Part 2 out of 5
"That manifestly is what I seek," said Ning. "But it might as well be
at the bottom of its native sea, for no ladder could reach to such a
height nor would the slender branch support a living form."
"Yet the emergency is one easily disposed of." With these opportune
words the amiable person rose from the ground without any appearance
of effort or conscious movement, and floating upward through the air
he procured the jewel and restored it to Ning.
When Ning had thus learned that Tian possessed these three attainments
which are united in the gods alone--that he could stand naked before
others without consciousness of shame, that his eyes were able to
penetrate matter impervious to those of ordinary persons, and that he
controlled the power of rising through the air unaided--he understood
that the one before him was a deity of some degree. He therefore
questioned him closely about his history, the various omens connected
with his life and the position of the planets at his birth. Finding
that these presented no element of conflict, and that, furthermore,
the youth's mother was a slave, formerly known as Hia, Ning declared
himself more fully and greeted Tian as his undoubted son.
"The absence of such a relation is the one thing that has pressed
heavily against this person's satisfaction in the past, and the
deficiency is now happily removed," exclaimed Tian. "The distinction
of having a deity for a father outweighs even the present admittedly
distressing condition in which he reveals himself. His word shall
henceforth be my law."
"The sentiment is a dutiful one," admitted Ning, "and it is possible
that you are now thus discovered in pursuance of some scheme among my
more influential accomplices in the Upper Air for restoring to me my
"In so meritorious a cause this person is prepared to immerse himself
to any depth," declared Tian readily. "Nothing but the absence of
precise details restrains his hurrying feet."
"Those will doubtless be communicated to us by means of omens and
portents as the requirement becomes more definite. In the meanwhile
the first necessity is to enable this person's nails to grow again;
for to present himself thus in the Upper Air would be to cover him
with ridicule. When the Emperor Chow-sin endeavoured to pass himself
off as a menial by throwing aside his jewelled crown, the rebels who
had taken him replied: 'Omnipotence, you cannot throw away your
knees.' To claim kinship with those Above and at the same time to
extend towards them a hand obviously inured to probing among the stony
earth would be to invite the averted face of recognition."
"Let recognition be extended in other directions and the task of
returning to a forfeited inheritance will be lightened materially,"
remarked a significant voice.
"Estimable mother," exclaimed Tian, "this opportune stranger is my
venerated father, whose continuous absence has been an overhanging
cloud above my gladness, but now happily revealed and restored to our
"Alas!" interposed Ning, "the opening of this enterprise forecasts a
questionable omen. Before this person stands the one who enticed him
into the beginning of all his evil; how then--"
"Let the word remain unspoken," interrupted Hia. "Women do not entice
men--though they admittedly accompany them, with an extreme absence of
reluctance, in any direction. In her youth this person's feet
undoubtedly bore her occasionally along a light and fantastic path,
for in the nature of spring a leaf is green and pliable, and in the
nature of autumn it is brown and austere, and through changeless ages
thus and thus. But, as it is truly said: 'Milk by repeated agitation
turns to butter,' and for many years it has been this one's ceaseless
study of the Arts whereby she might avert that which she helped to
bring about in her unstable youth."
"The intention is a commendable one, though expressed with unnecessary
verbiage," replied Ning. "To what solution did your incantations
"Concealed somewhere within the walled city of Ti-foo are the sacred
nail-sheaths on which your power so essentially depends, sent thither
by Sun Wei at the crafty instance of the demon Leou, who hopes at a
convenient time to secure them for himself. To discover these and bear
them forth will be the part allotted to Tian, and to this end has the
training of his youth been bent. By what means he shall strive to the
accomplishment of the project the unrolling curtain of the future
"It is as the destinies shall decide and as the omens may direct,"
said Tian. "In the meanwhile this person's face is inexorably fixed in
the direction of Ti-foo."
"Proceed with all possible discretion," advised Ning. "In so critical
an undertaking you cannot be too cautious, but at the same time do not
suffer the rice to grow around your advancing feet."
"A moment," conselled Hia. "Tarry yet a moment. Here is one whose
rapidly-moving attitude may convey a message."
"It is Lin Fa!" exclaimed Ning, as the one alluded to drew near--"Lin
Fa who guards the coffers of Sun Wei. Some calamity pursues him."
"Hence!" cried Lin Far, as he caught sight of them, yet scarcely
pausing in his flight: "flee to the woods and caves until the time of
this catastrophe be past. Has not the tiding reached you?"
"We be but dwellers on the farther bounds and no word has reached our
ear, O great Lin Fa. Fill in, we pray you, the warning that has been
so suddenly outlined."
"The usurper Ah-tang has lit the torch of swift rebellion and is
flattening-down the land that bars his way. Already the villages of
Yeng, Leu, Liang-li and the Dwellings by the Three Pure Wells are as
dust beneath his trampling feet, and they who stayed there have passed
up in smoke. Sun Wei swings from the roof-tree of his own ruined
yamen. Ah-tang now lays siege to walled Ti-foo so that he may possess
the Northern Way. Guard this bag of silver meanwhile, for what I have
is more than I can reasonably bear, and when the land is once again at
peace, assemble to meet me by the Five-Horned Pagoda, ready with a
"All this is plainly part of an orderly scheme for my advancement,
brought about by my friends in the Upper World," remarked Ning, with
some complacency. "Lin Fa has been influenced to the extent of
providing us with the means for our immediate need; Sun Wei has been
opportunely removed to the end that this person may now retire to a
hidden spot and there suffer his dishonoured nails to grow again:
Ah-tang has been impelled the raise the banner of insurrection outside
Ti-foo so that Tian may make use of the necessities of either side in
pursuit of his design. Assuredly the long line of our misfortunes is
now practically at an end."
iv. EVENTS ROUND WALLED TI-FOO
Nevertheless, the alternative forced on Tian was not an alluring one.
If he joined the band of Ah-tang and the usurper failed, Tian himself
might never get inside Ti-foo; if, however, he allied himself with the
defenders of Ti-foo and Ah-tang did not fail, he might never get out
of Ti-foo. Doubtless he would have reverently submitted his cause to
the inspired decision of the Sticks, or some other reliable augur, had
he not, while immersed in the consideration, walked into the camp of
Ah-tang. The omen of this occurrence was of too specific a nature not
to be regarded as conclusive.
Ah-tang was one who had neglected the Classics from his youth upwards.
For this reason his detestable name is never mentioned in the
Histories, and the various catastrophes he wrought are charitably
ascribed to the action of earthquakes, thunderbolts and other admitted
forces. He himself, with his lamentable absence of literary style, was
wont to declare that while confessedly weak in analogies he was strong
in holocausts. In the end he drove the sublime emperor from his
capital and into the Outer Lands; with true refinement the annalists
of the period explain that the condescending monarch made a journey of
inspection among the barbarian tribes on the confines of his Empire.
When Tian, charged with being a hostile spy, was led into the presence
of Ah-tang, it was the youth's intention to relate somewhat of his
history, but the usurper, excusing himself on the ground of literary
deficiency, merely commanded five of his immediate guard to bear the
prisoner away and to return with his head after a fitting interval.
Misunderstanding the exact requirement, Tian returned at the appointed
time with the heads of the five who had charge of him and the excuse
that in those times of scarcity it was easier to keep one head than
five. This aptitude so pleased Ah-tang (who had expected at the most a
farewell apophthegm) that he at once made Tian captain of a chosen
Thus was Tian positioned outside the city of Ti-foo, materially
contributing to its ultimate surrender by the resourceful courage of
his arms. For the first time in the history of opposing forces he
tamed the strength and swiftness of wild horses to the use of man, and
placing copper loops upon their feet and iron bars between their
teeth, he and his band encircled Ti-foo with an ever-moving shield
through which no outside word could reach the town. Cut off in this
manner from all hope of succour, the stomachs of those within the
walls grew very small, and their eyes became weary of watching for
that which never came. On the third day of the third moon of their
encirclement they sent a submissive banner, and one bearing a written
message, into the camp of Ah-tang.
"We are convinced" (it ran) "of the justice of your cause. Let
six of your lordly nobles appear unarmed before our ill-kept
Lantern Gate at the middle gong-stroke of to-morrow and they
will be freely admitted within our midst. Upon receiving a
bound assurance safeguarding the limits of our temples, the
persons and possessions of our chiefs, and the undepreciated
condition of the first wives and virgin daughters of such as
be of mandarin rank or literary degree, the inadequate keys of
our broken-down defences will be laid at their sumptuous feet.
"With a fervent hand-clasp as of one brother to another, and a
passionate assurance of mutual good-will,
"It is received," replied Ah-tang, when the message had been made
known to him. "Six captains will attend."
Alas! it is well written: "There is often a space between the fish and
the fish-plate." Mentally inflated at the success of their efforts and
the impending surrender of Ti-foo, Tian's band suffered their energies
to relax. In the dusk of that same evening one disguised in the skin
of a goat browsed from bush to bush until he reached the town. There,
throwing off all restraint, he declared his errand to Ko'en Cheng.
"Behold!" he exclaimed, "the period of your illustrious suffering is
almost at an end. With an army capable in size and invincible in
determination, the ever-victorious Wu Sien is marching to your aid.
Defy the puny Ah-tang for yet three days more and great glory will be
"Doubtless," replied Ko'en Cheng, with velvet bitterness: "but the sun
has long since set and the moon is not yet risen. The appearance of a
solitary star yesterday would have been more foot-guiding than the
forecast of a meteor next week. This person's thumb-signed word is
passed and to-morrow Ah-tang will hold him to it."
Now there was present among the council one wrapped in a mantle made
of rustling leaves, who spoke in a smooth, low voice, very cunning and
persuasive, with a plan already shaped that seemed to offer well and
to safeguard Ko'en Cheng's word. None remembered to have seen him
there before, and for this reason it is now held by some that this was
Leou, the Whisperer, perturbed lest the sacred nail-sheaths of Ning
should pass beyond his grasp. As to this, says not the Wise One: "When
two men cannot agree over the price of an onion who shall decide what
happened in the time of Yu?" But the voice of the unknown prevailed,
all saying: "At the worst it is but as it will be; perchance it may be
That night there was much gladness in the camp of Ah-tang, and men
sang songs of victory and cups of wine were freely passed, though in
the outer walks a strict watch was kept. When it was dark the word was
passed that an engaging company was approaching from the town, openly
and with lights. These being admitted revealed themselves as a band of
maidens, bearing gifts of fruit and wine and assurances of their
agreeable behaviour. Distributing themselves impartially about the
tents of the chiefs and upper ones, they melted the hours of the night
in graceful accomplishments and by their seemly compliance dispelled
all thought of treachery. Having thus gained the esteem of their
companions, and by the lavish persuasion of bemusing wine dimmed their
alertness, all this band, while it was still dark, crept back to the
town, each secretly carrying with her the arms, robes and insignia of
the one who had possessed her.
