Part 3 out of 5
"Its malignity must be controlled," said Weng, in a feigned voice, for
he recognized the one before him. "Does any watch?"
"Not now," replied the attendant; "for he has slept since these two
hours. Would your graciousness have speech with the one of the inner
"In season perchance. First lead me to your lord's side and then see
that we are undisturbed until I reappear. It may be expedient to
invoke a powerful charm without delay."
In another minute Weng stood alone in the sick man's room, between
them no more barrier than the silk-hung curtains of the couch. He slid
down his right hand and drew a keen-edged knife; about his left he
looped the even more fatal cord; then advancing with a noiseless step
he pulled back the drapery and looked down. It was the moment for
swift and silent action; nothing but hesitation and delay could
imperil him, yet in that supreme moment he stepped back, released the
curtain from his faltering grasp and, suffering the weapons to fall
unheeded to the floor, covered his face with his hands, for lying
before him he had seen the outstretched form, the hard contemptuous
features, of his father.
Yet most solemnly alienated from him in every degree. By Wu Chi's own
acts every tie of kinship had been effaced between them: the bowl had
been broken, the taper blown out, empty air had filled his place. Wu
Chi acknowledged no memory of a son; he could claim no reverence as a
father. . . . Tiao's husband. . . . Then he was doubly
childless. . . . The woman and her seed had withered, as he had
On the one hand stood the Society, powerful enough to protect him in
every extremity, yet holding failure as treason; most terrible and
inexorable towards set disobedience. His body might find a painless
escape from their earthly torments, but by his oaths his spirit lay in
their keeping to be punished through all eternity.
That he was no longer Wu Chi's son, that he had no father--this
conviction had been strong enough to rule him in every contingency of
life save this. By every law of men and deities the ties between them
had been dissolved, and they stood as a man and man; yet the salt can
never be quite washed out of sea-water.
For a time which ceased to be hours or minutes, but seemed as a
fragment broken off eternity, he stood, motionless but most deeply
racked. With an effort he stooped to take the cord, and paused again;
twice he would have seized the dagger, but doubt again possessed him.
From a distant point of the house came the chant of a monk singing a
prayer and beating upon a wooden drum. The rays of the sun falling
upon the gilded roof in the garden again caught his eyes; nothing else
"These in their turn have settled great issues lightly," thought Weng
bitterly. "Must I wait upon an omen?"
". . . submitting oneself to purifying scars," droned the voice far
off; "propitiating if need be by even greater self-inflictions . . ."
"It suffices," said Weng dispassionately, and picking up the knife he
turned to leave the room.
At the door he paused again, but not in an arising doubt. "I will
leave a token for Tiao to wear as a jest," was the image that had
sprung from his new abasement, and taking a sheet of parchment he
quickly wrote thereon: "A wave has beat from that distant shore to
this, and now sinks in the unknown depths."
Again he stepped noiselessly to the couch, drew the curtain and
dropped the paper lightly on the form. As he did so his breath
stopped; his fingers stiffened. Cautiously, on one knee, he listened
intently, lightly touched the face; then recklessly taking a hand he
raised the arm and suffered it to fall again. No power restrained it;
no alertness of awakening life came into the dull face. Wu Chi had
already Passed Beyond.
Not Concerned with any Particular Attribute of Those who are Involved
UNENDURABLE was the intermingling of hopes and fears with which Kai
Lung sought the shutter on the next occasion after the avowal of
Hwa-mei's devoted strategy. While repeatedly assuring himself that it
would have been better to submit to piecemeal slicing without a
protesting word rather than that she should incur so formidable a
risk, he was compelled as often to admit that when once her mind had
formed its image no effort on his part would have held her back.
Doubtless Hwa-mei readily grasped the emotion that would possess the
one whose welfare was now her chief concern, for without waiting to
gum her hair or to gild her lips she hastened to the spot beneath the
wall at the earliest moment that Kai Lung could be there.
"Seven marble tombstones are lifted from off my chest!" exclaimed the
story-teller when he could greet her. "How did your subterfuge
proceed, and with what satisfaction was the history of Weng Cho
"That," replied Hwa-mei modestly, "will provide the matter for an
autumn tale, when seated around a pine-cone fire. In the meanwhile
this protracted ordeal takes an ambiguous bend."
"To what further end does the malignity of the ill-made Ming-shu now
shape itself? Should it entail a second peril to your head--"
"The one whom you so justly name fades for a moment out of our
concern. Burdened with a secret mission he journeys to Hing-poo, nor
does the Mandarin Shan Tien hold another court until the day of his
"That gives a breathing space of time to our ambitions?"
"So much is assured. Yet even in that a subtle danger lurks. Certain
contingencies have become involved in the recital of your admittedly
ingenious stories which the future unfolding of events may not always
justify. For instance, the very speculative Shan Tien, casting his
usual moderate limit to the skies, has accepted the Luminous Insect as
a beckoning omen, and immersed himself deeply in the chances of every
candidate bearing the name of Lao, Ting, Li, Tzu, Sung, Chu, Wang or
Chin. Should all these fail incapably at the trials a very undignified
period in the Mandarin's general manner of expressing himself may
"Had the time at the disposal of this person been sufficiently
enlarged he would not have omitted the various maxims arising from the
tale," admitted Kai Lung, with a shadow of remorse. "That suited to
the need of a credulous and ill-balanced mind would doubtless be the
proverb: 'He who believes in gambling will live to sell his sandals.'
It is regrettable if the well-intending Mandarin took the wrong one.
Fortunately another moon will fade before the results are known--"
"In the meantime," continued the maiden, indicating by a glance that
what she had to relate was more essential to the requirements of the
moment than anything he was saying: "Shan Tien is by no means
indisposed towards your cause. Your unassuming attitude and deep
research have enlarged your wisdom in his eyes. To-morrow he will send
for you to lean upon your well-stored mind."
"Is the emergency one for which any special preparation is required?"
questioned Kai Lung.
"That is the message of my warning. Of late a company of grateful
friends has given the Mandarin an inlaid coffin to mark the sense of
their indebtedness, the critical nature of the times rendering the
gift peculiarly appropriate. Thus provided, Shan Tien has cast his
eyes around to secure a burial robe worthy of the casket. The
merchants proffer many, each endowed with all the qualities, but
meanwhile doubts arise, and now Shan Tien would turn to you to learn
what is the true and ancient essential of the garment, and wherein its
virtue should reside."
