing's cause, seeing how the matter then stood, would throw off the appearance of unconcern and fully profess their adhesion.
"So that," maintained the one who was defining the many advantages of the plan, "the city will thus be taken, the people freed, a usurping and tyrannical dynasty overthrown, and the treacherous and self-seeking Hysi Ying dragged from his last hiding place and submitted to a painful and humiliating end amid the derisive amusement of a rejoicing throng. And this," concluded Lin T'sing, shifting his weight from one quarter to the other in order to release more freely, "at the cost of a single person's head, and he thereby not only fulfilling the obligation of a sacred oath but accomplishing a cherished ambition."
Had Fang Wang not to a certain extent been stupefied by the excess of rich food to which he had given way and the many cups of pungent wine accompanying it, he would doubtless have seen through the speciousness of the other person's claim, and taken measures to counteract it. As it was, the most prominent image he retained of Lin T'sing's admittedly diffuse and crafty speech was that the one in question had devised a notable distinction and was pressing it upon him. As provider of the entertainment courtesy required that he should disclaim and reciprocate such advancement.
"By no means," he accordingly maintained; "the honour of going not merely hand in hand with the redoubtable Lin T'sing in this triumphant affair but even, so to speak, a full head in advance, would be more than what one accustomed to press others on, could reasonably endure."
"Yet consider how——" Lin T'sing would have urged, but with unquenchable politeness Fang raised his one-sided voice more powerfully.
"Stem the flood-tide of your acknowledged stream of eloquence for a few trifling beats of time," he craved, "for an equally effective course and one more in keeping with our respective merits is not undiscoverable. Has it escaped your usually quick- witted mind, Lin T'sing, that you are similarly proscribed, while your detestation of the existing rule is no less vehement? Nothing stands in the way, therefore, of your prepossessing head playing the part that shall fructify your hopes while this retiring subordinate aptly fulfils the less illustrious rôle of merely being the one who shall display it."
"May the seven——" Lin T'sing would have said, but remembering that the brigand chief though not slow to draw his sword was scarcely likely to be so alert in other ways where he himself excelled he decided that it would not be difficult to entrap him.
"The fact that we are, as it were, occupying one junk had for the moment become lost among my weed-grown faculties," he plausibly advanced. "In the circumstances, since neither is willing to admit himself the more competent to lead it had better be settled on the lines of classical precedent."
"Say on," replied Fang Wang, who was as egregious as he was confiding. "Whatever medium you may choose will not find this one lacking."
Lin T'sing considered the various attainments that the leader of a robber band might reasonably be assumed to be the least proficient in. Every kind of weapon he dismissed at once, nor did the arbitrament of chance or reference by augury to the wishes of the Ruling Powers impress him as sufficiently inevitable.
"In the heroic past it was customary for one to depict a theme and the second then endeavour to surpass it. He who attains superiority in the test to have the privilege of conferring this disclaimed honour on the other."
Then, not to allow Fang Wang the opportunity to dispute this trial, he propounded:
"The rising sun shines through a translucent mist and each drop of dew reflects a golden point of brilliance."
By this time Fang Wang was scarcely in a condition to produce a successful antithesis on any theme, and he would no doubt have sunk into a restful sleep had not the discordant cries of a passing tribe of migratory sea-birds recalled the occasions when, as a ferocious pirate chief, he had been accustomed to lean against the mast and consider his course by the known variation of certain recognisable planets.
"The full moon illumines a broad path of light and the edge of every wave becomes a line of rippling silver," he remarked lethargically as he looked back on the remembered scene, and without any particular reference to the matter in hand, but Lin T'sing bit his double-faced lip for he could not deny that Fang Wang had successfully maintained the analogy.
"Since it is impossible to assess the respective value of an indeterminate bag of silver and an unspecified weight of gold perhaps it would be better to depend on the intervention of the deciding fates," he accordingly declared, reasonably assuming that the one whom he would ensnare must now be beyond the power of logical deduction. "Here are two blades of grass, differing in no way but in their varied lengths; we will equally incur the lot and he who selects the more appropriate stalk shall assume the requisite function."
"That is but equitable," assented Fang Wang, not grasping in his involved state that in order to provide a satisfactory basis the essentials should have been more clearly fixed. "Thus"—from Lin T'sing's outstretched hand he plucked the further stem—"the longer one has fallen to this person's share and so——"
"—it accordingly devolves on you to become, so to speak, the headpiece of the rising. Manifestly the shorter blade, which by the hazard of the lot is left for me, indicates the comparatively lowly part of attendant on and bearer of your noble and awe-inspiring head which will be at once the forefront of assault and our inspiration to victory."
WHEN the tidings reached Prince Ying that Lin T'sing, in a becoming alliance with that notorious robber chief Fang Wang, had again raised the standard of revolt and by a thoroughly despicable ruse had seized one of the eight city gates, he was deeply engaged in affairs of State, but at once laying aside his ink-brush and the parchment rolls he called up the various captains of the inner guard and keeping only Hao Hsin by his side he directed all the others towards strengthening the defences. Had there been sufficient time to effect these moves the lamentable outcome might have been reversed, but Lin T'sing was not one to allow the rice to sprout above his ankles, and as they led their bands the captains were met by fugitives from other points of assault who reported the loss of the remaining gates and the essential ways, and told of certain prominent time- servers who had joined the invading force, and how they had drawn with them many waverers. Upon this some of the captains laid down their weapons and sought to make terms, others fled rather than endure so base an offence, while a few would neither turn aside nor yield but honourably embraced an inevitable end, defying overwhelming numbers.
The full meaning of this disaster was not hidden from Prince Ying when a wounded but loyal bowman stumbled in and faithfully delivered his dying message. The prince was conferring with Hao Hsin then and addressing that one in ceremonious terms he instructed him to take up a stand outside and displaying a flag of amity as the rebellious horde appeared, yield up the palace keys and claim immunity for those who surrendered.
"It is for you to command, High Majesty, and all others to obey," replied Hao Hsin; "yet out of the unquestionable devotion of something approaching two score years and ten to your illustrious House is it permitted one on the verge of joining his obscure ancestral host to release the bonds of usage?"
"Speak freely," exhorted the prince, taking his elbow in an encouraging way. "At such a moment, between two positioned as we are, there can be no barrier."
"In the course of many years, when sons' sons have grown old, this will be written in a scroll. Words will by then have been forgotten and only deeds remain. Should it be said that Hysi Ying, last of his imperishable Line, played a recreant part or that in the hour of their dependence on his leadership he left his people guideless?"
"Beggars are not necessarily blind because they close their eyes," quoted the prince; "nor can that which takes place be rightly judged apart from its surroundings. Whether would it be better, Hao Hsin, to pass down into history as one of heroic mould and yet sacrifice the people to a vain parade of indomitableness, or be deemed hereafter to have been wanting in spirit as the outcome of preserving the manhood of a nation?"
"Your propoundance of this and that is plainly outside my verbal scope," replied Hao Hsin evasively. "This person's place is where a strict command ordained him."
With these words and a mutual salutation of appropriate form they turned apart, the prince seeking Mei where he thought she might be found, Hao Hsin to the steps before the chief palace gate, by which a victorious foe would enter. There, laying the great key of the outer door by his side, and with it a formal parchment claiming a general freedom to come and go, he took a suitable cord from his sleeve and with it performed self-ending. In this truly high-minded way he sought to discharge what he had been commanded to do and yet preserve his feudal oath intact: that over his dead body alone should any enter the palace in aggression.
Let it be conceded towards Lin T'sing's final account that when, a little later, he came to the spot and saw, he commended what Hao Hsin had done and confirmed the requisition. Furthermore, he strode across the body lying there as if to uphold that oath, although he might have had it cast disrespectfully away or easily, by stepping aside, have avoided it altogether.
AS the prince passed through the various apartments of the palace in order to reach the central court he spoke in a usual way to those whom he chanced to encounter there, but at the same time he advised one and all to find safety in flight, taking with them whatever of value they most coveted. Not a few protested an undying adherence to his person and Line, but after finding that he had no intention of displaying supernatural powers* and had gone with the queen apart, they began to look round, so that by the time Lin T'sing arrived there were few of much consequence to be found within and little of any real value.
[* It is scarcely to be doubted that by cutting out a multitude of paper figures, which the queen's magic could have endowed with life, a sufficient army might have been raised to annihilate the invading forces. To account for the omission, Lai Pui, a very reliable annalist, living only a few cycles later, advances the theory that Prince Ying was visited by an ancestral Apparition at about this time, who advised a change of dynasty in the interests of the State and people.]
Seated in her inner chamber of ivory and jade Mei was deeply considering the involvement attending the last stage of an assumed game of tchess, the remaining effigies, left by a warmly- contested strife, arranged on a geometrical slab—composed of alternate squares of turquoise and chalcedony—before her. She was then alone, having also dismissed all her personal attendants and slaves and seeing Ying enter she indicated, by a graceful yet dignified manifestation of despair, that the accomplishment lay outside her powers.
"The ingenious-minded person who has propounded this test requires that the invested king should be reduced to a condition of impotence by the exercise of three movements," she explained. "Though admittedly beyond this one's grasp your own superior skill perchance——"
On this invitation Ying regarded the involvement from her side, and although he had approached it with a neglectful air he was soon constrained to admit that it defied any known solution.
"Unless the attacking foe should be endowed with more than human powers there always remains one loophole of escape by which the sorely-pressed monarch may avoid the indignity of surrender," he finally declared.
"Therein this one deferentially concurs," acquiesced Mei with an inspiring look, "and it would almost appear, from the varied sounds of an unbecoming tumult without, that the moment may have arrived for maintaining the contention. He who would offend us by his presence is doubtless supplicating admission at the menials' gate, and although it would be unfitting to have our footsteps influenced to so much as the width of a silk-worm's thread by whatever this male offspring of an aged she-dog may effect, the less contact of any sort that one should have with persons of so low a type the more desirable. Is it not said that it is impossible to finger a glutinous pigment without some of its taint adhering?"
"That time which we have always foreseen is inevitably at hand," agreed the prince, as the clamour grew in violence. "Let us retire to the innermost sanctuary of our secret lives and take refuge where none may follow."
Leading Mei affectionately by the hand, but without any unbecoming display of imposed haste. Ying came by those high and winding passages to the ultimate ladder. At the top of this he arranged the necessary word and unbarred the door. When both had passed within, by a powerful thrust the prince cast the ladder away so that it heeled over from its supporting base and plunged down the face of the precipitous rock to be shattered in the abyss.
The room itself was insignificant in size, its beams and walls crude and rough-hewn, and it was almost wholly deficient in furnishings. Only a low couch with a pallet of uncombed straw and two plain stools spoke of human habitation. Few of their subjects even of the outcast class would have been content to occupy so meagre a place of rest, but to the two chiefly concerned it was hallowed as the exact counterpart and abiding reminder of that austere loft where their mutual affections were first to find expression.
"Unless these very deficient ears have heard amiss it is here that this one converts the baser metals into gold to the enrichment of his personal interests," remarked the prince, sharing with Mei a look of tolerant understanding. "It is much to be feared that the throng would regard themselves as left behind if it should have become known that the only transmutation effected here is to exchange the cares and jealousies of a throne for quietude and assured affection."
"This one also is reputed herein to practise the forbidden arts," contributed Mei's small, pearl-like voice. "Yet the sole enchantment she has ever performed is that endowed on all of her sort alike by Koom Fa, the Universal Mother. None the less, it is scarcely to be denied that we alone have to a great extent presented an inexplicable appearance of arrested years while the others have passed onwards. It may perchance be, after all——"
"It was through the opening above that he who was then a shackled serf was able to glean a sustaining ray of warmth as the great sky fire wheeled on its changing course," mused the prince, indicating the broken roof that had been scrupulously reproduced in every detail. "Here, through it, the heavens can always be seen by day, and at night the stars in their endless procession."
"It is here that we have never failed to find peace from gong- stroke to gong-stroke as the urgency arose," agreed Mei. "It is fitting that from here we should Pass Upwards to a state of tranquillity that is everlasting."
"Seeing that we are but going on a journey side by side and will presently arrive together at an abiding destination is there any reasonable pretext to delay or occasion for a ceremonious leave- taking?" asked Ying, as the sounds and outcries of a company of men who strove to lift beams and wrench impediments aside grew ever nearer.
"It is for him whose spoken word has always been to this one more compelling than a written law, to decide," replied Mei submissively. "The moment will not find her lacking."
"When cited before a mandarin take money in your sleeve; when called to judgment by the deities integrity in your heart," declared the Profound Thinker who wrote his wise sayings on an enduring stele : what need therefore had these two of further preparation? Unsheathing the light blade he habitually wore Ying composed himself into a suitable position on the couch and after a reassuring glance towards the queen performed with a single stroke all that was necessary for a dignified self-ending. After a brief but sufficient interval spent in arranging his limbs and the covering above Mei took from a concealed place about her- robes a small crystal jar in which gold leaves floated among a delicately perfumed essence. When she had consumed the liquid and assured herself that nothing more remained to effect a becoming close she lay down by the prince's side and drew the coverlet over them.
THE dusty earth-road had been long and wearisome, his paper umbrella a frail protection against the mounting sun, so that it was with more than an ordinary feeling of relief that Kai Lung saw before him the open space at the meeting of the ways within Wu-whei and the spreading mulberry tree beneath whose familiar branch he hoped to cast down his burden, seek a reviving shade, and after beating persuasively upon his wooden drum—together, if it seemed desirable, with the explosion of a few propitiatory fireworks—earn a sufficiency to provide his evening rice and a pallet for the night, with, perchance, even something added to his scanty store. Admittedly they of Wu-whei were a tight-sleeved community when he drew attention to the inadequate lining of his bowl, but it never lacked a sufficiency of the idle and dissolute who asked nothing better than to recline at ease while the shadows lengthened and listen approvingly to the recital of a tale of martial valour or an account of how some hero, apparently no differently constituted from themselves, rose to a position of abnormal wealth and incurred the affections of a variety of excessively beautiful and virtuous maidens.
It was at this point, when he was indeed actually selecting the particular romance most fittingly suited to the low standard of literary intelligence of those who would form his circle, that Kai Lung became aware of something gravely amiss. For more than a double hand-count of years now it had been his usual practice to turn aside whenever his wandering footsteps brought him at not too great a distance from the mud walls of Wu-whei and to pass the phase of the moon with its simple dwellers. He was the most popular relater of imagined tales who ever raised his voice there, inasmuch as he was the only one, and his right to spread the immemorial mat beneath the mulberry tree had never yet been questioned. Despite his frequent references to their cupidity, ignorance, sloth, lack of mental poise, illiberal outlook, timidity in the face of risk and truculence when nothing threatened, greed, criminal propensities and general unworthiness of conduct, no ill-will was engendered therefrom, it being well understood that these were only paper darts from the story- teller's professional armoury, designed to arouse their interest and stimulate the imagination.
"What is directed equally against all can single out no one," was the tolerant comment, "and how should that which neither causes a pecuniary loss nor leaves a cicatrix breed dissension?"
It was no empty boast, therefore, as he frequently remarked when exhorting them to increased benevolence, that Wu-whei was to him as a well-spread board and a luxurious couch whereof he was ever made gladly welcome, but what shall it avail the hungry if when he arrives at a feast the last seat has already been filled, or the weary who finds the expected bed in the possession of another? Not to disguise the unpleasant fact, however considerately, beneath a too excessive verbiage of warning let it be freely discovered now that what caused Kai Lung to shorten his steps and then to pause at the junction of the ways was the sight of another who occupied the exact spot he himself was wont to occupy—one who had kindled a fire and erected a sign and now made whole the imperfection of tin and iron vessels to the accompaniment of a discordant hammer.
"Were a man to possess the brazen throat of Yuen-hi who outvied seven hostile trumpets he could not prevail in such a contest," lamented Kai Lung as he understood the extent of this infliction.* "How would it be possible to indicate the more delicate shades of the Lady Hia's refined despair on learning that a mercenary father had affianced her to an elderly vampire—whereat a skilled narrator's voice has to tremble like a withered leaf held in a cobweb—if he must perforce extend his lungs to the capacity of a tornado to be heard at all, even by the inner ring of an assembly? Truly the arts have languished since the days when the ruling deities withheld an earthquake in mid air in order to listen to the ode, 'Ducks Feeding on Snails by Moonlight,' which the sublime Li Pu was reciting."
[* At the celebrated battle of Winding Torrent the enemy, representing the usurpatory States of North, East, Upper, Middle, Suen-ming, the Outer Han and Tiger Forest, were assembled under seven distinguished generals, each transmitting his orders by trumpet. Seizing a favourable chance the seven rebel leaders gave a combined order to advance and the seven trumpets began the "Onslaught" message. Yuen-hi, at that time merely a "larger-sergeant" as it was called, fighting in the very forefront of the loyal troops, recognised the critical importance of the move and, conscious of his vocal powers, issued a command for those about him to form themselves into bands of four men each and thus stand firm, in a voice so resonant and well-sustained that it completely drowned the puny efforts of the trumpeters. Doubtful of what was taking place in the absence of any recognised call, the insurgents at once began to accuse each other of treachery, and although some pressed forward to attack, an equal number turned and retired, while others, not wishing to compromise themselves so far with either cause, went off in sideway directions. A signal national victory ensued, all the seven generals being made prisoners. The grateful sovereign conferred upon the rank of larger-sergeant the distinctive title "Leather-lunged," and reserved to Yuen-hi the unique honour of carrying an umbrella with two handles.]
"This comes of your wandering and unsubstantial habit of life, Kai Lung," declared a sympathetic friend who had marked that one's approach and now understood the cause of his dejection—Sing You, the fruit-seller, who possessed a shed in which he followed his settled calling. "Had you been content to domesticate yourself respectably in Wuwhei, chant verses commendatory of the wealthier sort of those who dwell here and observe the regular gong-strokes of the day, you would now have established an unassailable lien upon the area lying within the shadow of yonder mulberry."
"Yet in that case this person would never have seen the mists gather on the surface of the lagoons in the Valley of Blue Jade Mountains, with the melancholy cormorants in homeward flight, nor listened to the silence that greets the dawn by the sacred temple-caves of Yang-tse-shien," replied Kai Lung. "An ox is led by the nose, O estimable Sing You, a woman by her eye, but a man by his imagination."
"The trend of your analogy is obvious enough," conceded Sing You, "and you are not the only one who professes to find existence in the narrow confines of a remote walled village somewhat cramping. But, as a very meritorious verse-maker of a former dynasty has observed, wooden palisades do not constitute an insuperable barrier nor metal staples form a restraining curb; the corollary being that a person of equable temperament and law-abiding habit requires no more extensive range than the boundaries of his own conceptions."
"None the less there is an essential germ of truth in what the observant Kai Lung maintains," supinely declared Wang Yu, the shallow-witted pipe-maker, who never missed an occasion to attach himself to a group—generally hanging upon his shutter a sign implying that he had been called hence to traffic with a person for the possession of a goat and would return within half a gong-stroke. "Even the best trained cormorants are wont to abandon their pursuit of game at the approach of night, and those which eluded him were but subservient to their natural instincts. As regards the noises that he heard proceeding from some caves at daybreak, doubtless the ox, resenting the infliction of an imposed restraint——"
"It is well said," interposed Sing You capably, "but the more immediate need is in the direction of procuring a respite from the existing clamour rather than assuming a cause for some illusory occasion."
"That is as good as effected," exclaimed the egregious Wang, who was incapable of being subdued by politeness. "Beneath this one's bankrupt roof is an unattractive but commodious room to which all will be honourably welcome."
"The offer is a gracious one, and but for a single circumstance it would be grasped by both hands with effusion," replied Kai Lung. "But the beggar who wears a costly silk robe displays his sores in vain, and so engaging is the rich profusion of your splendidly-proportioned hall that this person's never very alluring stock of second-hand tales would, if related there, seem more threadbare than usual."
By this, Wang Yu understood that Kai Lung had foreseen some unworthiness on his part with regard to the position of the collecting bowl, but this did not dispel the former person's urbanity, for he had, indeed, cherished a design to recompense himself to a slight degree, though by a process which he could not have explicitly stated.
As they had thus agreeably conversed together Li Ton-ti, the wood-carver, Hi Seng, the water-carrier, Ming Li, who owned a chair, and certain others who had no definitely settled purpose for the disposal of the day, had been drawn aside from their various paths so that an assembly had been formed. Kai Lung would willingly have complied with the general feeling that the occasion was one on which a related story, applicable to the exigencies of the arisement, might fittingly be told had it been feasible to do so.
"This, in a way, justifies the profound Tchuen Chang's much discussed apothegm that his own throat is the only thing which a very credulous person cannot swallow," he propounded. "How is it possible to relate a story illustrating the annoyance caused by an unseemly clamour which in turn renders the finer points of the recital inaudible?"
Meanwhile the inopportune restorer of unserviceable utensils who had established himself within the only shadow suitable for an assembly that the length and breadth of parched Wu-whei possessed, continued to beat upon a copper dish to repair its misplaced outline, from time to time emitting the recognised cry of his guild, so that even the most distant should not neglect the occasion.
"Seeing that we are many and this disturber of our quiet but one why should we not drive him from the place we would occupy by force?" suggested Quang, who made an uncertain livelihood by being present when bargains were struck. "If the more aggressive of our number will undertake that office this person will lurk capably in the rear and safeguard them against interruption."
"Yet this affair may not be so simple as it might appear," advised another, one who supplied to the more affluent keepers of domestic animals pieces of cooked meat upon a skewer. "Being on an early errand this way the one who is now explaining the fact witnessed the whole event, which was to the effect that when this outside man first set up his sign he bestowed upon an officious custodian of the way what was described between them as 'the cost of assuaging a thirst' to secure his protection. Should that same guarder of the roads be attracted by his cries it would go ill with such of us as were led before the mandarin."
"None the less we shall have justice on our side, it being manifestly impossible for the law-abiding Kai Lung to pursue his inoffensive calling," warmly advanced a third. "Furthermore, is it not aptly said, 'He who foresees everything accomplishes nothing'? Are we who are gathered together here men of Tze that we should flee from an unsubstantial shadow?* Plainly the minds of certain persons are more impenetrable than logwood."
[* In the feudatory State of Ancient Wei the people of two neighbouring districts, Tze and Snz, took opposite sides during the dynastic wars—which finally involved even the deities—and continually harried each other's territory. Learning that the defenders of Snz would be absent on a raid elsewhere on one occasion those of Tze thought to effect an easy triumph and by a forced night march they, reached the enemy's unprotected stronghold without being seen under cover of darkness. Anticipating something of the sort, however, the women of Snz had contrived a number of dummy figures which they set up around the camp, attaching them to the branches of trees so that the creatures, casting life-like shadows, responded to every movement. Had the invaders seen the crude makeshifts in actuality they would have detected the ruse at once but the moving shadows, into whose constitution they could not probe, convinced them that they were falling into a trap, and they hastily drew off and fled home in the utmost trepidation. Thus imaginary obstacles may be effective where physical opposition would be made light of.]
"It is with equal truth laid down, 'Distrust a spider when he produces honey,' " replied the vendor of offal meat, beginning to remove his outer robe explicitly, "and that Fang Chu should counsel a pugnacious front shows how logically the saying may be extended. Whereunto, thou double-stomached Chu of the decayed Line of Fang, it is by no means forgotten that upon one occasion while affecting a benevolent interest in the welfare of an edible dog that had sought your door——"
"Forbear!" appealed Kai Lung, seeing that very soon the upholders of his cause would be divided into two hostile camps between whom his immediate hope must perish. "Is it to this end that he who is now scattering handsful of camel-wisdom has sought, through the palatable medium of imagined tales, to inculcate the simpler elements of intelligence among you? Replace that aggressively- discarded robe, Lai-chi, and declare for how many seasons this incompetent relater of fabled events has been in the habit of molesting you by his distasteful visits. And straighten the menacing angularity of your capable elbows, Fang Chu, and calculate, according to your artless rule, the approximate number of recorded legends which this justly ill-rewarded minstrel must have inflicted upon your heavily-taxed indulgence."
"The span of your ever-welcome appearances within our dilapidated walls, O integritous Kai Lung, is so insignificant in comparison with what we should desire that the period has slipped by like an unrecorded moment," replied Lai-chi courteously, while Fang Chu, who had meanwhile been industriously computing the outcome upon his finger ends, no less politely avowed that the full count of Kai Lung's miraculously-endowed romances could not fail to exceed the stars in number.
"Thus and thus," agreed the one chiefly affected "although a little more or less may be prudently conceded. Yet during all these varying seasons, scrupulous Lai-chi, has he ever resorted to the display of violence to reinforce his feeble voice or, mettlesome Fang Chu, can it be said that among all the widely- differing exploits he has described, touching every phase of existence from that of emperor to beggar, and involving warriors, priests, merchants and artificers and craftsmen in all staples, hereditary witnesses in disputed lawsuits, professional stumblers into unprotected vats, bringers of good news, candidates—both successful and the inept—at the public competitions, substitutes for those condemned to death, omen-readers and soothsayers of every sort, persons to whom no particular description can be applied, actors, those of his own commonplace art, assassins—among all these and countless others can the index finger of denunciation be pointed to a single case where wrongdoing has flourished in the end or where the ultimate success and felicity of the one on whose behalf the circle's sympathy has been enticed has not been satisfactorily adjusted?"
"It is even as you so specifically maintain," confessed Lai-chi, while Fang Chu might be heard admitting that the regularity with which the oppressive and evilly-inclined came to a sudden and distasteful end at Kai Lung's hands while the unassuming and praiseworthy never failed to attain their virtuous hopes indicated a story-teller of exceptional merit.
"Why then should there be contention among us, or where does the necessity for strife arise? Seeing that we who are here gathered together are all persons of unblemished life and meritorious aims, while the one whose presence we deplore is manifestly an instrument of undeserved oppression it is scarcely to be doubted that if the logical outcome of the circumstance is put before him in a reasonable way he will kowtow before the inexorable demands of metrical uprightness."
With these encouraging words (though the opaque Wang Yu complained that he could make neither forepart nor hind-quarters of this device of standing to chant before the aggressor) Kai Lung turned aside from his band and presently they saw him engage in familiar conversation with the one who had occasioned their dilemma. Before any excessive number of words could have been spoken the stranger gathered together the accessories of his industry and after they had exchanged ceremonious courtesies with each other he departed on a westerly bend, swinging a reluctant charcoal brazier. From afar they heard the special cry by which he announced his traditional calling.
"Yet how was this accomplished without a blow being struck, nor, so far as any among us could detect, was consideration money tendered?" one asked, when they were again come together.
"It has been fitly claimed that he who strikes the first blow in a wayside brawl finally involves two well-disposed empires," replied Kai Lung, "and as regards that other force, until your insistent benevolence rewards this unresourceful story-teller by burying his utterly inadequate bowl beneath a continuous shower of gold and silver of the most honourable denominations, his sleeve is as empty as the mind of a high official who has been reminded of an inconvenient promise. In particular, the worn piece of unnegotiable copper, bearing the attractive effigy of a venerated ruler of an alien barbarian land, with which the effete Wang Yu has sought to discharge his undoubted obligation cannot be regarded as a basis. When the avaricious and clay-souled pipe- maker has contributed in an acceptable medium and taken his place among the outer fringe of this expectant throng there will be related the Story of Yin Ho, or Inoffensive Merit Rewarded, wherein the more enlightened of those standing around may discover a thread of analogous balance."
"There is an apt saying: 'Men think that they test money; money in reality tests men,' and by this sordid exactitude the covetous Kai Lung has disclosed his fictitious nature," retorted Wang Yu, but seeing no thriftier way he contributed a piece of full weight and authentic stamp to the bowl though for some time, by a pretence of catching passing flies and other offensive gestures, he affected an air of no-concern towards the entertainment.
During the reign of the liberal-minded though ill-fated Emperor N'gou-shin, a virtuous but not otherwise conspicuous young man, Yin Ho by name, lived in the Street of the Well-meaning Camel close to the water-gate of the strong city of Chi-yi, endeavouring, at the moment when this badly-constructed story opens its mediocre page, to pass the literary examination of the first degree so that he might qualify for a small official post with, haply, its monthly sufficiency of taels.