When the morning broke and the sound of trumpets called each man to an
appointed spot, direful was the outcry from the tents of all the
chiefs, and though many heads were out-thrust in rage of indignation,
no single person could be prevailed upon wholly to emerge. Only the
lesser warriors, the slaves and the bearers of the loads moved freely
to and fro and from between closed teeth and with fluttering eyelids
tossed doubtful jests among themselves.
It was close upon the middle gong-stroke of the day when Ah-tang,
himself clad in a shred torn from his tent (for in all the camp there
did not remain a single garment bearing a sign of noble rank), got
together a council of his chiefs. Some were clad in like attire,
others carried a henchman's shield, a paper lantern or a branch of
flowers; Tian alone displayed himself without reserve.
"There are moments," said Ah-tang, "when this person's admitted
accomplishment of transfixing three foemen with a single javelin at a
score of measured paces does not seem to provide a possible solution.
Undoubtedly we are face to face with a crafty plan, and Ko'en Cheng
has surely heard that Wu Sien is marching from the west. If we fail to
knock upon the outer gate of Ti-foo at noon to-day Ko'en Cheng will
say: 'My word returns. It is as naught.' If they who go are clad as
underlings, Ko'en Cheng will cry: 'What slaves be these! Do men break
plate with dogs? Our message was for six of noble style. Ah-tang but
mocks.'" He sat down again moodily. "Let others speak."
"Chieftain"--Tian threw forth his voice--"your word must be as
iron--'Six captains shall attend.' There is yet another way."
"Speak on," Ah-tang commanded.
"The quality of Ah-tang's chiefs resides not in a cloak of silk nor in
a silver-hilted sword, but in the sinews of their arms and the
lightning of their eyes. If they but carry these they proclaim their
rank for all to see. Let six attend taking neither sword nor shield,
neither hat nor sandal, nor yet anything between. 'There are six
thousand more,' shall be their taunt, 'but Ko'en Cheng's hospitality
drew rein at six. He feared lest they might carry arms; behold they
have come naked. Ti-foo need not tremble."
"It is well," agreed Ah-tang. "At least, nothing better offers. Let
five accompany you."
Seated on a powerful horse Tian led the way. The others, not being of
his immediate band, had not acquired the necessary control, so that
they walked in a company. Coming to the Lantern Gate Tian turned his
horse suddenly so that its angry hoof struck the gate. Looking back he
saw the others following, with no great space between, and so passed
When the five naked captains reached the open gate they paused. Within
stood a great concourse of the people, these being equally of both
sexes, but they of the inner chambers pressing resolutely to the
front. Through the throng of these their way must lead, and at the
sight the hearts of all became as stagnant water in the sun.
"Tarry not for me, O brothers," said the one who led. "A thorn has
pierced my foot. Take honourable precedence while I draw it forth."
"Never," declared the second of the band, "never shall it be cast
abroad that Kang of the House of Ka failed his brother in necessity. I
sustain thy shoulder, comrade."
"Alas!" exclaimed the third. "This person broke his fast on rhubarb
stewed in fat. Inopportunely--" So he too turned aside.
"Have we considered well," said they who remained, "whether this be
not a subtle snare, and while the camp is denuded of its foremost
warriors a strong force--?"
Unconscious of these details, Tian went on alone. In spite of the
absence of gravity on the part of the more explicit portion of the
throng he suffered no embarrassment, partly because of his position,
but chiefly through his inability to understand that his condition
differed in any degree from theirs; for, owing to the piercing nature
of his vision, they were to him as he to them. In this way he came to
the open space known as the Space of the Eight Directions, where Ko'en
Cheng and his nobles were assembled.
"One comes alone," they cried. "This guise is as a taunt." "Naked to a
naked town--the analogy is plain." "Shall the mocker be suffered to
Thus the murmur grew. Then one, more impetuous than the rest, swung
clear his sword and drew it. For the first time Tian understood that
treachery was afoot. He looked round for any of his band, but found
that he was as a foam-tossed cork upon a turbulent Whang Hai. Cries of
anger and derision filled the air; threatening arms waved
encouragement to each other to begin. The one with drawn sword raised
it above his head and made a step. Then Tian, recognizing that he was
unarmed, and that a decisive moment had arrived, stooped low and tore
a copper hoop from off his horse's foot. High he swung its polished
brightness in the engaging sun, resolutely brought it down, so that it
pressed over the sword-warrior's shattered head and hung about his
neck. Having thus effected as much bloodshed as could reasonably be
expected in the circumstances, Tian curved his feet about his horse's
sides and imparting to it the virtue of his own condition they rose
into the air together. When those who stood below were able to exert
themselves a flight of arrows, spears and every kind of weapon
followed, but horse and rider were by that time beyond their reach,
and the only benevolent result attained was that many of their band
were themselves transfixed by the falling shafts.
In such a manner Tian continued his progress from the town until he
came above the Temple of Fire and Water Forces, where on a high tower
a strong box of many woods was chained beneath a canopy, guarded by an
incantation laid upon it by Leou, that no one should lift it down.
Recognizing the contents as the object of his search, Tian brought his
horse to rest upon the tower, and breaking the chains he bore the
magic sheaths away, the charm (owing to Leou's superficial habits)
being powerless against one who instead of lifting the box down
carried it up.
In spite of this distinguished achievement it was many moons before
Tian was able to lay the filial tribute of restored power at Ning's
feet, for with shallow-witted obstinacy Ti-foo continued to hold out,
and, scarcely less inept, Ah-tang declined to release Tian even to
carry on so charitable a mission. Yet when the latter one ultimately
returned and was, as the reward of his intrepid services, looking
forward to a period of domestic reunion under the benevolent guidance
of an affectionate father, it was but to point the seasoned proverb:
"The fuller the cup the sooner the spill," for scarcely had Ning drawn
on the recovered sheaths and with incautious joy repeated the magic
sentence than he was instantly projected across vast space and into
the trackless confines of the Outer Upper Paths. If this were an
imagined tale, framed to entice the credulous, herein would its
falseness cry aloud, but even in this age Ning may still be seen from
time to time with a tail of fire in his wake, missing the path of his
return as N'guk ordained.
Thus bereft, Tian was on the point of giving way to a seemly despair
when a message concerned with Mu, the only daughter of Ko'en Cheng,
reached him. It professed a high-minded regard for his welfare, and
added that although the one who was inspiring the communication had
been careful to avoid seeing him on the occasion of his entry into
Ti-foo, it was impossible for her not to be impressed by the dignity
of his bearing. Ko'en Cheng having become vastly wealthy as the result
of entering into an arrangement with Ah-tang before Ti-foo was sacked,
it did not seem unreasonable to Tian that Ning was in some way
influencing his destiny from afar. On this understanding he ultimately
married Mu, and thereby founded a prolific posterity who inherited a
great degree of his powers. In the course of countless generations the
attributes have faded, but even to this day the true descendants of
the line of Ning are frequently vouchsafed dreams in which they stand
naked and without shame, see gems or metals hidden or buried in the
earth and float at will through space.
The Inopportune Behaviour of the Covetous Li-loe
IT was upon the occasion of his next visit to the shutter in the wall
that Kai Lung discovered the obtuse-witted Li-loe moving about the
enclosure. Though docile and well-meaning on the whole, the stunted
intelligence of the latter person made him a doubtful accomplice, and
Kai Lung stood aside, hoping to be soon alone.
Li-loe held in his hand an iron prong, and with this he industriously
searched the earth between the rocks and herbage. Ever since their
previous encounter upon that same spot it had been impossible to erase
from his deformed mind the conviction that a store of rare and potent
wine lay somewhere concealed within the walls of the enclosure.
Continuously he besought the story-teller to reveal the secret of its
hiding-place, saying: "What an added bitterness will assail your noble
throat if, when you are led forth to die, your eye closes upon the one
who has faithfully upheld your cause lying with a protruded tongue
panting in the noonday sun."
"Peace, witless," Kai Lung usually replied; "there is no such store."
"Nevertheless," the doorkeeper would stubbornly insist, "the cask
cannot yet be empty. It is beyond your immature powers."
Thus it again befell, for despite Kai Lung's desire to escape, Li-loe
chanced to look up suddenly and observed him.
"Alas, brother," he remarked reproachfully, when they had thus
contended, "the vessel that returns whole the first time is chipped
the second and broken at the third essay, and it will yet be too late
between us. If it be as you claim, to what end did you boast of a cask
of wine and of running among a company of goats with leaves entwined
in your hair?"
"That," replied Kai Lung, "was in the nature of a classical allusion,
too abstruse for your deficient wit. It concerned the story of Kiau
Sun, who first attained the honour."
"Be that as it may," replied Li-loe, with mulish iteration, "five
deficient strings of home-made cash are a meagre return for a
friendship such as mine."
"There is a certain element of truth in what you claim," confessed Kai
Lung, "but until my literary style is more freely recognized it will
be impossible to reward you adequately. In anything not of a pecuniary
nature, however, you may lean heavily upon my gratitude."
"In the meanwhile, then," demanded Li-loe, "relate to me the story to
which reference has been made, thereby proving the truth of your
assertion, and at the same time affording an entertainment of a
somewhat exceptional kind."
"The shadows lengthen," replied Kai Lung, "but as the narrative in
question is of an inconspicuous span I will raise no barrier against
your flattering request, especially as it indicates an awakening taste
"Proceed, manlet, proceed," said Li-loe, with a final probe among the
surrounding rocks before selecting one to lean against. "Yet if this
person could but lay his hand--"
The Story of Wong Pao and the Minstrel
To Wong Pao, the merchant, pleasurably immersed in the calculation of
an estimated profit on a junk-load of birds' nests, sharks' fins and
other seasonable delicacies, there came a distracting interruption
occasioned by a wandering poet who sat down within the shade provided
by Wong Pao's ornamental gate in the street outside. As he reclined
there he sang ballads of ancient valour, from time to time beating a
hollow wooden duck in unison with his voice, so that the charitable
should have no excuse for missing the entertainment.
Unable any longer to continue his occupation, Wong Pao struck an iron
"Bear courteous greetings to the accomplished musician outside our
gate," he said to the slave who had appeared, "and convince him--by
means of a heavily-weighted club if necessary--that the situation he
has taken up is quite unworthy of his incomparable efforts."
When the slave returned it was with an entire absence of the
enthusiasm of one who has succeeded in an enterprise.
"The distinguished mendicant outside disarmed the one who is relating
the incident by means of an unworthy stratagem, and then struck him
repeatedly on the head with the image of a sonorous wooden duck,"
reported the slave submissively.
Meanwhile the voice with its accompaniment continued to chant the
deeds of bygone heroes.
"In that case," said Wong Pao coldly, "entice him into this inadequate
chamber by words suggestive of liberal entertainment."