"The call will not find me inept," replied Kai Lung. "The story of
"It is enough," exclaimed the maiden warningly. "The time for
wandering together in the garden of the imagination has not yet
arrived. Ming-shu's feet are on a journey, it is true, but his eyes
are doubtless left behind. Until a like hour to-morrow gladdens our
expectant gaze, farewell!"
On the following day, at about the stroke of the usual court, Li-loe
approached Kai Lung with a grievous look.
"Alas, manlet," he exclaimed, "here is one direct from the presence of
our high commander, requiring you against his thumb-signed bond. Go
you must, and that alone, whether it be for elevation on a tree or on
a couch. Out of an insatiable friendship this one would accompany you,
were it possible, equally to hold your hand if you are to die or hold
your cup if you are to feast. Yet touching that same cask of hidden
wine there is still time--"
"Cease, mooncalf," replied Kai Lung reprovingly. "This is but an eddy
on the surface of a moving stream. It comes, it goes; and the waters
press on as before."
Then Kai Lung, neither bound nor wearing the wooden block, was led
into the presence of Shan Tien, and allowed to seat himself upon the
floor as though he plied his daily trade.
"Sooner or later it will certainly devolve upon this person to condemn
you to a violent end," remarked the far-seeing Mandarin reassuringly.
"In the ensuing interval, however, there is no need for either of us
to dwell upon what must be regarded as an unpleasant necessity."
"Yet no crime has been committed, beneficence," Kai Lung ventured to
protest; "nor in his attitude before your virtuous self has this one
been guilty of any act of disrespect."
"You have shown your mind to be both wide and deep, and suitably
lined," declared Shan Tien, dexterously avoiding the weightier part of
the story-teller's plea. "A question now arises as to the efficacy of
embroidered coffin cloths, and wherein their potent merit lies. Out of
your well-stored memory declare your knowledge of this sort, conveying
the solid information in your usual palatable way."
"I bow, High Excellence," replied Kai Lung. "This concerns the story
of Wang Ho."
The Story of Wang Ho and the Burial Robe
There was a time when it did not occur to anyone in this pure and
enlightened Empire to question the settled and existing order of
affairs. It would have been well for the merchant Wang Ho had he lived
in that happy era. But, indeed, it is now no unheard-of thing for an
ordinary person to suggest that customs which have been established
for centuries might with advantage be changed--a form of impiety which
is in no degree removed from declaring oneself to be wiser or more
profound than one's ancestors! Scarcely more seemly is this than
irregularity in maintaining the Tablets or observing the Rites; and
how narrow is the space dividing these delinquencies from the actual
crimes of overturning images, counselling rebellion, joining in
insurrection and resorting to indiscriminate piracy and bloodshed.
Certainly the merchant Wang Ho would be a thousand taels wealthier
to-day if he had fully considered this in advance. Nor would Cheng
Lin--but who attempts to eat an orange without first disposing of the
peel, or what manner of a dwelling could be erected unless an adequate
foundation be first provided?
Wang Ho, then, let it be stated, was one who had early in life amassed
a considerable fortune by advising those whose intention it was to
hazard their earnings in the State Lotteries as to the numbers that
might be relied upon to be successful, or, if not actually successful,
those at least that were not already predestined by malign influences
to be absolutely incapable of success. These chances Wang Ho at first
forecast by means of dreams, portents and other manifestations of an
admittedly supernatural tendency, but as his name grew large and the
number of his clients increased vastly, while his capacity for
dreaming remained the same, he found it no less effective to close his
eyes and to become inspired rapidly of numbers as they were thus
revealed to him.
Occasionally Wang Ho was the recipient of an appropriate bag of money
from one who had profited by his advice, but it was not his custom to
rely upon this contingency as a source of income, nor did he in any
eventuality return the amount which had been agreed upon (and
invariably deposited with him in advance) as the reward of his
inspired efforts. To those who sought him in a contentious spirit,
inquiring why he did not find it more profitable to secure the prizes
for himself, Wang Ho replied that his enterprise consisted in
forecasting the winning numbers for State Lotteries and not in solving
enigmas, writing deprecatory odes, composing epitaphs or conducting
any of the other numerous occupations that could be mentioned. As this
plausible evasion was accompanied by the courteous display of the many
weapons which he always wore at different convenient points of his
attire, the incident invariably ended in a manner satisfactory to Wang
Thus positioned Wang Ho prospered, and had in the course of years
acquired a waist of honourable proportions, when the unrolling course
of events influenced him to abandon his lucrative enterprise. It was
not that he failed in any way to become as inspired as before; indeed,
with increasing practice he attained a fluency that enabled him to
outdistance every rival, so that on the occasion of one lottery he
afterwards privately discovered that he had predicted the success of
very possible combination of numbers, thus enabling those who followed
his advice (as he did not fail to announce in inscriptions of
vermilion assurance) to secure--among them--every variety of prize
But, about this time, the chief wife of Wang Ho having been greeted
with amiable condescension by the chief wife of a high official of the
Province, and therefrom in an almost equal manner by the wives of even
higher officials, the one in question began to abandon herself to a
more rapidly outlined manner of existence than formerly, and to
involve Wang Ho in a like attitude, so that presently this
ill-considering merchant, who but a short time before would have
unhesitatingly cast himself bodily to earth on the approach of a city
magistrate, now acquired the habit of alluding to mandarins in casual
conversation by names of affectionate abbreviation. Also, being
advised of the expediency by a voice speaking in an undertone, he
sought still further to extend beyond himself by suffering his nails
to grow long and obliterating his name from the public announcements
upon the city walls.
In spite of this ambitious sacrifice Wang Ho could not entirely shed
from his habit a propensity to associate with those requiring advice
on matters involving financial transactions. He could no longer
conduct enterprises which entailed many clients and the lavish display
of his name, but in the society of necessitous persons who were
related to others of distinction he allowed it to be inferred that he
was benevolently disposed and had a greater sufficiency of taels than
he could otherwise make use of. He also involved himself, for the
benefit of those whom he esteemed, in transactions connected with
pieces of priceless jade, jars of wine of an especially fragrant
character, and pictures of reputable antiquity. In the written manner
of these transactions (for it is useless to conceal the fact that Wang
Ho was incapable of tracing the characters of his own name) he
employed a youth whom he never suffered to appear from beyond the
background. Cheng Lin is thus brought naturally and unobtrusively into
Had Cheng Lin come into the world when a favourably disposed band of
demons was in the ascendant he would certainly have merited an earlier
and more embellished appearance in this written chronicle. So far,
however, nothing but omens of an ill-destined obscurity had beset his
career. For many years two ambitions alone had contained his mind,
both inextricably merged into one current and neither with any
appearance of ever flowing into its desired end. The first was to pass
the examination of the fourth degree of proficiency in the great
literary competitions, and thereby qualify for a small official post
where, in the course of a few years, he might reasonably hope to be
forgotten in all beyond the detail of being allotted every third moon
an unostentatious adequacy of taels. This distinction Cheng Lin felt
to be well within his power of attainment could he but set aside three
uninterrupted years for study, but to do this would necessitate the
possession of something like a thousand taels of silver, and Lin might
as well fix his eyes upon the great sky-lantern itself.