Lest the allegiant and confiding should be led to expect from this early introduction of the gifted Ruler's name that the events to be recorded are concerned with the affairs of distinguished nobles who will ultimately recognise in Yin Ho a long misplaced off-spring of their high-born Line, let it be freely admitted now that nothing satisfactory may be expected in that direction. Literary etiquette and a correct Balance of the Essentials naturally demand that the august occupant of the Dragon Throne should be mentioned before any ordinary person, and nothing more clearly shows the degraded standard of ceremonial politeness existing among certain outlying tribes on the confines of tangible space than their custom of chanting a tutelary ode to the paramount chief when every other detail of the occasion that drew them together has been fitly honoured!
In the case of the enterprising N'gou-shin, however, it is not to be gainsaid that a somewhat ambiguous state of things prevails to-day whereby it is questionable whether he is to be execrated as a disturber of the Immortal Equipoise or venerated as a more than usually celestial Being. Always deeply immersed in sifting the obscure this painstaking Sovereign allowed himself to be drawn into a misguided project by an ingratiating stranger who had lately arrived in the Capital from a distant Out Land.
The conversation on one occasion having been skilfully directed by this untrustworthy incomer towards the nature of that particular class of demons whose passage is indicated by unnaturally high winds he proceeded to entice the imagination of the Supreme One by the following very doubtful project.
"Since the accompanying winds must irrefutably be kept in some remote and hitherto inaccessible spot where the spirits themselves reside it is inexorable that if a means can be discovered of attaching oneself to a passing wind not only would that secret and highly-favoured confine be reached but it would then be possible to enter into unrestrained conversation with the Beings in person on a variety of congenial topics."
"The subject relating to the exact point of our illimitable Empire where the various spirit-winds are, so to speak, kept in bondage—and to which they must sooner or later return or what indeed becomes of them afterwards?—is one that has often engaged our speculative leisure," admitted the Sublime encouragingly. "The detail of conversing satisfactorily with Beings, however, is one of some delicacy."
"Yet inasmuch as the Wearer of the Imperial Yellow is on terms of admitted equality with several grades of deities themselves——"
"Hypothetically such a condition undeniably prevails and this orthodox Holder of the Five-clawed Emblem is wholly unassailed by philosophical doubts so long as he can feel the unyielding earth firmly established beneath the Dynastic Sandals," agreed the one who thus referred to his high office, becoming somewhat more familiar than strict etiquette prescribed as he inhaled the subject. "But in the unstable medium of the Upper Air or even if exploring the pathless wastes of Middle Distance certain qualmous thoughts might obtrude as to the exact scope of one's omnipotence. However, the occasion is scarcely likely to arise, for the technical difficulty of securely attaching a weighty and substantial body to so nebulous and elusive an object as a passing wind must be regarded as insuperable."
"In the past that may well have been the case," replied the stranger darkly. "But owing to the stupendous onrush of modern sorcery it is open for your Celestial Majesty to be the first ruler to visit the upper layers of his dominion."
"Disclose your obscure mind more fully," commanded the All- knowing, at the same time drawing a richly-mounted chrysolite from his thumb and dropping it into the visitant's conveniently- arranged sleeve according to the lavish process which obtained in that golden age when anyone narrating the occurrence would be suitably rewarded. "These ears are both in your direction."
"If," confided the unscrupulous adviser, so far forgetting his own low-class condition as to tap the Brother of the Sun and Moon significantly on the elbow, "if a sufficiently-proportioned hollow cone, of an adequately-reliable substance, should be placed at a favourably-judged angle on a suitably-chosen day what ensues? It is inexorable that one or more of the wind-creatures unsuspectingly passing in at the wider end would be compelled to find emergence at the narrow one."
"So much may be fittingly conceded," granted the Highest. "But wherein does that advance your cause seeing that the Force——"
"Restrain your gratifying curiosity for a few more beats of time,"—for so incredibly profane had become the one with whose malign influence we are now concerned that he did not scruple to interrupt the sublime Monarch's inspired utterance, "for therein resides the artifice. Enveloping the mouth of the narrow end there will have been placed a specially constructed bag or receptacle of the finest woven silk, shaped not unlike a partially distended cucumber and protected along every seam by powerful occult symbols. What ensues, Omnipotence? The moment the creature is seen to be imprisoned within the sack a trusty hand draws tight the cord closing the narrow opening. Thus cornered, as it may be loosely put, there is no alternative to this: that in making its frantic efforts to rejoin the band the enveloping case is also borne aloft to be carried to their lair, and, Munificence, whatever is attached to it!"
It is unnecessary to describe in detail the distressing course of events that followed. Indeed, high officials, jealous of the Imperial repute, have caused the name of N'gou-shin to be secretly expunged from every public record, in a laudable but vain endeavour to prove that the one in question never had an ordinary existence but must be regarded as allegorical: futile because the ballad-writers of the age and in particular those picture-makers who devise gravity-removing borders for printed leaves of the cruder sort did not refrain from making what must now be admitted to be an unseemly use of the arisement.
Up to a certain point the mendacious wanderer from afar had no cause to eat his words for scarcely had the two who were chiefly involved taken their station in the attachment of plaited reeds that was to bear them painlessly aloft (for with incredible condescension the humane Emperor had insisted upon the vainly- protesting necromancer sharing the unique experience) than it was recognised that an unusually powerful Force had fallen into the snare and was using every subterfuge to rejoin its already distant fellows.
What occurred thereafter has never been quite satisfactorily explained, but it is plausibly claimed that amid the complexity of advice and encouragement freely tendered by the assembled throng, some among those who controlled the various cords must have lost the orderly sequence of their task and exerted an inopportune stress in a misapplied direction. The deplorable outcome was that while the dependent crate was torn from its supporting bonds and remained supinely below, the broad-minded Sovereign became entangled in a misshapen loop of trailing rope and despite his well-voiced protests he was snatched up into the Middle Air with an ever-increasing celerity. To the last he was heard assuring the Being that, whatever its rank might be, he as a direct descendant of the legendary Yaou, should be treated as an equal, even if his exact status in the circumstances might be described as "equal but lower."
On account of this equivocal ending to an otherwise normal career the actual position of N'gou-shin in the Upper Air has never been decisively settled. Some historians assert that his sudden and unlooked-for appearance in their midst was regarded by the Superior Deities as a calculated act of defiance and ere the extenuating circumstances could be put before them in a proper light N'gou-shin had been reduced to a fine white powder. Other commentators no less strenuously maintain that the shades of the Former Ones were favourably impressed by the dignified bearing of the one who thus arrived under such very up-hill conditions and acclaimed him of their Order. What definitely persists—and this is held equally by the contending sects to establish their different views—is that no trace or indication of the ambiguously-regarded Monarch was ever afterwards forthcoming.
By an appropriate act of celestial justice the presumptuous miscreant from the Outer Land also vanished at about the same gong-stroke, and it is reasonably assumed that he carried out some particularly disagreeable and annihilatory form of self- ending in remorse for his share in the happening. No importance need be attached to the report that one bearing all his outward signs had been seen unostentatiously leaving the city accompanied by a string of heavily-burdened camels, for, as the better- informed did not neglect to point out, when he arrived scarcely more than a moon before, all the repulsive intruder's possessions were contained in a folded neck-cloth.
IN the meantime the studious youth Yin Ho, from whose commonplace destinies the attention of an eventually lavish and ever- indulgent circle of listeners has for the moment been necessarily deflected, had again failed to gladden the faces of those who judged the Competition papers.
"As regards the candidate Yin Ho," was the substance of their voice, "were it not that he may be described as 'docile but ill- equipped' it would be necessary to refer in sterner terms to what might otherwise point to a contorted strain of gravity-dispersal. At a certain angle it is doubtless logically exact when required to 'state as concisely as possible what you know of the Chan-tung theory of the relation of one class of immaterial conceptions to another' to fill the generous space provided for an encyclopaedic dissertation on this important theorem with the undisputably laconic statement 'Nothing,' but it is not thus that responsible officials begin their career, and the last feather of self-esteem must be plucked from the wing of Yin Ho's literary pretensions. It would be well if Yin Ho were to remember that those whose eyes are closed are not necessarily sightless."
On reading this severe decree, which, with the congratulatory remarks applied to more successful ones, was displayed at prominent angles throughout the Ways for all to see, Yin Ho yielded himself to an access of despair and turned his face towards the unfrequented paths lying outside the city. Despite his numerous failures in the past he had gone into the latest contest buoyed by a reasonable hope, for on this occasion he had, with commendable foresight, carried secretly about himself a complete set of answers to the themes which he had ascertained (by means of a suitably-bestowed bar of silver) would inevitably be set: a summary covering the essentials of many weighty books and yet so delicately contrived as to be easily concealed under the nail of a single finger. It now emerged that those responsible for the test had so far debased their responsible office as to substitute another series of questions at the eleventh gong-stroke. It was this element of duplicity, more than his own absence of success, that tended to unsettle Yin Ho's digestive function. If integrity was not to be found in so fundamental an institution as the Competitions whereunto were things tending? There was, moreover, a scarcely-veiled barb in the last phrase of the notice on the gate; could it be that while affecting to be wrapped in a contemplative reverie the one who sat on a raised dais had been unscrupulously watching him closely?
A prey to these funereal thoughts and doubts Yin Ho paid no attention either to the measured direction of his steps nor to the encroachment of the passing gong-strokes. His one ambition was to avoid those well-wishers who would have read with pleasurable elation of his discomfiture and who would not fail to greet him with pliant tongues and speak sympathetically of the incredible obtuseness of the examiners on this occasion. In particular, Yin Ho was desirous of avoiding Hoa-mi, the only daughter of a poor but reputable, dog-stealer, on whose account he had so determinedly persisted in the Competitions. Hoa-mi's eyes are said by poets of that age to have been formed of the velvet petals of dark flowers, her eyebrows composed of small feathers in place of down, while her hair outshone the wings of seven Manchurian ravens alighting at once in its billowy spread and sombre lustre, and although some of the description may have been more or less figuratively intended at the time it sufficiently indicates the extent of Hoa-mi's perfection.
Although he was in the habit of affecting her society at a prudent distance whenever the chance occurred, it had never presented itself to Yin Ho's simple-hearted mind that so unapproachable a being as Hoa-mi could regard him—if, indeed, she actually saw one of his inferior composition at all—with any other emotion than a well-sustained sense of loathing, a feeling to which the edict on the wall must have added a contemptuous apex. In this Yin Ho overlooked the pure and magnanimous extent of Hoa-mi's well-proportioned nature for she had long been aware of his complicated sensations whenever she appeared and had already decided that he was worthy of her disinterested affection.
After reading the offensively-worded pronouncement so untastefully displayed upon a pole Hoa-mi delicately recognised what must be the exact mood of Yin Ho's feelings with regard to ordinary persons in general and especially towards herself. She accordingly lurked behind a crevice of her shutter until she had watched him pass, then emerging unseen she followed at a sufficient interval, with the set purpose by keeping him in sight of thus averting the risk of a chance meeting. In this amiable stratagem she would undoubtedly have gained her end had not Yin Ho at one point stepped upon an over-ripe loquat and turned in the path to save himself from falling, while at the same moment Hoa-mi chanced to catch sight of a bent twig which might not unreasonably have resolved itself into a venomous snake and in her gracefully-displayed alarm given way to a thoroughly refined cry of terror. Thus taken, as it were, by surprise it did not seem plausible to Hoa-mi, amid Yin Ho's impassioned reassurance, to deny the depth and breadth of her affection. By these scrupulous means (towards which the ever-regarding spirits of two sets of ancestors undoubtedly played a part) what would otherwise have taken an interminability of moons to bring laboriously about was humanely accomplished in a single beat of time without in any way inconveniencing outsiders.
As they sat together on an outgrowing banyan root, thus disclosing the increasing ardour of a mutual attraction, Yin Ho for the first time withdrew his eyes from Hoa-mi's enchanting face and discovered that the red grandfather who rules the sky had miraculously gone down in the brief instant they had sat and his place been taken by a gathering assembly of dark clouds that threatened very soon to release their forces.
"Alas, O wonder of mankind," he lamented, "that this one's unworthy neglect should have involved you in so embarrassing a dilemma! The time of no-light is already close at hand and many laborious li stretch between us and the city. Furthermore, the outer gates will by then be securely barred, the guard either asleep or otherwise incapable of movement, while any whom we should chance to meet within will be precisely those whom you would be most desirous of avoiding."
Yin Ho would have continued indefinitely in this respectful strain had he not become aware that instead of falling into a rigid state at the benumbing prospect Hoa-mi had no appearance of being in any way disconcerted.
"Since the position is thus and thus," she replied with graceful ease, "would it not be well for us to seek a refuge from the impending storm before it actually involves us? Across the arena of this conveniently-arranged glade stands what has the semblance of being a small but opportune dwelling. There we shall doubtless encounter a compassionate face, for, as it has been suitably expressed, 'A malicious word may carry across the land but a charitable deed penetrates to the Upper Region'."
Were it not that the sequence of events had for the time blunted Yin Ho's faculty of passionless discrimination he might have implied a doubt as to the outcome of this proposal. Accustomed to frequent those paths as he committed long passages of the Odes or the Analects to his head he knew the spot as well as the pattern of his own much-worn robe, and he was fully aware that no habitation had ever stood where this one was; indeed in coming there Hoa-mi and he must have walked through its existing structure. Nevertheless, so subservient to the harmony of her spoken words had he become that without questioning the wisdom of what might result he threw open the outer gate and leading Hoa-mi submissively by the sleeve struck several times upon the door post.
The door was opened by a venerable person wearing a long flowing robe embroidered with occult signs who had all the appearance of being a benevolent sage, or, possibly, a minor wizard.
"You are honourably welcome to this wholly inadequate abode," remarked the patriarch as he shook hands with himself courteously. "Indeed, for upwards of a gong-stroke now I have been awaiting your approaching feet and could only assume that you were more agreeably engaged elsewhere."
"As to that, we were detained by the ill-regulated condition of our path," replied Hoa-mi, thinking it more polite to conform to the ancient's evident expectation. "Thus positioned, and these overhanging clouds beginning to gather——"
"They, obviously, are part of the arrangement to guide you to this hovel," explained the seer. "As this effect has now been successfully achieved there is no necessity to continue the inane display," and he waved his hand with a gyratory movement whereupon the threatening manifestation at once withdrew, leaving the upper air bare to the silvery splendour of the great sky lantern. "Is it convenient to your mutual wish that the Rite should now proceed?"
"There is an atmosphere of ambiguity about our respective angles that does not altogether tend to explicit intercourse," confessed Yin Ho. "To what specific Rite is your accommodating offer related?"
"Is it possible that you are unacquainted with the purpose for which you have been enticed towards this spot?" exclaimed the other. "This comes of the lack of co-ordination in the various Departmental Boards of the Beyond. The one before you has never ceased to lift a protesting voice against the unnecessary green cord by which the simplest acts of enchantment are complicated. He himself was merely instructed to project physically hither from his cave in the distant province of Kan-su, materialise a few simple effects, and be ready to perform the nuptial Rites upon two who would present themselves thus and thus at such a gong-stroke. You, on the other hand, would appear to have been led to present yourselves thus and thus without being informed of the significance of your ever-welcome visit. In the circumstances, of course——"
"Since you have obligingly come so far on your charitable errand it would be scarcely humane not to fall in with an obviously predestined fate," capably inserted Hoa-mi before a divergent word could be spoken. "This one, for her part, will cheerfully submit to whatever ensues if it is ordained by the Powers," and with an encouraging glance towards Yin Ho she concealed her high- minded reluctance behind the expressive fan she carried.
"It cannot be denied that there is something out of what might be regarded as the normal course of events in much of this," was Yin Ho's more guarded response. "Yet it is none the less true, as the prescient Chen Hing remarked, that under any circumstances taking a wife is like buying nuts, inasmuch as one has to go largely by the outside," and he also signified a readiness to embark on the venture.
"That is very satisfactory all round, especially after the want of consideration exhibited by the controlling Beings," declared the venerable recluse, moving the outline of his face to express approval. "Even in quite ordinary cases a certain amount of, as it were, recoil is often apparent on the part of one, or sometimes even both, participants at the fifty-ninth beat of time of the eleventh gong-stroke. Now if you will obligingly precede my concave footsteps into this thoroughly ill-contrived shed I will do an incapable best to accomplish my flattering mission."
Within, everything had the appearance of having been arranged with a simple but adequate provision for the Rites of the ceremony. Upon a table of curiously-inlaid wood stood a variety of symbolistic wares; there were inscribed tablets about the walls and hanging curtains of richly-embellished silk indicated the existence of suitably-retired inner chambers; a charcoal fire on the hearth contributed an agreeable atmosphere of domestic repose and several ewers of perfumed water, each standing in a silver bowl, invited the weary to refresh their footsore members. From an unseen source the melody of stringed woods suggested emotions appropriate to the occasion, while the perfumed smoke of aromatic pastilles produced an agreeably lethargic sensation. Both to Hoa-mi and no less to Yin Ho nothing suitable seemed to have been forgotten.
"It is remarkable," was Hoa-mi's unspoken thought, "that a reclusive philosopher inhabiting a noisome cave in the remote fastnesses of barbarous Kan-su should have so competent a grasp upon the requirements of the situation."
By this time the one to whom she so appreciatively referred had moved a space apart and in what appeared to be an outside tongue (though Hoa-mi afterwards maintained that it was in reality their own flowery speech delivered with unintelligible purity) pronounced a set invocation. He then took from a ceremonial jar a little rice which he threw into the air so that some fell among their hair and garments (thereby indicating the earth's universal purpose of fruition); attached a worn-out sandal by a cord to the robe of each (thus symbolising that along the path of life thriftiness should go step by step with progress) and tracing certain lines on an embossed page gave it into Hoa-mi's hands as a conclusive testimony of her reputable position.
"You are now satisfactorily married by virtue of a specific edict," declared the accommodating soothsayer, "and may therefore safely proceed to any further detail. In the meanwhile, however, though it is not strictly required, if you can endurably contemplate another gong-stroke of my lamentable society beneath this squalid roof it is usual to partake of certain viands which are immemorial to the occasion."
"If it is not inconveniencing your phenomenal powers too excessively—" sympathetically protested Hoa-mi, while Yin Ho no less politely declared that he was equal to any requirement.
On this avowal the many-sided anchorite—who now disclosed his agreeable-sounding name to be Jin—called into existence a well-spread feast, which he did by pointing to any part of the table where there chanced to be room for the inclusion. By this convenient process there appeared vessels of wine, both sweet and bitter, corn-pastes baked to a brittle texture, pieces of the most esteemed varieties of meat ingeniously concealed between slices of less attractive fare and spiced with a saffron compound, a sort of coloured foam that melted refreshingly among the internal organs, conserves and sweet-meats on a liberal scale and syrups and nectars of unsurpassed flavours, fruit and sheath- encased berries.
Last of all, pointing to a reserved space of some extent in the centre of the board the adroit-fingered solitary caused the appearance (after one or two ineffectual moves since the requirement seemed to have been exacting) of a many-tiered pagoda in a very rich edible composition, the outside deeply encrusted with a solid rind of peculiar sweetness. This he instructed Hoa- mi to cut (typifying by the act a complete severance from her former life and domestic altars) and this, after he had caused a heavily-weighted and keen-edged hatchet to materialise within her hand, she succeeded in doing.
As they ate together, from time to time assuring one another of a mutual regard, accompanied by the ceremonial replenishing of their cups, Yin Ho sought to penetrate into the cause of the arisement. The later appearance among the fruit of a number of fireworks, which exploded with a loud report when pulled apart and disclosed an appropriate apothegm in verse together with an incongruous covering for the head or face tended still further to relax austerity.
"Yet how comes it," had been the import of Yin Ho's not unnatural quest, "that we two should be made the objects of this exceptional display, seeing that on neither side are our Lines of any particular account and this one has persistently failed at the Competitions?"
"That is merely your restricted view of things as they exist to- day," was the tolerant reply. "In such matters the outlook of the Arranging Ones is infinitely more wide-angled. It may be, for instance, that a remote descendant of yours shall have been already marked out to commit a particularly heinous crime, to found a dynasty or uphold a righteous cause or to write an ode of imperishable lustre. Yet how deplorable a state of things would come about if when the time arrived it proved that through the want of a little foresight now the one in question should not be forthcoming!"
"Yours must assuredly be both a strenuous and an entertaining life, interspersed as it no doubt is with frequent excursions through space—and so forth," pleasantly remarked Hoa-mi, to whom the instance of a direct offspring, however remote, seemed unnecessarily specific. "Indeed," she added, with the well- intentioned purpose of varying the theme, "there is little to distinguish one in such a position from an inferior Being. Does it involve any particular attainment at the Competitions to become a seer?"
"It is related of a certain music-loving official who was accustomed to play on a vibratory shell fitted with hollow tubes that when a friend demanded of him why he did not marry one whose voice was notorious for its melody, he replied, 'Because although Mu's notes are admittedly superior to those of a perforated shell she cannot be put away in a box when the song is finished'."
With this curious instance of what occurred among the musically- inclined—in which, however, Hoa-mi failed to disclose any clue to her enquiry—the many-sided philosopher turned round several times and lay down on the floor. This, he explained was in accordance with his frugal habit when occupying a leaf-strewn cave in the depths of the Kan-su mountains.
As a direct outcome, he considerately added, he was a profound sleeper at all times and no particular notice need be taken of his presence.
WHEN Yin Ho and Hoa-mi awoke the next day the song of woodland birds was the first sound to assail their ears and the continuous quivering of a myriad leaves would doubtless have lulled them to sleep again had not Hoa-mi leapt to her feet with a definite assurance that something out of the usual course had unsettled her normal routine. Yin Ho also was aware of a confused happening as of an occurrence taking place, and together they reassembled their obscure impressions.
They were reclining on a grassy bank which lent itself to tranquil repose, nor could there be any doubt that this was where the small but seemly house had stood the previous night although every trace of its existence had now vanished. Not even a grain of rice or a discarded paper covering for the head remained to attest its reality, but at a spot a little apart a shaped depression of the turf clearly indicated that this was where the austere anchorite had formed his meagre pallet.
"Yet here is that which definitely establishes our claim," reassuringly maintained Hoa-mi, and from an inner fold of her robe she disclosed the inscribed paper. That alone, owing to the complexity of its hiding place, had escaped notice. It was of unusually fine texture and of a sort that Yin Ho, who claimed to have had a wide experience of the nature of papers, declared to be hitherto unknown, but in spite of these rare qualities when it came to be more closely seen it emerged that the writing itself had wholly disappeared. Only in the most favourable circumstances, and by those whom Hoa-mi really esteemed, some faint indication of what had undoubtedly been a character here and there might be recognised.
Notwithstanding this, as it might be expressed, trifling informality surrounding their actual Rites, Hoa-mi never entertained the most shadowy doubts as to the efficacy of the ceremony performed by the devout anchorite in the wood, and she continued to cherish the parchment which so conclusively demonstrated the four walls of her claim until in course of time the faded characters became appreciably more distinguishable—to her own eyes if not markedly so to those who stood around—and she was able to show line by line how the context was assembled. To the revered sister of her venerated mother who in a somewhat narrow-minded spirit took the occasion to remark: "Thus and thus, but as it is well expressed, 'That which one sees can be believed'," Hoa-mi no less capably replied: "It is even better said, 'That which one believes can be seen'," and it was felt by those who were not prejudiced that Hoa-mi was more than maintaining her vertical poise adequately.
Yin Ho, for his part, was equally convinced, and as, in the process of time, there came seven stalwart he-children, all prepared to worship his memory to the accompaniment of appropriate gifts, and seven graceful-handed ones of the other sort who contributed to his material comfort while here in an ordinary state, he was able to point to these as a clear indication of celestial approval. The she-children, moreover, all reflected Hoa-mi's unapproachable charm while the others possessed in a marked degree Yin Ho's literary tastes and intellectual outline.
The only one, indeed, of their immediate Tablets to maintain an aggressive front was the opaque-witted dog-stealer beneath whose unscrupulously-supported roof they continued to reside, he plainly being too mentally short-sighted to appreciate the distinction conferred upon his low-conditioned hearth by Yin Ho's incessant presence. As fresh evidences of the unvarying affections of the two chiefly concerned clustered about his board, while Yin Ho continued to fail in the Competitions with well-maintained regularity, the attitude of this despicable person became more and more unrefined until he acquired the tactless habit of stamping heavily upon the floor whenever the student passed, on the pretence of crushing an unwelcome insect.
It was in connection with this annoying custom that Yin Ho at length cleared his throat before Hoa-mi nor did he find her unresponsive.
"Yet it is to be remembered, adored," she confessed, "that the one in question, if hopelessly Yangwangian* in his ways, and of painfully obsolete outlook from our more enlightened angle, must be regarded as the sole existing mainstay of an open-mouthed and prolific Line until the time when your exceptional merits shall compel the attention of even a corrupt Board of Examiners."
[* This obscure allusion undoubtedly has reference to a preceding Ruler of that name during whose long and pacific reign the nation fell into a stagnant and mentally- lethargic state that passed into the nature of a saying with the more rapidly-moving age that followed.]
"Things being as they admittedly are," she continued, after pausing to impart a caress to the base of Yin Ho's pig-tail, "would it not perhaps be prudent if for a brief span of time you relaxed your tenacious efforts to assimilate the Classics and, instead, fostered the esteem of the one upon whose industry we must meanwhile continue to lean by accompanying him, even if in a relatively passive capacity, on some of his less hazardous expeditions?"
"The suggestion is appreciably lacking in commendable taste," replied Yin Ho, who had more than once divined a similar trend in Hoa-mi's delicately-outlined implications. "To one who has failed to pass the first degree on no less than eleven occasions the prospect of becoming a hired accomplice to an intellectually- concave dog-snatcher——"
"The term applied is unnecessarily harsh, beloved," interposed Hoa-mi definitely. "Although the envenomed tongue of calumny has long been accustomed to assail this person's respected sire, be assured, star of my firmament, that however severely compressed financially he might be, the one in question would never step down to anything actually ignoble."
"Yet as regards the half-score animals of divergent breeds at this moment assembled in a beneath chamber——?"
"That in itself is a tribute to his sympathetic qualities," replied Hoa-mi, "and it is from this circumstance that much unpleasant conversation has arisen.... These creatures, it would seem, follow his steps and attach themselves persistently to his hand out of a natural and innate regard for something about his person. If, at a subsequent period, he succeeds, with much inconvenience and loss of time involved, in restoring many to distracted seekers is it to be accounted a reproach to any concerned if a grateful owner should press a few negligible taels of silver into his reluctant sleeve as some slight return for this labour? Remember, esteemed, there is a congruous saying, 'Because two men lower their voices in the Ways they are not necessarily planning a murder'."
Out of an inexhaustible store of the Classics engraved on the tablets of his mind Yin Ho had a conclusive reply to practically every apothegm that could be fashioned, but he did not always deem it expedient—especially in conversing with Hoa- mi—to disclose this knowledge.
"There is always a golden hem to the fabric of your most prosaic remarks and the dazzling quality of your matchless voice effectually obscures any inadequacy on the score of either veracity or logic," he accordingly declared freely. "There exists, however, one insuperable barrier in the path of this persons's successful career as a hound-decoyer."
"My revered is all-knowing," dutifully avowed Hoa-mi, "and at a fitting moment he will doubtless reveal this hidden obstacle which threatens our common well-being."
"The answer is concise," replied Yin Ho, "and may be fittingly enclosed in the shallower end of a neglected thimble; for while all classes of dogs are led by affection to seek your engaging progenitor's hand, in this person's case, inspired apparently by another fervour, they persistently attach themselves to his unworthy ankles."
"That is easily remedied," exclaimed Hoa-mi with an assuring glance, "and nothing now remains but for my dragon-hearted one to prove that he spoke from a really single-minded stomach.... Upon an upper shelf, to which this one has access, there is a small jar of some potent drug possessing talismanic virtues. The effect of the bare scent of this serviceable compound is to secure the friendship of even the most obstinately-suspicious dog—from the merely purposeless inconstant puppy to the resolutely-aggressive watch-hound. All that devolves, therefore, is to smear an immaterial trace upon one's sandals and a contemplative stroll through the more secluded ways...."