This device was successful, for very soon the slave returned with the
stranger. He was a youth of studious appearance and an engaging
openness of manner. Hung about his neck by means of a cord were a
variety of poems suitable to most of the contingencies of an ordinary
person's existence. The name he bore was Sun and he was of the house
"Honourable greeting, minstrel," said Wong Pao, with dignified
condescension. "Why do you persist in exercising your illustrious
talent outside this person's insignificant abode?"
"Because," replied Sun modestly, "the benevolent mandarin who has just
spoken had not then invited me inside. Now, however, he will be able
to hear to greater advantage the very doubtful qualities of my
With these words Kiau Sun struck the duck so proficiently that it
emitted a life-like call, and prepared to raise his voice in a chant.
"Restrain your undoubted capacity," exclaimed Wong Pao hastily. "The
inquiry presented itself to you at an inaccurate angle. Why, to
restate it, did you continue before this uninviting hovel when, under
the external forms of true politeness, my slave endeavoured to remove
"In the circumstances this person may have overlooked the delicacy of
the message, for, as it is well written, 'To the starving, a blow from
a skewer of meat is more acceptable than a caress from the hand of a
maiden,'" said Kiau Sun. "Whereunto remember, thou two-stomached
merchant, that although the house in question in yours, the street is
"By what title?" demanded Wong Pao contentiously.
"By the same that confers this well-appointed palace upon you,"
replied Sun: "because it is my home."
"The point is one of some subtlety," admitted Wong Pao, "and might be
pursued to an extreme delicacy of attenuation if it were argued by
those whose profession it is to give a variety of meanings to the same
thing. Yet even allowing the claim, it is none the less an unendurable
affliction that your voice should disturb my peacefully conducted
"As yours would have done mine, O concave-witted Wong Pao!"
"That," retorted the merchant, "is a disadvantage that you could
easily have averted by removing yourself to a more distant spot."
"The solution is equally applicable to your own case, mandarin,"
replied Kiau Sun affably.
"Alas!" exclaimed Wong Pao, with an obvious inside bitterness, "it is
a mistake to argue with persons of limited intelligence in terms of
courtesy. This, doubtless, was the meaning of the philosopher Nhy-hi
when he penned the observation, 'Death, a woman and a dumb mute always
have the last word,' Why did I have you conducted hither to convince
you dispassionately, rather than send an armed guard to force you away
"Possibly," suggested the minstrel, "because my profession is a
legally recognized one, and, moreover, under the direct protection of
the exalted Mandarin Shen-y-ling."
"Profession!" retorted Wong Pao, stung by the reference to
Shen-y-ling, for that powerful official's attitude was indeed the
inner reason why he had not pushed violence to a keener edge against
Kiau Sun, "an abject mendicancy, yielding two hands" grasp of copper
cash a day on a stock composed of half a dozen threadbare odes."
"Compose me half a dozen better and one hand-count of cash shall be
apportioned to you each evening," suggested Sun.
"A handful of cash for /my/ labour!" exclaimed the indignant Wong Pao.
"Learn, puny wayfarer, that in a single day the profit of my various
enterprises exceeds a hundred taels of silver."
"That is less than the achievement of my occupation," said Kiau Sun.
"Less!" repeated the merchant incredulously. "Can you, O boaster,
display a single tael?"
"Doubtless I should be the possessor of thousands if I made use of the
attributes of a merchant--three hands and two faces. But that was not
the angle of my meaning: your labour only compels men to remember;
mine enables them to forget."
Thus they continued to strive, each one contending for the
pre-eminence of his own state, regardless of the sage warning: "In
three moments a labourer will remove an obstructing rock, but three
moons will pass without two wise men agreeing on the meaning of a
vowel"; and assuredly they would have persisted in their intellectual
entertainment until the great sky-lantern rose and the pangs of hunger
compelled them to desist, were it not for the manifestation of a very
The Emperor, N'ang Wei, then reigning, is now generally regarded as
being in no way profound or inspired, but possessing the faculty of
being able to turn the dissensions among his subjects to a profitable
account, and other accomplishments useful in a ruler. As he passed
along the streets of his capital he heard the voices of two raised in
altercation, and halting the bearer of his umbrella, he commanded
that the persons concerned should be brought before him and state the
nature of their dispute.
"The rivalry is an ancient one," remarked the Emperor when each had
made his claim. "Doubtless we ourselves could devise a judgment, but
in this cycle of progress it is more usual to leave decision to the
pronouncement of the populace--and much less exacting to our Imperial
ingenuity. An edict will therefore be published, stating that at a
certain hour Kiau Sun will stand upon the Western Hill of the city and
recite one of his incomparable epics, while at the same gong-stroke
Wong Pao will take his station on the Eastern Hill, let us say for the
purpose of distributing pieces of silver among any who are able to
absent themselves from the competing attraction. It will then be
clearly seen which entertainment draws the greater number."
"Your mind, O all-wisest, is only comparable to the peacock's tail in
its spreading brilliance!" exclaimed Wong Pao, well assured of an easy
Kiau Sun, however, remained silent, but he observed closely the
benignly impartial expression of the Emperor's countenance.
When the indicated time arrived, only two persons could have been
observed within the circumference of the Western Hill of the city--a
blind mendicant who had lost his way and an extremely round-bodied
mandarin who had been abandoned there by his carriers when they heard
the terms of the edict. But about the Eastern Hill the throng was so
great that for some time after it was unusual to meet a person whose
outline had not been permanently altered by the occasion. Even Kiau
Sun was present.
On a protected eminence stood N'ang Wei. Near him was Wong Pao,
confidently awaiting the moment when the Emperor should declare
himself. When, therefore, the all-wisest graciously made a gesture of
command, Wong Pao hastened to his side, an unbecoming elation gilding
the fullness of his countenance.
"Wong Pao," said the Illimitable, "the people are here in gratifying
profusion. The moment has thus arrived for you to consummate your
triumph over Kiau Sun."
"Omnipotence?" queried Wong Pao.
"The silver that you were to distribute freely to all who came.
Doubtless you have a retinue of slaves in attendance with weighty
sacks of money for the purpose?"
"But that was only in the nature of an imagined condition, Sublime
Being, designed to test the trend of their preference," said Wong Pao,
with an incapable feeling of no-confidence in the innermost seat of
his self-esteem. "This abject person did not for a single
breathing-space contemplate or provide for so formidable an outlay."
A shadow of inquiry appeared above the eyebrows of the Sublimest,
although his refined imperturbability did not permit him to display
any acute emotion.
"It is not entirely a matter of what you contemplated, merchant, but
what this multitudinous and, as we now perceive, generally well-armed
concourse imagined. Greatly do we fear that when the position has been
explained to them, the breathing-space remaining, O Wong Pao, will not
be in your body. What," continued the liberal-minded sovereign,
turning to one of his attending nobles, "what was it that happened to
Ning-lo who failed to satisfy the lottery ticket holders in somewhat
"The scorpion vat, Serenest," replied the vassal.
"Ah," commented the Enlightened One, "for the moment we thought it was
the burning sulphur plaster."
"That was Ching Yan, who lost approval in the inlaid coffin raffle,
Benign Head," prompted the noble.
"True--there is a certain oneness in these cases. Well, Wong Pao, we
are entirely surrounded by an expectant mob and their attitude, after
much patient waiting, is tending towards a clearly-defined tragedy. By
what means is it your intention to extricate us all from the position
into which your insatiable vanity has thrust us?"
"Alas, Imperishable Majesty, I only appear to have three pieces of
silver and a string of brass cash in my sleeve," confessed Wong Pao
"And that would not go very far--even if flung into the limits of the
press," commented the Emperor. "We must look elsewhere for
deliverance, then. Kiau Sun, stand forth and try your means."
Upon this invitation Sun appeared from the tent in which he had
awaited the summons and advanced to the edge of the multitude. With no
appearance of fear or concern, he stood before them, and bending his
energies to the great task imposed upon him, he struck the hollow duck
so melodiously that the note of expectancy vibrated into the farthest
confines of the crowd. Then modulating his voice in unison Kiau Sun
began to chant.
At first the narration was of times legendary, when dragons and demons
moved about the earth in more palpable forms than they usually
maintain to-day. A great mist overspread the Empire and men's minds
were vaporous, nor was their purpose keen. Later, deities and
well-disposed Forces began to exercise their powers. The mist was
turned into a benevolent system of rivers and canals, and iron, rice
and the silk-worm then appeared, Next, heroes and champions, whose
names have been preserved, arose. They fought the giants and an era of
literature and peaceful tranquillity set in. After this there was the
Great Invasion from the north, but the people rallied and by means of
a war lasting five years, five moons and five days the land was freed
again. This prefaced the Golden Age when chess was invented, printed
books first made and the Examination System begun.
So far Kiau Sun had only sung of things that men knew dimly through a
web of time, but the melody of his voice and the valours of the deeds
he told had held their minds. Now he began skilfully to intertwine
among the narration scenes and doings that were near to all--of the
coming of Spring across the mountains that surround the capital;
sunrise on the great lagoon, with the splash of oars and the
cormorants in flight; the appearance of the blossom in the peach
orchards; the Festival of Boats and of Lanterns, their daily task, and
the reward each saw beyond. Finally he spoke quite definitely of the
homes awaiting their return, the mulberry-tree about the gate, the
fire then burning on the hearth, the pictures on the walls, the
ancestral tablets, and the voices calling each. And as he spoke and
made an end of speaking the people began silently to melt away, until
none remained but Kiau, Wong Pao and the Emperor and his band.
"Kiau Sun," said the discriminating N'ang Wei, "in memory of this day
the office of Chanter of Congratulatory Odes in the Palace ceremonial
is conferred on you, together with the title 'Leaf-crowned' and the
yearly allowance of five hundred taels and a jar of rice wine. And
Wong Pao," he added thoughtfully--"Wong Pao shall be permitted to
endow the post--also in memory of this day."
The Timely Intervention of the Mandarin Shan Tien's Lucky Day
WHEN Kai Lung at length reached the shutter, after the delay caused by
Li-loe's inopportune presence, he found that Hwa-mei was already
standing there beneath the wall.
"Alas!" he exclaimed, in an access of self-reproach, "is it possible
that I have failed to greet your arriving footsteps? Hear the
degrading cause of my--"
"Forbear," interrupted the maiden, with a magnanimous gesture of the
hand that was not engaged in bestowing a gift of fruit. "There is a
time to scatter flowers and a time to prepare the soil. To-morrow a
further trial awaits you, for which we must conspire."
"I am in your large and all-embracing grasp," replied Kai Lung.
"Proceed to spread your golden counsel."
"The implacable Ming-shu has deliberated with himself, and deeming it
unlikely that you should a third time allure the imagination of the
Mandarin Shan Tien by your art, he has ordered that you are again to
be the first led out to judgment. On this occasion, however, he has
prepared a cloud of witnesses who will, once they are given a voice,
quickly overwhelm you in a flood of calumny."