Dependent on this, but in no great degree removed from it, was the
hope of being able to entwine into that future the actuality of Hsi
Mean, a very desirable maiden whom it was Cheng Lin's practice to meet
by chance on the river bank when his heavily-weighted duties for the
day were over.
To those who will naturally ask why Cheng Lin, if really sincere in
his determination, could not imperceptibly acquire even so large a sum
as a thousand taels while in the house of the wealthy Wang Ho,
immersed as the latter person was with the pursuit of the full face of
high mandarins and further embarrassed by a profuse illiteracy, it
should be sufficient to apply the warning: "Beware of helping yourself
to corn from the manger of the blind mule."
In spite of his preoccupation Wang Ho never suffered his mind to
wander when sums of money were concerned, and his inability to express
himself by written signs only engendered in his alert brain an
ever-present decision not to be entrapped by their use. Frequently,
Cheng Lin found small sums of money lying in such a position as to
induce the belief that they had been forgotten, but upon examining
them closely he invariably found upon them marks by which they could
be recognized if the necessity arose; he therefore had no hesitation
in returning them to Wang Ho with a seemly reference to the extreme
improbability of the merchant actually leaving money thus unguarded,
and to the lack of respect which it showed to Cheng Lin himself to
expect that a person of his integrity should be tempted by so
insignificant an amount. Wang Ho always admitted the justice of the
reproach, but he did not on any future occasion materially increase
the sum in question, so that it is to be doubted if his heart was
It was on the evening of such an incident that Lin walked with Mean by
the side of the lotus-burdened Hoang-keng expressing himself to the
effect that instead of lilies her hair was worthy to be bound up with
pearls of a like size, and that beneath her feet there should be
spread a carpet not of verdure, but of the finest Chang-hi silk,
embroidered with five-clawed dragons and other emblems of royal
authority, nor was Mean in any way displeased by this indication of
extravagant taste on her lover's part, though she replied:
"The only jewels that this person desires are the enduring glances of
pure affection with which you, O my phoenix one, entwined the lilies
about her hair, and the only carpet that she would crave would be the
embroidered design created by the four feet of the two persons who are
now conversing together for ever henceforth walking in uninterrupted
"Yet, alas!" exclaimed Lin, "that enchanting possibility seems to be
more remotely positioned than ever. Again has the clay-souled Wang Ho,
on the pretext that he can no longer make his in and out taels meet,
sought to diminish the monthly inadequacy of cash with which he
rewards this person's conscientious services."
"Undoubtedly that opaque-eyed merchant will shortly meet a revengeful
fire-breathing vampire when walking alone on the edge of a narrow
precipice," exclaimed Mean sympathetically. "Yet have you pressingly
laid the facts before the spirits of your distinguished ancestors with
a request for their direct intervention?"
"The expedient has not been neglected," replied Lin, "and appropriate
sacrifices have accompanied the request. But even while in the form of
an ordinary existence the venerable ones in question were becoming
distant in their powers of hearing, and doubtless with increasing
years the ineptitude has grown. It would almost seem that in the case
of a person so obtuse as Wang Ho is, more direct means would have to
"It is well said," assented Mean, "that those who are unmoved by the
thread of a vat of flaming sulphur in the Beyond, rend the air if they
chance to step on a burning cinder here on earth."
"The suggestion is a timely one," replied Lin. "Wang Ho's weak spot
lies between his hat and his sandals. Only of late, feeling the
natural infirmities of time pressing about him, he has expended a
thousand taels in the purchase of an elaborate burial robe, which he
wears on every fit occasion, so that the necessity for its ultimate
use may continue to be remote."
"A thousand taels!" repeated Mean. "With that sum you could--"
"Assuredly. The coincidence may embody something in the nature of an
omen favourable to ourselves. At the moment, however, this person has
not any clear-cut perception of how the benefit may be attained."
"The amount referred to has already passed into the hands of the
merchant in burial robes?"
"Irrevocably. In the detail of the transference of actual sums of
money Wang Ho walks hand in hand with himself from door to door. The
pieces of silver are by this time beneath the floor of Shen Heng's
"The merchant in silk and costly fabrics, who lives beneath the sign
of the Golden Abacus. It was from him--"
"Truly. It is for him that this person's sister Min works the finest
embroideries. Doubtless this very robe--"
"It is of blue silk edged with sand pearls in a line of three depths.
Felicitations on long life and a list of the most venerable persons of
all times serve to remind the controlling deities to what length human
endurance can proceed if suitably encouraged. These are designed in
letters of threaded gold. Inferior spirits are equally invoked in
characters of silver."
"The description is sharp-pointed. It is upon this robe that the one
referred to has been ceaselessly engaged for several moons. On account
of her narrow span of years, no less than her nimble-jointed
dexterity, she is justly esteemed among those whose wares are
guaranteed to be permeated with the spirit of rejuvenation."
"Thereby enabling the enterprising Shen Heng to impose a special
detail into his account: 'For employing the services of one who will
embroider into the fabric of the robe the vital principles of youth
and long-life-to-come--an added fifty taels.' Did she of your house
benefit to a proportionate extent?"
Mean indicated a contrary state of things by a graceful movement of
her well-arranged eyebrows.
"Not only that," she added, "but the sordid-minded Shen Heng, on a
variety of pretexts, has diminished the sum Min was to receive at the
completion of the work, until that which should have required a full
hand to grasp could be efficiently covered by two attenuated fingers.
From this cause Min is vindictively inclined towards him and,
steadfastly refusing to bend her feet in the direction of his
workshop, she has, between one melancholy and another, involved
herself in a dark distemper."
As Mean unfolded the position lying between her sister Min and the
merchant Shen Heng, Lin grew thoughtful, and, although it was not his
nature to express the changing degrees of emotion by varying the
appearance of his face, he did not conceal from Mean that her words
had fastened themselves upon his imagination.
"Let us rest here a while," he suggested presently. "That which you
say, added to what I already know, may, under the guidance of a
sincere mind, put a much more rainbow-like outlook on our combined
future than hitherto appeared probable."