Had it not been that the time of the Competitions was again drawing near it is questionable if Yin Ho, thus continually assailed in his most vulnerable parts, might not have stumbled from his high purpose. Once indeed he had gone so far as to anoint his sandals, unknown to Hoa-mi, with the contents of a small jar that he found on an upper shelf, but it is to be assumed that his hand had strayed, for when he subsequently approached a formidably-proportioned animal with an ingratiating word it suddenly released the cords of all restraint and consumed an integral portion of the more necessary of Yin Ho's garments.
That night he Was made the recipient of a vision for while floating in the Middle Space he became aware of the presence on one side of what he took to be the outraged spirit of a remote ancestor who continually shook his head, and on the other side of a subordinate demon who smiled and nodded approval.
"This will be in the nature of an admonition," resolved Yin Ho when he returned to the lower level. "To incur the rancour of a distant ancestor may be a slight matter but to be patronised by the good opinion of a third-rate demon oversteps the boundary," and he applied himself even more relentlessly than before to digesting the obscurer Classics.
It was well for Yin Ho that he did so, and nothing more clearly indicates the inspired wisdom of his favourite Verse than his own example—this to the effect that if a person tenaciously maintains an undeviating course through life he will, sooner or later, arrive at the end of his journey, whereas the one who capriciously diverges from the way may find himself back at the point from which he started.
Not to make any literary pretence about an event which was both lyrically just and historically exact, the moment had now arrived when the broad-minded but aeronautically-premature Emperor N'gou- shin embarked on his profane adventure. To those of an ever- attentive circle of listeners who have already forgotten what ensued the most humane advice would be to recommend a course of memory-reinforcing but the really intellectual—and invariably more open-sleeved—will recall with scarcely an effort that as a direct consequence the badge and emblem of the too-enterprising Ruler was, by a confidential edict of the unanimous Board of Censors, unostentatiously removed from every chronicle. Not shrinking from the logical development of this patriotic act the devoted body concerned further ordained the complete reversal of all that had taken place during N'gou-shin's misguided reign, and as an incentive to exactitude among the obtuse, insubordinate, or, possibly, merely slow-moving, it was added, with the graceful terminology then in official use, that any authority who faltered, whether provincial administrator or custodian of a village street, "would be Invited Home to add to the interesting series of his picturesque Ancestral Tablets."
The effect of this enactment was diversified but profound, and it is from the circumstance that there has arisen the saying: "Three beneficial decrees are worse than a Tartar invasion." Here and there dissatisfied areas unfurled the banners of rebellion and took up arms, a certain number of indolent officials resorted to self-ending as the simplest way of avoiding trouble and one or two rivers overflowed their banks or rearranged their courses. In the province of Kiang-si a six-winged phoenix appeared, on the analogy, it was thought, that as nothing of the sort had occurred during N'gou-shin's abrogated reign the ingenuous creature deemed that its presence then became necessary.
FORTUNATELY for the strong city of Chi-yi it was, at that critical period of its variegated history, ruled by the Mandarin Tsing Won, a functionary of whom it was well said that he was not the sort of official to remain seated during the occurrence of any absurdity. With commendable promptitude this self-reliant wearer of the coral button had every wall and high tower manned, the city gates closed and wedged, all business or claims for repayment suspended by debar and the Uprising Decree read, with an appropriate accompaniment of trumpets, drums, and muffled flutes, at the yamen gate. He then proclaimed a Condition of Dynastic Emergency to exist and under the wide powers thereby conferred issued so many edicts on his own account that all within his rule were kept fully occupied in endeavouring to grasp their requirements. Having thus reduced every section of unrest to a state of exhausted stupor and gained a useful respite, Tsing Won summoned his inscriber of the spoken word before him.
"What, O invariably well-informed Wen-fi," he asked, "are the latest events of general interest?"
"The result of the biennial Competitions has recently been announced, High Excellence," replied Wen-fi, "and while the popular favourite, Wing Lee, emerges first, the last name on the list, accompanied by comment in the usual appropriate vein, is again that of the effete Yin Ho, both placings conforming to what those who forecast outcomes by means of interpretable signs rightly predicted."
"Let Yin Ho, suitably guarded, duly appear," was the resolute command, and the Scatterer of Justice rubbed his hands pleasurably together as one who after steering a hazardous course sees a favourable harbour.
"Furthermore, High Excellence, three couples of the Chi-yi and area dragon-hounds have disappeared during the moon-end," continued the inscriber morosely. "This elusive despoiler of our local pack is either a revengeful Being whose haunt they have disturbed or else a notable dog-enticer of the Seven Gongs quarter, one Shi Koo, better known as the father of Feathery Eyebrows, winner of last year's Chi-yi Harmoniously-Arranged Faces Contest and urger-on at the combined Provincial Gathering."
"Inscribe the name of Shi Koo on a detachable sheet of your ever- ready tablets, Wen-fi; consideration of the Being's guilt can be passed on to the temple authorities."
"The low-born criminal whom we were bidden to seize, Great Magnificence!" announced two custodians of the door, and Yin Ho, heavily manacled and in expectation of an immediate end, was thrust into the presence.
"In view of the excessive promptitude with which our orders are carried out it is possible to overlook any slight intellectual paralysis in matter of detail," pronounced the Inspired Lawgiver, readily assuming his most impressive Court of Audience manner. "The body-guard specified in the present case was palpably an escort of distinction not of ignominy. Let the pris—honoured guest be extricated."
"Pre-eminence," besought Yin Ho, freed of his shackles, "if any wrong should have been——"
"To the ordinary passer-by the position might seem to be one of some embarrassment and delicacy," continued the broad-visioned legislator, arranging together the well-proportioned tips of his symmetrical fingers with leisurely precision and allowing his discriminating gaze to concentrate upon a point of the richly- ornamented ceiling where a spot of damp was beginning to appear, "but not to the judicial mind trained in the best traditions of the Heavy Boot and the Torture Chamber. The occupant of the Red- upholstered Chair—no matter how gifted he may be—is in that responsible position to administer the Immortal Code, not to question its, possibly, grotesque terms, and so long as this scrupulous official continues to receive his monthly adequacy of taels so long will he unswervingly observe that condition. It having been enacted that the reversal of what took place during the reign of his late unmentionable majesty shall now proceed—without, however, precisely indicating on what lines the inversion should be—the one who is now expounding his own obsolete interpretation of what is meant will safeguard his position against any possible charge of contumacy by relentlessly reversing whatever has an alternative facet. To you, Hin Yo, is given——"
"Yin Ho, Much Exaltedness," ventured that one, "and anything that may unintentionally——"
"—the unique distinction of being the first illustration. Having been adjudicated last in the Competitions during the closing days of the not-to-be-referred-to sovereign it logically emerges that you automatically become first, and thereby entitled to the full perquisites, as they may be termed, of that position."
"Exaltitude of Justice!" exclaimed Yin Ho, scarcely able to believe his irrational ears, "can it be——"
"But in addition to this," continued the Sledgehammer of Impartiality, indicating by an almost imperceptible movement of the magisterial brow that while he thoroughly appreciated the emotion of gratitude involved the occasion was not opportune for its suitable expression, "it would appear that you have been last at the eleven previous tests and it therefore inexorably obtrudes that, to all intents and purposes, you have the unprecedented record of heading the list on twelve successive occasions. As no existing distinction is adequate to meet this unique feat a new office must be created and you are therefore tentatively appointed Chief Detector of Hitherto Undetected Crimes with an adequate technical and executive staff and a monthly insufficiency of taels which you will, of course, supplement, at the expense of those whom you accuse of crimes, in the usual official manner."
"Supreme Munificence!" was wrested from Yin Ho's grateful throat despite the injunction laid upon him; "may you live a thousand years and beget ten thousand strong he-children!"
"In order to prove your fitness for the high office," resumed the Incorruptible Administrator after slightly acknowledging this spontaneous tribute, "it is necessary that you should detect someone in crime, and for this purpose we have chosen Shi Koo, a hitherto persistent evader of the cangue, whose unvarying success in this direction must be brought to an abrupt close in order to comply with the new regulation. A certain number of domestic animals of the more athletic build have recently gone, as it were, south, and the analogy of their disappearance is not exacting. Implicate Ki Shoo in this obscene offence by means of any of the numerous devices that will no doubt occur to a naturally problem-solving mind and your advancement is assured. The provisional authority will be ratified on a permanent base and be not only hereditary but retrospective in function so that a formidable band of gratified ancestors will be untiring in your interests.... May you also live a reasonable number of years and provide a suitable posterity."
With this gracious leave-taking the Mandarin Tsing Won closed his expressive eyes to indicate that it was now that period of the day when he was wont, for a meditative gong-stroke, to dismiss the merely temporal affairs of state in order to contemplate inwardly. Wen-fi, also, added a complimentary proverb, while the two door-keepers arranged their footsteps on either side of Yin Ho and professed themselves resolute to go anywhere and do anything in his service. Before he left the palace a badge of authority was added to his robe and he was given a wand of office; as he crossed the outer court several unusually expensive fireworks were exploded in his honour. It was very clear to Yin Ho that at last his period of unworthy trial was now at a definite end but, withal, he could not entirely free his mind of an element of suspense at the thought of what Hoa-mi's exact attitude might be when she learned of what would by then have happened to her venerated father.
IT was the custom of Ton Hi every morning when he took down the shutter of his small but many-sided shop, the Inconspicuous Elephant, in the least frequented byway of Shenking, to stand at the open door and shake the appliance by means of which he computed what was due on a transaction, towards each of the four directions. This device was an ingenious arrangement of small carved ivory spheres threaded on strands of wire and when vibrated by an expert hand, such as long practice had enabled Ton Hi to acquire, a slight and not altogether unpleasant sound was produced which could be maintained indefinitely.*
[* The abacus, later explained Kai Lung, may be said to have owed its origin to the lucky accident of an elderly camphor merchant of Kwang Yuen being too obtuse to grasp Yung Chang's new system of mathematics. In consequence he made very regrettable errors continually in his sums, and had it not been for the wise precaution (in common with the other merchants of Kwang Yuen) of charging ten times the value of his wares he might have gleaned only a slender profit. One memorable day, after filling an order for twenty liang of the drug he operated, it began to weigh on this trader's mind that in charging as for twice times one liang he had fallen into a numerical snare although it was difficult to see where it could be, since the difference between 2 and 20 was logically nothing. As the depressing conviction became more profound the unhappy merchant staggered to his door, partly to benefit by the reviving effects of external air, partly to consider dispassionately the least painful way to accomplish self-ending. Standing there he idly watched a group of small people who performed an engaging street ritual with insignificant square bones upon his step, when in an inspired flash it occurred to him that if a certain number of such units were assembled thus and thus upon a frame and after every so many another of a different colour was placed.... The name of this public benefactor has unfortunately been lost in the passage of centuries, but to this day the merchants and traders of Kwang Yuen (in common with those of other places) begin by asking ten times the value of whatever they have for sale as a simple tribute to his imperishable memory.]
To any who without actually entering the shop stopped to enquire of Ton Hi why he thus occupied his time he would courteously explain the motives. The rhythmic beat, which by continuous habit he could unfailingly produce, was for some reason distasteful to certain classes of malignant Forces that were in the habit of frequenting such shops as his, and by this convenient and inexpensive process he effectually purified his premises of their obnoxious presence. It is not to be denied (as Ton Hi's sincere nature compelled him to admit at once to those who sifted the contingencies further) that other and more objectionable Beings were unaffected by the rite, and to dislodge these it would have been necessary to explode several heavily-charged fireworks, a perpetual outlay that was quite beyond Ton Hi's slender means. None the less his orderly mind led him to do what he could for, as he was accustomed to say when this inconsistency was pointed out, "Half a bird's nest is preferable to an entire absence of soup, and even when escaping from a ravenous tiger it is none the less irritating to have to take refuge in a bed of nettles."
In addition to this practical service the formality had other uses, for the well-sustained note informed the neighbours and any who might chance to be in the Way Leading Nowhere that Ton Hi had taken down his shutter and was prepared to supply their needs. It also conveyed to Ton Hi himself a reassuring indication that the business of the day was, as it were, in actual movement, even if, as did indeed generally arise, this constituted the whole extent of its progress.
It can no longer be concealed from the least intelligent of those who are so wasteful of their priceless time as to read these printed leaves that the commerce of Ton Hi was entirely destitute of the opulent sound that indicates a swelling prosperity. Moon by moon his store of merchandise grew slenderer and had to be more widely placed; day by day the meagre equipment of his shelves looked dingier and less likely to attract, and had it not been that he rose with the early light, retired at the dusk, slept in a box beneath his bench and subsisted on such wares as had definitely become unsaleable, he would have found it necessary to close his shutter and to throw open his door to all who maintained a claim on indebtedness long before this laborious chronicle unfolds its immature pages.
Yet to those who are unacquainted with the frequently obscure methods of the controlling Powers it might appear that Ton Hi was a person who could reasonably have expected a more satisfactory destiny. He sacrificed generously to the spirits of even quite remote ancestors, nor for this humane service did he—except under unusual circumstances—select offerings from his traffic which had been handled beyond sale. No hungry ghost, wandering by night, need pass his closed door unfed for a conveniently-arranged hole gave ready access and, within, a never-failing bowl of rice invited the empty-stomached. To the most exacting customers he was obsequious and profuse, and readily agreed with all that they contended, while those who merely struck his gong to ask where the better-class shops were to be seen or to complain about the inadequate paving of the Way found him outspoken in gratitude that they could have thought him worthy of consulting. Should any succeed in deluding him with a false coin he did not pursue them with threats of legal redress but waited for a convenient opportunity when he might charitably bestow it on one of the many deserving blind beggars.
It was very different with the case of Mok Cho whose kindred establishment, less than a bowshot away in point of space, flourished beneath the sign of the Resounding Lyre. Mok Cho was not a person of really refined taste at all, and if he did not commend his own wares in actual words he had an unbecoming habit of spreading out his hands and stepping back as he displayed them to the simple-hearted which did not tend towards an unbiased decision. Whereas Ton Hi hastened to point out whatever imperfections his closest search could detect, Mok Cho had been seen to keep his thumb over a small hole in a robe of embroidered silk, and although the tolerant-minded pointed out that in exhibiting a piece of cloth even a magician's thumbs must be somewhere the incident left a displeasing shadow on recollections not warped by impartiality. Then again Mok Cho did not sacrifice what dependent spirits in the Upper Air would be likely to require most, but whatever he himself found to be in the least demand among the people of Shenking, nor did it escape the eyes of the observant that the tablets recording the price (which he invariably left on) had been dexterously transformed to suggest a greatly enhanced value. On the matter of delusive currency it is unnecessary to speak at all since Mok Cho had never been known to stumble, but it was a subject of comment among those who freely discussed the affairs of others that the more far-seeing blind beggars invariably closed their eyes towards the profit of visiting the Resounding Lyre.
Yet when all has been spoken and achieved the deplorable antithesis remains that while Ton Hi, leading a blameless and unobtrusive life, seldom profited by so much as a single hand- count of cash for the day's industry and oft-times crept into the scanty box foregoing his evening rice (rather than that homeless Shades, whose need might be even more acute, should go empty) the insufferable Mok Cho counted his gain with each finger on a silver tael and after every well-spread meal grew more obese and full-coloured. To those who complimented him on the extent of his affairs the gross-hearted person would reply, "The same sky is above all, but it is the politest pig that loses his place at the trough," and the direction of his glance plainly indicated the trend of this distinction. Truly, but not idly is it written, "When the High Destinies have faltered in their office the last word remains with him who relates the occurrence," and it will speak ill for this justice-loving if uninventive storyteller's literary handicraft if before the end is reached both Ton Hi and Mok Cho shall not have been restored to their proper places.
IT was the eleventh of the Moon of Opening Lotus Buds when that which is about to be narrated took place and at a later period Ton Hi recorded the day by means of notches on a bamboo stick which he kept among his possessions. The time of middle light was then at hand and Ton Hi, who meanwhile had been endeavouring to stimulate a drooping gourd into fruitfulness by probing about its roots, was preparing to close his shutter when the note of his summoning gong, struck with a vague but very melodious touch, claimed his attention. Within, he found one of the other sort who appeared to have been examining the contents of his dwindling shelf with auspicious interest. Yet her first spoken words did not reassure Ton Hi in a business sense though her voice had the enchanting quality of stringed music. In the deepening obscurity of his unlit shop nothing precise emerged with relation to the symmetry of her veiled outline.
"Is it permissible, keeper of the shop, that one who has no definite need of any of your attractive store should approach you with a question?" was the substance of her enquiry, and as the words reached Ton Hi's ears he underwent a sensation—so far unknown to his experience—as if several of his internal organs had coalesced into a void and a diversity of highly coloured lights taken the place of normal vision. So overwhelming and involved was the nature of his mood, although he was wholly unable to account for the happening, that several beats of time went by before he was able to express himself rationally.
"The request is by no means an unusual one, inasmuch as more cross my crumbling door-step to increase their own knowledge than to diminish my worthless stock," he diffidently admitted. "Therefore whether you seek direction to a seemlier shop where your high-born wants can be more suitably fulfilled, or would merely enquire to what remoteness this pathless waste may lead, do not hesitate to express it."
"Neither of these things engaged my trivial mind, nor would it have appeared becoming to call you from your exacting task on such an errand," replied the attractive stranger. "For these extraneous matters the voice of one would serve equally well with that of any other, but this is a nicety of which you alone would be competent to speak, and here briefly is the issue: how is it possible for a creature of the admitted dimensions of an elephant to become inconspicuous, and why should it discard the natural advantages of bulk and importance?"
"In symbolic allusion of this kind it is necessary to allow for a certain amount of, as it were, colloquial margin," conceded Ton Hi after he had adjusted his mind to the emergency, for hitherto the requirement was one that had never arisen. "Setting aside the contingency of a purely incorporeal elephant it may be taken into account that there might exist an animal so endowed with what may be termed defensive simulation as to merge, so to speak, into the native growth by which it is surrounded. Or, just as there are dwarfed and pigmy beings among men so might there be the diminutive and elusive offspring of a race of beasts which are normally a byword for volume. Again, with creatures of the forest, the more skilled in avoiding——"
"Haply; as among the race of men," capably interposed the one who may now be disclosed as Precious Gem, the negligible daughter of an official of some standing. "But this matter rests on a more solid basis than a hypothesis chasing fictitious monsters through an illusory forest. Above your select though rather untidy place of business there stands the representation of a monster conforming in all respects to a well-grown and virile member of the species. Originally there would appear to have been a word proclaiming high distinction among its kind, but a later hand has added a negatory sign thereby despoiling it of this pre- eminence."
"There is an apt saying that little is hid from the eye and nothing from the mind of a really well brought-up woman," acknowledged Ton Hi, "and by discovering what had hitherto passed unseen you have given a doubly pointed edge to the proverb.... It is not to be denied that when the sign adorned the commercial house of a highly successful dog-butcher of the Upper Way it bore a written symbol pronouncing the device to represent the Noticeable Elephant."
"Why then should you seek to efface so reassuring a claim to eminence?"
"What was appropriate in the case of a prosperous dog-butcher of the Upper Way would be unbecoming if applied to the standing of a third-rate general shop in the insignificant Path Leading Nowhere, for, as the observant Li-chang declared, a vainglorious snail which endeavoured to adopt the discarded shell of a dead tortoise not only broke its own back but drew down ridicule upon the whole line of its family tablets. When, therefore, requiring an emblem beneath which to erect a stall this person acquired for an obsolete ballad, as the synonym has it, the dog-butcher's cast-off sign, by a stroke of the brush he transformed what was crudely assertive of a unique repute into something which, despite its natural size, is temperate and unassuming."
"Your reference to an invertebrate and mentally-stagnant insect is no doubt classically exact, but among the more advanced thinkers adopting the vernacular school of approach to-day it is even more precisely stated, 'The merchant who fails to strike the passer-by in the eye forthwith will never succeed in touching the contents of his wallet'," maintained Precious Gem resolutely. "Surrounded as you are by a pretentious band of Resounding Lyres, Inspired Hopes, Colossal Benefits, Attractive Jades, Miraculous Philtres, Celestial Scales, All-protecting Umbrellas, Righteous Principles and other assertive testimonies of worth—how among these can an Inconspicuous Elephant entice the reluctant purchaser to turn within at your secluded door, or itself survive the stress of bulk opposition?"
"It is very plain that although for some reason or other you have the effect of causing all my less controllable emotions to undergo a severe convulsion by merely being here and have, moreover, brought into this usually obscure shed what appears to be a personal rainbow of exceptional power, in other ways there is nothing remarkable about your nature. Possibly at some early period a fox came into your distinguished Line and from this circumstance you inherit certain unusual qualities?"
"There does not appear to be any actual record of such an event, but our deficient tablets are far from being complete. Paou Yuh the one wasting your valuable time has always been called; her universally-respected father's House is that of Cheung and the Further Expanse the situation of their inadequate dwelling. Yet in what particular way has she who is now speaking failed in your eyes to win approval?"
"As to that," replied Ton Hi, "it would be profane for one of my scanty means to question the outlook of so lavishly-endowed a vision. Apart from this the matter may be stated thus: that whereas to press forward and wrest affluence from circumstance would appear to be your precept, to remain unostentatiously in the discreet background and gain the esteem of the more reputable deities has always been this one's ambition."
"It is a high-minded resolve and places you more or less on a level with the philosophers of old," dutifully admitted Precious Gem. "Still," she added, imparting an even more entrancing quality to her jade-like voice, so that Ton Hi's traitorous joints relapsed incapably, "might not a series of eventualities arise whereby, in order to procure something on which your heart was set, a really substantial balance should become necessary?"
"In such a case this person has up to now always found it practicable to obtain the extent of his needs by limiting the measure of his desires," maintained Ton Hi. "But since the subject has to a certain extent been inoffensively approached is there any particular amount that your no doubt reasonably- inclined father would have in mind in the event of a meritorious but not otherwise financially robust suitor appearing?"
"It is scarcely imaginable that so intimate a detail would have brushed, however imperceptibly, across this one's remotest thoughts," modestly avowed Precious Gem. "Yet it is not to be denied," she added, recognising that it might be desirable to stimulate Ton Hi's resolution with a concrete fact, "that upon one occasion while passing a not absolutely closed door and being momentarily detained there by an ill-laced sandal, a reference to five hundred silver taels by the voice of this slow-fingered one's venerated father in reply to an enquiry on the lips of her highly-esteemed mother did not seem incompatible with some detail of her own future disposal."
"'Even a beggar may approach a queen—in his dreams,' is an undeniable maxim," was the extent of Ton Hi's remark, and he turned aside to prepare a small pot of jasmine tea, partly to show that he was not really cast down by the mention of so unattainable a sum and partly to conceal an emotion of despair, but also, if possible, to detain Precious Gem a little longer.
In this agreeable device he was not misled, and although he had not hoped that one so expensively connected would do more than accept and leave the cup unsipped (or at the most, considerately pour away the contents when his face was turned) Precious Gem not only "revealed the gold leaf," as the paraphrase has it, but with many expressions appreciative of the flavour of the herb indicated that she was not altogether unequal to another. By these tactful means she delicately sought to convey to Ton Hi's knowledge that despite the alien circumstances of their respective paths if it could be feasibly arranged she was not likely to be inflexibly proceeding in an opposite direction.
As they sat together amiably conversing in this high-minded strain the unrecorded strokes of time sped by, for although Ton Hi more than once expressed his self-reproach that by reason of his necessity he could only provide the feeble glimmer of a single paper lantern Precious Gem magnanimously replied that to the imaginatively-inclined the period of early no-light was more pleasurable than any other.
When the actual moment of her leave-taking arrived they stood for an appreciable pause regarding the massive outline of the auspicious quadruped that had so opportunely, as it were, enticed them together. Both to Precious Gem, and equally to Ton Hi when it was pointed out, it was noticeable by the beams of the rising sky-light that the usually somewhat vacant expression on the face of the intelligent monster had now given place to a look of benevolent concern which they could not doubt was directed towards their interests.
On the following day at about the same period of light chance had again led Precious Gem's inadvertent feet along the Path Leading Nowhere and she was on a homeward course when happening to look up and recognise the descriptive sign she was reminded—as she specifically assured Ton Hi when he hastened to her summons—of a need which on the previous call she had thoughtlessly forgotten. Otherwise, it seemed, moons would doubtless elapse before she passed that way again—if, indeed, she did ever.
"Should you possess among your inviting accumulation of goods a contrivance suited to the mental grasp of a child of perchance three it would be a charitable action if this one should be permitted to obtain it," was the core of her requirement.
"From every nook and cranny the obsolete profusion of my bankrupt stock is poured in a gratuitous stream at your incomparable feet," declared Ton Hi. "Yet, in order to lessen your graceful fatigue, is the offspring to whom precise allusion has been made of your own ornamental sort or one of my more uncouth description?"
"At the rudimentary stage there is very little to discriminate between the tastes of either kind," replied Precious Gem. "Except that the ones whom you so flatteringly regard are, if anything, the more rapacious and domineering."
On this assurance Ton Hi searched among his store and presently he laid out such devices as he considered suitable for the occasion. These were:
The figure of a rebel warrior chief, which on being compressed towards the middle parts emitted a forbidding sound and extended his tongue and eyes in menace. But owing to some hidden defect none of these things could be assured.
A gravity-removing figure described as Tcheng the Toad in whose person were contained most of the least attractive features both of ordinary beings and of his own repulsive species.
A life-like representation of a scorpion of the most venomous order. Properly adjusted it would cross the floor or drop from a height and attach itself to the lower members of people of either sort who were deemed to be suitable for hilarity-raising. Having fallen into decay and its sense of direction becoming impaired no reliance could, however, be placed upon it besetting the intended person.
An assemblage of austerity-melting snares consisting of things which were not as they appeared to be. These included such agreeable guiles as pieces of red-hot charcoal which might be carelessly dropped upon a priceless rug; life-like features, extremities, and even limbs, which could apparently be broken off and left disconcertingly in the hands of those touching them; fictitious bandages indicating sanguinary wounds; labelled jars of wine which when poured from emitted flames instead, and a variety of pleasurable artifices whereby pain, dread or humiliation could be inflicted upon the unsuspecting. But none of them actually deceptive owing to the natural processes of deterioration.
As Ton Hi displayed these wares it is not to be supposed that his scrupulous face betrayed any acute gratification, and although Precious Gem was not really concerned to secure an adequate return for her outlay she also failed to maintain an appearance of spontaneous gladness.
"None are worthy of your most distant glance, all being in some way faulty, time-worn, or superseded, and in most cases all three," declared Ton Hi. "Your most satisfactory course, therefore, would be to seek the mart of Mok Cho who will assuredly produce a much more attractive selection."
"Yet this impersonation of the universally acclaimed Tcheng the Toad, whose name was yesterday on every lip: though revolting in the extreme it has all the fascination of the widely-known, and would doubtless be greeted by the immature of either sort with shouts of rapture."
"Yesterday," assented Ton Hi; "but to-day Tcheng has given place to Wang the Wonk, and no self-respecting infant whatever its Line would now be seen in the Way grasping a representation of the former creature."
"Is it not possible, without giving an actually misrepresenting lustre to goods, to endow them in the eyes of those who enter your stall with some vestige of attraction?" enquired Precious Gem, on whose restraint Ton Hi's insatiable probity was beginning to exercise a corrosive influence. "There must surely exist a discoverable way of not unprofitably combining an excessive personal integrity with reasonable commercial astuteness."
"It is impossible to doubt whatever is spoken in a voice that resembles a five-stringed lute touched by a seraph's hand in an enchanted garden at evening," deferentially admitted Ton Hi. "Nevertheless there occurs the profound Chang-li's caution: 'It is better to be held dumb than to incur even the chance of being thought boastful'."
"The ripe pearls of proverbial wisdom fall from your lips in so continuous a stream that it is difficult for an ordinary person to disentangle their exact significance," declared Precious Gem, who was more high-spirited than philosophical. "Yet this much does obtrude: that your determination to acquire not less than five hundred taels of silver by, so to speak, chop-stick or barge-pole, may be regarded through the wrong end of a spyglass."