"Even a silver trumpet may not prevail above a score of brazen horns,"
confessed the story-teller doubtfully. "Would it not be well to engage
an even larger company who will outlast the first?"
"The effete Ming-shu has hired all there are," replied Hwa-mei, with a
curbing glance. "Nevertheless, do not despair. At a convenient hour a
trusty hand will let fall a skin of wine at their assembling place.
Their testimony, should any arrive, will entail some conflict."
"I bow before the practical many-sidedness of your mind, enchanting
one," murmured Kai Lung, in deep-felt admiration.
"To-morrow, being the first of the Month of Gathering-in, will be one
of Shan Tien's lucky days," continued the maiden, her look
acknowledging the fitness of the compliment, but at the same time
indicating that the moment was not a suitable one to pursue the detail
further. "After holding court the Mandarin will accordingly proceed to
hazard his accustomed stake upon the chances of certain of the
competitors in the approaching examinations. His mind will thus be
alertly watchful for a guiding omen. The rest should lie within your
"The story of Lao Ting--" began Kai Lung.
"Enough," replied Hwa-mei, listening to a distant sound. "Already has
this one strayed beyond her appointed limit. May your virtuous cause
With this auspicious message the maiden fled, leaving Kai Lung more
than ever resolved to conduct the enterprise in a manner worthy of her
On the following day, at the appointed hour, Kai Lung was again led
before the Mandarin Shan Tien. To the alert yet downcast gaze of the
former person it seemed as if the usually inscrutable expression of
that high official was not wholly stern as it moved in his direction.
Ming-shu, on the contrary, disclosed all his voracious teeth without
"Calling himself Kai Lung," began the detestable accuser, in a voice
even more repulsive than its wont, "and claiming--"
"The name has a somewhat familiar echo," interrupted the Fountain of
Justice, with a genial interest in what was going on, rare in one of
his exalted rank. "Have we not seen the ill-conditioned thing before?"
"He has tasted of your unutterable clemency in the past," replied
Ming-shu, "this being by no means his first appearance thus. Claiming
to be a story-teller--"
"What," demanded the enlightened law-giver with leisurely precision,
"is a story-teller, and how is he defined?"
"A story-teller, Excellence," replied the inscriber of his spoken
word, with the concise manner of one who is not entirely grateful to
another, "is one who tells stories. Having on--"
"The profession must be widely spread," remarked the gracious
administrator thoughtfully. "All those who supplicate in this very
average court practise it to a more or less degree."
"The prisoner," continued the insufferable Ming-shu, so lost to true
refinement that he did not even relax his dignity at a remark handed
down as gravity-removing from times immemorial, "has already been
charged and made his plea. It only remains, therefore, to call the
witnesses and to condemn him."
"The usual band appears to be more retiring than their custom is,"
observed Shan Tien, looking around. "Their lack of punctual respect
does not enlarge our sympathy towards their cause."
"They are all hard-striving persons of studious or commercial habits,"
replied Ming-shu, "and have doubtless become immersed in their various
"Should the immersion referred to prove to be so deep--"
"A speedy messenger has already gone, but his returning footsteps
tarry," urged Ming-shu anxiously. "In this extremity, Excellence, I
"High Excellence," appealed Kai Lung, as soon as Ming-shu's departing
sandals were obscured to view, "out of the magnanimous condescension
of your unworldly heart hear an added plea. Taught by the inoffensive
example of that Lao Ting whose success in the literary competitions
was brought about by a conjunction of miraculous omens--"
"Arrest the stream of your acknowledged oratory for a single
breathing-space," commanded the Mandarin dispassionately, yet at the
same time unostentatiously studying a list that lay within his sleeve.
"What was the auspicious name of the one of whom you spoke?"
"Lao Ting, exalted; to whom at various periods were subjoined those
of Li, Tzu, Sun, Chu, Wang and Chin."
"Assuredly. Your prayer for a fuller hearing will reach our lenient
ears. In the meanwhile, in order to prove that the example upon which
you base your claim is a worthy one, proceed to narrate so much of the
story of Lao Ting as bears upon the means of his success."
The Story of Lao Ting and the Luminous Insect
If is of Lao Ting that the saying has arisen, "He who can grasp
Opportunity as she slips by does not need a lucky dream."
So far, however, Lao Ting may be judged to have had neither
opportunities nor lucky dreams. He was one of studious nature and from
an early age had devoted himself to a veneration of the Classics. Yet
with that absence of foresight on the part of the providing deities
(for this, of course, took place during an earlier, and probably
usurping, dynasty), which then frequently resulted in the unworthy and
illiterate prospering, his sleeve was so empty that at times it seemed
almost impossible for him to continue in his high ambition.
As the date of the examinations drew near, Lao Ting's efforts
increased, and he grudged every moment spent away from books. His few
available cash scarcely satisfied his ever-moving brush, and his
sleeve grew so light that it seemed as though it might become a
balloon and carry him into the Upper Air; for, as the Wisdom has it,
"A well-filled purse is a trusty earth anchor." On food he spent even
less, but the inability to procure light after the sun had withdrawn
his benevolence from the narrow street in which he lived was an
ever-present shadow across his hopes. On this extremity he patiently
and with noiseless skill bored a hole through the wall into the house
of a wealthy neighbour, and by this inoffensive stratagem he was able
to distinguish the imperishable writings of the Sages far into the
night. Soon, however, the gross hearted person in question discovered
the device, owing to the symmetrical breathing of Lao Ting, and
applying himself to the opening unperceived, he suddenly blew a jet of
water through and afterwards nailed in a wooden skewer. This he did
because he himself was also entering for the competitions, though he
did not really fear Lao Ting.
Thus denied, Lao Ting sought other means to continue his study, if for
only a few minutes longer daily, and it became his custom to leave his
ill-equipped room when it grew dusk and to walk into the outer ways,
always with his face towards the west, so that he might prolong the
benefit of the great luminary to the last possible moment. When the
time of no-light definitely arrived he would climb up into one of the
high places to await the first beam of the great sky-lantern, and also
in the reasonable belief that the nearer he got to it the more
powerful would be its light.
It was upon such an occasion that Lao Ting first became aware of the
entrancing presence of Chun Hoa-mi, and although he plainly recognized
from the outset that the graceful determination with which she led a
water-buffalo across the landscape by means of a slender cord attached
to its nose was not conducive to his taking a high place in the
competitions, he soon found that he was unable to withdraw himself
from frequenting the spot at the same hour on each succeeding day.
Presently, however, he decided that his previous misgiving was
inaccurate, as her existence inspired him with an all-conquering
determination to outdistance every other candidate in so marked a
manner that his name would at once become famous throughout the
province, to attain high office without delay, to lead a victorious
army against the encroaching barbarian foe and thus to save the Empire
in a moment of emergency, to acquire vast riches (in a not clearly
defined manner), to become the intimate counsellor of the grateful
Emperor, and finally to receive posthumous honours of unique
distinction, the harmonious personality of Hoa-Mi being inextricably
entwined among these achievements.
At other times, however, he became subject to a funereal conviction
that he would fail discreditably in the examinations to an
accompaniment of the ridicule and contempt of all who knew him, that
he would never succeed in acquiring sufficient brass cash to ensure a
meagre sustenance even for himself, and that he would probably end his
lower existence by ignominious decapitation, so that his pale and
hungry ghost would be unable to find its way from place to place and
be compelled to remain on the same spot through all eternity. Yet so
quickly did these two widely diverging vistas alternate in Lao Ting's
mind that on many occasions he was under the influence of both
presentiments at the same time.
It will thus be seen that Lao Ting was becoming involved in emotions
of a many-sided hue, by which his whole future would inevitably be
affected, when an event took place which greatly tended to restore his
tranquillity of mind. He was, at the usual hour, lurking unseen on the
path of Hoa-mi's approach when the water-buffalo, with the perversity
of its kind, suddenly withdrew itself from the amiable control of its
attendant's restraining hand and precipitated its resistless footsteps
towards the long grass in which Lao Ting lay concealed. Recognizing
that a decisive moment in the maiden's esteem lay before him, the
latter, in spite of an incapable doubt as to the habits and manner of
behaviour of creatures of this part, set out resolutely to subdue
it. . . . At a later period, by clinging tenaciously to its tail, he
undoubtedly impeded its progress, and thereby enabled Hoa-mi to greet
him as one who had a claim upon her gratitude.
"The person who has performed this slight service is Ting, of the
outcast line of Lao," said the student with an admiring bow in spite
of a benumbing pain that involved all his lower attributes. "Having as
yet achieved nothing, the world lies before him."
"She who speaks is Hoa-mi, her father's house being Chun," replied the
maiden agreeably. "In addition to the erratic but now repentant animal
that has thus, as it were, brought us within the same narrow compass,
he possesses a wooden plough, two wheel-barrows, a red bow with
three-score arrows, and a rice-field, and is therefore a person of
"True," agreed Lao Ting, "though perhaps the dignity is less imposing
than might be imagined in the eye of one who, by means of successive
examinations, may ultimately become the Right hand of the Emperor."
"Is the contingency an impending one?" inquired Hoa-mi, with polite
"So far," admitted Lao Ting, "it is more in the nature of a vision.
There are, of necessity, many trials, and few can reach the ultimate
end. Yet even the Yangtze-kiang has a source."
"Of your unswerving tenacity this person has already been witness,"
said the maiden, with a glance of refined encouragement.
"Your words are more inspiring than the example of the aged woman of
Shang-li to the student Tsung," declared Lao Ting gratefully. "Unless
the Omens are asleep they should tend to the same auspicious end."
"The exact instance of the moment escapes my recollection." Probably
Hoa-mi was by no means willing that one of studious mind should
associate her exclusively with water-buffaloes. "Is it related in the
"Possibly, though in which actual masterpiece just now evades my
grasp. The youth referred to was on the point of abandoning a literary
career, appalled at the magnitude of the task before him, when he
encountered an aged woman who was employed in laboriously rubbing away
the surface of an iron crowbar on a block of stone. To his inquiry she
cheerfully replied: 'The one who is thus engaged required a needle to
complete a task. Being unable to procure one she was about to give way
to an ignoble despair when chance put into her hands this bar, which
only requires bringing down to the necessary size.' Encouraged by this
painstaking example Tsung returned to his books and in due course
became a high official."
"Doubtless in the time of his prosperity he retraced his footsteps and
lavishly rewarded the one to whom he was thus indebted," suggested
"Doubtless," admitted Lao Ting, "but the detail is not pursued to so
remote an extremity in the Classic. The delicate poise of the analogy
is what is chiefly dwelt upon, the sign for a needle harmonizing with
that for official, and there being a similar balance between crowbar
"Your words are like a page written in vermilion ink," exclaimed
Hoa-mi, with a sideway-expressed admiration.