So they composed themselves about the bank of the river, while Lin
questioned her more closely as to those things of which she had
spoken. Finally, he laid certain injunctions upon her for her
immediate guidance. Then, it being now the hour of middle light, they
returned, Mean accompanying her voice to the melody of stringed wood,
as she related songs of those who have passed through great endurances
to a state of assured contentment. To Lin it seemed as though the city
leapt forward to meet them, so narrow was the space of time involved
in reaching it.
A few days later Wang Ho was engaged in the congenial occupation of
marking a few pieces of brass cash before secreting them where Cheng
Lin must inevitably displace them, when the person in question quietly
stood before him. Thereupon Wang Ho returned the money to his inner
sleeve, ineptly remarking that when the sun rose it was futile to
raise a lantern to the sky to guide the stars.
"Rather is it said, 'From three things cross the road to avoid: a
falling tree, your chief and second wives whispering in agreement, and
a goat wearing a leopard's tail,'" replied Lin, thus rebuking Wang Ho,
not only for his crafty intention, but also as to the obtuseness of
the proverb he had quoted. "Nevertheless, O Wang Ho, I approach you on
a matter of weighty consequence."
"To-morrow approaches," replied the merchant evasively. "If it
concerns the detail of the reduction of your monthly adequacy, my word
has become unbending iron."
"It is written: 'Cho Sing collected feathers to make a garment for his
canary when it began to moult,'" replied Lin acquiescently. "The care
of so insignificant a person as myself may safely be left to the
Protecting Forces, esteemed. This matter touches your own condition."
"In that case you cannot be too specific." Wang Ho lowered himself
into a reclining couch, thereby indicating that the subject was not
one for hasty dismissal, at the same time motioning to Lin that he
should sit upon the floor. "Doubtless you have some remunerative form
of enterprise to suggest to me?"
"Can a palsied finger grasp a proffered coin? The matter strikes more
deeply at your very existence, honoured chief."
"Alas!" exclaimed Wang Ho, unable to retain the usual colour of his
appearance, "the attention of a devoted servant is somewhat like
Tohen-hi Yang's spiked throne--it torments those whom it supports.
However, the word has been spoken--let the sentence be filled in."
"The full roundness of your illustrious outline is as a display of
coloured lights to gladden my commonplace vision," replied Lin
submissively. "Admittedly of late, however, an element of dampness has
interfered with the brilliance of the display."
"Speak clearly and regardless of polite evasion," commanded Wang Ho.
"My internal organs have for some time suspected that hostile
influences were at work. For how long have you noticed this, as it may
be expressed, falling off?"
"My mind is as refined crystal before your compelling glance,"
admitted Lin. "Ever since it has been your custom to wear the funeral
robe fashioned by Shen Heng has your noble shadow suffered erosion."
This answer, converging as it did upon the doubts that had already
assailed the merchant's satisfaction, convinced him of Cheng Lin's
discrimination, while it increased his own suspicion. He had for some
little time found that after wearing the robe he invariably suffered
pangs that could only be attributed to the influence of malign and
obscure Beings. It is true that the occasions of his wearing the robe
were elaborate and many-coursed feasts, when he and his guests had
partaken lavishly of birds' nests, sharks' fins, sea snails and other
viands of a rich and glutinous nature. But if he could not both wear
the funeral robe and partake unstintingly of well-spiced food, the
harmonious relation of things was imperilled; and, as it was since the
introduction of the funeral robe into his habit that matters had
assumed a more poignant phase, it was clear that the influence of the
funeral robe was at the root of the trouble.
"Yet," protested Wang Ho, "the Mandarin Ling-ni boasts that he has
already lengthened the span of his natural life several years by such
an expedient, and my friend the high official T'cheng asserts that,
while wearing a much less expensive robe than mine, he feels the
essence of an increased vitality passing continuously into his being.
Why, then, am I marked out for this infliction, Cheng Lin?"
"Revered," replied Lin, with engaging candour, "the inconveniences of
living in a country so densely populated with demons, vampires,
spirits, ghouls, dragons, omens, forces and influences, both good and
bad, as our own unapproachably favoured Empire is, cannot be evaded
from one end of life to the other. How much greater is the difficulty
when the prescribed forms for baffling the ill-disposed among the
unseen appear to have been wrongly angled by those framing the Rites!"
Wang Ho made a gesture of despair. It conveyed to Lin's mind the wise
reminder of N'sy-hing: "When one is inquiring for a way to escape from
an advancing tiger, flowers of speech assume the form of noisome
bird-weed." He therefore continued:
"Hitherto it has been assumed that for a funeral robe to exercise its
most beneficial force it should be the work of a maiden of immature
years, the assumption being that, having a prolonged period of
existence before her, the influence of longevity would pass through
her fingers into the garment and in turn fortify the wearer."
"Assuredly," agreed Wang Ho anxiously. "Thus was the analogy outlined
to me by one skilled in the devices, and the logic of it seems
"Yet," objected Lin, with sympathetic concern in his voice, "how
unfortunate must be the position of a person involved in a robe that
has been embroidered by one who, instead of a long life, as been
marked out by the Destinies for premature decay and an untimely death!
For in that case the influence--"
"Such instances," interrupted Wang Ho, helping himself profusely to
rice-spirit from a jar near at hand, "must providentially be of rare
"Esteemed head," replied Lin, helping Wang Ho to yet another
superfluity of rice-spirit, "there are moments when it behoves each of
us to maintain an unflaccid outline. Suspecting the true cause of your
declining radiance, I have, at an involved expenditure of seven taels
and three hand counts of brash cash, pursued this matter to its
ultimate source. The robe in question owes its attainment to one Min,
of the obscure house of Hsi, who recently ceased to have an existence
while her years yet numbered short of a score. Not only was it the last
work upon which she was engaged, but so closely were the two
identified that her abrupt Passing Beyond must certainly exercise a
corresponding effect upon any subsequent wearer."
"Alas!" exclaimed Wang Ho, feeling many of the symptoms of contagion
already manifesting themselves about his body. "Was the infliction of
a painless nature?"
"As to whether it was leprosy, the spotted plague, or acute demoniacal
possession, the degraded Shen Heng maintains an unworthy silence.
Indeed, at the mention of Hsi Min's name he wraps his garment about
his head and rolls upon the floor--from which the worst may be
inferred. They of Min's house, however, are less capable of guile, and
for an adequate consideration, while not denying that Shen Heng has
paid them to maintain a stealthy silence, they freely admit that the
facts are as they have been stated."