"Touching that," unassumingly replied Ton Hi, "it is shallow to ignore the recondite Hang-chi's sage admonition: 'He who sets out to catch sturgeon with a shrimp-net will go——' " But at this point a cry of despair in Precious Gem's most melodious tones warned Ton Hi that she had now reached the attenuated length of her endurance.
"Here then at least are five-score cash towards the attainment which you so tastefully refer to under the analogy of an unsightly and gelatinous fish," she exclaimed, and casting a string of money at Ton Hi's feet she would have caught up the discredited figure of Tcheng the Toad and fled had not the other person courteously detained her.
"The label indicating the price of five-score cash has long since run its course, and as the creature to which it refers is no longer held in esteem eighty pieces of inferior copper currency would be the utmost that could be righteously exacted. Furthermore, owing to the delusive obscurity of this ill-equipped stall it has doubtless escaped your too lenient eyes that one of the being's toes has gone hence for which at least a further half-score cash must be conceded, while with regard to this faded space marring its upper garment——"
"That which was already enough has now become too much—it is very plain that your mind is inexorably set against acquiring five hundred taels by any process," declared Precious Gem explicitly. "This one, however, is no mendicant by the wayside or chafferer at a stall to calculate to the minute fraction of a string of cash," and leaving the matter thus and thus she impulsively flung the object of her purchase far out into the Path Leading Nowhere and set off without a backward glance towards the Further Expanse.
"The luminous Ching-yi had evidently someone very like Precious Gem in mind when he advanced the saying, 'An attractive woman is more unsettling than an earthquake'," considered Ton Hi as he put back the rejected devices. "In the circumstances it is just as well that she should have taken an active dislike to this one's face, for all the fabled wealth of Shun* is not more unattainable than the five hundred pieces of silver. Nevertheless, had the controlling deities been inclined it would have been pleasurable to have Precious Gem continually outraging this one's most cherished emotions."
[* This legendary treasure, of incalculable worth, was stored in a remote cave, deep in the almost inaccessible craggy wilds of the spectre-haunted Ki-ling mountains. To enter the cave the venturesome had successively to pass seven massive doors, each one sealed with a test and made formidable by an incurred imprecation. The first door, of iron, and guarded by a cockatrice, yielded only to the person who had never done an evil deed; the second, brass, and watched by a basilisk, to one who had never spoken an unjust word; the third, silver, in the charge of a phoenix, to him who had never cherished an unworthy thought. The fourth door was of gold, and standing before it was a tortoise; this could only be passed by one so mindful of the immortal principle of life that he had never trodden on a beneficial, or even an inoffensive, insect. The fifth, malachite, its custodian a unicorn, was a bar to all who had not so high a reverence for knowledge as never to have destroyed a printed or written page or put one to questionable uses; while the sixth, of jade, and sentinelled by a winged dragon, withstood those who could not match a propounded antithesis.
The seventh and last barrier was a block of crystal, purposely transparent so that the treasure spread beyond could be seen by one approaching. The keeper here was the demon of the cave, and the test enjoined that the seeker should never have given the most shadowy thought to what he would do with any part of the fabulous wealth within when once he had obtained it.
Few indeed could open a single door, and the path was indicated by the bones of those who, through countless aeons, had made the attempt and perished. Once only had the sanctuary been seriously menaced, this being when an exceptionally holy anchorite—one who had worn the same garment and remained on the same spot for three and thirty years—passed door after door in an introspective reverie. Even the sixth obstruction could not withstand, since the devout hermit's contemplative silence presented the most perfectly matched antithetical balance to the wordily spoken challenge. In an extremity of panic for the integrity of their hoard the demon of the cave sought counsel of his fellows.]/p>
In the meanwhile the one whom he so constantly had in mind was proceeding on her way and very soon she would have passed Mok Cho's pretentious stall had she not stopped to regard it. This was made possible by its owner's ineradicable bad taste, for in place of the seemly obscurity by which Ton Hi's establishment was contained Mok Cho nightly hung a succession of powerful paper lanterns in such a way that while hidden themselves their light flooded the external details of his egregious mart with an almost incredible radiance.
"This is surely the place which the mentally slow-witted but by no means unprepossessing Ton Hi advised me to affect," considered Precious Gem, who had by this time recovered the natural poise of her essential temper. "Perhaps it would be as well to obey his word therein since it must inevitably come to that in the end, and this being so it might be wise to observe how the enterprise may be successfully conducted against such time as when this one will herself have to take up a stand behind the serving bench of the Inconspicuous Elephant."
There was no need to strike the gong inside for Mok Cho himself was resting on his thumbs and his attitude was that of one prepared to go to the ends of the earth to serve her purpose. When he learned the nature of her quest it could no longer be disguised not only that the Resounding Lyre was the one place in all Shenking esteemed for such commodities, but that they had that day received an attractive consignment of the most approved contrivances from the leading device makers of the Capital. Nevertheless, when Precious Gem, later in her inner chamber, unfolded what she had bought it presently transpired that one of the parcels was void of its content, Mok Cho having adroitly dropped the article behind his serving bench as he affected to bind the package securely, while of the other purchases one was deficient of an important link and another did not look the same when regarded closely.
"It is very evident that although Mok Cho's immediate profit may be large, when the extensive vista is considered Ton Hi's conduct of the enterprise should really prove the more enduring," she considered astutely.
But while allowing herself to be induced by Mok Cho's delusive methods into acquiring his threadbare goods Precious Gem was narrowly observing all that went on around, and by a series of apparently aimless remarks she enticed the obese-headed merchant into boasting impressively of his most confidential arrangements. In this commendable way Precious Gem undoubtedly learned much that was not without an influence on the unfolding of events, but she also unwittingly contrived a snare for her own feet, thereby showing (as at a later day Ton Hi took occasion to point out) that the prescient Ying-ni had struck the spigot on the thicker end when he declared that there was equally an in and an out to every opening.
This concerns the involvement that in making herself agreeable to Mok Cho Precious Gem had, if anything, exceeded the necessary bounds of formal persuasion. So harmonious had been the subtler inflections of her matchless voice, conjoined, as it were, with the lighter manipulation of her not unexpressive eyes, that the preposterous huckster beneath the Resounding Lyre presently formed the ill-digested conviction that she was allegiant to his cause, while by some process which he could not accurately resolve he discovered that the possession of Precious Gem had become essential to his existence. It is not to be denied that so far as Precious Gem was concerned a similar result had frequently occurred before, quite irrespective of any set intention on her part, for, as it has been pithily expressed, if women and bullocks but knew their power all men would henceforth be rocking cradles or drawing wagons. In these, so to speak, indiscriminate cases, she with whom we are engaged had been able to evade any definite outcome by undertaking thenceforward to regard the one of the other sort concerned as bound to her by ties of kinship, but Mok Cho was both too old and too obtuse to be lightly eluded. Bearing substantial tokens of his wealth and probitous intention in outstretched arms he sought the house of Cheung upon the Further Expanse and the day was not far distant when Precious Gem, stopping to recover a jewelled star that had chanced to escape from her lavishly-arranged hair while passing her idolised father's imperfectly latched door, could not close her ears in time to avoid grasping that the assurance of a thousand taels of silver and the formal exchange of mutual cups of wine had a direct bearing on her own ambitions.
"This comes of taking too literally the recommendation of one who in spite of an agreeable personality would be more suitably placed balancing apothegms on the edge of a contingent eventuality than conducting a decrepit commercial enterprise in the face of relentless present-day conditions," was the outcome of her deliberation.
Thus positioned, with the reverence due to an all-but-worshipped father on the right hand and on the left the ingrained diffidence of a carefully nurtured maiden towards one of the other sort who not only failed to possess the necessary means by which to establish their hopes but who maintained an inflexible reluctance towards procuring them, it might have occasioned no reproach if Precious Gem had meekly kowtowed to a destiny that appeared inevitable. Nor, still further to explore the ground, could it be any assuagement of her distress that this dilemma was to a certain extent of her own fashioning.
"Had this one's capricious footsteps not been drawn towards the tainted Mok Cho's pretentious door," flowed the trend of her logically-directed line of thought, when she was again safely withdrawn to a distance, "that outrageous person would not at this moment be negotiating with an ever-to-be-honoured but admittedly more often than not mentally bed-ridden parent on so very delicate a subject. Yet there must surely exist some means whereby to frustrate this obscene conspiracy, or are the Immortal Principles of Essential Right and Wrong suspended?"
As she formulated this profound misgiving Precious Gem raised her eyes to the Tablet before which she happened to be standing—that of a several times distant cognate of her Line, who in a somewhat similar case had been disposed of to an exceptionally unpleasant high military official—and she never afterwards expressed any doubt whatever that the course of action then suggested to her mind was by the direct guidance of this protecting ancestral spirit.
"If," ran the analogy that took spontaneous form apart from conscious effort, "if this person was led to turn into Mok Cho's mart merely at the instigation of one individual, of whose business discrimination (as apart from his personal charm) she has only a negative regard, what must be the effect on the minds of the generality of lesser ones—admittedly of a lower standard of mentality than she who is now formulating the scheme—if they should be urged to bend their footsteps in the direction of the Inconspicuous Elephant by a hundred insistent persuasions of whose source or origin they know absolutely nothing?" Therein lay the nucleus of Precious Gem's revelation.
At this, our own advanced stage of commercial enterprise, when it is not unusual—much as those who expire reluctantly may deplore the change—for even integritous traders to admit if closely taxed that what they vend is not inferior to the wares of rival neighbours, it may involve some stress of mind to realise the courteous days when no really polite stall-keeper would cease to protest in suitable terms that not only were his commodities inferior to those of everyone else but that a close comparison of the cost would establish how they were appreciably dearer. No other course seemed endurable in that halcyon age to those who in addition to selling merchandise were also beings of a kindred social structure; for what man standing beneath the lintel of his door even to-day would raise an assertive voice and proclaim to the passing throng that he was better, his house larger, his methods purer, his income and outgo vaster, and that he was in every way superior, more worthy of esteem and immeasurably quicker-moving than all those who dwelt around him? Certainly it was not so in the expansive days of the Three Kingdoms when a scrupulous fruit-seller of Ai-kiang on being asked whether his lichi were sound throughout made this notable reply:
"To affirm that my lichi are sound at heart might, to the perfunctory ears of some chance passer-by, be construed into indicating that those at the stall of Sing-ho across the way are rotten to the core. Integrity will shine through an external rind, but it is better to eat underdone fish in a friend's house than to raise the spirit of discord."
Let it be freely confessed—as the meticulous may contend—that in every age there have existed those of degraded propensities who while not going to the length of actually extolling what they purvey have not scrupled by various insidious wiles to create an atmosphere favourable to their own selfish interests. Not to indicate a spot a thousand li distant from Shenking there was the unendurable Mok Cho (for whom, as the more intellectual of those who have so far persevered with this badly-narrated episode will by now have begun to suspect, a suitable end is in preparation) but they were always regarded as being persons who effected what was not perpetrated.
How then, it may be asked, was Precious Gem going to achieve her end seeing that it involved the very antithesis of established custom? To this it may be aptly replied that in defying the usages, as in leaping a swollen stream, to exceed the normal limit may well succeed whereas to go only half way will inevitably result in disaster. Furthermore, it may be added that as Ton Hi, with whose ascendancy Precious Gem may be said to have allied her cause, was virtuous and worthy of esteem, while Mok Cho was plainly depraved and probably in league with demons, it would be profane to doubt which would ultimately triumph.
Thereafter ensued a period when Precious Gem's movements were so diverse and rapidly outlined that it was impossible to follow their involvement. Those to whom her footsteps were best known would speak of encountering her in remote and unlikely quarters of the city, but, it was added, her usually carefully gummed hair was devoid of shapely style, her attire serviceable rather than that of one who reclined at languid ease, no jewels or ornaments set off her lotus grace—even her priceless jade armlets having apparently gone hence—nor, to crown so distressing an edifice with a final cope, did she respond gladly to the well- meant suggestion of a leisurely three or four days at the select Theatre of Ten Thousand Attractions.
During this term either regard or the necessity of her search took her more than once on a path that led past Ton Hi's unpretentious home, but with matters positioned thus and thus she did not consider it becoming to look in that direction. Nevertheless she could not fail to become aware of various indications about and with an emotion that held a pang she realised that the approving expression on the Inconspicuous Elephant's face had now given place to an anxious look of suspense, as of one who doubtfully watches the unfolding of an existing scene in which he is deeply concerned but can offer no practical assistance. Of Ton Hi himself there was no definite indication, for having by this time formed the not unreasonable belief that no one would ever enter his shop again the one concerned now passed all his time either endeavouring to incite the meagre vegetation of his scanty plot of earth into productiveness, as all other means of sustenance had failed, or in composing aphorisms suitable for the occasion.
It was at this point that Precious Gem opened what for want of a saying to describe something hitherto unseen became referred to thereafter as a "make-known attack"—the first in the history of commercial persuasion. Between that time and the popular revulsion during the next dynasty-but-one, when Li Ching, who controlled eleven thousand "rope-marts," was compelled to walk through the crowded Ways clad in a shred of cloth and carrying a bowl of rice, with the inscription, "The discriminating person needs nothing more: why then support my eleven thousand superfluous and parasitical rope-marts?" hung round about his neck, Precious Gem lived to witness such extraneities of her inspired scheme as public competitions in the art of casement bedecking, academies whereat successful disposal- ship was taught and the most enticing ways of allurement-writing; also systems by which ordinary persons were encouraged not only to purchase but to carry away whatever they desired without any obligation to pay for it. Not all of these were to receive her unstinted approval.
No absolute record has been kept of the exact date or the precise order in which Precious Gem launched her "make-known attack" but it is reasonably inferred that it began when the city of Shenking was thrown into a ferment by the appearance overnight of a placard, affixed to every convenient spot, bearing the words:
CLOSELY REGARD THIS SPACE FOR
THAT WHICH WILL APPEAR HEREAFTER
and so deep was the concern aroused that many devout persons are credibly affirmed to have maintained a night-long vigil at these points expecting something of a supernatural order to manifest. Doubtless it was from this cause that nothing more appeared until they had withdrawn, but a period later it was found that by some unseen agency each one of these announcements had been superseded by another whereon might be read:
WHAT IS THAT WHICH IS AT THE SAME TIME
AMPLITUDINOUS AND YET IMPERCEPTIBLE?
To an involvement-loving people this could but be in the nature of an implied challenge and many and diverse were the proclaimed solutions which were traced in various degrees of brushmanship upon every displayed placard. In the lower quarter of the city an occasional lapse from strict seemliness was a regrettable—if frequently gravity- moving—characteristic of the suggestions, while a tendency to penetrate into the subtleties of classical analogy marked the tone of the purely literary districts. Between these extremities a spirit of tolerant reciprocity prevailed and at any angle of the Ways there might be seen persons as varied as chair-carriers and wearers of superior buttons, periodical removers of superfluous dust and the wives of high officials, all courteously pressing each other to take precedence of themselves and many remaining to commend—while within hearing—one another's efforts. No event of such general interest had taken place at Shenking within the memory of the most venerable resident. Several lottery offices conducted ventures turning on the result.
When this development might be assumed to have established a sufficient hold and every corner of the city was agog with rumour—and not only Shenking itself but among the villages and spaces around for many score li distant—the expected announcement appeared:
AN INCONSPICUOUS ELEPHANT
IS BOTH COLOSSAL AND UNOBTRUSIVE
It is to be found in the Path Leading Nowhere (save thereunto) and offers a variety of astonishing reductions in every section of acquirement. At the Inconspicuous Elephant your dreams come true and whatever a person may have imagined it will be found that the accommodating Ton Hi will be able to produce something quite considerably beyond it. Furthermore, in the case of the Inconspicuous Elephant one tael achieves more than two taels elsewhere.
Bend therefore your hastening footsteps in the direction of the Inconspicuous Elephant and if you would avoid the stress bend them promptly.
With a docile and proclamation-observing race the effect of this notice—which, being the first of its kind ever to appear, many assumed to be an official decree—was immediate and profound. The Path Leading Nowhere would soon have become impassable by reason of contending chairs and hurrying throngs had not a resourceful keeper of the Ways put out a sign notifying that it was to be regarded as an in-but-not-out thoroughfare and thereafter amity prevailed though it is not to be denied that there were exceptions. Before the Inconspicuous Elephant special custodians of the public rule marshalled what would otherwise have been an unruly mob into an ordered line, for whose entertainment as the day progressed, street jugglers and contortionists performed their feats, minstrels sang well-known ballads, beggars exposed their claims to charity and vendors of sweetmeats, fruit, cordials and essences assembled. So successful was this novel expedient for avoiding the usual fatal consequences of a stress (to whose constitution the term "pig- tail" was at once applied in allusion to the line's sinuous attenuation) that thereafter it became universal. But that day so incredible was the rumour of an orderly crowd which moved in unison that many coming with no other intention beyond satisfying their eyes became involved in its extended ambient and so were led through the open door to become customers.
Meanwhile Ton Hi had been drawn into the scheme despite his fundamental apathy towards every form of self advancement. Left to himself it is obvious that the scanty contents of his denuded shelf would soon have melted away like a field of rice before a swarm of locusts, but so essential a detail was not likely to have escaped Precious Gem's capable strategy. Before the day began a considerable line of stalwart porters halted at Ton Hi's door and despite his repeated protests they proceeded to unload their burdens there and to display what was contained within his stall until every available span of capacity was taxed and even the outer walls festooned and garlanded with goods of the less covetable order. This, the leader of the band explained, they did at the behest of one who would be nameless, nor, he added, were they likely to be dissuaded from their course since Ton Hi's polite dissent was as gently falling snow compared with the succession of thunderbolts to be expected from that other one should they impair her purpose. Subsequently Ton Hi had little time to do anything beyond passing on such wares as were required and receiving the price in exchange. He was not even given the opportunity to point out any imperfections that might exist, both by reason of the stress and also because he had not had the leisure himself to become acquainted with their failings. Towards evening he underwent an emotion to go forth and destroy all the notifications bearing his name but he realised that he had neither the time nor the vigour to achieve his purpose. That night he slept on the unyielding floor of his stall, the box under the serving bench being now occupied by countless strings of cash among which pieces of silver were by no means infrequent.
What took place thereafter might be measured by what had gone before, for Ton Hi had passed into a supine state in which he mutely acquiesced to all that was happening round him. Again before daybreak a company of load-bearers appeared and replenished his stock and a little later craftsmen carrying tools attacked one of his walls and cut a door where there had been none before so that the stream of those who came to buy should suffer no delay but pass in and out by separate channels.
That day kites of an unprecedented size were flown above all quarters of Shenking each bearing as its tail an inscribed scroll extolling Ton Hi's wares and also his domestic virtues; while at night a lavish display of coloured lights wrote the same message against the darkened heavens by a hitherto unthought of process of sky-inscribing and though a few of the more orthodox maintained that to make use of the floor whereon the deities actually stood for announcing bargain lines in articles of personal wear fell athwart the Celestial Code all agreed that it would certainly be as well to pay the Inconspicuous Elephant an early visit. To reach the more austere and lofty-headed, Precious Gem hired for a period a reserved space in the Shenking Gong- Strokes and therein day after day she wrote in a most high- minded strain of Human Endeavour, the Profundities at Large, of the After-allness of Attainable Effort, and similar very honourable emotions. These inspired essays might be credited with the thumbprint of an enlightened philosopher of a bygone age but, it was claimed, those who were responsible for the conduct of the Inconspicuous Elephant (which almost escaped mention) acted likewise.
Meanwhile several deft-fingered adherents had been pressed in to share Ton Hi's toil, every night a weighty bag of silver was buried in a safe place, and the one himself, no longer able to find sufficient room even on the floor of his mart, was driven to sleep outside beneath a sheltered angle.
It is not to be thought that the clay-souled Mok Cho would tamely kowtow before this growing edifice of a despised rival's advancement. Had he been a person of less repulsive parts it would have been possible to accord him a certain amount of sympathy in this, for, not content with exalting Ton Hi, Precious Gem soon combined with that a determination to prostrate the Resounding Lyre. Side by side with the notices commending the one there might be read those impugning the other and look which way he would Mok Cho could not avoid seeing banners inscribed with a warning to shun his mart, coupled with the advice to those who might be so unfortunate as to be enticed in to weigh whatever was due to them with their own scales, to hold all fabrics up against the light, not for a moment to leave their belongings unguarded on his serving bench and so forth. Still later she 'employed an elusive band who chalked arrows indicating the position of Mok Cho's stall and with them such directions as: "To the Robber's Cave," "This Leads to the Pirate's Lair," "Continue along the Indicated Line if You would be Plundered."
Throughout this period Mok Cho did little beyond grinding his unsightly teeth and invoking ceremonial curses as he viewed his diminished gains but on the day when he found a notice pegged to his outer gate in which he was described as, "the famous contriver of illusions and counter-delusions including the celebrated and continually-repeated disappearing-purchase act," he took counsel with another.
"It is futile to think of carrying your grievance to the mandarin's court," advised the friend, "seeing that all which has been said, if discourteously expressed, can be more than substantiated. Had it been she of whom you complain alone something might have been done by a criminal charge with hired witnesses, but by this time Ton Hi will have grown so rich that he could easily hire twice your number."
"May bats procreate among both their ancestral tombs and apes resort to their ruined temples for unspeakable purposes," mechanically repeated Mok Cho, whose mind was now turned towards a deeper project. "In this matter can you be relied upon to support my, shoulder?"
"If my indebtedness to the extent of five taels seventy-five cash can thereby be wiped out I am with you to any extremity," replied the friend. "There is also Pan Wo owing you a somewhat similar amount whom it might be as well to take, for, as the adage says, what two make sure three make certain."
It is sufficient indication of the decayed state of Mok Cho's mind that he agreed to this compact without demur—he who but a short moon before would have fought relentlessly, cash by cash, for some part of the debt's retention. On this understanding they parted.
The sordid scheme by which Mok Cho planned to dispose of Ton Hi once and for all had much to recommend it. Carrying a weighty club concealed beneath his robe and with a friend on either side he would knock upon his rival's door some gong-strokes after dark and when the ways and the spaces around were all deserted. When Ton Hi appeared the other would strike him as often as might be necessary with the iron staff, the two accomplices meanwhile each holding him by the right hand and the left to bear down any resistance. They would then scatter and despoil the contents of the place by which it would appear that thieves had done this, attracted by a report of the wealth which Ton Hi was known to have gathered. There being three of them each man would have two witnesses to testify to the contrary, no matter what might be brought against him.
In ordinary circumstances there can be no reason to doubt that this would have proceeded as arranged or although Ton Hi was not where they had thought he would inevitably have obligingly appeared in answer to the summons. But as Mok Cho beat upon the fastened door there was a threatening sound above and before it could be sufficiently realised what was taking place the massive volume of the Inconspicuous Elephant had overborne its poise and was precipitating itself upon them. Pan Wo and that other one, both standing more remote, received the extremities of its head and tail and escaped with broken limbs but the effete Mok Cho lurking directly beneath, gathered the middle part and from that there was no hope of presentable extrication. Recognising his end he explained to Ton Hi and those who had been attracted by the noise how it had come about and after admitting that on the whole it was a suitable and not undeserved close to a thoroughly ill- spent life he composed himself as well as, in the very difficult circumstances, he reasonably could and unobtrusively Passed Upwards.
Those who must needs measure all happenings by a scored rule or by an earthen measure pointed out that some of the fastenings had corroded away and sought to demonstrate that even so slight a jar as Mok Cho's aggressive blows was sufficient to disturb a precise balance; but Precious Gem, visiting the spot a little later, observed the expression of complacent satisfaction (despite the fact that it lay under side upwards) which the devoted mammal's features had now assumed and recognised that this had been loyally achieved with a deliberate purpose.
It is well said, "When you have washed a pig he will dry himself against a dunghill," and the conduct of Pan Wo and his base accomplice in wrong-doing, after they had sufficiently recovered of their hurt, amply confirms the statement. Maintaining that what had befallen arose out of the nature of their hired task and holding the fault to be Ton Hi's in that he did not efficiently restrain a creature which, whether alive or dead, was manifestly capable of inflicting a material scar, they took their case to the Court of Those Who Have Nothing to Lose and sought to have the one who had meanwhile been not unsympathetic towards their plight made answerable for the future. As Ton Hi repeatedly maintained, it was not the amount of silver involved but a fundamental principle of justice that was at stake; indeed the unstinted nature of the offerings that he privately bestowed not only on the chief magistrate concerned but on all the court officials sufficiently proved that he was taking on his new-found prosperity in no rind-scraping spirit. In the end a not ignoble decision was reached for while the ruling held that the elephant was legally to blame it was equally agreed that had Ton Hi exerted all his restraining influence he would have been powerless to arrest it. What the elephant had already done there could be no pledge that it would not do again and since it was contrary to the Enactment of Yaou wittingly to maintain a creature of uncertain mood the judgment was that Ton Hi should forthwith destroy it. The loss weighed on Precious Gem the more heavily of the two but in the end she was consoled by having the substance recast in the form of a neat but serviceable bronze chain whereby (with small recumbent elephants on every upright post) the shop was then encircled; so that, although in another form, it could still safeguard their welfare.
With the out-passing of Mok Cho it may be said that the period of Ton Hi's unworthy trial was definitely closed. To mark the occasion of their union—though it would not have occurred to Ton Hi—all those who purchased above a certain amount that day were freely given a small portion of the wedding feast in a richly-mounted box and it was understood that certain lucky attributes would be theirs if they performed a simple observance. Under Precious Gem's fostering care the Inconspicuous Elephant—which, with the passing of the sign, she renamed the Stupendous Mammoth—took on a hitherto-unattempted lustre so that ordinary persons passing that way after a lapse were accustomed to say that they would have failed to recognise the building; nor in this were they merely conversing as they walked for in the period between the third year of the Emperor Che Huang-te and the completion of The Wall Precious Gem pulled down the existing structure eleven times and on each occasion rebuilt it on a different and more lavish basis. When not engaged in pulling down she completely hollowed out the lower parts (using for this task a newly-invented inflammable grit which had the property of disrupting large masses) and established it as what was called an "attraction area" to which people were conveyed by means of revolving ladders. In these caves it was usual to receive for ten-and-three-quarters cash what at a higher level would require eleven and although those who profited thereby were unable to discover where the involvement lay Precious Gem did not seem unduly concerned however much they thus gained from her.
In all this Ton Hi would have faithfully borne a part although many of the details were alien to his nature but after he had pointed out what he considered to be the shortcomings of an attractive display of head-coverings for the ones of the inner chambers to those who would otherwise have bought, Precious Gem conceived the expedient of entrusting to his charge the care of a stall for the sale of fruit and produce of the earth which was grown in his own extensive gardens. Thereby she attained her end for Ton Hi's conscientious nature would not allow him to admit that anything could excel, either in flavour or size, the perfection of these achievements.
"I beg of you——" he began, when the tortoise, the sagest among created things, interrupted.
"Not of us—of the saintly recluse himself," was his crafty advice, and noting his half closed eye the demon found enlightenment. He at once transformed himself into a beggar of the most untouchable caste, afflicted with every known disease and a mass of cancerous sores. In this distressing guise he intercepted the pious solitary between the sixth and seventh thresholds and displaying himself at full claimed that one's charity.
"What I have not I cannot bestow," was the compassionate reply, "but so dire is your need that if I possessed the treasury of Shun I would freely share it with you."
No sooner had the word been spoken than an unprecedented crash of thunder shook the earth, but even above it could be heard the offensive laughter of the seven guardians of the cave, now delivered from their benumbing apprehension. When the sympathetic zealot recovered consciousness he was lying, naked and bruised, on the mountain side, his life having been spared as an exceptional tribute to his saintly qualities.
ALTHOUGH the company that gathered around and formed themselves into a circle at the sound of Kai Lung's distinctive call or the melodious beating of his hollow duck were for the most part docile in bearing and alliant to his cause there were from time to time those who stood forth and raised an aggressive voice. This they might do either with the hope of gaining a fictitious lustre in their fellows' eyes or as an ignoble subterfuge whereby, being dissentient, they should not be expected to contribute to the bowl. Failing these reasons it may be safely assumed that any such persons were not of a desirable kind.
"It has been claimed, story-teller," insidiously suggested one who was guilty of this offence, "that there is no emergency in life for which the retentive tablets of your mind cannot furnish an apt and profitable illustration?"