"Alas!" he declared, with conscious humility, "my style is meagre and
almost wholly threadbare. To remedy this, each day I strive to
perfect myself in the correct formation of five new written signs.
When equipped with a knowledge of every one there is I shall be
competent to write so striking and original an essay on any subject
that it will no longer be possible to exclude my name from the list of
"It will be a day of well-achieved triumph for the spirits of your
expectant ancestors," said Hoa-mi sympathetically.
"It will also have a beneficial effect on my own material prospects,"
replied Lao Ting, with a commendable desire to awaken images of a more
specific nature in the maiden's imagination. "Where hitherto it has
been difficult to support one, there will then be a lavish profusion
for two. The moment the announcement is made, my impatient feet will
carry me to this spot. Can it be hoped--?"
"It has long been this one's favourite resort also," confessed Hoa-mi,
with every appearance of having adequately grasped Lao Ting's desired
inference, "Yet to what number do the written signs in question
"So highly favoured is our unapproachable language that the number can
only be faintly conjectured. Some claim five-score thousand different
written symbols; the least exacting agree to fourscore thousand."
"You are all-knowing," responded the maiden absently. With her face in
an opposing direction her lips moved rapidly, as though she might be
in the act of addressing some petition to a Power. Yet it is to be
doubted if this accurately represents the nature of her inner
thoughts, for when she again turned towards Lao Ting the engaging
frankness of her expression had imperceptibly deviated, as she
"In about nine and forty years, then, O impetuous one, our converging
footsteps will doubtless again encounter upon this spot. In the
meanwhile, however, this person's awaiting father is certainly
preparing something against her tardy return which the sign for a
crowbar would fittingly represent."
Then urging the water-buffalo to increased exertion she fled, leaving
Lao Ting a prey to emotions of a very distinguished intensity.
In spite of the admittedly rough-edged nature of Hoa-mi's
leave-taking, Lao Ting retraced his steps in an exalted frame of mind.
He had spoken to the maiden and heard her incomparable voice. He now
knew her name and the path leading to her father's house. It only
remained for him to win a position worthy of her acceptance (if the
Empire could offer such a thing), and their future happiness might be
regarded as assured.
Thus engaged, Lao Ting walked on, seeing within his head the arrival
of the bridal chair, partaking of the well-spread wedding feast,
hearing the felicitations of the guests: "A hundred sons and a
thousand grandsons!" Something white fluttering by the wayside
recalled him to the realities of the day. He had reached the buildings
of the outer city, and on a wall before him a printed notice was
It has already been set forth that the few solitary cash which from
time to time fell into the student's sleeve were barely sufficient to
feed his thirsty brush with ink. For the material on which to write
and to practise the graceful curves essential to a style he was driven
to various unworthy expedients. It had thus become his habit to lurk
in the footsteps of those who affix public proclamations in the ways
and spaces of the city, and when they had passed on to remove, as
unostentatiously as possible, the more suitable pronouncements and to
carry them to his own abode. For this reason he regarded every notice
from a varying angle, being concerned less with what appeared upon it
than with what did not appear. Accordingly he now crossed the way and
endeavoured to secure the sheet that had attracted his attention. In
this he was unsuccessful, however, for he could only detach a meagre
When Lao Ting reached his uninviting room the last pretence of
daylight had faded. He recognized that he had lost many precious
moments in Hoa-mi's engaging society, and although he would willingly
have lost many more, there was now a deeper pang in his regret that he
could not continue his study further into the night. As this was
impossible, he drew his scanty night coverings around him and composed
his mind for sleep, conscious of an increasing rigour in the air; for,
as he found when the morning came, one who wished him well, passing in
his absence, had written a lucky saying on a stone and cast it through
the paper window.
When Lao Ting awoke it was still night, but the room was no longer
entirely devoid of light. As his custom was, an open page lay on the
floor beside him, ready to be caught up eagerly with the first gleam
of day; above this a faint but sufficient radiance now hung, enabling
him to read the written signs. At first the student regarded the
surroundings with some awe, not doubting that this was in the nature
of a visitation, but presently he discovered that the light was
provided by a living creature, winged but docile, which carried a
glowing lustre in its tail. When he had read to the end, Lao Ting
endeavoured to indicate by a sign that he wished to turn the page. To
his delight he found that the winged creature intelligently grasped
the requirement and at once transferred its presence to the required
spot. All through the night the youth eagerly read on, nor did this
miraculously endowed visitor ever fail him. By dawn he had more than
made up the time in which the admiration of Hoa-mi had involved him.
If such a state of things could be assured for the future, the vista
would stretch like a sunlit glade before his feet.
Early in the day he set out to visit an elderly monk, who lived in a
cave on the mountain above. Before he went, however, he did not fail
to procure a variety of leaves and herbs, and to display them about
the room in order to indicate to his unassuming companion that he had
a continued interest in his welfare. The venerable hermit received him
hospitably, and after inviting him to sit upon the floor and to
partake of such food as he had brought with him, listened attentively
to his story.
"Your fear that in this manifestation you may be the sport of a
malicious Force, conspiring to some secret ill, is merely
superstition," remarked Tzu-lu when Lao Ting had reached an end.
"Although creatures such as you describe are unknown in this province,
they undoubtedly exist in outer barbarian lands, as do apes with the
tails of peacocks, ducks with their bones outside their skins, beings
whose pale green eyes can discover the precious hidden things of the
earth, and men with a hole through their chests so that they require
no chair to carry them, but are transposed from spot to spot by means
"Your mind is widely opened, esteemed," replied Lao Ting respectfully.
"Yet the omen must surely tend towards a definite course?"
"Be guided by the mature philosophy of the resolute Heng-ki, who,
after an unfortunate augury, exclaimed to his desponding warriors: 'Do
your best and let the Omens do their worst!' What has happened is as
clear as the iridescence of a dragon's eye. In the past you have lent
a sum of money to a friend who has thereupon passed into the Upper
Air, leaving you unrequited."
"A friend receiving a sum of money from this person would have every
excuse for passing away suddenly."
"Or," continued the accommodating recluse, "you have in some other way
placed so formidable an obligation upon one now in the Beyond that his
disturbed spirit can no longer endure the burden. For this reason it
has taken the form of a luminous insect, and has thus returned to
earth in order that it may assist you and thereby discharge the debt."
"The explanation is a convincing one," replied Lao Ting. "Might it not
have been more satisfactory in the end, however, if the gracious
person in question had clothed himself with the attributes of the
examining chancellor or some high mandarin, so that he could have
upheld my cause in any extremity?"
Without actually smiling, a form of entertainment that was contrary to
his strict vow, the patriarchal anchorite moved his features somewhat
at the youth's innocence.
"Do not forget that it is written: 'Though you set a monkey on
horseback yet will his hands and feet remain hairy,'" he remarked.
"The one whose conduct we are discussing may well be aware of his own
deficiencies, and know that if he adopted such a course a humiliating
exposure would await him. Do not have any fear for the future,
however: thus protected, this person is inspired to prophesy that you
will certainly take a high place in the examinations. . . . Indeed,"
he added thoughtfully, "it might be prudent to venture a string of
cash upon your lucky number."
With this auspicious leave-taking Tzu-lu dismissed him, and Lao Ting
returned to the city greatly refreshed in spirit by the encounter.
Instead of retiring to his home he continued into the more reputable
ways beyond, it then being about the hour at which the affixers of
official notices were wont to display their energies.
So it chanced indeed, but walking with his feet off the ground, owing
to the obliging solitary's encouragement, Lao Ting forgot his usual
caution, and came suddenly into the midst of a band of these men at an
angle of the paths.
"Honourable greetings," he exclaimed, feeling that if he passed them
by unregarded his purpose might be suspected. "Have you eaten your
"How is your warmth and cold?" they replied courteously. "Yet why do
you arrest your dignified footsteps to converse with outcasts so
illiterate as ourselves?"
"The reason," admitted Lao Ting frankly, "need not be buried in a
well. Had I avoided the encounter you might have said among
yourselves: 'Here is one who shuns our gaze. This, perchance, is he
who of late has lurked within the shadow of our backs to bear away our
labour.' Not to create this unworthy suspicion I freely came among
you, for, as the Ancient Wisdom says: 'Do not adjust your sandals
while passing through a melon-field, nor yet arrange your hat beneath
"Yet," said the leader of the band, "we were waiting thus in
expectation of the one whom you describe. The incredible leper who
rules our goings has, even at this hour and notwithstanding that now
is the appointed day and time for the gathering together of the
Harmonious Constellation of Paste Appliers and Long Brush Wielders,
thrust within our hands a double task."
"May bats defile his Ancestral Tablets and goats propagate within his
neglected tomb!" chanted the band in unison. "May the sinews of his
hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement! May the principles of
his warmth and cold never be properly adjusted but--"
"Thus positioned," continued the leader, indicating by a gesture that
while he agreed with these sentiments the moment was not opportune for
their full recital, "we await. If he who lurks in our past draws near
he will doubtless accept from our hands that which he will assuredly
possess behind our backs. Thus mutual help will lighten the toil of
"The one whom you require dwells beneath my scanty roof," said the
youth. "He is now, however, absent on a secret mission. Entrust to me
the burden of your harassment and I will answer, by the sanctity of
the Four-eyed Image, that it shall reach his speedy hand."
When Lao Ting gained his own room, bowed down but rejoicing beneath
the weight of his unexpected fortune, his eyes were gladdened by the
soft light that hung about his books. Although it was not yet dark,
the radiance of the glow seemed greater than before. Going to the spot
the delighted student saw that in place of one there were now four,
the grateful insect having meanwhile summoned others to his cause. All
these stood in an expectant attitude awaiting his control, so that
through the night he plied an untiring brush and leapt onward in the
garden of similitudes.
From this time forward Lao Ting could not fail to be aware that the
faces of those whom he familiarly encountered were changed towards
him. Men greeted him as one worthy of their consideration, and he even
heard his name spoken of respectfully in the society of learned
strangers. More than once he found garlands of flowers hung upon his
outer door, harmonious messages, and--once--a gift of food. Incredible
as it seemed to him it had come to be freely admitted that the unknown
scholar Lao Ting would take a very high place in the forthcoming
competition, and those who were alert and watchful did not hesitate to
place him first. To this general feeling a variety of portents had
contributed. Doubtless the beginning was the significant fact, known
to the few at first, that the miracle-working Tzu-lu had staked his
inner garment on Lao Ting's success. Brilliant lights were seen
throughout the night to be moving in the meagre dwelling (for the four
efficacious creatures had by this time greatly added to their
numbers), and the one within was credited with being assisted by the
Forces. It is well said that that which passes out of one mouth passes
into a hundred ears, and before dawn had become dusk all the early and
astute were following the inspired hermit's example. They who
conducted the lotteries, becoming suddenly aware of the burden of the
hazard they incurred, thereat declared that upon the venture of Lao
Ting's success there must be set two taels in return for one.