"In that case, Shen Heng shall certainly return the thousand taels in
exchange for this discreditable burial robe," exclaimed Wang Ho
"Venerated personality," said Lin, with unabated loyalty, "the
essential part of the development is to safeguard your own
incomparable being against every danger. Shen Heng may be safely left
to the avenging demons that are ever lying in wait for the
"The first part of your remark is inspired," agreed Wang Ho, his
incapable mind already beginning to assume a less funereal forecast.
"Proceed, regardless of all obstacles."
"Consider the outcome of publicly compelling Shen Heng to undo the
transaction, even if it could be legally achieved! Word of the
calamity would pass on heated breath, each succeeding one becoming
more heavily embroidered than the robe itself. The yamens and palaces
of your distinguished friends would echo with the once honoured name
of Wang Ho, now associated with every form of malignant distemper and
impending fate. All would hasten to withdraw themselves from the
contagion of your overhanging end."
"Am I, then," demanded Wang Ho, "to suffer the loss of a thousand
taels and retain an inadequate and detestable burial robe that will
continue to exercise its malign influence over my being?"
"By no means," replied Lin confidently. "But be warned by the precept:
'Do not burn down your house in order to inconvenience even your chief
wife's mother.' Sooner or later a relation of Shen Heng's will turn
his steps towards your inner office. You can then, without undue
effort, impose on him the thousand taels that you have suffered loss
from those of his house. In the meantime a device must be sought for
exchanging your dangerous but imposing-looking robe for one of proved
"It begins to assume a definite problem in this person's mind as to
whether such a burial robe exists," declared Wang Ho stubbornly.
"Yet it cannot be denied, when a reliable system is adopted in the
fabrication," protested Lin. "For a score and five years the one to
whom this person owes his being has worn such a robe."
"To what age did your venerated father attain?" inquired the merchant,
with courteous interest.
"Fourscore years and three parts of yet another score."
"And the robe in question eventually accompanied him when he Passed
"Doubtless it will. He is still wearing it," replied Lin, as one who
speaks of casual occurrences.
"Is he, then, at so advanced an age, in the state of an ordinary
"Assuredly. Fortified by the virtue emanating from the garment
referred to, it is his deliberate intention to continue here for yet
another score of years at least."
"But if such robes are of so dubious a nature how can reliance be
placed on any one?"
"Esteemed," replied Lin, "it is a matter that has long been suspected
among the observant. Unfortunately, the Ruby Buttons of the past
mistakenly formulated that the essence of continuous existence was
imparted to a burial robe through the hands of a young maiden--hence
so many deplorable experiences. The proper person to be so employed is
undoubtedly one of ripe attainment, for only thereby can the claim to
possess the vital principle be assured."
"Was the robe which has so effectively sustained your meritorious
father thus constructed?" inquired Wang Ho, inviting Lin to recline
himself upon a couch by a gesture as of one who discovers for the
first time that an honoured guest has been overlooked.
"It is of ancient make, and thereby in the undiscriminating eye
perhaps somewhat threadbare; but to the desert-traveller all wells are
sparkling," replied Lin. "A venerable woman, inspired of certain magic
wisdom, which she wove into the texture, to the exclusion of the
showier qualities, designed it at the age of threescore years and
three short of another score. She was engaged upon its fabrication yet
another seven, and finally Passed Upwards at an attainment of three
hundred and thirty-three years, three moons, and three days, thus
conforming to all the principles of allowed witchcraft."
"Cheng Lin," said Wang Ho amiably, pouring out for the one whom he
addressed a full measure of rice-spirit, "the duty that an obedient
son owes even to a grasping and self-indulgent father has in the past
been pressed to a too-conspicuous front, at the expense of the
harmonious relation that should exist between a comfortably-positioned
servant and a generous and broad-minded master. Now in the matter of
these two coffin cloths--"
"My ears are widely opened towards your auspicious words,
benevolence," replied Lin.
"You, Cheng Lin, are still too young to be concerned with the question
of Passing Beyond; your imperishable father is, one is compelled to
say, already old enough to go. As regards both persons, therefore, the
assumed virtue of one burial robe above another should be merely a
matter of speculative interest. Now if some arrangement should be
suggested, not unprofitable to yourself, by which one robe might be
imperceptibly substituted for another--and, after all, one burial robe
is very like another--"
"The prospect of deceiving a trustful and venerated sire is so ignoble
that scarcely any material gain would be a fitting compensation--were
it not for the fact that an impending loss of vision renders the
deception somewhat easy to accomplish. Proceed, therefore,
munificence, towards a precise statement of your open-handed prodigality.
Indescribable was the bitterness of Shen Heng's throat when Cheng Lin
unfolded his burden and revealed the Wang Ho thousand-tael burial
robe, with an unassuming request for the return of the purchase money,
either in gold or honourable paper, as the article was found
unsuitable. Shen Heng shook the rafters of the Golden Abacus with
indignation, and called upon his domestic demons, the spirits of
eleven generations of embroidering ancestors, and the illuminated
tablets containing the High Code and Authority of the Distinguished
Brotherhood of Coffin Cloth and Burial Robe Makers in protest against
so barbarous an innovation.
Bowing repeatedly and modestly expressing himself to the effect that
it was incredible that he was not justly struck dead before the
sublime spectacle of Shen Heng's virtuous indignation, Cheng Lin
carefully produced the written lines of the agreement, gently
directing the Distinguished Brother's fire-kindling eyes to an
indicated detail. It was a provision that the robe should be returned
and the purchase money restored if the garment was not all that was
therein stipulated: with his invariable painstaking loyalty Lin had
insisted upon this safeguard when he drew up the form, although,
probably from a disinclination to extol his own services, he had
omitted mentioning the fact to Wang Ho in their recent conversation.
With deprecating firmness Lin directed Shen Heng's reluctant eyes to
another line--the unfortunate exaction of fifty taels in return for
the guarantee that the robe should be permeated with the spirit of
rejuvenation. As the undoubted embroiderer of the robe--one Min of the
family of Hsi--had admittedly Passed Beyond almost with the last
stitch, it was evident that she could only have conveyed by her touch
an entirely contrary emanation. If, as Shen Heng never ceased to
declare, Min was still somewhere alive, let her be produced and a
fitting token of reconciliation would be forthcoming; otherwise,
although with the acutest reluctance, it would be necessary to carry
the claim to the court of the chief District Mandarin, and (Cheng Lin
trembled at the sacrilegious thought) it would be impossible to
conceal the fact that Shen Heng employed persons of inauspicious omen,
and the high repute of coffin cloths from the Golden Abacus would be
lost. The hint arrested Shen Heng's fingers in the act of tearing out
a handful of his beautiful pigtail. For the first time he noticed,
with intense self-reproach, that Lin was not reclining on a couch.