"That contention may have been advanced in the presumptuous flush of this person's youth, when he was, perchance, more prone to respond to a vainglorious challenge than to assume a seemly diffidence," fitly replied Kai Lung. "Nowadays, no such arrogant boast can be traced to his utterance."
"Then the inadequacy is confessed and the vaunt of the claim withdrawn?" craftily pressed the other, looking round for the expected approval of his mercenary wile, and he pushed the collecting bowl still further from his reach as if to indicate that from one so exposed nothing could be expected that would prove worth rewarding.
"By no means: it is merely that there exists no need to claim what is universally admitted," benignly replied Kai Lung. "Except," he added negligently, "at the distorting lips of malice, the illiterate, or incapable and discredited rivals."
When the murmur of approval that greeted this dignified retort had died away (for following Kai Lung's glance many now recognised in the one who would have caused dissension Li Fung, who earned a sordid inadequacy of broken cash by chanting equivocal ballads with his foot thrust in at the door of dubious tea-houses) another stood forth and in a very different guise suitably expressed what must have been in the minds of many of the assembly:
"Yet how can it be, accomplished Kai Lung, that amid the ever- changing facets of our strenuous age a classical example should be forthcoming for every happening now, seeing that many of the arts and devices upon which the theme must hinge were yet unknown in the epic days of mighty doings and legendary heroes?"
"Ngou-you, the message-carrier, has indeed struck the spigot on the thicker end," Confided half the gathering, one to another; "it is not in vain that he has trained the faculties. That is precisely what hung upon this person's lips at the moment."
"The question is a natural one," replied Kai Lung, "and the inoffensive way in which it has been put demands a fitting answer.... It is beyond denial that amid the interminable process of countless aeons the very foundations of the substantial earth have moved so that even the immemorial barriers of the Whang Ho itself have seven times altered. Yet notwithstanding this, three things upon which all outcomes depend have remained the same since time began: the unstable heart of man, the abiding courses of the guiding stars, and the inscrutable purpose of the supreme deities."
"That is outside reasonable dispute," declared a needy wood- cutter, standing among the fringe, to those who chanced to be nearest; "for when the one who is disclosing the fact staked the entire proceeds of a laborious day upon the prowess of a certain quail, seen in a lucky dream, the malign influence of an overlooked planet——" but at this point his neighbours, finding that something was being said which they were missing, blew threateningly from between their teeth in his direction.
"This being so," the story-teller had continued, "it unfolds that while the pattern of the frame, as it were, in which the delineation may be displayed is amenable to endless change, the essentials of the depicted scene, having their roots in human nature, the disturbing influence of fate and the high purpose of the all-seeing gods, speak in terms that are eternal."
"There is a certain amount of plausibleness in what is claimed," contended the woodland-man to those about him, "though the incapable performance of a hitherto victorious fighting bird requires more explanation than——" but he was again signified that his voice was deemed superfluous.
"It may be that a virtuous son, desirous of performing a filial act to-day would continually deny himself the insidious delights of rapidly-outlined figures seen upon an illuminated screen, in order to procure for a venerated sire an ingenious device whereby his leisure would be solaced with the harmonious clash of inexistent bands proceeding from a closed box destitute of hidden wires. Yet wherein does the essence of this devotion differ from the classic instance of Tsang-ho of the ancient State of Yen, an official of high rank and proverbially austere, who at the ripe age of three-score years and ten did not hesitate to climb a tall tree and hang by his feet suspended from its branches at the same time repeatedly scratching his sides, in order, by this gravity- dispelling impersonation, to scatter the gathering clouds of a dark depression by which his patriarchal father's mental stability was threatened?"
"That bears on the subject of which this person just now spoke," thrust in the inert-witted peasant, endeavouring to claim the attention of those nearest to his elbow. "It being well known that the matter of nocturnal visions rule in opposites, to see a high official upside down must indicate——" but those whom he would engage in speech, without making any pretence of polite regrets, moved to more distant positions.
"This naturally calls for the story of the merchant Sam-tso, the lowly house of Wong and the compliant buffalo," proceeded Kai Lung, "since a general interest has obviously been shown towards a portrayal of the qualities involved and the situations thereby developed; for it has never been the custom of this admittedly ill-qualified narrator of recorded facts to shirk the prescribed test, however severe, set by an expectant and invariably large- hearted and open-handed throng of listeners."
Having by this inoffensive move led the awaiting circle to assume that the story (which it had indeed been his original intention to relate) was one especially brought forward at their behest, and thereby established an implied pledge on their munificence, Kai Lung abstractedly drew attention to the ornamental design embellishing the outer surface of his collecting bowl, struck three premonitory notes upon the wooden duck and taking up a suitable position upon his much-worn mat began the indicated narrative.
DURING the reign of the amiable but short-sighted Emperor Quang- te (called by posterity "the Unassuming" from his neglect of outward display) an inconspicuous earth-tiller of the Province of Kiang Si, Wong Hi his name, sought by the exercise of unceasing toil and an ever-watchful thrift to attain a life-long ambition. This was that one of his House should rise to a position of official rank and after gaining distinction at the Competitions eventually become the wearer of a superior button. Yet in this Wong Hi pursued no selfish end (apart from a fleeting vision of some slight deference paid to his spirit in the Upper Air by less officially-connected spirits) well knowing that the spectacle of young birds carrying choice worms to the old is of remote occurrence.
In this desire that one of themselves should bring lasting repute to the Ancestral Tablets of their Line Wong Hi was no less loyally supported by Han, his wife, and when the season of their fruitfulness was past they considered those who sat at their board so that the one best qualified for the task might be chosen and all their endeavour concentrated on his advancement.
Valiant Arm, their first-born, was at once dismissed, it having been plain for some time that whatever qualities he possessed lay in another direction. He was a strenuous worker in the field, adept at snaring birds and luring fish but prone to fall into a stupor if asked to compose the simplest apothegm and by no means particular in his choice of classical expressions. Clearly his part in the scheme was to remain at home and labour with his strength, thereby contributing to the support of his chosen brother.
Bright Hope came next and in his case it was by no means easy to reach a fixed decision. There were times when it seemed as if he might have been destined to rise to any height but the next moment by a perverse mood he would shatter the germinating promise. When not employed in active toil he would often recline extended at ease, generally with closed eyes, but those who thought him asleep were liable to a sharp rebuff for there was no sudden question to which he could not produce an immediate and apt reply, involving though it might a close antithesis or a remote parallel allusion. Working among the rice he could even outdo Valiant Arm for a time, but presently his inclination waned and going apart he might spend the passing gong-strokes unprofitably casting small missiles at a mark or even observing the behaviour of insects. On such occasions if companionably approached with a congenial word he was liable to consign the well-meaning intruder to the Beneath Regions or to recommend him to the society of demons; yet in general Bright Hope was restrained in speech and so compliant in grain that, unless morose, he would readily give away whatever he possessed or cheerfully undertake the allotted task of another.
"He is not of a nature that conforms to the official mould," Wong Hi would regretfully declare; "otherwise he could have plucked melons from the tops of lofty bamboos. But to concentrate all our hopes on him would be to embark in a gracefully proportioned junk of which the planks were glued together."
When Bright Hope heard this pronouncement he laughed, but without rancour.
"When the time comes, revered," was his spirited reply, "the one whom you decry will harness six influential mandarins to the whippletree of his plough and with them harry an entire Province."
Although not given to speech Valiant Arm had many opportunities of observing his brother in his various moods and when he spoke he was explicit.
"He is not one of ourselves," Valiant Arm was wont to maintain apart. "He is an outside man beneath, or even something more remote than that, and one favourable moon he will ignore the Tablets on the wall and forget the path leading to our door and go hence from among us. Regard this person's utterance."
Han also, though far too deferential to raise a dissentient voice, would gladly have seen Bright Hope's cause upheld but she likewise had uneasy visions. She recalled how rebelliously in waves his hair had long refused to submit to a seemly line and that at first his eyes had been of an unnatural paleness. Could it be that by some indiscreet thought or unconsidered act she had made it possible for any mischievous Being to convey into the formless growth an element of his own alien nature?
On the qualities of Fragrance and Delight there is no need to dwell. They were two-togethers, and being of the lesser sort their only possible use in the scheme would be to attend to the wants of others.
Sturdy Vine gave promise of being the chosen hope but a few more seasons yet would have to pass before he could be definitely assured in this position. Meanwhile he was both apt and sincere and being instructed to press relentlessly towards a literary attainment he was the only one on whom no settled domestic task was laid. Even little Wei and still smaller Chu had tools suited to their puny hands and were required to contribute a proportionate share towards the common ambition. Meanwhile it was not hidden that should either of them overshadow Sturdy Vine as their years increased the latter would be resolutely dispossessed of his privilege and return to a life of manual toil while the supplanter automatically stepped into his position. One unremunerative member was the utmost that the frugal Wong household could afford to carry.
When the light of day was definitely withdrawn so that it was no longer possible to labour in the field or even to continue with the simplest tasks about the homestead Wong Hi was accustomed to call the family to his side and surrounded by his five sons (with Han and the other two taking their places at a respectful distance behind) to speak with them on such subjects as were best suited for discussion. In this way he hoped to test the range and the capacity of each so that he might justly estimate their varied claims to be the chosen one when the moment came for an irrevocable decision. Towards the successful issue of their mutual hopes he freely admitted that there existed contingencies beyond their power to rule and to illustrate this he repeated the six-fold obligations laid down by the Inspired Teacher. He also enjoined on Sturdy Vine that at a convenient time he should inscribe these principles in his worthiest style and hang the scroll in a prominent place so that none could plead an ignorance of the hazards their quest involved:
It is to be accounted to the mother's blame if a child does not escape the perils of fire and water.
It is to be reckoned in the father's account if having escaped these risks a son is not given (at the braiding of his hair) the advantages of a teacher.
It is then his own fault if having gone to a school the pupil does not make good progress.
It is by his friends' shortcomings if having satisfactorily progressed he attains no reputation.
It is the Board of Authority's neglect if having achieved a reputation he is not recommended for office.
It is by the ruling Sovereign's default if when he has been recommended for office he is not confirmed in an appointment.
IN the days of their virility it had been the custom of Wong Hi and Han to draw the plough themselves, sustained at the turn of every furrow by reminding one another how much a suitable animal would have cost and the constant toll of its provision. Later, when Han was found to be unequal to the task, Wong Hi maintained that a hard-striving and not too voracious beast would really constitute a gain and in this humane way he sought to reconcile Han to her weakness.
The purchase of a vigorous but exceptionally gentle-hearted buffalo undoubtedly proved a severe tax on their hidden store but this was soon forgotten in the well-expressed delight all took in their new possession. The buffalo for its part left no stone unturned to prove the fitness of their choice; there was no task too arduous for its willing limbs, no gong-strokes too long for its unforced endurance, and in a hundred tactful ways it strove to reciprocate the care and affection lavished on it. Heretofore it had merely been known as Moo, with no particular qualities involved, but it was now to be called Thoughtful Sage from the placid and introspectful nature of its expression. When not actively engaged in needful toil Fragrance and Delight would search for bright flowers along the remoter ways and these they strung into garlands to hang round its responsive neck, meanwhile telling it of such simple doings in their daily life as might be deemed most fitting. The polished smoothness of its graceful horns was the gratified Wei's proud and especial care and nothing formed a more effective check on Chu's behaviour than the threat that he would no longer be allowed to clean and blacken its hoofs each day unless he proved himself worthy. On Wong Hi himself and also on Valiant Arm devolved the more practical details of Thoughtful Sage's usefulness. Bright Hope stood somewhat apart as one who came between two decades but when called upon he bore his share with meticulous care and on more than one occasion, during a period of failing crops, he was known to divide his scanty fare with their willing helper. Even Sturdy Vine, who never crossed the threshold without an open scroll, asked that a settled task, however trivial, might be placed upon him, but this was deemed inexpedient.
Thus and thus the position stood as the seasons passed and Wong Hi was again beginning to account the slowly replenished hoard as adequate for the accomplishment of its destined use when a dire and wholly unlooked-for calamity befell the frugal and industrious household. Thoughtful Sage, which had gone to its accustomed toil in its usual willing mood, returned with lethargic step and vacuous eye and despite the repeated entreaties of the entire family would neither eat nor drink—not even when Wei and Chu brought their own little bowls of evening rice, though at this mark of solicitude it made a touching effort. The following day it lay inert and despite the exorcism of a very esteemed spell-caster whom they procured with no heed of the cost, that night the truly courteous spirit of Thoughtful Sage uncomplainingly Passed Upwards. Anxious to make a tangible return to justify his heavy dues the conscientious soothsayer disclosed by the aid of subtle tests that in some way or other the inoffensive creature must have incurred the enmity of a revengeful Being, or perchance, he added, disturbed the repose of a nesting cockatrice. Bright Hope was understood to maintain aside that the likelihood pointed towards consuming a noxious herb but this was charitably ascribed to a passing mood of choler.
THE story of the inconspicuous Wong family and a rich but perhaps earthly-minded merchant called Sam-tso is chiefly commendable on account of the example it affords of how the intricately related lines of destiny may be controlled to play their appointed parts in leading diverse persons into situations necessary in order to accord with the requirements of the outcomes which the arranging deities have all along had in view. To those who in a narrow- minded vein complain that a similar result could be obtained in a simpler way by leaving things to themselves it is only necessary to point to the starry Above and ask where the two who are now conversing philosophically together would be if the Bodies were allowed to gyrate on aimless paths and clash irresponsibly together. "Any man's hand may draw the bow," says the wise counsellor, "but the will of an Unseen Ruler directs the arrow."
Had the one who is so crudely relating the matter here exercised a more balanced grasp over the facts to be portrayed, the importance of Sam-tso in the events that are to follow might have been, if only casually, as it were pressed in at a point more in keeping with his undoubted position.
At that time the one described if not actually the most substantial merchant in the neighbouring strong town of Kien-fi was certainly the heaviest, and if there were not wanting those who made an allusive gesture at the mention of his name this was doubtless traceable to interested motives. Regarding the exact nature of Sam-tso's commerce it is a little difficult to explain its scope but broadly speaking it would seem to consist of a variety of enterprises under different signs but all so commendable in each other's eyes that when a suppliant applied to one he invariably found it incumbent on him before the transaction was closed to pass through the hands of all the others. In this process it was feasible for Sam-tso to be helpful to those who required something which at the moment they did not possess, in a diversity of ways without forcing himself unduly on their notice. So well received were these advances (it being no uncommon thing for an obliged person to recompense him tenfold from beginning to end in quite ordinary transactions) that he was said to be able to eat meat four times every day and even then there were occasions when he was powerless to dispose of quite all that was set before him.
But of late Sam-tso had come to have an uneasy internal sensation that everything was not entirely right somewhere in his affairs and he was unable to shake off an overhanging weight of oppression. This feeling was liable to come upon him at times when logically he might expect to be the most free from care, as for example soon after partaking of a more than usually elaborate meal or when he floated in the middle air so devoid of ceremony as not even to have removed his sandals or outer garments. On such occasions the infliction generally took the form of either dull or sharp pains administered by unseen Forces at various points of his body. Search his mind however he would, Sam-tso was unable to recall any recent occasion when by commission or neglect he was likely to have attracted the unfavourable notice of a Spirit so potent and malicious as the persecution clearly indicated.
The apex, as it were, of this series of attacks was reached one night after Sam-tso had been celebrating a more than usually complex arrangement by which he had been able to oblige a person of exalted rank who in a purely temporary sense urgently required a certain number of taels with which to free himself from the embarrassment of a previous transaction. To this feast Sam-tso had bidden not only the one who was to be thus paid off but also several others who would become benevolently disposed as the involvement progressed and while they partook of a variety of well-spiced foods and unsealed successive jars of fragrant wine they harmoniously arranged into whose share the estates and various possessions of the one whom they were benefitting should ultimately be allotted.
At a later stage Sam-tso was lifted into his silk-hung couch by a body of stalwart attendants and it was as he half floated in the middle air and half realised where he was that a Being of another part passed into the reclining chamber and indicated its presence. At the first glance Sam-tso assumed this to be one of the ordinary or couch-side demons, such as frequent antique inner chambers but with the spoken words he recognised the shadow as the venerated mother of his revered first wife, she who had some few moons before involved him in a suitable outlay of uncontrollable regret by obstinately Passing Upwards.
"Sam-tso," announced the vision, "little as you deserve any consideration on this apparition's part she has descended at some considerable inconvenience to herself and purely for your own good to convey an urgent warning."
"Say on," replied Sam-tso, morosely resigning himself to a recital of wherein he fell short of everything that was desirable in a human being. "Already your unsubstantial shadow would appear to be carrying on the meritorious work congenial to your hands when in the state of an ordinary existence."
"It might be better if you were to cast your eyes forwards towards what is shortly to befall, rather than backwards at what has now passed out of your keeping," reproved the phantom. "But that was ever wont to be your failing. Remember: 'It is more profitable to consider a single step ahead than to examine a whole li that has been traversed'."
"It is likewise said: 'Springs will dry up with the drought, and even rivers be stilled by the forces of winter, but nothing can ever stop the tongue of an interfering woman'," was Sam-tso's unwise rejoinder. "Compress what must be said, however, within the compass of a single breath for already this person's head is beginning to suffer."
"The demand has been made and the challenge will be accepted," said the shade. "Learn, O Sam-tso, that your Book of Deeds has been unclasped and the record is deemed insufficient."
"This is very surprising," said Sam-tso, who up to that time had never doubted that he stood on favourable terms with the awarding Deities, "for it is not easy to see where an ordinary person could have done better. Only recently the one who is relating the fact made an arrangement whereby he would be repaid a hundredfold in a transaction embodying no possible risk and the entire possessions of an improvident over-lord will ultimately pass into his keeping."
"That is not enough——"
"It is difficult to imagine how even a vampire could have exacted more," protested Sam-tso, assailed in the most vulnerable part of his self-approbation.
"That is not the angle at which your achievements are regarded in the Above," explained the spirit, "and in this sense it is described as excessive. Taking you all round, Sam-tso, it is held that you have failed to justify existence in a human form and it has been decided that you will at once return to earth with a less reputable shape. In your next incarnation, therefore, which will be for the period of ten thousand years, you will work out your expiation in the semblance of an unusually large dung- collecting beetle."
"Forbear!" exclaimed Sam-tso who, apart from food and money affairs, was a person of some refinement. "Yet what is there to be feared from empty words that carry their own refutation? It is plain that if anything so distressing were, so to speak, in the air, the adored mother of this one's engaging inferior half would be the last person to convey a timely warning."
"It would be well for both of us if that were indeed the case," lamented the spectre, shaking a nebulous head acrimoniously, "but in what now portends we are equally implicated. Owing to the grotesque state of things which prevails in our favoured and logically-ordered Empire all the members of a House are held accountable for whatever its head achieves—be the record worthy or degraded. It follows therefore that while you are condemned through interminable cycles to roll an unsavoury sphere (emblematic of your former acquisitive mode of life) which you laboriously collect and mould from unmentionable sources, all those connected with your Line to the third degree will be members of your band—though in their less reprehensible case only as ordinary-sized black-beetles."
"This is even worse than the distortion of a dragon-dream!" bewailed Sam-tso; only too conscious, however, that he was now in the alert state of a sentient condition. "To draw out a solitary existence in the form and manner described would be bad enough but to be assailed through countless aeons by the unmerited reproaches of three generations of female relatives, all endowed with peculiarly repulsive attributes, transcends the normal limits. Is there no discoverable loophole through which some mutually satisfactory deal might be made with a subordinate but possibly influential Being?"
The wraith performed an indication of despair, which Sam-tso attributed to a passing breath of wind as he saw nothing unusual in the suggestion.
"Even to whisper so incredible a profanity would extend the period of your atonement by a few more thousand ages. Be guarded in your speech for henceforth not only your deeds but even your words will be set down and advanced as a testimony against you. One thing alone will modify the sentence when judgment is finally spoken, and having regard to your usual way of life the chance is remote in the extreme that you can avert the issue."
"Nevertheless, in the circumstances it would be well to disclose this possible subterfuge," urged Sam-tso, uneasily noticing that the phantom's outline was beginning to fade and the well- remembered voice grow slightly less oppressive. "Recall how it involves not only this justly reprobated one's fate but your own graceful and well-proportioned appearance also."
"This one has never considered herself—or her position in the Upper Air would to-day have been very different," declared the object scrupulously. "For your own sake, however, renounce your former paths and in the short span of time remaining to you here distribute as much of your sordidly-acquired wealth among the necessitous and reasonably deserving as seems desirable in the circumstances. Cultivate the society of a community of devout path-seekers who are pledged together each to perform a meritorious action between dawn and the closing of the city gates and contrive if possible to be admitted to their Order. In such a way, if you are sincere and resolute, it is just possible to mitigate——" but at this point a distant gong sounded the arrival of day and with a wail that affected Sam-tso very unpleasantly the apparition vanished.
THOSE who have intelligently followed the badly-arranged sequence of this commonplace tale so far will need no hint as to the identity of the one who on the following day laboriously toiled along a dusty earth-road at a distance from the city, anxiously scrutinising the vista on either side from time to time in the hope of unmasking something in the need of succour on which he might bestow compassion. In addition to carrying a staff he wore a badge and the austere abbreviation of his sombre garb marked him out from among the commonalty of town dwellers. As he trod it might be observed that he was at some pains not to step upon any chance insect.
At an angle of his path the wayfarer paused for he was by no means accustomed to progress other than in a well-padded chair and the road was both steep and stony. Thus positioned there came to his ears sounds that unmistakably betokened grief, and at this Sam-tso (for it would be inept any longer to obscure the fact) grasped his staff and resolutely thrust on since here at last he would seem to be on the point of tracking down one who stood in the need of service.
The sounds of distress led him along an obscure path and thereby to a meagre building. Unacquainted with the prevailing forms of etiquette to be observed in these remote parts Sam-tso stood hesitant for a few beats of time, then assuming a sympathetic air he unlatched the nearest door and entered.
In the obscurity of a lowly shed it was difficult at first to realise what variety of benevolence might be employed and Sam-tso had indeed trodden upon a supine form, and expressed profound regret in chosen terms, before he discovered that the only other occupant of the hovel was the body of a domestic buffalo which had so definitely Passed Beyond as to be outside the range of earthly benefit. In this contingency the charitably-disposed merchant sought another door upon which he struck, being by this time increasingly doubtful of the usage. This door was presently opened by an ordinary person of the toiling class who seeing before him, as he thought, a wandering visionary of some religious caste, courteously invited him to enter and refresh his feet and at the same time partake of such trifling fare as might be put before him.
"Though," added the hospitable person heavily, "the room itself is poor in the extreme, the food beneath contempt, and as a family we are labouring under the stress of an unsupportable affliction."
"It is on that account that the one before you has sought your door," explained Sam-tso, rejoiced that at last he had come face to face with adversity. "If it is not too trying an effort in your present dejected mood would you indulge one who has had some considerable experience of dealing with losses, by recounting the trend of your misfortune?"
"That is no great matter to achieve," averred Wong Hi (as he may now be fitly revealed) "for the calamity is too close at hand to admit of any effacement." Then with the smaller ones clustering about the stranger's knee, Wong Hi related the story of their untoward loss and how in addition to the bereavement of a trusty friend Going Hence their ambitions had suffered a formidable material blow from which it is doubtful if the family would ever again recover. As he told of Thoughtful Sage's intrepid end scarcely any could restrain evidences of their grief; from Fragrance and Delight and from Wei and Chu the sobs that had first attracted Sam-tso broke out anew; those of a more impassive mould stood moodily apart, while Han remained with averted face, a cloth concealing any evidence of emotion.
"This is certainly very regrettable at the first glance," condoled Sam-tso, "yet it is somewhere written, 'What looks black by night is seen to be only grey at daybreak', and it behoves us to consider what may be, so to speak, recovered from the wreckage. This person has already made acquaintance with the remains, which seem to be exceptionally well-conditioned. Would it not be wise to set about laying down some of the choicer portions in salt so as to provide a substantial reserve of food against——" but at this point the agonised cries of dismay from four strenuous throats as they grasped the tenor of the advice warned Sam-tso that he was not gaining approbation.
"Not perhaps for direct consumption in the case of one who was so highly esteemed," he accordingly hastened to amend, "but the quadruped itself, being devoted to your well-being, would probably be the first to suggest that there could be no suspicion of harm in disposing of it in suitable joints to your no doubt willing neighbours."
"It is very evident that you are not a way-side man or you would not speak in that harsh strain," was Wong Hi's mild rebuke, while those who had formerly pressed about Sam-tso now shrank away from him as though he had been afflicted with some dread contagion. "We whose feet tread the exacting earth maintain that after an arduous and meritorious life these faithful sharers of our daily toil are worthy of honourable burial and not condemned to appear in the next world in piecemeal fashion. He who would consume a valued friend rather than live on mast might fitly herd with jackals."
"An appropriate spot has already been marked where he was accustomed to roll in the moist earth and Fragrance and Delight will scatter flowers such as decked his smooth neck in the days of his strength and glory." Thus Wei confronted Sam-tso and spoke a defiant challenge. "This one himself will place by his side the scraping tool and cloth and jar of oil with which his noble horns were daily glossed and Chu will lay between his trusty feet an ample pot of darkening stain so that when he reaches the Upper Air Thoughtful Sage may still receive his accustomed attention."
"These hands and those of Valiant Arm will shape the grave and Sturdy Vine has composed and inscribed a suitable elegy which being burned at the same time will favourably introduce the ascending spirit to the other spirits already inhabiting the Higher Region," explained Wong Hi. "Bright Hope and this person's lesser one will also take part in the ceremonies."
"It almost appears as though nothing remains for an ardent well- wisher to do in that direction," lamented Sam-tso. "But," he added hopefully, "after so formidable a pecuniary blow is it not possible that you may require some trifling advance—merely as a temporary convenience and on really exceptional terms—until you have, as it were, rounded the angle of your misfortune?"
"Yet how would that avail?" enquired Wong Hi, "since the weight of his indebtedness must thereafter hang about this person's neck and consume the bare excess that otherwise would have provisioned our ambition?"
In the course of his normal occupation Sam-tso was frequently met by a similar demur from one whom he would benefit so that in the process of time he had come to acquire a form of speech by which he could conclusively demonstrate that anyone becoming indebted to him was actually taking advantage of a lack of commercial acumen on his part and really held him at a disadvantage. Carried away by the familiar circumstances of this trend and his own inalienable promptings Sam-tso had arranged his hands in a persuasive display and was on the point of admitting his business incapacity when a slight, yet in the conjunction suggestive, happening recalled him to a sense of his dangerous position.
Through a crevice in the mud-built wall a wandering beetle had strayed into the room and now, unmarked in the general stress, it was affecting to be busily engaged in collecting chance particles of garbage about the floor. To an ordinary person there was nothing therein to excite remark but Sam-tso had reason to be alert; he continued to watch guardedly with lowered lids and presently he realised that under the cloak of an all-absorbing zeal the beetle was listening intently. But for this lucky chance Sam-tso would inevitably have been committed to an indiscretion.
"There are, however," he resourcefully pressed on, "a variety of wise apothegms and inspired remarks directly analogous to our case—as, to exemplify, 'In for a brass cash in for a silver tael'; 'It is obtuse to endanger the raft for the sake of another nail'; 'He who is to be decapitated for a treasonable word may as well throw in an offensive gesture'—and it would be shallow to ignore their teaching. This person, therefore, so far from requiring a thumb-signed bond will freely provide another buffalo, the counterpart and equal of the one but lately Passed Above, wherewith to assure your prosperity."
It was several beats of time before any of those assembled there could clarify their minds to meet this incredible offer. Questionable glances passed from eye to eye and Han cast off the obscuring cloth but before Wong Hi (as their head and authority) could make a suitable reply the inconspicuous Chu (who, as the latest-born, was seldom strictly checked, since, he claimed, being too small to be seen it was necessary to make himself heard) thrust his way forward to confront Sam-tso and cast back the terms of his promise.
"There is no other buffalo the equal of Thoughtful Sage," he fervently declared, "nor could his counterpart be discovered. How then should we be served by an inferior substitute—we who have known that one? Indeed, it is preferable to tear the earth apart with our bare hands rather than follow the plough drawn by any other."