Whereupon the desire of those who had refrained waxed larger than
before, and thus the omens grew.
When the days that remained before the opening of the trial could be
counted on the fingers of one hand, there came, at a certain hour, a
summons on the outer door of Lao Ting's house, and in response to his
spoken invitation there entered one, Sheng-yin, a competitor.
"Lao Ting," said this person, when they had exchanged formalities, "in
spite of the flattering attentions of the shallow"--he here threw upon
the floor a garland which he had conveyed from off Lao Ting's
door--"it is exceedingly unlikely that at the first attempt your name
will be among those of the chosen, and the possibility of it heading
the list may be dismissed as vapid."
"Your experience is deep and wide," replied Lao Ting, the circumstance
that Sheng-yin had already tried and failed three and thirty times
adding an edge to the words; "yet if it is written it is written."
"Doubtless," retorted Sheng-yin no less capably; "but it will never be
set to music. Now, until your inconsiderate activities prevailed, this
person was confidently greeted as the one who would be first."
"The names of Wang-san and Yin Ho were not unknown to the expectant,"
suggested Lao Ting mildly.
"The mind of Wang-san is only comparable with a wastepaper basket,"
exclaimed the visitor harshly; "and Yin Ho is in reality as dull as
split ebony. But in your case, unfortunately, there is nothing to go
on, and, unlikely though it be, it is just possible that this person's
well-arranged ambitions may thereby be brought to a barren end. For
that reason he is here to discuss this matter as between virtuous
"Let your auspicious mouth be widely opened," replied Lao Ting
guardedly. "My ears will not refrain."
"Is there not, perchance, some venerable relative in a distant part of
the province whose failing eyes crave, at this juncture, to rest upon
your wholesome features before he passes Upwards?"
"Assuredly some such inopportune person might be forthcoming,"
admitted Lao Ting. "Yet the cost of so formidable a journey would be
far beyond this necessitous one's means."
"In so charitable a cause affluent friends would not be lacking.
Depart on the third day and remain until the ninth and twenty taels of
silver will glide imperceptibly into your awaiting sleeve."
"The prospect of not taking the foremost place in the
competition--added to the pangs of those who have hazarded their store
upon the unworthy name of Lao--is an ignoble one," replied the
student, after a moment's thought. "The journey will be a costly task
at this season of the rains; it cannot possibly be accomplished for
less than fifty taels."
"It is well said, 'Do not look at robbers sharing out their spoil:
look at them being executed,'" urged Sheng-yin. "Should you be so
ill-destined as to compete, and, as would certainly be the case, be
awarded a position of contempt, how unendurable would be your anguish
when, amidst the execrations of the deluded mob, you remembered that
thirty taels of the purest had slipped from your effete grasp."
"Should the Bridge of the Camel Back be passable, five and forty might
suffice," mused Lao Tung to himself.
"Thirty-seven taels, five hundred cash, are the utmost that your
obliging friends would hazard in the quest," announced Sheng-yin
definitely. "On the day following that of the final competition the
sum will be honourably--"
"By no means," interrupted the other, with unswerving firmness. "How
thus is the journey to be defrayed? In advance, assuredly."
"The requirement is unusual. Yet upon satisfactory oaths being
"This person will pledge the repose of the spirits of his venerated
ancestors practically back to prehistoric times," agreed Lao Ting
readily. "From the third to the ninth day he will be absent from the
city and will take no part in anything therein. Should he eat his
words, may his body be suffocated beneath five cart-loads of books and
his weary ghost chained to that of a leprous mule. It is spoken."
"Truly. But it may as well be written also." With this expression of
narrow-minded suspicion Sheng-yin would have taken up one from a
considerable mass of papers lying near at hand, had not Lao Ting
suddenly restrained him.
"It shall be written with clarified ink on paper of a special
excellence," declared the student. "Take the brush, Seng-yin, and
write. It almost repays this person for the loss of a degree to behold
the formation of signs so unapproachable as yours."
"Lao Ting," replied the visitor, pausing in his task, "you are
occasionally inspired, but the weakness of your character results in a
lack of caution. In this matter, therefore, be warned: 'The crocodile
opens his jaws; the rat-trap closes his; keep yours shut.'"
When Lao Ting returned after a scrupulously observed six days of
absence he could not fail to become aware that the city was in an
uproar, and the evidence of this increased as he approached the cheap
and lightly esteemed quarter in which those of literary ambitions
found it convenient to reside. Remembering Sheng-yin's parting, he
forbore to draw attention to himself by questioning any, but when he
reached the door of his own dwelling he discovered the one of whom he
was thinking, standing, as it were, between the posts.
"Lao Ting," exclaimed Sheng-yin, without waiting to make any polite
reference to the former person's food or condition, "in spite of this
calamity you are doubtless prepared to carry out the spirit of your
"Doubtless," replied Lao Ting affably. "Yet what is the nature of the
calamity referred to, and how does it affect the burden of my vow?"
"Has not the tiding reached your ear? The examinations, alas! have
been withheld for seven full days. Your journey has been in vain!"
"By no means!" declared the youth. "Debarred by your enticement from a
literary career this person turned his mind to other aims, and has now
gained a deep insight into the habits and behaviour of
"They who control the competitions from the Capital," continued
Sheng-yin, without even hearing the other's words, "when all had been
arranged, learned from the Chief Astrologer (may subterranean fires
singe his venerable moustaches!) that a forgotten obscuration of the
sun would take place on the opening day of the test. In the face of so
formidable a portent they acted thus and thus."
"How then fares it that due warning of the change was not set forth?"
"The matter is as long as The Wall and as deep as seven wells,"
grumbled Sheng-yin, "and the Hoang Ho in flood is limpid by its side.
Proclamations were sent forth, yet none appeared, and they entrusted
with their wide disposal have a dragon-story of a shining lordly youth
who ever followed in their steps. . . . Thus in a manner of expressing
it, the spirit--"
"Sheng-yin," said Lao Ting, with courteous firmness, yet so moving the
door so that while he passed in the former person remained outside,
"you have sought, at the expenditure of thirty-seven taels five
hundred cash, to deflect Destiny from her appointed line. The result
has been lamentable to all--or nearly all--concerned. The lawless
effort must not be repeated, for when heaven itself goes out of its
way to set a correcting omen in the sky, who dare disobey?"
When the list and order of the competition was proclaimed, the name of
Wang-san stood at the very head and that of Yin Ho was next. Lao Ting
was the very last of those who were successful; Sheng-yin was the
next, and was thus the first of those who were unsuccessful. It was as
much as the youth had secretly dared to hope, and much better than he
had generally feared. In Sheng-yin's case, however, it was infinitely
worse than he had ever contemplated. Regarding Lao Ting as the cause
of his disgrace he planned a sordid revenge. Waiting until night had
fallen he sought the student's door-step and there took a potent drug,
laying upon his ghost a strict injunction to devote itself to haunting
and thwarting the ambitions of the one who dwelt within. But even in
this he was inept, for the poison was less speedy than he thought, and
Lao Ting returned in time to convey him to another door.
On the strength of his degree Lao Ting found no difficulty in earning
a meagre competence by instructing others who wished to follow in his
footsteps. He was also now free to compete for the next degree, where
success would bring him higher honour and a slightly less meagre
competence. In the meanwhile he married Hoa-mi, being able to display
thirty-seven taels and nearly five hundred cash towards that end.
Ultimately he rose to a position of remunerative ease, but it is
understood that he attained this more by a habit of acting as the
necessities of the moment required than by his literary achievements.
Over the door of his country residence in the days of his profusion he
caused the image of a luminous insect to be depicted, and he engraved
its semblance on his seal. He would also have added the presentment of
a water-buffalo, but Hoa-mi deemed this inexpedient.
The High-minded Strategy of the Amiable Hwa-mei
WARNED by the mischance attending his previous meeting with Hwa-mei,
Kai Lung sought the walled enclosure at the earliest moment of his
permitted freedom, and secreting himself among the interlacing growth
he anxiously awaited the maiden's coming.
Presently a movement in the trees without betrayed a presence, and the
story-teller was on the point of disclosing himself at the shutter
when the approaching one displayed an unfamiliar outline. Instead of a
maiden of exceptional symmetry and peach-like charm an elderly and
deformed hag drew near. As she might be hostile to his cause, Kai Lung
deemed it prudent to remain concealed; but in case she should prove to
be an emissary from Hwa-mei seeking him, his purpose was to stand
revealed. To combine these two attitudes until she should declare
herself was by no means an easy task, but she looked neither near nor
far in scrutiny until she stood, mumbling and infirm, beneath the
"It is well, minstrel," she called aloud. "She whom you await bid me
greet you with a sign." At Kai Lung's feet there fell a crimson
flower, growing on a thorny stem. "What word shall I in turn bear
back? Speak freely, for her mind is as my open hand."
"Tell me rather," said Kai Lung, looking out, "how she fares and what
averts her footsteps?"
"That will appear in due time," replied the aged one. "In the
meanwhile I have her message to declare. Three times foiled in his
malignant scheme the now obscene Ming-shu sets all the Axioms at
naught. Distrusting you and those about your path, it is his sinister
intention to call up for judgment Kai-moo, who lies within the
women's cell beyond the Water Way."
"What is her crime and how will this avail him?"
"Charged with the murder of her man by means of the supple splinter
her condemnation is assured. The penalty is piecemeal slicing, and in
it are involved those of her direct line, in the humane effort to
eradicate so treacherous a strain."
"That is but just," agreed Kai Lung.
"Truly. But on the slender ligament of a kindred name you will be
joined with her in that end. Ming-shu will see to it that records of
your kinship are not lacking. Being accused of no crime on your own
behalf there will be nothing for you to appear against."
"It is written: 'Even leprosy may be cured, but the enmity of an
official underling can never be dispelled,' and the malice of the
persistent Ming-shu certainly points to the wisdom of the verse. Is
the person of Kai-moo known to you, and where is the prison-house you
To this the venerable creature replied that the cell in question was
in a distant quarter of the city. Kai-moo, she continued, might be
regarded as fashioned like herself, being deformed in shape and
repellent in appearance. Furthermore, she was of deficient
understanding, these things aiding Ming-shu's plan, as she would be
difficult to reach and impossible to instruct when reached.
"The extremity is almost hopeless enough to be left to the
ever-protecting spirits of one's all-powerful Ancestors," declared Kai
Lung at length. "Did she from whom you come forecast any confidence?"
"She had some assurance in a certain plan, which it is my message to
declare to you."
"Her wisdom is to be computed neither by a rule nor by a measure. Say
"The keeper of the women's prison-house lies within her hollowed hand,
nor will silver be wanting to still any arising doubt. Wrapped in
prison garb, and with her face disguised by art, she whose word I bear
will come forth at the appointed call and, taking her place before
Shan Tien, will play a fictitious part."