The amiable discussion that followed, conducted with discriminating
dignity by Shen Heng and conscientious humility on the part of Cheng
Lin, extended from one gong-stroke before noon until close upon the
time for the evening rice. The details arrived at were that Shen Heng
should deliver to Lin eight-hundred and seventy-five taels against the
return of the robe. He would also press upon that person a silk purse
with an onyx clasp, containing twenty-five taels, as a deliberate mark
of his individual appreciation and quite apart from anything to do
with the transaction on hand. All suggestions of anything other than
the strictest high-mindedness were withdrawn from both sides. In order
that the day should not be wholly destitute of sunshine at the Golden
Abacus, Lin declared his intention of purchasing, at a price not
exceeding three taels and a half, the oldest and most unattractive
burial robe that the stock contained. So moved was Shen Heng by this
delicate consideration that he refused to accept more than two taels
and three-quarters. Moreover, he added for Lin's acceptance a small
jar of crystallized limpets.
To those short-sighted ones who profess to discover in the conduct of
Cheng Lin (now an official of the seventeenth grade and drawing his
quarterly sufficiency of taels in a distant province) something not
absolutely honourably arranged, it is only necessary to display the
ultimate end as it affected those persons in any way connected.
Wang Ho thus obtained a burial robe in which he was able to repose
absolute confidence. Doubtless it would have sustained him to an
advanced age had he not committed self-ending, in the ordinary way of
business, a few years later.
Shen Heng soon disposed of the returned garment for two thousand taels
to a person who had become prematurely wealthy owing to the distressed
state of the Empire. In addition he had sold, for more than two taels,
a robe which he had no real expectation of ever selling at all.
Min, made welcome at the house of Mean and Lin, removed with them to
that distant province. There she found that the remuneration for
burial robe embroidery was greater than she had ever obtained before.
With the money thus amassed she was able to marry an official of noble
The father of Cheng Lin had passed into the Upper Air many years
before the incidents with which this related narrative concerns
itself. He is thus in no way affected. But Lin did not neglect, in the
time of his prosperity, to transmit to him frequent sacrifices of
seasonable delicacies suited to his condition.
The Timely Disputation among Those of an Inner Chamber of Yu-Ping
FOR the space of three days Ming-shu remained absent from Yu-pin, and
the affections of Kai Lung and Hwa-mei prospered. On the evening of
the third day the maiden stood beneath the shutter with a more
definite look, and Kai Lung understood that a further period of
unworthy trial was now at hand.
"Behold!" she explained, "at dawn the corrupt Ming-shu will pass
within our gates again, nor is it prudent to assume that his enmity
"On the contrary," replied Kai Lung, "like that unnatural reptile that
lives on air, his malice will have grown upon the voidness of its
cause. As the wise Ling-kwang remarks: 'He who plants a vineyard with
"Assuredly, beloved," interposed Hwa-mei dexterously. "But our
immediate need is less to describe Ming-shu's hate in terms of
classical analogy than to find a potent means of baffling its vevom."
"You are all-wise as usual," confessed Kai Lung, with due humility. "I
will restrain my much too verbose tongue."
"The invading Banners from the north have for the moment failed and
those who drew swords in their cause are flying to the hills. In
Yu-ping, therefore, loyalty wears a fully round face and about the
yamen of Shan Tien men speak almost in set terms. While these
conditions prevail, justice will continue to be administered precisely
as before. We have thus nothing to hope in that direction."
"Yet in the ideal state of purity aimed at by the illustrious founders
of our race--" began Kai Lung, and ceased abruptly, remembering.
"As it is, we are in the state of Tsin in the fourteenth of the
heaven-sent Ching," retorted Hwa-mei capably. "The insatiable Ming-shu
will continue to seek your life, calling to his aid every degraded
subterfuge. When the nature of these can be learned somewhat in
advance, as the means within my power have hitherto enabled us to do,
a trusty shield is raised in your defence."
Kai Lung would have spoken of the length and the breadth of his
indebtedness, but she who stood below did not encourage this.
"Ming-shu's absence makes this plan fruitless here to-day, and as a
consequence he may suddenly disclose a subtle snare to which your feet
must bend. In this emergency my strategy has been towards safeguarding
your irreplaceable life to-morrow at all hazard. Should this avail,
Ming-shu's later schemes will present no baffling veil."
"Your virtuous little finger is as strong as Ming-shu's offensive
thumb," remarked Kai Lung. "This person has no fear."
"Doubtless," acquiesced Hwa-mei. "But she who has spun the thread
knows the weakness of the net. Heed well to the end that no ineptness
may arise. Shan Tien of late extols your art, claiming that in every
circumstance you have a story fitted to the need."
"He measures with a golden rule," agreed Kai Lung. "Left to himself,
Shan Tien is a just, if superficial, judge."
The knowledge of this boast, Hwa-mei continued to relate, had spread
to the inner chambers of the yamen, where the lesser ones vied with
each other in proclaiming the merit of the captive minstrel. Amid this
eulogy Hwa-mei moved craftily and played an insidious part, until she
who was their appointed head was committed to the claim. Then the
maiden raised a contentious voice.
"Our lord's trout were ever salmon," she declared, "and lo! here is
another great and weighty fish! Assuredly no living man is thus and
thus; or are the T'ang epicists returned to earth? Truly our noble one
is easily pleased--in many ways!" With these well-fitted words she
fixed her eyes upon the countenance of Shan Tien's chief wife and
"The sun shines through his words and the moon adorns his utterances,"
replied the chief wife, with unswerving loyalty, though she added, no
less suitably: "That one should please him easily and another therein
fail, despite her ceaseless efforts, is as the Destinies provide."
"You are all-seeing," admitted Hwa-mei generously; "nor is a locked
door any obstacle to your discovering eye. Let this arisement be
submitted to a facile test. Dependent from my ill-formed ears are
rings of priceless jade that have ever tinged your thoughts, while
about your shapely neck is a crystal charm, to which an unclouded
background would doubtless give some lustre. I will set aside the
rings and thou shalt set aside the charm. Then, at a chosen time, this
vaunted one shall attend before us here, and I having disclosed the
substance of a theme, he shall make good the claim. If he so does,
capably and without delay, thou shalt possess the jewels. But if, in
the judgment of these around, he shall fail therein, then are both
jewels mine. Is it so agreed?"