"So sleek were his well-kept sides that when he wallowed on his back it was as though lilies grew on him rather than in the stream for the reflection outdid the growing flowers." Thus Wei took up his praise in turn with Fragrance and Delight impatiently plucking at his sleeve. "The shining points of his two horns were like the morning and the evening stars. It is impossible to think of tending a successor."
"When in the Season of White Cold Chu lay between his extended paws for warmth he never stirred throughout the night but stretched his head so that he might breathe on Chu from time to time and Chu was soothed and comforted by the warm breath and slept soundly," exclaimed Fragrance and Delight together. "Would any other buffalo throughout the land have been so tolerant and discerning?"
"The ode wherein his virtues are sufficiently described will probably never be written." admitted Sturdy Vine. "There are several attributes very difficult to bring in with classical precision. Even this person's dirge strains allowable antithesis almost to distortion."
"His nose had never to endure the guiding cord which is the common lot of ordinary buffaloes—Fragrance and Delight controlled him by a word in every movement." Bright Hope reflected for a pause after bestowing this tribute. "This no doubt contains an essential germ of state policy—though its application is another matter."
"He was a docile bearer of the yoke," briefly maintained Valiant Arm; "and of him it might be truly said that on no single day of his life was he ever either indisposed or apologetic. His place is empty."
"You have heard what their united voice maintains," indicated Wong Hi, turning to Sam-tso regretfully. "How then is it possible for this one, who must lean on their willing arms increasingly as the years advance, to ignore a common verdict?"
"Your prepossessing family's high-minded display of ceremonial grief is honourable in the extreme but it comes at an inconvenient moment," deplored Sam-tso, who was more accustomed to see hands stretched out to grasp a single cash than feet averted from an offer involving many pieces of silver. "For," he freely disclosed, "as the time of sunset draws near and this person has not yet performed his meritorious act the position becomes increasingly jeopardous. Is there no means within your power whereby their excessively loyal sympathies may be enticed, as it might be expressed, towards a less impractical standpoint?"
"It is just possible that they might be driven from an inconsistent position by the force of a sound logical conclusion and, as it chances, a suitable line of argument presents itself to my usually bankrupt mind," confessed Wong Hi. "Who has come down to us," he questioned, turning to his sons who had now drawn somewhat apart together, "as the classical exponent of a disinterested benefactor? You, Sturdy Vine, on whom the scanty proceeds of our labour have been lavished, will be expected to inform us."
"The most benevolent figure of all times, in an epic sense, may be held to have been Cheung Tsz-chun whose charitable deeds, as recorded on fourteen alabaster slabs in the Temple of All Virtues, include the bestowal of three successive fortunes on poor but deserving scholars, who would otherwise have had to depend on fortuitous toil for a living, while he himself ofttimes went barefoot and hungry."
"Yet is it anywhere recorded of the munificent Cheung Tsz-chun that one day chancing upon a needy though praiseworthy family in distress through the loss of a greatly esteemed buffalo whose strength was their only substance, he freely and spontaneously endowed them with another, specifically disclaiming any consideration?"
"Such an incident does not seem to have been preserved in the exact form but it is related that on a certain occasion, meeting a destitute water-carrier whose ass had been seized to discharge an unjust debt, the charitable——"
"The question of asses is not involved in the comparison, Sturdy Vine, and your lack of precision in wandering from the point suggests an untidy mind," interposed Wong Hi severely. "It would almost seem as if your educational advantages were being wasted."
"Your well-merited rebuke will be a continual lamp to keep this one's feet from stumbling," admitted Sturdy Vine submissively.
"Strictly confining ourselves to the subject of buffaloes—the sole excuse for this discussion—it is now clear that we have in our midst a benefactor who by his unprecedented largeness of heart not only equals but excels the one who for untold dynasties has stood as the embodiment of discriminative giving. Can it therefore any longer be logically withheld that since our opportune visitant overshadows the vaunted liberality of the legendary Tsz-chun so there may even be other buffaloes not inferior in quality to the excellence of Thoughtful Sage?"
"The inference of the analogy would seem to be unflinching," was the general admission; "yet what reasonably follows?"
"Since the crux and structure of our disinclination to supplant the image of Thoughtful Sage was based on a misconceived and untenable premise it becomes necessary for us as rational beings to reverse a mistaken conclusion. There would therefore seem to be no discoverable ground for failing to avail ourselves of the noble prodigality of our open-handed guest, who is no doubt a prince of the Ruling House, seeking, in this romantic disguise, to redress hardship throughout the land, if, indeed, he is not actually a superior Being."
"Your decision is a welcome and enlightened one," declared Sam- tso with profuse relief, "though in some respects you are less scrupulous than flattering. The one before you—despite what may outwardly appear—is of very little superior nature to yourselves. If there should be anything of an immaterial composition present"—here Sam-tso looked round but the beetle had by this time disappeared—"no doubt it has accomplished its mission."
Little more remained to be said; Sam-tso had already brushed aside the offer of such simple food as the shelf contained nor had he availed himself of the suggestion that he should remove his sandals and recline at ease on the floor. Wong Hi, however, was loath that he should depart with their gratitude so inadequately expressed and after a whispered colloquy aside he again advanced an offer.
"Both Fragrance and Delight have attained a certain untaught proficiency with tubes of hollow wood from which they extract a simple melody. Sturdy Vine, also, can recite, with scarcely a pause for breath, several entire chapters of the dynastic Books, a large part of the historical Rites and as many of the Odes as may be conveniently included. All of these——" but at this point Sam-tso raised his hand and made a movement indicating the approach of leave-taking.
"Having safely accomplished one meritorious act within the prescribed time there would seem to be no definite need to prolong our agreeable intercourse," was his gratifying assurance. "Present this thumb-signed script at any gong-stroke between the tenth and the fourth at the Sign of the Guileless Fleece, in the thoroughfare called the Crooked Way of Kien-fi, and the value of the most desirable buffalo that you can meanwhile obtain will be weighed out for your acceptance in fine silver."
"This is worthy of being set down in a book of the finest vellum, the characters inscribed by a master-hand with a brush dipped in liquid gold," was Wong Hi's pronouncement.
Being by this time at the open door Sam-tso did not deem it necessary to assure Wong Hi that this was what he confidently expected. Instead, he waved his staff in a parting salute and called back a felicitous expression. Nor, on their side, were nine capable throats less eager to respond and heartfelt cries of "Slowly, walk slowly!" "May your circumference increase!" and "A hundred sons and ten thousand years!" accompanied him along the wayside path until he had passed out of hearing.
WHEN Kai Lung had reached this point in the story of Sam-tso, the family of Wong and the meritorious buffalo it was his custom to rise and begin to roll up his weather-beaten mat but should there ensue any noticeable protest that the record was incomplete inasmuch as the minds of his hearers were still concerned with the various fortunes of those who had been involved he would, willingly prolong the occasion.
"It may be claimed," he then proceeded to expound, "that the gratifying interest of even the least intellectual circle of listeners is more to be esteemed than bars of pure gold forced upon an unworthy and vainly-protesting reciter of second-rate tales if the bestowing hands have up till then been spread out before the open mouths of an assembly devoid of true refinement and literary discrimination. On that account nothing would rejoice this mentally-corroded purveyor of obsolete romances so much as to spend the time freely recounting his entire store while the great bringer of warmth sinks behind the western ridge and the lesser sky lantern appears to illuminate more appropriately his feeble efforts."
"The trend of your argument is pretty plain, O verbose Kai Lung," one would haply then exclaim, "but we who remain are here to learn what happened to Sam-tso and those of the House of Wong and not to listen to your full-throated persuasion. The more justice- loving among us have already generously contributed to your insatiable bowl and the less scrupulous are not likely to be enticed into doing so at this stage of the entertainment. However, here is an onion towards your evening rice and possibly others may be no less indulgent." Whereupon a second one would perchance add a dried fig or two, a third some outside salt and another a small fish from the stagnant pools, while paste and oil, inferior trimmings off their stalls, a sprinkling of tea, snuff and spice, even a specific charm against the flying paper man or a proved cure for enlarged joints—from each according to the nature of his trade—might be produced and thrown in for his acceptance. Whereupon Kai Lung would protest that this wholly unexpected profusion of choice gifts was almost more than he could reasonably permit—"that even one of five-score who go should linger to ask, 'Yet what befell thereafter?' is enough reward of itself"—and restore his dilapidated mat to its ceremonial position.
ON the day following that when Sam-tso had made his appearance at the wayside farm Wong Hi caused it to be announced that it was his intention to acquire the most desirable buffalo that lavishness could procure and upon this becoming widely known it at once emerged that there were several exactly answering to this description but all in the hands of very sincere men who were loath to part from them but might be prevailed upon to do so. The matter being at length amicably settled and the chosen one led home with appropriate rites Wong Hi duly called upon Sam-tso to discharge his agreed bond and found that his spoken word was all that he had undertaken.
Thereafter the affairs of Wong Hi for a considerable time progressed so that he could look forward to the cold of winter and the heat of summer without misgivings. On Sam-tso also the happening exercised a benevolent trend. He continued day by day to range the countryside in pursuit of objects worthy of compassion and although it is not to be denied that his impressive outline eroded somewhat in the process in other ways he gained, for it gradually appeared that his continual change of scene was baffling to the malign Influence that had so long assailed his rest and it gradually relaxed its persecution. On the other side it could not be indefinitely ignored that the merchant's way of life was agreeable to the Ruling Powers for the years continued to go by yet he was not called upon to Pass Upwards. And although once or twice at a later stage Sam-tso, after emerging from an unusually deep oblivion in the middle air, conjectured from something dimly recalled that the idolised mother of his cherished wife had been endeavouring to assert her voice he was never again gladdened by a manifestation of her presence.
Regarding the meeting with Wong Hi as the origin and mainspring of this propitious change Sam-tso continued to take a benevolent interest in that one's welfare. Generous gifts of a befitting kind from time to time reached Wong Hi's door and in return he begged Sam-tso's acceptance of such homely products of the land as were both seasonable and becoming. Fragrance and Delight were generally the bearers of these and as they no longer had an object of affection to bedeck (for the new buffalo, though all that had been claimed, did not readily conform to their imagination) it became a custom for them to gather flowers and add these on their own account, discovering in Sam-tso a certain massive resemblance to Thoughtful Sage (though this was not disclosed when they festooned his neck) that made the offering doubly appropriate.
It is truly said, "He who casts a stone into a deep well may bring down a soaring pheasant," and when it is recalled that Ying Pui who upheld the Righteous Cause was the seventeenth in unbroken descent from the fruit-seller Lam Shang, the remote consequence of Thoughtful Sage incurring a Being's virulence becomes obvious. In journeying from the outer paths to reach Sam- tso's door it was the custom of Fragrance and Delight to pass Lam Shang's stall and from noticing the unstudied grace with which the former of the two had arranged the garlands that she brought he came to take a deeper interest in her existence. After their marriage Fragrance did not scruple to express despair at the absence of allurement shown in the displayal of his wares, and upon his replying that if she was a magician to increase the size of a pomegranate by a movement of the hand she had better take charge of the stall, Fragrance presently discovered a method of arranging fruit by which, without actually resorting to forbidden arts, those who halted before their store were led to imagine that what they purchased and saw placed in a bag was other than what it ultimately appeared. By this profitable expedient she, laid the foundation of their considerable possessions.
Thus bereft of one with whom she had always taken part Delight found it necessary to fall back on other interests. In this emergency she applied herself with unquenchable tenacity to the art of extracting still louder sounds from hollow wooden tubes, and very soon she had attracted to her side a band of her own sort, all sustained by a like ambition. Before very long, under the style and description of the Kien-fi Throng of She-child Hollow Wooden Tube Melodious Noise Producers, their services were widely sought, until so great had become the repute that no popular assembly, from a gathering of the most refined and expensively attired who drank tea on the estate of a high official to a public execution in the chief Open Space, was considered really successful without their presence. Delight herself grew to deprecate excessive popularity as a passing phase which was not in the best interest of their art's development: "Noise for the sake of noise" was the attainment of her all- absorbed vision.
It would have been pleasurable to chronicle that a like reward attended the efforts of the five Wongs of the more important sort but from some obscure cause a spirit of frustration marked their passage.
Valiant Arm, it is true, succeeded to the farm in due course but too often he had reason to explain that the weather had been contrary to what was then required, the markets become refractory for his commodity, or that a passing swarm of winged insects—inspired by a malicious Force hostile towards his hopes—had settled and consumed the bulk of that year's substance. Certainly it could never be assumed (despite a prevailing air of sufficiency) that Valiant Arm was-prospering.
Bright Hope had gone to adventure elsewhere afar, as his brother had foretold and for a time they had an infrequent word of his heroic doings. Joining the banners of the State of Lu he rose to the position of Leader of the Tiger Guard and in that responsible post he controlled the activities of five thousand intrepid warriors. On the eve before the decisive Battle of the Spears an emissary from the opposing camp of Shen came secretly to his tent and in the course of a philosophical discussion on the duties of conscientious statesmen he was able to convince Bright Hope that Shen had the more sterling claim and that it was therefore in the interest of all true lovers of justice to support it. That night the Leader of the Tiger Guard unobtrusively transferred his force to the investing ranks, assured that this move would decide the fortunes of the day and bring about the triumph of virtue and so establish his own integrity. This would undoubtedly have come to pass had not the Captain of the Shen Leopard Troop—a mercenary individual of the most degraded type—treacherously accepted a sordid bribe from a double- faced agent of the warlord of Lu, and perfidiously led his host of ten thousand iron-clad braves into the enemy line a few gong- strokes before the battle. The result was disastrous for the cause of uprightness and merit and Bright Hope was not seen again though Valiant Arm, from something that reached his ear, was understood to wonder whether he might not be living as an eminent devotional recluse in a distant alien territory.
Sturdy Vine never succeeded in actually obtaining a degree at the Competitions although he willingly persevered so long as those of his own House would support him in the exertion. After the Up Passing of Wong Hi and Han this was no longer deemed necessary and Sturdy Vine thereupon withdrew from the public tests and hung out a sign on which he declared himself prepared to instruct others. To those who in a somewhat contentious spirit enquired how he, who had himself failed more times than a monkey could count, should claim to be able to ensure success for others, Sturdy Vine would diffidently reply that he did not undertake to teach them the things necessary to obtain success but that he could claim to be able to instruct them in what it was essential to avoid if they would escape failure; and although some felt that the paralogism involved a snare the reply was generally deemed adequate.
The outcome in the case of Wei was even more regrettable than with any of these and he was rightly described as the discoloured goat of the household. In some unexplained way he found that continuous labour was injurious to his essential equipoise but at the same time he discovered a baffling quickness in the movement of his hands that might be regarded as an ordained compensation. Had there been a suitable demand for one possessing this acquirement it cannot be doubted that Wei would have risen to a position of respected ease but after several undeserved rebuffs he was compelled to support life by a practice of stumbling against prosperous-looking strangers in the crowded public ways and steadying himself by holding their garments. This was afterwards resented by some of the more ill-disposed and in consequence of what was said Wei was condemned to wear a wooden collar on which were inscribed some details of his life and character.
Very little was known of Chu after he had once gone hence. He attached himself to a passing company of impersonators, being carried away by the glamour of the numerous paper lanterns with which their platform was lit up. One who had crossed his path in a distant place spoke not unhopefully of Chu's simulation of farmyard sounds but it was by his lifelike portrayal of the more backward part of a buffalo that he was considered to have come into his rightful calling.
THE story of Sho Chi concerns one who by the exercise of virtue and a steady adherence to the Immortal Principles at all convenient times rose from a condition of indigence to that of assured respect. It is thus suitable for recital on any occasion when a circle of ordinary persons has been enticed round by a persuasively-raised voice or the melodious note obtained by beating a hollow wooden duck but if there should happen to be present an element of those who ask for nothing more than that a tale should be garnished with aggressive feats of arms and founded on a record of violence, or, what is even more to be deplored, if it should include one whose contentious voice is raised against the assumption that in so happily endowered an Empire as our Flowery Land integrity must always be successful in the end and the cause of those who observe the Rites ultimately flourish, it is better to bow obsequiously, tender the acquiescent smile as of one who privately agrees, and substitute for it a narrative more suited to the degraded type of intelligence that is too concave to find any satisfaction in the temperate portrayal of deserving though unpretentious merit.
DURING the long and troubled reign of the Emperor Ti-sung (whose memory has been preserved in the historical scroll as that of one who was well-meaning but inert) an industrious though in no way affluent wood-cutter, Sho Ching by name, performed his inoffensive task outside the walled city of Wu-tang in the remote province of Chuen.
In seasons of good harvest and propitious rains Sho Ching found that by the exercise of unremitting toil it was possible to preserve all his family intact, perform the Rites, and offer up a reasonable sufficiency of transmitted supplies before the Ancestral Tablets. Should a time of unusual abundance favour the land it might even be practicable to add something to his buried hoard perchance, but if the Ruling Forces were for any reason disposed to vent their spite, so that storms assailed those parts, watercourses overflowed their banks, and the natural productiveness of the earth withheld, Sho Ching's scanty reserve melted away like the means of a needy suppliant who attempts to make his way past the throng of scrupulous officials guarding the integrity of a Hall of Justice. More than once in times of unusual stress he had been compelled to barter away a cherished offspring to provide a bare subsistence for the others and though this attrition, so to speak, of his numerous brood materially diminished the number of those who might be relied upon to consign the necessities of life to him when in turn he had reached the Upper Air the self-denying sacrifice served to preserve the lives of all—in one way or another. Of late the glutinous-thumbed cupidity of those who maintained the law had added to the burden imposed by nature, for an influential mandarin, on the pretext that Sho Ching's hereditary privilege of cutting wood in the open spaces around was based on an obsolete clause, ordered that henceforth the one involved should only lay his hands on dead or discarded growth so as to preserve a suitable parallelism. It thus devolved on Sho Ching to arrange for an absence of vitality in such trees as he required for his axe and in this unreasonable way the injunction undoubtedly added to his labour.
IT was during one of these periods of exceptional hardship that Chi must be brought into the foreground of this confessedly unpromising narrative although at that stage nothing could so far be said of him to justify even the charitable attention of a tolerant and generous-hearted circle of well-wishers. The eldest of Sho Ching's wide-spreading band he was also the least resourceful, so that while the others who thronged round the board were devising ways by which they might contribute, no matter how slightly, to the general store, Chi, though invariably of a gentle and complaisant trend, seemed incapable of arranging his feet in any profitable direction. Shang, the next in line, bargained his services to a more prosperous neighbour for an insignificant equivalent of what his toil produced and was thus able to bring back a frequent measure of rice, fruit or oil—even now and then a small piece of pork that had ceased to be attractive; but when Chi, to whom this had been pointed out, readily undertook to become no less industrious he lent his support to the assistance of a needy widow who was not only too poor to bestow anything in return but even by frequent allusions to the hardship of an empty bowl and the humiliation of an inadequate robe influenced Chi to divide with her his scanty portion of rice and divest himself of his meagre outer garment. Thereafter he was enjoined not to traffic his labour in their general cause but it was not thought that any loss could be incurred through encouraging him to profit by the example of Shin and Nung who, though too puny to engage in any undertaking that implied sinew, were able by the exercise of unwearying tact to bring home an occasional spiny fish from the stagnant pools that nourished the reedy marsh or a few small birds or burrowing creatures of the earth—quarries not sufficiently alert as to avoid even their crudely-fashioned springes. Nothing could exceed Chi's willingness to comply but so diffuse were the promptings of his affectionate nature that whatever living thing came within his hand at once engaged his sympathies, to the end that he not only stubbornly resisted any tendency to convert it into food but thereafter protected its life and being from all hazards and no matter how insufficient his own apportionment might be, a generous sprinkling never failed to reach the awaiting throats of an ever-growing band of dependents. In this way Chi gradually came to be known and trusted by every kind of habitant of the woods and spaces around so that birds alighted fearlessly on his outstretched hand, small furred things took refuge within his protective sleeve, reptiles forbore to look askance as he approached while fish frequently leapt upwards from their natural element to take suitable particles of food from Chi's unsuspected fingers.
"IT is better," runs the assurance of the verse, "to be born under an auspicious star than to be distantly related to a high official," and the case of Sho Chi fittingly justifies the saying. Up to this point he had been regarded by his family as one having a moderate claim on their esteem but intellectually not entirely in the place which he seemed to be occupying, while neighbours, when referring to his habitual state, were prone to convey the more delicate shades of their implication by means of guarded signs and abrupt changes of expression. This inevitably leads to Chi's meeting with Ng Hon and what ensued thereafter.
Ng Hon was a well-to-do retired vendor of gelatinised sea-slugs who now having no direct business cares to engage a naturally fertile mind profitably occupied his leisure by—as he himself indulgently expressed it—"inserting a prehensile thumb in any promising commercial hazard that offered." At about that time he had thought it well to seek the advice of a very noted remover of pain and averter of consequences on account of an unsettled inward qualm which he experienced at stated periods though for no specific reason. The gifted diagnoser of impending ills, after inspecting Ng Hon's excrement for intrinsic portents, recommended him to harmonise his constituents by taking five thousand paces in an outward direction each day before the middle rice, in order to avert a clearly-marked infliction which the experienced prognosticator saw tentatively looming. He also counselled the avoidance of certain classes of food, both solid and that contained in a jar, as provocative of the hostility of mischievous Beings, recommended the cultivation of an unruffled poise of mind whatever transpired, together with the acquisition of praiseworthiness as the result of charitable actions, and after predicting that Ng Hon by a strict adherence to these simple rules might reasonably hope to live a thousand years and beget a hundred lusty he-children—if not actually in this life certainly in some of the many that would succeed it—he affably withdrew, leaving Ng Hon already greatly reassured by the cheerful confidence and buoyant couchside bearing of so far- seeing an augur.
It was while engaged on one of his daily progressions among the outer paths that Ng Hon encountered Chi for the first time, and had some dealing with him. The latter person, according to his wont, was accompanied by a drift of small singing birds perched on convenient portions of his form, but the greater part of these, seeing so gross-looking a stranger approach, flew away—though not without a leave-taking note of affection—while Ng Hon was still at a distance. Being unwilling to lose the companionship of all his friends Chi playfully closed his hands gently on such of the flock as had been seated on them and they, feeling secure in his integrity and strength, nestled contentedly there though they continued to look out on what was taking place from between the imprisonment of his restraining fingers.
Up to that point Ng Hon had been proceeding in a mechanical way for the task of achieving neither one more nor one less of the five thousand steps (which to his somewhat credulous mind constituted the nucleus of the exorcism) imposed a perpetual tax on his attention. Seeing Chi holding the birds, however, he stopped—though he continued at intervals to repeat the number he had reached—for it was unusual to encounter another on those remote tracks and the occurrence had recalled to him a further detail of the prescient counsellor's injunction.
"Among the several ways of acquiring merit practised by the devout, that of purchasing the ownership of captive slaves and thereupon setting them free, has always been regarded with exceptional favour," he observed, encouraged by Chi's respectful poise and also by the consideration that one so meanly garbed was scarcely likely to be inordinate in his expectations. "Positioned as he before you is, such a course would be shallow in the extreme for not only would the cost of a succession of liberated captives be beyond the reasonable outlay of one who formerly achieved a bare livelihood by marketing seasonable delicacies of the reliable "Ng Hon" Brand but the condition of the released serfs, bereft of the rough protection of their former lords and exposed to the vicissitudes of an exacting clime, would be impaired rather than lightened, while, to insert a final cog, owing to the benevolent administration of our uniquely favoured land, there are no slaves or bonded captives on whom to exercise compassion."
Seeing that the wayfarer who had thus accosted him paused at this stage—partly because the effort of continuous speech was repugnant to one of his ample girth while engaged in unaccustomed exercise, and also to afford the other an opportunity of maintaining his own views in what was being said—Chi's innate amenity would have impelled him to agree had it not been that Ng Hon's remarks had left no impression whatever on his senses. This was partly the result of a naturally slow but essentially thorough mental process, though it should not be overlooked that the one who spoke had thoughtlessly retained beneath his tongue the smooth pebble which he had been advised to gnaw as a specific against the pangs of thirst and also that from time to time he repeated the words "two score hundred and seven hand-counts less three," irrespective of the context involved lest he should lose the tale of his progression. From these various causes Chi was not in a position to contribute any definite argument to what had been advanced and though he opened his mouth when Ng Hon began to speak this was more in accordance with a set habit that he had formed than with any intention of using it as a means of communication. It therefore devolved upon Ng Hon to fill in, as it were, some further detail of the proposal by which he hoped to establish his case to have been of a charitable disposition in life, nor did the appearance of Chi's still open mouth convey, on that one's part, an irreconcilable barrier.
"Laying aside therefore the claims—two score hundred and seven hand-counts less three—of fettered slaves or prisoners taken in war as suitable mediums whereby an ordinary person of stunted means may conveniently amass virtue, there must be a variety—two score hundred—of less expensive methods for displaying compassion which it is only reasonable to assume will be taken into proper account when on reaching The Above the necessary balance—seven hand-counts less three—is computed. If helots from alien states, those who have forfeited their liberty in pursuit of aggressive arms and the dusky inhabitants of distant Out Lands—all admittedly of more or less human mould though inevitably on a lower range of mentality than our own—if these, let us say, count to the good, why not the—two score—patient toilers in fields and—hundred—ways, condemned to a—seven hand- counts—life of drudgery, and thus successively on a descending scale—less three—to innocuous denizens of th? wild, snared for their fur or food, and feathered creatures of the air whose existence is a general source of pleasure?"
Had Chi by this time pierced the essential trend of Ng Hon's cautiously framed advance—which was largely designed to imply that no great amount was to be expected—he would no doubt have freely acquiesced to what the other proposed since it would not have occurred to his simple-hearted mind that anyone might be willing to open his sleeve in return for something that would have cost the one who was acquiescing nothing. But to Ng Hon's logical and commercially-trained outlook Chi's continued silence could only imply that in spite of an artless guise he had seen through the obvious device and was prepared to hold out for a substantial consideration.
"No doubt to one of your grasping and parsimonious kind the open market of an important centre like Wu-tang would provide a more profitable outlet for the birds you have to vend than the offer of a chance wayfarer," he accordingly contended. "Do not lose sight of the contingency, however, that by accepting the seventy- five authentic brass cash which constitute the limit of this one's charitable impulse to-day you avoid a long and toilsome journey hence, the transaction is on a strictly forthcoming money base, while it is only reasonable to assume that a certain proportion of worthiness will adhere to you as one taking part in a benevolent action."
Whatever ambiguity had up to this point involved Chi it was wholly dispelled when the profuse-stomached benefactor who had so unexpectedly crossed his path produced a string of money from his well-filled sleeve and measured off the amount indicated. In return for this Chi readily undertook to set free all the captive birds, which he immediately proceeded to do and though he had a momentary difficulty in persuading them to escape to the wild they ultimately consented to fly into an adjacent tree where they remained with the evident intention of learning about what should follow.
Their affairs having reached this climax Ng Hon and Chi, exchanging an appropriate text, resumed their several ways. For an indefinite space of time the latter person, who was gifted with an exceptionally acute sense of hearing, could distinguish the voice of the retired sea-snail merchant telling off the ever increased steps of his progression....
UNBOUNDED was the astonishment that spread through the wood- cutter's impoverished hut when Chi, negligently observing that each one should exert his pressure in those times of abnormal stress, cast down before them a handful of negotiable cash and immediately enhanced it with another. Even Shang for his most industrious effort had never yet acquired a reckoning in actual coin, but to their united voice regarding his method of procuring gain Chi's only reply was to the effect that on a distant path he had encountered a mentally-deficient but benevolent stranger, one of protuberant build and undoubted wealth, who had been so favourably disposed by what he who was explaining the circumstance had had to say that it required nothing more than that he should extend his open hands for the other spontaneously to fill them with money.
Upon Sho Ching claiming that to him this "made neither beams, stakes, nor honest brushwood" Chi replied that existence was frequently positioned thus, adding, to set the matter definitely at rest: "Whereunto, is it not luminously affirmed, 'Any astronomer can accurately foretell the return of an errant comet several cycles ahead, but not even a College of Sages can predict the ultimate outcome of a beggar stepping upon a ripe banana'?"