"Alas! dotard," interrupted Kai Lung impatiently, "it would be well if
I spent my few remaining hours in kowtowing to the Powers whom I shall
shortly meet. An aged and unsightly hag! Know you not, O venerable
bat, that the smooth perfection of the one you serve would shine
dazzling through a beaten mask of tempered steel? Her matchless hair,
glossier than a starling's wing, floats like an autumn cloud. Her eyes
strike fire from damp clay, or make the touch of velvet harsh and
stubborn, according to her several moods. Peach-bloom held against her
cheek withers incapably by comparison. Her feet, if indeed she has
such commonplace attributes at all, are smaller--"
"Yet," interrupted the hag, in a changed and quite melodious voice,
"if it is possible to delude the imagination of one whose longing eyes
dwell so constantly on these threadbare charms, what then will be the
position of the obtuse Ming-shu and the superficial Mandarin Shan
Tien, burdened as they now are by outside cares?"
"There are times when the classical perfection of our graceful tongue
is strangely inadequate to express emotion," confessed Kai Lung,
colouring deeply, as Hwa-mei stood revealed before him. "It is truly
said: 'The ingenuity of a guileless woman will undermine nine
mountains.' You have cut off all the words of my misgivings."
"To that end have I wrought, for in this I also need your skill.
Listen well and think deeply as I speak. Everywhere the outcome of the
strife grows more uncertain day by day and no man really knows which
side to favour yet. In this emergency each plays a double part. While
visibly loyal to the Imperial cause, the Mandarin Shan Tien fans the
whisper that in secret he upholds the rebellious banners. Ming-shu now
openly avers that if this and that are thus and thus the rising has
justice in its ranks, while at the same time he has it put abroad that
this is but a cloak the better to serve the state. Thus every man
maintains a double face in the hope that if the one side fails the
other will preserve him, and as a band all pledge to save (or if need
be to betray) each other."
"This is the more readily understood as it is the common case on every
"Then doubtless there are instances waiting on your lips. Teach me
such a story whereby the hope of those who are thus swayed may be
engaged and leave the rest to my arranging hand."
On the following day at the appointed hour a bent and forbidding hag
was brought before Shan Tien, and the nature of her offence
"It is possible to find an excuse for almost everything, regarding it
from one angle or another," remarked the Mandarin impartially; "but
the crime of destroying a husband--and by a means so unpleasantly
insinuating--really seems to leave nothing to be said."
"Yet, imperishable, even a bad coin must have two sides," replied the
hag. "That I should be guilty and yet innocent would be no more
wonderful than the case of Weng Cho, who, when faced with the
alternative of either defying the Avenging Societies or of opposing
fixed authority found a way out of escaping both."
"That should be worth--that is to say, if you base your defence upon
an existing case--"
"Providing the notorious thug Kai Lung is not thereby brought in,"
suggested the narrow-minded Ming-shu, who equally desired to learn the
"Weng Cho was the only one concerned," replied the ancient
obtusely--"he who escaped the consequences. Is it permitted to this
one to make clear her plea?"
"If the fatigue is not more than your venerable personality can
reasonably bear," replied Shan Tien courteously.
"To bear is the lot of every woman, be she young or old," replied the
one before them. "I comply, omnipotence."
The Story of Weng Cho; or, the One Devoid of Name
There was peach-blossom in the orchards of Kien-fi, a blue sky above,
and in the air much gladness; but in Wu Chi's yamen gloom hung like
the herald of a thunderstorm. At one end of a table in the ceremonial
hall sat Wu Chi, heaviness upon his brow, deceit in his eyes, and a
sour enmity about the lines of his mouth; at the other end stood his
son Weng, and between them, as it were, his whole life lay.
Wu Chi was an official of some consequence and had two wives, as
became him. His union with the first had failed in its essential
purpose; therefore he had taken another to carry on the direct line
which alone could bring him contentment in this world and a reputable
existence in the next. This degree of happiness was supplied by Weng's
mother, yet she must ever remain but a "secondary wife," with no
rights and a very insecure position. In the heart of the chief wife
smouldered a most bitter hatred, but the hour of her ascendancy came,
for after many years she also bore her lord a son. Thenceforward she
was strong in her authority; but Weng's mother remained, for she was
very beautiful, and despite all the arts of the other woman Wu Chi
could not be prevailed upon to dismiss her. The easy solution of this
difficulty was that she soon died--the "white powder death" was the
shrewd comment of the inner chambers of Kien-fi.
Wu Chi put on no mourning, custom did not require it; and now that the
woman had Passed Beyond he saw no necessity to honour her memory at
the expense of his own domestic peace. His wife donned her gayest
robes and made a feast. Weng alone stood apart, and in funereal
sackcloth moved through the house like an accusing ghost. Each day his
father met him with a frown, the woman whom alone he must regard as
his mother with a mocking smile, but he passed them without any word
of dutiful and submissive greeting. The period of all seemly mourning
ended--it touched that allotted to a legal parent; still Weng cast
himself down and made no pretence to hide his grief. His father's
frown became a scowl, his mother's smile framed a biting word. A wise
and venerable friend who loved the youth took him aside one day and
with many sympathetic words counselled restraint.
"For," he said, "your conduct, though affectionate towards the dead,
may be urged by the ill-disposed as disrespectful towards the living.
If you have a deeper end in view, strive towards it by a less open
"You are subtle and esteemed in wisdom," replied Weng, "but neither of
those virtues can restore a broken jar. The wayside fountain must one
day dry up at its source, but until then not even a mountain placed
upon its mouth can pen back its secret stores. So is it with unfeigned
"The analogy may be exact," replied the aged friend, shaking his head,
"but it is no less truly said: 'The wise tortoise keeps his pain
inside.' Rest assured, on the disinterested advice of one who has no
great experience of mountains and hidden springs, but a life-long
knowledge of Wu Chi and of his amiable wife, that if you mourn too
much you will have reason to mourn more."
His words were pointed to a sharp edge. At that moment Wu Chi was
being confronted by his wife, who stood before him in his inner
chamber. "Who am I?" she exclaimed vehemently, "that my authority
should be denied before my very eyes? Am I indeed Che of the house of
Meng, whose ancestors wore the Yellow Scabbard, or am I some nameless
one? Or does my lord sleep, or has he fallen blind upon the side by
which Weng approaches?"
"His heart is bad and his instincts perverted," replied Wu Chi dully.
"He ignores the rites, custom, and the Emperor's example, and sets at
defiance all the principles of domestic government. Do not fear that I
shall not shortly call him to account with a very heavy call."
"Do so, my lord," said his wife darkly, "or many valiant champions of
the House of Meng may press forward to make a cast of that same
account. To those of our ancient line it would not seem a trivial
thing that their daughter should share her rights with a purchased
"Peace, cockatrice! the woman was well enough," exclaimed Wu Chi, with
slow resentment. "But the matter of this obstinacy touches the dignity
of my own authority, and before to-day has passed Weng shall bring up
his footsteps suddenly before a solid wall."
Accordingly, when Weng returned at his usual hour he found his father
awaiting him with curbed impatience. That Wu Chi should summon him
into his presence in the great hall was of itself an omen that the
matter was one of moment, but the profusion of lights before the
Ancestral Tablets and the various symbols arranged upon the table
showed that the occasion was to be regarded as one involving
"Weng Cho," said his father dispassionately, from his seat at the head
of the table, "draw near, and first pledge the Ancient Ones whose
spirits hover above their Tablets in a vessel of wine."
"I am drinking affliction and move under the compact of a solemn vow,"
replied Weng fixedly, "therefore I cannot do this; nor, as signs are
given me to declare, will the forerunners of our line, who from their
high places look down deep into the mind and measure the heart with an
impartial rod, deem this an action of disrespect to their illustrious
"It is well to be a sharer of their councils," said Wu Chi, with
pointed insincerity. "But," he continued, in the same tone, "for whom
can Weng Cho of the House of Wu mourn? His father is before him in his
wonted health; in the inner chamber his mother plies an unfaltering
needle; while from the Dragon Throne the supreme Emperor still rules
the world. Haply, however, a thorn has pierced his little finger, or
does he perchance bewail the loss of a favourite bird?"
"That thorn has sunk deeply into his existence, and the memory of that
loss still dims his eyes with bitterness," replied Weng. "Bid the rain
cease to fall when the clouds are heavy."
"The comparison is ill-chosen," cried Whu Chi harshly. "Rather should
the allusion be to the evil tendency of a self-willed branch which, in
spite of the continual watering of precept and affection, maintains
its perverted course, and must henceforth either submit to be bound
down into an appointed line, or be utterly cut off so that the tree
may not suffer. Long and patiently have I marked your footsteps, Weng
Cho, and they are devious. This is not a single offence, but it is no
light one. Appointed by the Board of Ceremony, approved of by the
Emperor, and observed in every loyal and high-minded subject are the
details of the rites and formalities which alone serve to distinguish
a people refined and humane from those who are rude and barbarous. By
setting these observances at defiance you insult their framers, act
traitorously towards your sovereign, and assail the foundations of
your House; for your attitude is a direct reflection upon others; and
if you render such a tribute to one who is incompetent to receive it,
how will you maintain a seemly balance when a greater occasion
"When the earth that has nourished it grows cold the leaves of the
branch fall--doubtless the edicts of the Board referred to having
failed to reach their ears," replied Weng bitterly. "Revered father,
is it not permitted that I should now depart? Behold I am stricken and
out of place."
"You are evil and your heart is fat with presumptuous pride!"
exclaimed Wu Chi, releasing the cords of his hatred and anger so that
they leapt out from his throat like the sudden spring of a tiger from
a cave. "Evil in birth, grown under an evil star and now come to a
full maturity. Go you shall, Weng Cho, and that on a straight journey
forthwith or else bend your knees with an acquiescent face." With
these words he beat furiously on a gong, and summoning the entire
household he commanded that before Weng should be placed a jar of wine
and two glass vessels, and on the other side a staff and a pair of
sandals. From an open shutter the face of the woman Che looked down in
The alternatives thus presented were simple and irrevocable. On the
one hand Weng must put from him all further grief, ignore his vows,
and join in mirth and feast; on the other he must depart, never to
return, and be deprived of every tie of kinship, relinquishing
ancestry, possessions and name. It was a course severer than anything
that Wu Chi had intended when he sent for his son, but resentment had
distorted his eyesight. It was a greater test than Weng had
anticipated, but his mind was clear, and his heart charged with
fragrant memories of his loss. Deliberately but with silent dignity he
poured the untasted wine upon the ground, drew his sword and touched
the vessels lightly so that they broke, took from off his thumb the
jade ring inscribed with the sign of the House of Wu, and putting on
the sandals grasped the staff and prepared to leave the hall.