"It is agreed!" cried those who were the least concerned, seeing some
entertainment to themselves. "Shall the trial take place at once?"
"Not so," replied Hwa-mei. "A sufficient space must be allowed for
this one wherein to select the matter of the test. To-morrow let it
be, before the hour of evening rice. And thou?"
"Inasmuch as it will enlarge the prescience of our lord in minds that
are light and vaporous, I also do consent," replied the chief wife.
"Yet must he too be of our company, to be witness of the upholding of
his word and, if need be, to cast a decisive voice."
"Thus," continued Hwa-mei, as she narrated these events, "Shan Tien
is committed to the trial and thereby he must preserve you until that
hour. Tell me now the answer to the test, that I may frame the
question to agree."
Kai Lung thought a while, then said:
"There is the story of Chang Tao. It concerns one who, bidden to do an
impossible task, succeeded though he failed, and shows how two
identically similar beings may be essentially diverse. To this should
be subjoined the apophthegm that that which we are eager to obtain may
be that which we have striven to avoid."
"It suffices," agreed Hwa-mei. "Bear well your part."
"Still," suggested Kai Lung, hoping to detain her retiring footsteps
for yet another span, "were it not better that I should fall short at
the test, thus to enlarge your word before your fellows?"
"And in so doing demean yourself, darken the face of Shan Tien's
present regard, and alienate all those who stand around! O most obtuse
"I will then bare my throat," confessed Kai Lung. "The barbed thought
had assailed my mind that perchance the rings of precious jade lay
coiled around your heart. Thus and thus I spoke."
"Thus also will I speak," replied Hwa-mei, and her uplifted eyes held
Kai Lung by the inner fibre of his being. "Did I value them as I do,
and were they a single hair of my superfluous head, the whole head
were freely offered to a like result."
With these noticeable words, which plainly testified the strength of
her emotion, the maiden turned and hastened on her way, leaving Kai Lung
gazing from the shutter in a very complicated state of disquietude.
The Story of Chang Tao, Melodious Vision and the Dragon
After Chang Tao had reached the age of manhood his grandfather took
him apart one day and spoke of a certain matter, speaking as a
philosopher whose mind has at length overflowed.
"Behold!" he said, when they were at a discreet distance aside, "your
years are now thus and thus, but there are still empty chairs where
there should be occupied cradles in your inner chamber, and the only
upraised voice heard in this spacious residence is that of your
esteemed father repeating the Analects. The prolific portion of the
tree of our illustrious House consists of its roots; its existence
onwards narrows down to a single branch which as yet has put forth no
"The loftiest tower rises from the ground," remarked Chang Tao
evasively, not wishing to implicate himself on either side as yet.
"Doubtless; and as an obedient son it is commendable that you should
close your ears, but as a discriminating father there is no reason by
I should not open my mouth," continued the venerable Chang in a voice
from which every sympathetic modulation was withdrawn. "It is
admittedly a meritorious resolve to devote one's existence to
explaining the meaning of a single obscure passage of one of the Odes,
but if the detachment necessary to the achievement results in a
hitherto carefully-preserved line coming to an incapable end, it would
have been more satisfactory to the dependent shades of our revered
ancestors that the one in question should have collected street
garbage rather than literary instances, or turned somersaults in place
of the pages of the Classics, had he but given his first care to
providing you with a wife and thereby safeguarding our unbroken
"My father is all-wise," ventured Chang Tao dutifully, but observing
the nature of the other's expression he hastened to add considerately,
"but my father's father is even wiser."
"Inevitably," assented the one referred to; "not merely because he is
the more mature by a generation, but also in that he is thereby nearer
to the inspired ancients in whom the Cardinal Principles reside."
"Yet, assuredly, there must be occasional exceptions to this rule of
progressive deterioration?" suggested Chang Tao, feeling that the
process was not without a definite application to himself.
"Not in our pure and orthodox line," replied the other person firmly.
"To suggest otherwise is to admit the possibility of a son being the
superior of his own father, and to what a discordant state of things
would that contention lead! However immaturely you may think at
present, you will see the position at its true angle when you have
sons of your own."
"The contingency is not an overhanging one," said Chang Tao. "On the
last occasion when I reminded my venerated father of my age and
unmarried state, he remarked that, whether he looked backwards or
forwards, extinction seemed to be the kindest destiny to which our
House could be subjected."
"Originality, carried to the length of eccentricity, is a censurable
accomplishment in one of official rank," remarked the elder Chang
coldly. "Plainly it is time that I should lengthen the authority of my
own arm very perceptibly. If a father is so neglectful of his duty, it
is fitting that a grandfather should supply his place. This person
will himself procure a bride for you without delay."
"The function might perhaps seem an unusual one," suggested Chang Tao,
who secretly feared the outcome of an enterprise conducted under these
"So, admittedly, are the circumstances. What suitable maiden suggests
herself to your doubtless better-informed mind? Is there one of the
house of Tung?"
"There are eleven," replied Chang Tao, with a gesture of despair, "all
reputed to be untiring with their needle, skilled in the frugal
manipulation of cold rice, devout, discreet in the lines of their
attire, and so sombre of feature as to be collectively known to the
available manhood of the city as the Terror that Lurks for the Unwary.
Suffer not your discriminating footsteps to pause before that house, O
father of my father! Now had you spoken of Golden Eyebrows, daughter
of Kuo Wang--"
"It would be as well to open a paper umbrella in a thunderstorm as to
seek profit from an alliance with Kuo Wang. Crafty and ambitious, he
is already deep in questionable ventures, and high as he carries his
head at present, there will assuredly come a day when Kuo Wang will
appear in public with his feet held even higher than his crown."
"The rod!" exclaimed Chang Tao in astonishment. "Can it really be that
one who is so invariably polite to me is not in every way immaculate?"
"Either bamboo will greet his feet or hemp adorn his neck," persisted
the other, with a significant movement of his hands in the proximity
of his throat. "Walk backwards in the direction of that house, son of
my son. Is there not one Ning of the worthy line of Lo, dwelling
beneath the emblem of a Sprouting Aloe?"
"Truly," agreed the youth, "but at an early age she came under the
malign influence of a spectral vampire, and in order to deceive the
creature she was adopted to the navigable portion of the river here,
and being announced as having Passed Above was henceforth regarded as
a red mullet."
"Yet in what detail does that deter you?" inquired Chang, for the
nature of his grandson's expression betrayed an acute absence of
enthusiasm towards the maiden thus concerned.