AT about the same gong-stroke on the following day Chi chanced to be again at the crossing of the ways where he had encountered Ng Hon and presently the sustained breathing of one who resolutely progressed, interspersed with an occasional count of the distance achieved, betrayed that the one who had formerly trafficked in salt-water mollusks was approaching. At this Chi blew guardedly between his teeth in a particular way and a cluster of small singing birds, leaving the trees around, settled upon his outstretched hands and permitted themselves to be imprisoned.
Ng Hon expressed some surprise when he recognised who was loitering there but on Chi propounding it as a philosophical theme he was compelled to agree to the syllogism that given an assumed time and a postulated spot there was nothing more remarkable in the one being there when the other approached than in the other approaching while the one was thus positioned. After this, without either actually introducing the matter, the birds that Chi displayed were referred to as deprived of their natural freedom and Ng Hon undertook to purchase liberty for them and by so doing improve his standing with those in the Upper Air, though on this occasion he was unwilling to exceed three-score and five unbroken cash as the limit of his compassion.
When this transaction had been honourably performed and the captive birds released Chi ventured to profess a general interest in Ng Hon's well-being. In reply to this the one concerned did not deny that he had found his constituents to become increasingly harmonised as he performed his treatment; indeed, on the preceding night he had floated in the middle space more quiescently than had been his wont for a lengthy span and he freely admitted that this might be ascribed to a tranquillity of his fundamental balance as the result of his previous day's benefaction.
Eventually, under the flattering solicitude that Chi maintained in the other's continuous progress, added to a not unnatural desire on Ng Hon's own part for this to be accomplished, it was agreed that on each day throughout the existing moon they should meet there at about the same point of time, the one bringing with him a specified number of captive birds in order to afford the other a suitable occasion for exercising benevolence. In his conscientious zeal that nothing should jeopardise the return to a normal equilibrium of one whom he had now come to regard as worthy of esteem Chi would have set no limits to the duration of this plan but Ng Hon contended that the period he had fixed allowed the Deciding Beings a liberal scope of leisure in which to make up their minds what effect such compassion should have on the course of his disorder. One scruple alone assailed Chi's punctilious breast, this arising from a chance remark on the other's part concerning the number of innocent lives that would "in the aggregate" be preserved as the result of his generous action. Without being entirely assured what the alien word Ng Hon had used might imply Chi could not disguise from himself the remote improbability of more than the original band being involved since they had now entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the novel game and would undoubtedly present themselves time after time for the entertainment of taking part in so gravity-removing a performance, but as Ng Hon had somewhat misguidedly stipulated for a reduction to fifty-five legal cash each transaction on the ground that this was, he declared, a stable requirement, Chi did not find it incumbent on himself to disclose the fallacy.
IT has been aptly said that although Destiny is blind it can see through a marble wall, immovable it will outstrip the swiftest horse, and however often a man may turn to avoid pursuit he will in the end walk unheedingly into what has been arranged for his reception. Speaking in a general sense nothing would have seemed more improbable than that two so dissimilar in every way as Ng Hon and Sho Chi should have entered into what has come—from the ambiguity of its exact terms and the difficulty of binding either party to it—to be described as a "high-minded person's compact" from which has sprung a thriving industry whereby a variety of nature-loving toilers, who might otherwise be forced to lead an idle, profligate, or even criminal life are able to earn a modest sufficiency of taels to this day, while at the same time charitably-disposed but frugal-minded persons are afforded a cheap and convenient means of performing a virtuous act and thereby acquiring merit in every walled city and many stockaded towns and villages of our decorative yet rationally- conducted Empire.
THEREAFTER, at about the same gong-stroke of measured time, Chi daily bent his footsteps in the direction of the intersecting ways where he was to find Ng Hon and so reliable were the activities of the latter that if he was not already there Chi had no difficulty in tracing his approach by the sonorous note of stress that accompanied his effort. On arriving at the spot it was the erewhile marine gasteropod vendor's habit to cast himself bodily down upon a suitable expanse of inviting sward and discovering a paper fan from the depth of his voluminous sleeve proceed to assuage his discomfort.
On these occasions Chi would stand respectfully at a short distance away and endeavour to divert Ng Hon's mind from his immediate case by conversation of a varied and improving nature. It may now be fittingly explained that Chi's lethargic air and usually preoccupied mien were occasioned more by the absence of those in their restricted community with whom he could suitably converse than by any inadequacy of his own intellectual process. At first these desultory exchanges between the two moved on a remote and philosophical plane, as concerned with the nature of the undefinable, the ultimate limit of immeasurable space, the stability of fundamental equilibrium and the like but gradually as each explored the other's mind a more concrete and practical aim emerged upon the surface.
THE actual occasion when Sho Chi and Ng Hon arrived at a definite if unspecified accord did not take place until a few days before the close of the indicated moon, the latter person having by that time so improved in the state of his normal balance that those who had sympathised with him but a short span of time before now stopped to greet him with expressions of felicitation. Nor did Ng Hon for his part, in the case of those who neglected this courteous form, omit to recount in detail the numerous indications of the malignancy that had until then possessed him nor to point to his recovered powers. In all this Chi freely concurred but when the other spoke of the approaching divergence of their paths—seeing that henceforth there would be no especial need of obtaining any particular excess of celestial credit—he could not forbear diffidently pointing out that there might be another facet of the happening.
"As by the exercise of wise restraint, a settled rule of healthy activity and—above all—resort to a particular line of virtue, you have driven the ill-disposed Forces away, no doubt it will be your benevolent purpose henceforth to disclose to others in like strait the means by which you obtained this freedom?"
"Doubtless," replied Ng Hon, who now seated upon a fallen tree was refreshing himself from a jar of his own badge of sea-food, "but it might not lie within the circumstances of all to avail themselves of a similar course of treatment."
"As to that," suggested Chi, "much might depend on the exact terms in which the recommendation was conveyed to their imagination. It would be almost profane to dispute that the chief ingredient, so to speak, of your happily re-established vigour is to be found in the succour proceeding from important Beings whose clemency has been aroused by your touching display of compassion."
"Be that how it will," conceded Ng Hon, to whom the attractive outlook of a really profitable blend of benevolence and commercial enterprise had not yet unfolded its far-reaching vista, "it is scarcely to be thought that aged or infirm persons of either sort would penetrate these wilds in the chance expectation of here encountering one like yourself whose rural activities would enable them to acquire reputation."
"In the cases to which you sympathetically refer, so arduous a course might be tactfully rendered unnecessary.... It has for some time past occurred to a small body of those in a position to operate the supply that for the charitably-disposed section of a community so important as that of Wu-tang to be deprived of an obvious means of exercising compassion whenever it felt the need approaches the magnitude of a public dishonour."
Without faintly appearing to exhibit any personal concern in the humane sentiment professed, Ng Hon moved his position somewhat—on the pretext of avoiding an inauspicious branch—so that he was able to observe the expression of the one with whom he conversed more directly. He also pressed on Chi a few of the smaller sea-slugs that the interior, or unseen, portion of the jar contained—a mark of attention which had hitherto been lacking.
"Perchance," he negligently remarked, pausing from time to time as he spoke in order to maintain apathy by making casual attempts to secure a passing winged insect, "perchance the scheme of your liberal-minded friends has reached a sufficiently concrete form for you to indicate its nucleus?"
"The germ, as it might be expressed, would necessarily enshrine the benevolent esteem with which you, and doubtless a few other influential leaders of thought, would regard the haz—philanthropic effort," was Chi's gratifying assurance. "Provided a really substantial backing—as it would appear to be sometimes termed—could be secured from those who would speak in set terms of having benefited by such a charitable act (or if not actually themselves, of having encountered those who knew others who had) the group referred to would be emboldened to feel justified in erecting one or more stalls in the public ways and marts, hanging out signs and banners setting forth their claims, making-it-known in the local printed leaves, and establishing their cause by a variety of novel and attractive devices."
"The suggestion cannot but be a flattering one, inferring as it does that the person who now expounds his commonplace views, together with a select gang of those in whom he confides, would automatically range themselves on the side of benevolence and virtue," responded Ng Hon, now offering with both hands the jar itself, in which one or two of the larger delicacies still lingered. "It would naturally be the aim of those of us who are endeavouring to foster a more exalted standard of merit-acquiring among the too-often apathetic and frivolous passers-by of Wu- tang, to encourage in an unostentatious and discreet way your far-seeing friends' praiseworthy effort.... At the same time, there might be technical though possibly not unsurmountable difficulties in the cases of others whose voices it might be thought desirable to sway—this one himself, it should be rigidly understood, standing entirely apart from any material consideration."
"To dream otherwise would be to pollute the clear well of discrimination at its source," warmly declared Chi, venturing in an access of loyalty to shake hands with himself respectfully. "As regards more ordinary persons, whose motives though honourable in the extreme are not perhaps distended by such a plethora of refinement, those who are taking the initiative in this enterprise have been heard to suggest that something on the lines of—if this inexperienced earth-tramper has correctly grasped the idiom—'a two-and-a-half-score two-and-a-half- score basis.' Should your disinterested group of friends deem this satisfactory——"
"Speaking wholly as one who surveys these sordid but no doubt necessary details from a remotely distant cloister, a steadfast undertaking on the two-and-a-half-score two-and-a-half-score scale should be effective in melting any lingering qualms as to the high moral integrity of the project among the bountifully- inspired ring in question. Conceivably one or other of the more commercial-hearted sympathisers might voice an enquiry touching the precise method of computing the gains on which the harmony of the compact is grounded, but such a misgiving would never, on his own initiative, have sullied the mind of the one now offering you the last of these undoubtedly succulent mollusks."
"The distinction of sharing even the outside of the jar with so notable an eater as the large-stomached Ng Hon is sufficient to appease the appetite of any ordinary person," politely replied Chi, resolutely pressing back the morsel. "As regards the trivial financial issue it cannot but be regarded as a coincidence of the most assuring portent that those who are interesting themselves in the scheme chanced to remark as this one happened to be passing near that an exact record of all transactions would be kept by means of knotted cords and that these evidences of trustworthiness would at all suitable times be available for your public-spirited body of confederates—or their signet- bearing envoy—to probe in every particular."
Had Ng Hon been of a covetous-minded blend, with little thought beyond material gain, he might not unreasonably have pursued Chi with further doubts and sought to disparage the prospects of such a venture. It should be a sufficient reply to those envious detractors who have schemed from time to time to assail the high repute of one who devoted the greater part of a proverbially well-spent life to taking an interest in the affairs of others that Ng Hon did not again allude to this design but went on to draw Chi's attention to the harmonious effect of the various tints presented by a diversity of growth in the scene spread about them. From this, by a natural sequence of thought, the gifted conversationalist went on to compare the opposing styles of some of the most illustrious picture-makers of remote times, instancing the disastrous results of a too consummate perfection of art, as in the case of Lao Han who depicted dragon flies so faithfully that all his best canvases are marred by blank spaces where individual insects have taken to flight at a subsequent period, and the then almost unknown Liu Sun who died in a state of regrettable want through stubbornly refusing to paint anything but his unsurpassable lotus buds, which, however, invariably passed to maturity and faded before Liu Sun could find a purchaser.
In this agreeable manner the time sped imperceptibly away until Ng Hon was reminded that it was necessary to resume his interrupted paces. It might have been thought that Chi experienced some regret since nothing would appear to have been definitely settled, but when he afterwards blew through his teeth and began to instruct the assembled birds in their simple parts he had no appearance of being unduly devoid of satisfaction.
NOBODY has ever yet succeeded in explaining how or exactly where the rumour began to spread throughout Wu-tang that in view of impending events of a calamitous trend (which in the imagination of some took the form of a swarm of migratory dragons and with others was represented by a depreciation of the currency) those who were at all undecided about the nature of their standing in the Upper World would do well to establish further merit. In this connection it was freely stated that bounteousness towards all kinds of creatures on an inferior plane would be taken into account and the cases of several leading personages of good repute (as well as one or two minor officials) who had experienced a definite assuagement of distressing symptoms as the result of slight acts of benevolence towards creatures of the wild were passed from mouth to mouth with expanding details. So great became the press to succour and befriend neglected and imperilled things of every sort that a multitude of sore and discarded dogs and other outcast scavengers of the town that had hitherto led a blissful and carefree life about the public ways fled to the hills for safety.
It was at this period, when consideration towards the most insignificant forms of life was rife that Chi took his stand at an angle of the two chief routes with a stall supporting a cage in which were imprisoned a variety of forest birds adaptable to the sleeve of every grade of bystander. It was understood that these were suitable for food—either after being stewed in ajar or roasted on a skewer—as companions of an agreeable sort when attached to the wrist by a flexible cord, or to produce notes of a rich and well-sustained range if blinded by. means of a red-hot wire and confined in a narrow compass. To those whose requirements were for any of these needs Chi would courteously reply that at that particular beat of time he was wholly destitute of birds conforming to this description, earlier customers having bought and set free much of his stock in order to preserve them from so pitiable a fate and thereby to register compassion. At this, one passing would haply break in with testimony of the efficiency of such an act and if he who had come on a quest did not remain to perform a similar rite he would be regarded with sombre looks by those around as a very hardened wrong-doer.
Chi himself offered the best testimony of the value of such a course by spontaneously halving the price of any bird to be liberated then and there, whereby, as he readily explained, sharing in the act of clemency on what he had heard (he said) was known among the profound as "a two-and-a-half-score two-and-a- half-score basis." By these and similar means his entire store of birds had been released before the time of middle rice so that he was able to return to the woods and taking up his willing co-adjutors at the appointed spot again be back at the meeting of the ways in time for the leisured-class traffic.
So firmly established in public esteem did this simple and practical form of praiseworthiness become that Chi soon found it unnecessary to describe his wares as suitable for the bowl, the wrist, or of being imprisoned to provide melody and this dissolved his last remaining vestige of concern since hitherto, in spite of the excessive care he took, there had always been the shadowy chance that some clay-souled niggard might actually submit what he had bought to one of these disagreeable uses. Henceforth his stall left no room for doubt concerning the charitable object of the display, an attractively-embroidered sign, which bore a representation of fire-breathing demons devouring those who had neglected to perform good actions, being inscribed as follows:
The Original Benevolent-Opportunity Provider
Acquire merit with the least possible outlay at Sho Chi's commodious mart where a unique assortment of humane bargains are always at the service of the shallow-sleeved or thrifty-minded.
Slight acts of virtue may be performed for as little as 99 cash (down); notable feats of benevolence up to 10 taels 50,
A generous reduction on really important propitiations.
"A quiet conscience is more to be esteemed than the sound of many pieces of silver jingling together."
AS the fame of Sho Chi's extremely acceptable method of accruing lustre on such reasonable terms was noised about, the one concerned soon found it expedient to enlarge his stall and presently to erect others in suitable positions. Under his ruling thumb Shang, Shin and Nung were pressed into the enterprise and taught the correct manner. These, together with Sho Ching himself, though now eager to conform to all that Chi required and willing to share his prosperity, could never entirely divest themselves of a sense of injury that the one among themselves whom they had held in such slight account should be in a position to supply their deficiencies.
At about this period Chi almost entirely laid aside the iron drum and copper bell by which he had been accustomed to attract the compassionate* in order to devote himself wholly to the supply side of the undertaking. So proficient in their willing task did some of his flock become that several of the most highly gifted birds were disposed of to the credit-seeking, humanely released and observed to fly away to their native haunts with every indication of delight at the unexpected liberation, met by Chi at their appointed tryst and returned to the cage again to bring a glow of self-satisfaction to yet another bent on good deeds—no less than four times during the span of an ordinary working period. Is it to be wondered at that the occasional competitor who, attracted by Chi's fame, sought to repeat that one's progress should presently throw up his hands in despair, exclaiming, "How is it achievable for one who must ensnare his stock by patient and exacting toil to withstand against another who has only to blow through his concave teeth for a surfeit of commodity to throng his bankrupt standing?"
[* Sho Chi is spoken of in contemporary bamboo slips as one of the earliest exponents of successful disposalment. In the course of an after-rice address before the Wu-tang Assembly of Self-Proclaimers his testimony is outlined thus: "Noise, by whatever means produced, is an indication of activity. To the correctly-poised passer-by the rebound, so to speak, of something going on is a healthful impulse to divert his feet in order to find out what the turmoil may be about and, if feasible, to take part in it. Now for a brief beat of time withdraw your distinguished thoughts to a consideration of the behaviour of a cloud of winged insects in the presence of a newly-baited fly-parchment. Of the hundred that draw near only a score may alight but of these a hand-count become inextricably entangled in the attraction...."]
Scrupulously on the first day of each new moon Chi sought the dignified residence of Ng Hon and after the exchange of a few seasonable compliments the one who had come produced his tale of knotted cords and pressed on the other the acceptance of a bag of silver. The no-longer merchant never attempted to conceal his embarrassed surprise at this and protested that he had done nothing to deserve so unlooked-for an offering but it did not escape Chi's well-arranged eyes that in handing back the bunch of knotted cords Ng Hon took the opportunity to appraise them closely, nor could he divest himself of a well-founded belief that if he neglected the formality his occupation would automatically cease to prosper.
Towards those of his immediate circle who in the seclusion of an inner room might speak in a vein not absolutely enthusiastic touching his methods, Chi never found it necessary to extend any concurrence. Seeing that he himself had advanced to a position of reposeful ease, the wants of ancestral shades for several generations back handsomely supplied and his existing kin all provided with a lucrative choice of not unattractive callings, one (whom he did not further describe) allotted an agreed share of the divisible excess, the local and imperial dues loyally discharged in full (or else a mutually satisfactory arrangement made with the collecting officials), an ever-increasing throng of sympathetically-disposed persons incited to acquire merit and a cheap and convenient means put within their grasp by which this could be assured regularly, the recording deities gratified by an unprecedented flood of entries for their tablets from a place not hitherto prominent for munificence, and, to indent a final notch, a thoroughly deserving and laborious staff of birds (ever Chi's chief concern) cared for in their present need and secure against the vicissitudes of old age and nature's failings—wherein, on the face of this attainment, could it be rationally maintained that anything had been done which was not worthy of acclamation?
WHEN Chun Shin, the lottery promoter, incurred the enmity of certain powerful subterranean Beings by diverting a watercourse in order to nourish the soil of his afflicted orchard his interests ceased to prosper. It was doubtless owing to this indiscretion that he dwindled in the esteem of many to whom he had sold tickets for the attractive ventures by which he sought to benefit those of the community who blended an occasional spice of enterprise with their usual painstaking thrift; for, as he was accustomed to point out very reasonably, how else could one account for the persistence with which those who had purchased winning numbers proved to be strangers living in remote and inaccessible provinces? When, however, an influential mandarin who had been induced to bestir himself about these activities by the volume of complaint, privately secured all the chances in the disposal of a richly-embroidered coffin cloth and still failed to obtain the prize, Chun Shin recognised that the malignant Forces arrayed against him were too formidable for an ordinary person to withstand. Only by immediate flight would it be possible to shake off the discreditable persecution and baffle their insatiable venom. With this resolve Chun Shin melted inconspicuously out of the town where he had suffered so unworthy a rebuff only a short gong-stroke before the spear-men of the mandarin concerned assailed his outer gate. It was inevitable that in these circumstances he should leave behind a variety of unsettled matters, which under a more leisurely process he would have been able to arrange to the satisfaction of most of those concerned, but he took with him all that he conveniently could and chief among these possessions must be esteemed his daughter, Fa, who on account of the natural grace of all her attitudes has been justly called the Dusky Dragon-fly among Water Lilies.
Let it be said that the drastic course which Chun Shin adopted was justified up to the sword-guard. In a distant city, there proclaiming himself to be Shun Chin, he again hung out a sign and embarked upon new undertakings, equally benevolent in scope but somewhat differently-arranged from those of his previous venture. That these precautions were successful in, so to speak, deflecting any pursuing demons from the betraying perfume, was plainly shown by the fact that thereafter Shun Chin's prospects flourished, though it is not denied that at a later date a somewhat similar imprudence attracted the hostility of a second band of evil Forces, necessitating yet another flight to a still further place and the renewed modification of his harmonious name in order to be able to carry on his sympathetic calling.
Fa was indeed very beautiful, but who would attempt to describe in spoken words the combined effect of the full sky lantern rising upon a glade of majestic cypress trees, the simultaneous discharge of a practically inexhaustible supply of coloured fireworks and the sustained interest of an evenly balanced wrestling conflict? All these impressions the one alluded to could—and frequently did—convey in a single glance: let it suffice that ill-disposed persons who encountered Fa while invading her father's place of commerce with threats of vengeance for something which they regarded as not altogether honourably arranged, invariably left bowing profusely and carrying away several complete sets of tickets in any forthcoming lotteries. Fa herself, as unassuming as she was symmetrical, specifically denied any particular merit in bringing this about. All that she had done, she was wont to say, was to display uprightness in an appropriate setting.
Prominent among those who were attracted to Fa's side when they were now established in Yuen-yang was Sze Chang, an elderly magician. On account of his wealth and admitted powers Shun Chin found no difficulty in receiving Sze Chang with effusion but in spite of her unbounded sense of filial duty it was with a tincture of revolt that Fa one day learned from her revered father's lips of his intention to accept betrothing gifts on her account from the one whom, in the emotionalism of the instant, she referred to as "this physically obsolete and mentally bald- headed necromancer."
"In the length and breadth of a populous city, computed by the latest official guess to enclose seven-score thousand persons—one half presumably of the other sort—could no more agreeable partner than an effete but at the same time libidinous wizard be found for one who has never yet failed in her devotion?" lamented Fa with morose resentment.
"Sze Chang is both rich and influential, nor in the circumstances should the probability of his early Up Passing tinge your outlook with despair," replied Shun Chin, falling back on his not too highly refined stock of cunning. "As his lesser one you would be able to eat to repletion every day and who among the most exclusive tea-givers of Yuen-yang would forbear to extend the hand of equality to one who could have them transformed into venerable she-goats or furnished with humiliating tails if her claims were slighted?"
"There are other things beyond a continual surfeit of roast pork when a certain stage of intellectual development has been attained, nor to a person of advanced literary views are the tea- tables of Yuen-yang particularly enticing," was Fa's lofty contention. "As was so applicably set forth at the heading of one of your most successful lottery announcements, esteemed sire: 'He who stands a chance of drawing a winning number is already half way on the road to affluence'."
"The analogy is a little strained," maintained Shun Chin, "and more to the point is the sage precept, 'A wise man knows what he wants from the outset but an ill-balanced woman only after she has obtained something quite different.' Since this subject has, as it were, risen to an apex between us, who is the by no means unpicturesque young man that for the greater part of the last moon has contributed to our deplorably scanty means by repeatedly hazarding small sums of money upon invariably losing ventures?"
"The one you probably have in mind may perhaps be Lao Ping, a much esteemed poet among those who appreciate the finer shades of contemporary literature," suggested Fa, after conscientiously ruffling her usually jade-like brow in sustained effort. "Without actually observing his presence here this person has been casually aware for some time past that he has occasionally affected your not really attractive Hall of a Thousand Lucky Chances—doubtless in the hope of there encountering a favourable inspiration."
"Doubtless," repeated Shun Chin in courteous assent, "and the circumstance that what might be regarded as a favourable inspiration has invariably been waiting for him on the mat of the outer door need not complicate our outlook. The fundamental issue hinges on whether the individual concerned is in a position to support at least one wife—not omitting, perchance, an occasional helpful gesture in the direction of a momentarily embarrassed legal parent."
"As to that," replied Fa, with broad-minded confidence in one whom she accounted, "Lao Ping's immortal lines entitled, 'Falling Petals of a Prematurely Blooming Cherry Tree, seen through the Opalescent Drizzle of an Unseasonable Snow Storm,' have only recently been crowned with a laurel wreath by the Yuen-yang Advanced Circle of Stop-short Verse Makers. So successfully is the underlying principle of projected action maintained in this pulse-stirring epic of stop-short measure that for several beats of time after the actual words have ceased it is impossible not to feel continuous snow flakes melting on one's cheek and to see further drifts of petals being whirled——"
"Assuredly," agreed Shun Chin, regarding the dial of a gong- stroke indicator with scarcely politely-disguised concern, "and it cannot be too widely known that the choicer varieties of early fruit should be protected against such happenings. But as to the practical results of our agreeable conversation, we have disclosed nothing more substantial than a wreath of some decorative foliage. The occasion would no doubt be a gratifying one but the actual sustenance afforded by a handful of aromatic leaves—except to creatures of a lower racial order than either of the two chiefly involved—must be regarded as negligible."
"The reference to species of a lower part is not unapt, for that description might well be applied to some who keep their eyes steadfastly fixed on the material ground to the exclusion of all loftier ambitions," was Fa's high-spirited reply, for the trend of Shun Chin's no-enthusiasm towards Lao Ping was beginning to corrode the polished surface of her refinement. "Of those who are not earthbound by sordid considerations of unclean gain it is well said: 'Better a dish of husks to the accompaniment of a muted lute than to be satiated with stewed shark's fin and rich spiced wine of which the cost is frequently mentioned by the provider'."
"More appropriate in the circumstances is the equally concise maxim, 'The face of a husband changes according to each passing mood but the weight of a piece of gold is the same both night and morning'," cast back Shun Chin unpleasantly. "Let this suffice, O contumacious Fa: If Pao Ling——"
"Lao Ping! omniscient head," besought Fa in well-arranged distress. "Contort as you will your own unsightly name but leave unsullied in its flowing rhythm one that is destined to be inscribed in characters of gold in Fame's imperishable Temple."
"If Ping Ling," continued the really outrageous Shun, now throwing off all pretence of polite restraint towards one whose literary manner of life was offensive to his own gross nature; "if Ling Ping aspires to ally himself with a Line that has never been backward in coming forward when a speculative issue was involved he must evince his metal. Let him table the winning insect in the great annual fighting cricket display to be held here a moon hence and no barrier will be raised against your mutual hopes. Should he fail in this, or (as the prudent onlayer would unhesitatingly predict) decline the proffered test, an unostentatious but strictly binding ceremony will unite you with the infatuated Sze Chang on the following morning. In the meanwhile it would be well to assemble the usual sufficiency of robes with that event in view for on this occasion your precise but ever-indulgent father assuredly has spoken."
With these forbidding words Shun Chin passed on to arrange the hidden mechanism of his gaming tables for the day, leaving Fa involved in a very complicated state of virtuous despair towards the outcome of this abrupt arisement.
IN order to make it clear to an assembly whose martial spirit would disdain such second-hand joys as looking on while hired deputies or even irrational beasts contend for supremacy, let it be freely admitted that among the leisurely of Yuen-yang tedium- dispelling had at this epoch fallen to a very distressing level.
The year before the one in which the events of this lamentably ill-told and extremely commonplace narrative took place, the occupation of laboriously adjusting interescting words to conform to a series of admittedly ambiguous signs had been what in a confessedly harsh and inexpressive tongue was described as "the complete frenzy." Preceding that had been a season when the component parts of irregularly-severed depictions of actual scenes had to be pieced together to restore their despoiled effect.
There had also been periods when domestic guardians of the home, trained to pursue a fictitious prey, had achieved this "frenzy;" when to stand one on either side an arranged board and there to strike an insignificant sphere of resilient pith by successive blows until one or the other wearied of the contest, enticed the throng; when amassing defaced fragments of adhesive paper that had achieved their legitimate end was held to be worthy of pursuit, or inducing a responsive spool to mount a dependent cord, or the task of inserting promiscuous words among sentences deprived of their inherent drift, those judged successful being rewarded by a charge imposed on all the others—these and a thousand other trivial beguilements (which could more fittingly have been delegated to attending slaves) had passed in breathless succession. Now, as Shun Chin's assertive challenge sufficiently disclosed, contests between fighting crickets had for some time been the entire delirium.