"Weng Cho, for the last time spoken of as of the House of Wu, now
alienated from that noble line, and henceforth and for ever an
outcast, you have made a choice and chosen as befits your rebellious
life. Between us stretches a barrier wider and deeper than the Yellow
Sea, and throughout all future time no sign shall pass from that
distant shore to this. From every record of our race your name shall
be cut out; no mention of it shall profane the Tablets, and both in
this world and the next it shall be to us as though you have never
been. As I break this bowl so are all ties broken, as I quench this
candle so are all memories extinguished, and as, when you go, the
space is filled with empty air, so shall it be."
"Ho, nameless stranger," laughed the woman from above, "here is food
and drink to bear you on your way"; and from the grille she threw a
withered fig and spat.
"The fruit is the cankered effort of a barren tree," cast back Weng
over his shoulder. "Look to your own offspring, basilisk. It is given
me to speak." Even as he spoke there was a great cry from the upper
part of the house, the sound of many feet and much turmoil, but he
went on his way without another word.
Thus it was that Weng Cho came to be cut off from the past. From his
father's house he stepped out into the streets of Kien-fi a being
without a name, destitute, and suffering the pangs of many keen
emotions. Friends whom he encountered he saluted distantly, not
desirous of sharing their affection until they should have learned his
state; but there was one who stood in his mind as removed above the
possibility of change, and to the summer-house of Tiao's home he
therefore turned his steps.
Tiao was the daughter of a minor official, an unsuccessful man of no
particular descent. He had many daughters, and had encouraged Weng's
affection, with frequent professions that he regarded only the youth's
virtuous life and discernment, and would otherwise have desired one
not so highly placed. Tiao also had spoken of rice and contentment in
a ruined pagoda. Yet as she listened to Weng's relation a new
expression gradually revealed itself about her face, and when he had
finished many paces lay between them.
"A breaker of sacred customs, a disobeyer of parents and an outcast!
How do you disclose yourself!" she exclaimed wildly. "What vile thing
has possessed you?"
"One hitherto which now rejects me," replied Weng slowly. "I had
thought that here alone I might find a familiar greeting, but that
"What other seemly course presents itself?" demanded the maiden
unsympathetically. "How degrading a position might easily become that
of the one who linked her lot with yours if all fit and proper
sequences are to be reversed! What menial one might supplant her not
only in your affections but also in your Rites! He had defied the
Principles!" she exclaimed, as her father entered from behind a
"He has lost his inheritance," muttered the little old man, eyeing him
contemptuously. "Weng Cho," he continued aloud, "you have played a
double part and crossed our step with only half your heart. Now the
past is past and the future an unwritten sheet."
"It shall be written in vermilion ink," replied Weng, regaining an
impassive dignity; "and upon that darker half of my heart can now be
traced two added names."
He had no aim now, but instinct drove him towards the mountains, the
retreat of the lost and despairing. A three days' journey lay between.
He went forward vacantly, without food and without rest. A falling
leaf, as it is said, would have turned the balance of his destiny, and
at the wayside village of Li-yong so it chanced. The noisome smell of
burning thatch stung his face as he approached, and presently the
object came into view. It was the bare cabin of a needy widow who had
become involved in a lawsuit through the rapacity of a tax-gatherer.
As she had the means neither to satisfy the tax nor to discharge the
dues, the powerful Mandarin before whom she had been called ordered
all her possessions to be seized, and that she should then be burned
within her hut as a warning to others. This was the act of justice
being carried out, and even as Weng heard the tale the Mandarin in
question drew near, carried in his state chair to satisfy his eyes
that his authority was scrupulously maintained. All those villagers
who had not drawn off unseen at once fell upon their faces, so that
Weng along remained standing, doubtful what course to take.
"Ill-nurtured dog!" exclaimed the Mandarin, stepping up to him,
"prostrate yourself! Do you not know that I am of the Sapphire Button,
and have fivescore bowmen at my yamen, ready to do my word?" And he
struck the youth across the face with a jewelled rod.
"I have only one sword, but it is in my hand," cried Weng, reckless
beneath the blow, and drawing it he at one stroke cut down the
Mandarin before any could raise a hand. Then breaking in the door of
the hovel he would have saved the woman, but it was too late, so he
took the head and body and threw them into the fire, saying: "There,
Mandarin, follow to secure justice. They shall not bear witness
against you Up There in your absence."
The chair-carriers had fled in terror, but the villagers murmured
against Weng as he passed through them. "It was a small thing that one
house and one person should be burned; now, through this, the whole
village will assuredly be consumed. He was a high official and visited
justice impartially on us all. It was our affair, and you, who are a
stranger, have done ill."
"I did you wrong, Mandarin," said Weng, resuming his journey; "you
took me for one of them. I pass you the parting of the woman Che,
burrowers in the cow-heap called Li-yong."
"Oi-ye!" exclaimed a voice behind, "but yonder earth-beetles haply
have not been struck off the Tablets and found that a maiden with
well-matched eyes can watch two ways at once, all of a morning: and
thereby death through red spectacles is not that same death through
blue spectacles. Things in their appointed places, noble companion."
"Greetings, wayfarer," said Weng, stopping. "The path narrows somewhat
inconveniently hereabout. Take honourable precedence."
"The narrower the better to defend then," replied the stranger
good-humouredly. "Whereto, also, two swords cut a larger slice than
one. Without doubt fivescore valiant bowmen will soon be a-ranging
when they hear that the enemy goes upon two feet, and then ill befall
who knows not the passes." As he spoke an arrow, shot from a distance,
flew above their heads.
"Why should you bear a part with me, and who are you who know these
recent things?" demanded Weng doubtfully.
"I am one of many, we being a branch of that great spreading lotus the
Triad, though called by the tillers here around the League of
Tomb-Haunters, because we must be sought in secret places. The things
I have spoken I know because we have many ears, and in our care a
whisper passes from east to west and from north to south without a
word being spilled."
"And the price of your sword is that I should join the confederacy?"
asked Weng thoughtfully.
"I had set out to greet you before the estimable Mandarin who is now
saluting his ancestors was so inopportune as to do so," replied the
emissary. "Yet it is not to be denied that we offer an adequate
protection among each other, while at the same time punishing guilt
and administering a rigorous justice secretly."
"Lead me to your meeting-place, then," said Weng determinedly. "I have
done with the outer things."
The guide pointed to a rock, shaped like a locusts head, which marked
the highest point of the steep mountain before them. Soon the fertile
lowlands ended and they passed beyond the limit of the inhabitable
region. Still ascending they reached the Tiger's High Retreat, which
defines the spot where even the animal kind turn back and where
watercourses cease to flow. Beyond this the most meagre indication of
vegetable sustenance came to an end, and thenceforward their passage
was rendered more slow and laborious by frequent snow-storms, barriers
of ice, and sudden tempests which strove to hurl them to destruction.
Nevertheless, by about the hour of midnight they reached the rock
shaped like a locust's head, which stood in the wildest and most
inaccessible part of the mountain, and masked the entrance to a
strongly-guarded cave. Here Weng suffered himself to be blindfolded,
and being led forward he was taken into the innermost council. Closely
questioned, he professed a spontaneous desire to be admitted into
their band, to join in their dangers and share their honours;
whereupon the oath was administered to him, the passwords and secret
signs revealed, and he was bound from that time forth, under the bonds
of a most painful death and torments in the afterworld, to submerge
all passions save those for the benefit of their community, and to
cherish no interests, wrongs or possessions that did not affect them
For the space of seven years Weng remained about the shadow of the
mountain, carrying out, together with the other members of the band,
the instructions which from time to time they received from the higher
circles of the Society, as well as such acts of retributive justice as
they themselves determined upon, and in this quiet and unostentatious
manner maintaining peace and greatly purifying the entire province. In
this passionless subservience to the principles of the Order none
exceeded him; yet at no time have men been forbidden to burn
joss-sticks to the spirit of the destinies, and who shall say?
At the end of seven years the first breath from out of the past
reached Weng (or Thang, as he had announced himself to be when cast
out nameless). One day he was summoned before the chief of their
company and a mission laid upon him.
"You have proved yourself to be capable and sincere in the past, and
this matter is one of delicacy," said the leader. "Furthermore, it is
reported that you know something of the paths about Kien-fi?"
"There is not a forgotten turn within those paths by which I might
stumble in the dark," replied Weng, striving to subdue his mind.
"See that out of so poignant a memory no more formidable barrier than
a forgotten path arises," said the leader, observing him closely.
"Know you, then a house bearing as a sign the figure of a golden
"Truly; I have noted it," replied Weng, changing his position, so that
he now leaned against a rock. "There dwelt an old man of some lower
official rank, who had no son but many daughters."
"He has Passed, and one of those--Tiao by name," said the other,
referring to a parchment--"has schemingly driven out the rest and held
the patrimony. Crafty and ambitious, she has of late married a high
official who has ever been hostile to ourselves. Out of a private
enmity the woman seeks the lives of two who are under our most solemn
protection, and now uses her husband's wealth and influence to that
end. It is on him that the blow must fall, for men kill only men, and
she, having no son, will then be discredited and impotent."
"And concerning this official?" asked Weng.
"It has not been thought prudent to speak of him by name," replied the
chief. "Stricken with a painful but not dangerous malady he has
retired for a time to the healthier seclusion of his wife's house, and
there he may be found. The woman you will know with certainty by a
crescent scar--above the right eye."
"Beneath the eye," corrected Weng instantly.
"Assuredly, beneath: I misread the sign," said the head, appearing to
consult the scroll. "Yet, out of a keen regard for your virtues,
Thang, let me point a warning that it is antagonistic to our strict
rule to remember these ancient scars too well. Further, in accordance
with that same esteem, do not stoop too closely nor too long to
identify the mark. By our pure and exacting standard no high
attainment in the past can justify defection. The pains and penalties
of failure you well know."
"I bow, chieftain," replied Weng acquiescently.
"It is well," said the chief. "Your strategy will be easy. To cure
this lord's disorder a celebrated physician is even now travelling
from the Capital towards Kien-fi. A day's journey from that place he
will encounter obstacles and fall into the hands of those who will
take away his robes and papers. About the same place you will meet one
with a bowl on the roadside who will hail you, saying, 'Charity, out
of your superfluity, noble mandarin coming from the north!' To him you
will reply, 'Do mandarins garb thus and thus and go afoot? It is I who
need a change of raiment and a chair; aye, by the token of the
Locust's Head!' He will then lead you to a place where you will find
all ready and a suitable chair with trusty bearers. The rest lies
beneath your grinding heel. Prosperity!"
Weng prostrated himself and withdrew. The meeting by the wayside
befell as he had received assurance--they who serve the Triad do not
stumble--and at the appointed time he stood before Tiao's door and
called for admission. He looked to the right and the left as one who
examines a new prospect, and among the azalea flowers the burnished
roof of the summer-house glittered in the sun.
"Lucky omens attend your coming, benevolence," said the chief
attendant obsequiously; "for since he sent for you an unpropitious
planet has cast its influence upon our master, so that his power