In a simple and unsophisticated age such a trial would have involved no particular injustice. Lao Ping would doubtless have collected a suitable team of insects from about his own domestic hearth and having invoked the assistance of every available ancestral spirit (each no less concerned in the outcome than himself) would have entered into the contest on an equality with all the others. Admittedly there must exist among the normal tribe of these creatures exceptional crickets, even as in a community of average persons strong men occur to whom the lifting of unwieldy loads or the bursting if incredible chains present no hardship, but who is to say that Lao Ping's fireside should not have harboured its just share of prodigies? So commercialised, however, had become this once primitive and guileless sport, since its adoption as a popular frenzy, that no ordinary insect, fresh from its innocent native hearth, would have stood the most shadowy chance of conquering. The art and practice of training promising crickets for the circle (as the enclosed space in which they strove was familiarly termed) had become the profession and the livelihood of a community of wily experts who not only sought to impart strength and endurance to their docile band but even went so far as to initiate them into every variety of delusive guile and questionable stratagem. Famous crickets of proved skill and authentic strain were esteemed not by their weight in gold but against their cubic capacity of rubies. Even those, of either sort, who by age or disablement were no longer fit to compete still lent their activities to the strife, for in every issue of The Fighting Cricket's Makeknown and Wrestling Locust's Proclaimer—the official printed leaf of the controlling Board—there might be seen, side by side with claims of miraculous unguents to strengthen failing limbs, infallible charms to ward off defeat, and predictions ("direct from the cricket's antennae") for impending events, announcements stating that for a reasonable amount former champions would consort with a limited number of suitable insects of the other sort in the expectation of, as it were, engendering future winners.
It was into this dubious beneath-world of sport that Shun Chin was craftily enticing Lao Ping for what, divested of its extraneous gloss, constituted an encounter between the uninformed, sincere-hearted poet and an insidious magician, with the now distracted hand of the Dusky Dragon-fly among Water Lilies suspended in the balance.
The outcome in any case could scarcely be in doubt but an added detail reveals Shun Chin's duplicity in even more sombre colours. For some time past Sze Chang had been deeply immersed in a system of profiting by his unique ability to foresee results and in pursuit of extended gains he had now secretly acquired a half interest in a much-famed cage of fighting crickets. Thus, as part-owner of that champion cup-lifter Valiant Tiger of Yuen-yang the Eleventh he could command the services of a hitherto unbeaten insect.
AS the opening day of the great annual fighting cricket contest drew near there was less disposition among the casual and inactive of Yuen-yang to engage in settled toil than to assemble at convenient angles of the ways and there exchange rumours from -the various leading insect pens and discuss what they referred to as "the unevens." In more reputable quarters of the city a similar scene was being enacted behind closed doors for while every prominent owner spoke explicitly of his own success and contemptuously of rivals, each one secretly feared some untoward surprise and the dramatic appearance at the circle-side of what in their cryptic idiom they called a "sombre cricket." Thus may be described one pair of the four persons with whose activities it is being sought to beguile an over-indulgent throng of over- tolerant listeners—Shun Chin and the magician Sze Chang. The other, Lao Ping and Fa herself, though no less deeply concerned, maintained a more dignified exterior.
"Yet by what unforeseen stroke of destiny will it be possible to elude the clay-souled Sze Chang in the end, seeing that he is now known to be the owner of Valiant Tiger the Eleventh, while you, O my romantic but fatally impractical one! have neglected to provide yourself with even a remote outsider?" lamented Fa, when they were come together on the eve of the opening day of the trials. "Admittedly, to maintain an inflexible upper lip is in the best traditions of our unemotional race, but to betray no interest whatever in a contest of which she herself is, so to speak, the core, does not fill this one's heart with a suffusion of rapture."
"Yet is it not said, 'Whatever else, a voice raised in the market-place is not disclosing where gold is stored, but the dog that would retain his bone shuns observation?' Surrounded as we are by the eyes and ears of jealous competitors at every turn it would have been indiscreet to risk even a hint up to now, but the time has come when you at least may share the knowledge." With these auspicious words Lao Ping withdrew from the inner recesses of his sleeve an insignificant box of thin wood, such as is carried by habitual users of opium pipes to contain their tinder, and opening it displayed to Fa's bewildered eyes a considerably more than average size cricket but one showing no particular lines of form and of incredibly venerable aspect.
"Behold the destined vanquisher of the yet unconquerable Valiant Tiger of Yuen-yang!" he declared with inoffensive pride. "Justly called 'Spirit of Bygone Mettle'."
In a restricted sense the name is not inept since a definite air of antiquity is the insect's most prominent feature," declared Fa when she was able to control her emotions. "Alas, my idealistic but utterly preposterous lover, what revengeful shade is luring you on to a climax that can only involve us both in unseemly derision?—for when once this elderly survival is seen in the circle it will be freely said that this time the inspired Lao Ping has produced a stop-short line that will assuredly go no further."
"Had it been an ordinary cricket——"
"The word is well chosen," interposed Fa, not to be denied the full expression of her inner feelings, "for without claiming to be an adept this person has not been thrust into the society of those who frequent her venerated father's ambiguously-conducted gambling den without acquiring some knowledge of the various points essential to a successful cricket—of which this truly remarkable example is the pronounced antithesis. Devoid of both agility and strength how should he for a single beat of time resist the onslaught of Valiant Tiger of Yuen-yang the Eleventh—whose opening stroke is to leap on to an unprepared antagonist's back and bite off both his hind legs with a single movement?"
"Beasts have what constitutes their value outside their frames, men theirs within, and the quality of an insect that is of other than mere earthly mould cannot be assessed by material standards," replied Lao Ping with some aloofness.
"Other than of earthly mould!" wonderingly exclaimed Fa, to whom supernatural occurrences were, of course, by no means unknown though so far none had actually come under her own observation. "Can it be possible——"
"Let it suffice that the cunningly assumed shape now in your lotus hand disguises the identity of this person's remote ancestor Lao Lo-wing, a very celebrated minstrel of the Second Dynasty to whose tutelary shade the one who is explaining the facts had addressed an admonitory ode of considerable vigour. Therein it was pointed out how serious the consequences would be, both to himself and to all of our ancient race in The Above if, as the outcome of this unworthy test, out attenuated Line became extinct leaving none to transmit offerings."
"Why should that of necessity arise?" persuasively enquired Fa, at the same time affectionately straightening out the uneven extremity of Lao Ping's artistically-looped pig-tail, after she had somewhat hastily returned the lethargic form of the transmigrated Lao Lo-wing to his receptacle, "for surely among the inner chambers of a congested centre like Yuen-yang there must be many other maidens far more ornamentally-outlined than the deformed object now before you. Any one of these would doubtless leap forward at the chance——"
"This is not the time to pursue a line of arguable hypothesis to an indeterminate conclusion, for, as a distinguished lyrist of a bygone age has reasonably maintained, a person is either apprehensive of the eventual outcome or else his claims to recognition are below the normal if he is reluctant to submit the issue to an unqualified decision. Inspired by a yearning that transcends adequate expression except in the form of a sonnet this one has closed with your honourable father's extremely offensive challenge, but should the result leave him bereft of you, adorable Fa, he will unhesitatingly choose some picturesque method of self-ending rather than exist merely for the sordid purpose of providing a largely self-seeking group of over- indulgent ancestors with a continuous line of succession."
As the conversation seemed to be tending towards a specific development that was incongruous to a nature so delicately refined as hers, Fa suitably indicated that the moment had now arrived when her retiring feet must turn in a homeward direction. Nor to this did Lao Ping raise any dissent for, as he pointed out, there was still much he ought to do towards influencing a favourable decision. Joss sticks could be usefully burned before the shrines of any Beings amenable to the attraction of a sporting hazard; imprecatory fireworks might have some effects on the nerves of rivals crickets, while suitably composed maledictions deriding the pretensions and exposing the unworthy aims of other competitors must surely carry weight. Regarded from any angle an industrious night was before Lao Ping: the one disturbing thought being that everyone else concerned was employed in precisely the same manner.
THE earlier days of the ever-popular Yuen-yang Annual Assembling were devoted to contests of inferior rank wherein ambitious but unknown insects could, as it were, work their way up by successive tiers to the position of being matched against recognised fighters. Certain of the latter, indeed, were not required to take part in the initial series of contests at all, it being automatically assumed that they must necessarily have triumphed. Thus Valiant Tiger of Yuen-yang the Eleventh would not be called upon to enter the circle before the last two days, though to retain again the coveted Porcelain Badge he would then have to defend his claim against every surviving cricket.
The appearance of Spirit of Bygone Mettle had been greeted with the melted austerity and gravity removing jests that Fa had predicted for it, but these had gradually given way to distressed surprise and, later, even a begrudging regard as the derided outsider sluggishly emerged victorious from each successive encounter. For this result he relied not so much on any actual skill or physical superiority as upon a strict adherence to a method of belligerency that was new and completely baffling to every opponent. (Searching the ancient bamboo records at a later period Fa realised that Lao Lo-wing's manner of combat had been the accepted style in the classic days of the Second Dynasty—the supine or shun-as-best-can system, since become a lost art and forgotten.) This consisted of withdrawing as much as possible into himself and presenting an inert bulk of impenetrable hide upon which the inexperienced vainly shattered both self-control and vigour. Nothing that the most crafty assailant might contrive would induce the patriarch to expose so much as the fringe of a single eyelid until he was assured that a condition of exhaustion had been produced, whereat he rolled bodily upon the prostrate and demoralised antagonist and quickly stifled him beneath the obese mass that constituted his one asset.
It was in vain that distracted trainers sought by word or sign to direct a change of strategy into their charge's methods. The sight of that yielding and apparently helpless form was an irresistible magnet to their reckless undoing.
After each combat Lao Ping, under the directing hand of Fa, carefully anointed the apathetic champion's joints with a special oil that was greatly esteemed among the discerning. Anxiously they examined his surface for any marks of stress or strain but "Ancient Bygone," as he was now familiarly greeted among onlookers, seemed to possess an immunity from serious hurt that nourished their expectation. Emerging from his seventeenth strife nothing beyond a few torn scales, the obscuration of one eye, and the missing extremity of a single foot marked his victorious passage.
Thus may the position be divulged when the last and culminating stage of the assembling arrived. Some trivial outside engagements remained to be decided during the earlier gong-strokes of the day but these had no influence on the great event—the destination of the Porcelain Badge and the right to be styled "Unconquerable" that went with it. For this supreme honour the only two unbeaten crickets would contend—Valiant Tiger of Yuen-yang the Eleventh and Spirit of Bygone Mettle—and the whole period of no-light, if necessary, would be devoted to the encounter. Lao Ping professed to have no qualms whatever about the outcome and he even ventured all his possessions—including whatever he might receive for some yet unwritten sets of verses—upon the result but Fa, who had observed the portents with a more experienced eye, counselled moderation. She had watched Sze Chang closely whenever Ancient Bygone's winning number was proclaimed and had seen that the magician did not appear unduly crestfallen.
"The morally-tainted sorcerer is undoubtedly retaining something within his sleeve," she argued from this. "It would be well to keep in mind the sage admonition: 'Though you bind a fallen enemy both hand and foot yet he can still follow you with curses'."
THERE is another timely precept that exhorts caution—"On the end of the chop-stick is not in the mouth"—and the truth of this simple apothegm revealed itself to Fa with benumbing force a period later when she stood in the Hall of a Thousand Lucky Chances directing arrangements for the middle- part-of-the-day gathering. Hearing her name spoken in a faltering voice she turned to find Lao Ping by her side and the normality of his hastily-assumed garb told her at once that something of a highly distressing nature must have happened.
"Speak quickly and that to a sharply pointed end," she urged, "but control your expressive voice so that none may suspect its tenor. Spirit of——?"
"It is even as you have guessed," replied Lao Ping. "The Ancient Bygone has all but Passed Up. The limit of his capability is to lie inert and gasp; he could not even roll over upon an exhausted adversary."
"Unclean work has been astir here," declared Fa with concentrated feeling. "Nothing could exceed the high spirits in which the Venerable disposed of his last opponent. This undoubtedly concerns Sze Chang who was seated in one of the most expensive retained benches by the circle side and may well have taken an opportunity to cast the Baleful Glance as he left the enclosure."
"To produce him as the challenger would be to court——"
"The situation calls for alert thinking of a highly concentrated type, and you, adored one, would do well to return and endeavour to sustain the stricken patriarch at any hazard," was Fa's capable decision. "Keep him, so to speak, going for the next few gong-strokes and some expedient may yet emerge. Try the stimulating effect of reciting the Analectic Odes of the Second Dynasty, interspersed with minute portions of undiluted rice spirit given through a straw should he seem in danger of sinking. Do not altogether despair, beloved... the spot whereon we stand contains the germ of a dimly-formed inspiration."
With these encouraging words Fa shook hands with herself hurriedly and passed on, leaving Lao Ping far from settled among his private feelings.
"We are standing by the central table on the raised dais where the culminating issue will be fought, and beneath the hanging lantern of fifteen lights that will shed a revealing brilliance on the extinction of our hopes," considered Lao Ping morosely. "It is very much to be feared that the blow has disturbed the balance of Fa's essential equipoise if she can find anything inspiring in the position."
MEANWHILE, however, Fa had reached a secluded glen of natural growth, where, as she had chanced to learn, it was Sze Chang's daily wont to resort at about that time in order to disperse the heavier feelings of his midday rice by continuous gentle motion. Anxiously awaiting his approach, she did not fail to admire meanwhile the harmonious result attained by the tempered light of day filtering through an elaborate tracery of quietly fluttering leaves stirred by a perfumed breeze, while the varied notes of unseen birds of the more melodious sorts heightened the sense of refinement. From this entrancing scene Fa was abruptly recalled by the methodical breathing of one as he drew near, and after being satisfied that this was indeed the unscrupulous seer, she suitably arranged herself on a convenient bank and shrouding her face beneath a fold of the cloak she wore, raised a voice of graceful bitterness.
"How unendurable is the position of a person who by the vicissitudes of fate is condemned to a detested lot! Why should the one who is speaking, owing to an irrational father's unbecoming whim, be on the point of an abhorrent alliance with a penurious and intellectually moth-eaten writer of third-rate verse when she had long in secret fixed her hopes on the congenial image of a profound philosopher, who in addition to being in every way a more trustworthy guide would have been able to satisfy her most fanciful ambitions? O unattainable Sze Chang, how should you have allowed yourself to become enticed——" but at this point an incautious exclamation of senile delight warned Fa that she was not alone and a moment later the one foreseen reached the edge of the clearing.
"Alas," she bewailed, looking vainly round for some way by which it would not be possible to escape, "even in this sequestered spot is it not feasible to give way to a high-minded despair without having one's most cherished confidences extorted? Whoever you may be who approach, graciously avert your magnanimous eyes and do not seek to resolve the identity of one——"
"Yet there is no occasion for distress and this moves to an auspicious end, for he whom you seek to shun is no other than the one who has admittedly gained your approval."
"Sze Chang himself!—can it be?" was wrung from Fa in enhanced confusion. "This transcends all possible varieties of shame, that one of the other sort should hear his own name——'
"Restrain your profuse display of becoming delicacy—at least to a more convenient time—since the Sze Chang whom you now perceive is equally disposed towards such a union."
"Yet the unsurmountable barrier of a venerated father's spoken word——?" lamented Fa, not indisposed to lay aside a really adequate portrayal of maidenly reserve as the moments sped on in which she must accomplish her despairing mission. "Surely it cannot have escaped your profoundly well-informed ears that if at the final test Lao Ping's entry should prevail——? Spirit of Bygone Mettle has hitherto proved unconquerable."
"Have no fear on that score either," replied Sze Chang with ill- disguised assurance; "the Ancient Bygone will never again enter the prize-circle. Since matters are thus and thus between us there is no harm in admitting now that this person also was possessed by some uneasiness as to Valiant Tiger's ability to outlast so unorthodox a strategist. To remedy this obvious injustice he therefore took the opportunity last night to slip the Baleful Glance across Lao Ping's resuscitated hope as it was reclining at ease after the final encounter. To-day, Spirit of Bygone Mettle will be in no condition to meet an aggressive caterpillar."
"The Baleful Glance!" exclaimed Fa, so distraught that she even seized the magician's talismanic robe in the extremity of her well-arranged emotion; "what contradiction of terms is here that you should thus describe the cause of a state of incredible vivacity? Learn that since last night so intensified an animation has possessed that torpid worm as to add to his natural tactics a hitherto unsuspected energy. Already he has eaten several of his practising accomplices, bitten a hand that sought to caress, and now the insufferable Lao Ping freely boasts that in the Bygone he owns the coming Middle Kingdom Agate Belt holder. If you doubted for Valiant Tiger before, now is the time to compose his epitaph."
"What you say is very surprising in view of the unfailing efficacy of this one's Baleful Glance," muttered Sze Chang, palpably at a loss how next to proceed. "Never before has it been known to miss blighting a recipient."
"In that case it would be well to consider what sort of a glance was actually bestowed," reasonably suggested Fa; "for chancing to look up at about the time concerned this one surprised from your expressive eyes an ardent shaft that was the reverse of an imprecation. If the, as it were, afterglow of this approving message remained may it not be that instead of the Baleful Glance you really conferred on the offensive slug something in the nature of a Gladdening Welcome?"
"This comes of attempting to do two things at once and clearly shows the inexpedience of mingling business and affection," lamented Sze Chang with very little left of his usual assertive manner. "In passing from one object to another this incapable wizard obviously forgot to change the expression of his face with the deplorable result that Spirit of Bygone Mettle is now infused with new life and pugnacity. Valiant Tiger may henceforth be regarded as little better than so much cold insect."
"Unless," prompted Fa in a voice of significant import, "to Valiant Tiger's admitted strength and thrust there should be united a more than insectile restraint and cunning."
"You are informing this person!" was Sze Chang's not very choice assent, for the disclosure of his ineptitude had shaken his essential balance. "But that is wherein the Tiger notably falls short and no amount of guidance has ever yet been able to correct his tendency to rush the issue. Could he be disciplined to play a waiting game he could still engage that one on equal ground and beat him."
"And why should this not be?" demanded Fa with inspiring fervour. "You, as a powerful magician, have admitted powers. Is it not within your scope to assume any form at will and conform to it?"
"To a certain extent that can readily be done," replied Sze Chang. "In the case of the larger carnivora it is not always easy either to get in, so to speak, or to get out, but apart from these——"
"No such difficulty confronts you here. Invest yourself for the short time required with the outward semblance of Valiant Tiger and take his place, thereby uniting with his physical agility your own tempered resource and the outcome is certain."
Although in the progress of a long and well-spread life Sze Chang had played many unusual parts it was undeniable that for a few beats of time he wavered.
"There are no practical obstacles in the way of such a course it is true;" he declared; "but for one who has always observed a certain standard of things which are and are not done there is an element of reluctance. Where an honorary distinction such as the Porcelain Badge is at stake would it be quite——"
"Before the inviolable word is said," interposed Fa adroitly, "consider rather the authority of the prevalent text, 'In matters of affection and military stress there is no such thing as compunction'."
"It is well recalled," conceded Sze Chang, "and were it not——"
" 'Were-it-not and If and But were three brothers who lost their way in a wood, looking for a door to get out by'," retorted Fa disdainfully. "It is very plain how the matter stands. At the cost of a trifling personal inconvenience for a short gong-stroke or so a coveted honour and a camel-load of facile silver lie within your grasp, but you fear that this one's by no means easily ignored father will profess a binding condition. Admittedly she who stands before you is of leprous skin, deficient in one eye, afflicted with a hump and, as you may see"—at this point Fa enveloped Sze Chang in the characteristic glance to which reference has been made at an earlier period—"generally repulsive. Were this not so——"
To those who do not habitually frequent the Ways with both eyes closed it will occasion no surprise that before another gong- stroke had passed Sze Chang should be assembling his theurgic outfit in the seclusion of an inner chamber. "When an alluring woman comes in at the door," warningly traced the austere Kien-fi on the margin of his well-known essay, "discretion may be found up the chimney." It is incredible that beneath this ever-timely reminder an obscure disciple should have added the words: "The wiser the sage, the more profound the folly."
WHILE Sze Chang bent his self-confident feet towards his secluded home Fa was speeding along a backward path for although her preparations thenceforward were not involved they entailed both secrecy and precision. In the Hall of a Thousand Lucky Chances a single attendant was preparing for the time of no-light assembly which would close the series. Rightly judging from the hireling's funereal cast that he had recently failed to disclose a winner Fa generously bestowed a hand-count of copper cash and sending him out to consult an omen undertook his unfinished duties.
These did not entail any great burden as the matter stood for the company that had been collected there came of the better class and even when dissatisfied had refrained from expressing deep resentment. Stools and benches might require to be rearranged, nut-sheaths and melon seeds swept up, and dead insects removed from the scenes of their last encounter. Chiefest of all, the hanging lanterns must be—where the candles had burned low—replenished to last the night and it was to this service that Fa first gave her energies. With a conscientious resolve that nothing should interrupt so imperative a task she even barred each door before engaging on this detail.
It may be recalled by those who have paid this ineffectual tale an attention far beyond its meagre deserts that when Lao Ping and Fa last met they had stood by the central table, at which the concluding event would soon take place, beneath the main source of illumination. This weighty contrivance was dependent on a single cord and, doubtless to ensure an equable light, Fa now moved the table a shade and firmly clamped it there, so that the metal base of the lamp hung exactly above the prescribed circle wherein the combatants must confine their action. Hitherto the sustaining cord had been perfunctorily held by a knot made at a fixed eyelet in the base but this crude purchase was deemed unsuitable to Fa's ingenious mind and an alternative device had already suggested itself which she now proceeded to realise. Warming an iron skewer she pierced the great central candle at about a finger-breadth below the top and passing the cord through the opening thus formed retained it securely in its place by means of an adequacy of soft wax well pressed among the interstices. Had Lao Ping been privileged to observe Fa then he might have written a fitting poem extolling her worth—and even the remiss Sze Chang would perchance have found his tongue unloosed—for unlike those who must depend on fictitious accessories to display their charms, the lowly nature of Fa's servile task lent an added glow to her complicated glamour. And as she considered each deft touch to perfect her work she sang a little chant that told of two hard-pressed but enduring lovers and how at last, owing to the unassailable purity of their cause, and the affectionate foresight of one, they were wafted through many risks to a state of perpetual happiness.
WHEN it was seen by the expectant throng that Sze Chang was not there in person to lead out his insect some slight surprise was felt but at the appointed stroke a trusty attendant who served the magician's hand responded to the note of defiance and produced the Valiant Tiger. Lao Ping, as the contesting voice, had already "placed" the challenger. The Ancient Bygone's crafty style was now well known to every onlooker there so that he should remain inert when once placed on the board occasioned no remark but an appreciative murmur filled the hall as it was realised how the hitherto impetuous champion confronting him was adopting the same deliberate tactics. From their respective stations at different sides of the allowed space each combatant continued to maintain complete inaction.
"Valiant Tiger has assimilated his instruction at last," was freely confided. "This has every appearance of being a contest of wits which it would be well worth going many far li to see," and knowing that they had, if necessary, the whole period of no-light to go, the assemblage settled pleasurably down to await the onset, while the more venerable among them sought occasions to recount past instances of still doughtier contests.
What exactly would have been the final outcome of so evenly- balanced an exchange can only be written in terms of surmise for the occasion was destined to become memorable by a very different happening. Even at the moment when the one who was there to decide any opposing claims, thinking that he detected a slight movement in the Valiant Tiger's poise, had murmured, "Something should ensue now," a noise, not unlike that occasioned by treading on broken glass and at the same time tearing several folds of costly silk, spread general consternation. Before the actual nature of this mishap could be grasped an appreciable gloom obscured the scene and the middle part of the hall became a complicated mixture of scattered shreds of various sorts, upturned seats, discordant cries and persons getting in each other's way as they endeavoured to hasten elsewhere, above which could be heard the voices of distraught keepers of the doors enjoining all to maintain self-composure. When the dust had settled down somewhat and the tumult begun to abate it could be seen that the great central appointment of fifteen lights had fallen down and by its descent practically obliterated both combatants.
"After this truly regrettable event there is no alternative but to declare the encounter nothing and empty," announced Shun Chin, mounting a convenient height and indicating to his gatherers-in that instead of money itself vouchers-of-return should be handed to those who clamoured. "In due course descriptive placards of the thus necessary re-fight will be widely exhibited. Meanwhile the Porcelain Badge, together with the title 'Unconquerable,' remains, as it were, suspended."
"On the contrary," maintained a firm but, very melodious voice, and across the wreckage-strewn space Fa, stifling her natural diffidence, took up a similar position, "the Ordinance of the Board of Contending Crickets Control, under which this assembling is held, specifically foresees and provides against such a difficulty. By Clause 97, underdivision K, it is declared that in the event of both belligerents from any cause Passing Upwards at the same time together, the two claimers of the title concerned shall thereupon appear in person and decide by a throw of the inspired Flat and Round Sticks which shall be acclaimed victor."
"The statement is exact," agreed the one who was there to balance right and wrong, "and the indicated course must be duly followed. Sze Chang not being yet arrived let him be quickly summoned."
"It is as good as achieved, O disperser of doubt," put in the one who served the magician's hand. "At the outset of affairs this one, stirred by some inward qualm, sent back a pressing message."
"The messenger who was despatched is all but here again," reported one who stood by a door. "He hastens as though pursued but his feet are not urged on by gladness."
At that the voices and the shifting to and fro died down so that when the messenger appeared the only sounds were his laboured breath and the soft padding of his straw shoes as he ran forward.
"Affliction has entered the House of Sze and he whom I was sent to bring is beyond the message. How this happened none who are there can say but when they sought him to hear the word I had brought they found Sze Chang lying crushed on a couch in his room of secret doings, with one of the Ancestral Tablets, exceeding the weight of three ordinary men, fallen down upon him. It cannot be doubted that he had instantly Gone Hence to join Those Others."
"The occasion will certainly call for suitable marks of grief," sympathetically announced Fa, towards whom many eyes were now directed, "Sze Chang having been, as one might say, almost of our own number. Meanwhile, the outcome having developed thus and thus, the Badge and the Title must be claimed for the insect-pen of Lao Ping, the widely-extolled and phenomenally successful local verse-maker of Yuen-yang, of whom it has been truly said——"
"Forbear!" besought Lao Ping, plucking her sleeve, for apart from the exuberance of his garb the one concerned was neither obtrusive nor unseemly.
"Yet consider what the future entails, beloved, and recall that the takers-down of spoken words are here in clusters," guardedly dropped Fa with a glance of reassurance. "—he whose sublimest effort—'Pearls Dripping from the Broken Spouting of a Disused Fowl Pen in Autumn'—though worthy of Tou Fou, the Divine of Song himself, will be sent forth in printed leaves by Hong and Kong from the Sign of the Man Rolling Logs at the wholly inadequate cost of two taels, five hundred cash, to- morrow."
"The claim cannot be gainsaid," conceded the one who held the scales, "—that is to say as regards the official award affecting the contest. The other observations advanced do not come within this person's province."
Little remains to be expressed of matters relating to the further destinies of those concerned with the unfolding of this mediocre chronicle.
Shun Chin from time to time moved on to other distant parts where he engaged in a variety of kindred enterprises as the occasion offered, diversifying his adaptable name now and again to suit any arising hazard. On all these occasions he was accompanied by Fa and Lao Ping, the latter person not having been inundated with the superfluity of taels that, in the opinion of those best qualified to judge, his unapproachable efforts merited. At first Fa had not thought that her father would extend the open hand of gladness towards Lao Ping's continual presence but Shun Chin took an early opportunity to lead his daughter privately aside and thus expound his outlook:
"One does not attain six double hand-counts of years without grasping certain fundamental principles of life and among these may be accepted the fact that even with the most desirable joint of meat there will be present a commensurate amount of gristle. In the furtherance of this person's enterprises—where they have not run counter to your own design—you have proved both diligent and apt. In the circumstances your departing footsteps would convey a hollow sound and for this reason, if it can be suitably arranged, he who is speaking now is prepared to regard as a long yearned-for and henceforth cherished son one who had better otherwise remain nameless."
"It shall be as a wise and ever-indulgent parent may decide," dutifully replied Fa, since she saw no other prospect as things were positioned. "My father is all-knowing."
"Not perhaps to a literal degree," disclaimed Shun Chin with unnecessary modesty. "But," he added as an afterthought, "sufficiently observant to connect the charred state of a dependent cord with the regrettable end of one who might certainly have proved helpful."