"Perchance the vampire was not deceived after all. In any case this
person dislikes red mullet," replied the youth indifferently.
The venerable shook his head reprovingly.
"It is imprudent to be fanciful in matters of business," he remarked.
"Lo Chiu, her father, is certainly the possessor of many bars of
silver, and, as it is truly written: 'With wealth one may command
demons; without it one cannot summon even a slave.'"
"It is also said: 'When the tree is full the doubtful fruit remains
upon the branch,'" retorted Chang Tao. "Are not maidens in this city
as the sand upon a broad seashore? If one opens and closes one's hands
suddenly out in the Ways on a dark night, the chances are that three
or four will be grasped. A stone cast at a venture--"
"Peace!" interrupted the elder. "Witless spoke thus even in the days
of this person's remote youth--only the virtuous did not then open and
close their hands suddenly in the Ways on dark nights. Is aught
reported of the inner affairs of Shen Yi, a rich philosopher who
dwells somewhat remotely on the Stone Path, out beyond the Seven
Chang Tao looked up with a sharply awakening interest.
"It is well not to forget that one," he replied. "He is spoken of as
courteous but reserved, in that he drinks tea with few though his
position is assured. Is not his house that which fronts on a
summer-seat domed with red copper?"
"It is the same," agreed the other. "Speak on."
"What I recall is meagre and destitute of point. Nevertheless, it so
chanced that some time ago this person was proceeding along the
further Stone Path when an aged female mendicant, seated by the
wayside, besought his charity. Struck by her destitute appearance he
bestowed upon her a few unserviceable broken cash, such as one retains
for the indigent, together with an appropriate blessing, when the hag
changed abruptly into the appearance of a young and alluring maiden,
who smilingly extended to this one her staff, which had meanwhile
become a graceful branch of flowering lotus. The manifestation was not
sustained, however, for as he who is relating the incident would have
received the proffered flower he found that his hand was closing on
the neck of an expectant serpent, which held in its mouth an agate
charm. The damsel had likewise altered, imperceptibly merging into the
form of an overhanging fig-tree, among whose roots the serpent twined
itself. When this person would have eaten one of the ripe fruit of the
tree he found that the skin was filled with a bitter dust, whereupon
he withdrew, convinced that no ultimate profit was likely to result
from the encounter. His departure was accompanied by the sound of
laughter, mocking yet more melodious than a carillon of silver gongs
hung in a porcelain tower, which seemed to proceed from the
summer-seat domed with red copper."
"Some omen doubtless lay within the meeting," said the elder Chang.
"Had you but revealed the happening fully on your return, capable
geomancers might have been consulted. In this matter you have fallen
"It is admittedly easier to rule a kingdom than to control one's
thoughts," confessed Chang Tao frankly. "A great storm of wind met
this person on his way back, and when he had passed through it, all
recollection of the incident had, for the time, been magically blown
from his mind."
"It is now too late to question the augurs. But in the face of so
involved a portent it would be well to avert all thought from
Melodious Vision, wealthy Shen Yi's incredibly attractive daughter."
"It is unwise to be captious in affairs of negotiation," remarked the
young man thoughtfully. "Is the smile of the one referred to such that
at the vision of it the internal organs of an ordinary person begin to
clash together, beyond the power of all control?"
"Not in the case of the one who is speaking," replied the grandfather
of Chang Tao, "but a very illustrious poet, whom Shen Yi charitably
employed about his pig-yard, certainly described it as a ripple on the
surface of a dark lake of wine, when the moon reveals the hidden
pearls beneath; and after secretly observing the unstudied grace of
her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province
burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer
of performing elephants. But when maidens are as numerous as the
grains of sand--"
"Esteemed," interposed Chang Tao, with smooth determination, "wisdom
lurks in the saying: 'He who considers everything decides nothing.'
Already this person has spent an unprofitable score of years through
having no choice in the matter; at this rate he will spend yet another
score through having too much. Your timely word shall be his beacon.
Neither the disadvantage of Shen Yi's oppressive wealth nor the
inconvenience of Melodious Vision's excessive beauty shall deter him
from striving to fulfil your delicately expressed wish."
"Yet," objected the elder Chang, by no means gladdened at having the
decision thus abruptly lifted from his mouth, "so far, only a
partially formed project--"
"To a thoroughly dutiful grandson half a word from your benevolent
lips carries further than a full-throated command does from a less
"Perchance. This person's feet, however, are not liable to a similar
acceleration, and a period of adequate consideration must intervene
before they are definitely moving in the direction of Shen Yi's
mansion. 'Where the road bends abruptly take short steps,' Chang Tao."
"The necessity will be lifted from your venerable shoulders, revered,"
replied Chang Tao firmly. "Fortified by your approving choice, this
person will himself confront Shen Yi's doubtful countenance, and that
same bend in the road will be taken at a very sharp angle and upon a
"In person! It is opposed to the Usages!" exclaimed the venerable; and
at the contemplation of so undignified a course his voice prudently
withdrew itself, though his mouth continued to open and close for a
"'As the mountains rise, so the river winds,'" replied Chang Tao, and
with unquenchable deference he added respectfully as he took his
leave, "Fear not, eminence; you will yet remain to see five
generations of stalwart he-children, all pressing forward to worship
your imperishable memory."
In such a manner Chang Tao set forth to defy the Usages and--if
perchance it might be--to speak to Shen Yi face to face of Melodious
Vision. Yet in this it may be that the youth was not so much hopeful
of success by his own efforts as that he was certain of failure by the
elder Chang's. And in the latter case the person in question might
then irrevocably contract him to a maiden of the house of Tung, or to
another equally forbidding. Not inaptly is it written: "To escape from
fire men will plunge into boiling water."
Nevertheless, along the Stone Path many doubts and disturbances arose
within Chang Tao's mind. It was not in this manner that men of weight
and dignity sought wives. Even if Shen Yi graciously overlooked the
absence of polite formality, would not the romantic imagination of
Melodious Vision be distressed when she learned that she had been
approached with so indelicate an absence of ceremony? "Here, again,"
said Chang Tao's self-reproach accusingly, "you have, as usual, gone
on in advance of both your feet and of your head. 'It is one thing to
ignore the Rites: it is quite another to expect the gods to ignore the
Penalties.' Assuredly you will suffer for it."
It was at this point that Chang Tao was approached by one who had
noted his coming from afar, and had awaited him, for passers-by were
sparse and remote.
"Prosperity attend your opportune footsteps," said the stranger
respectfully. "A misbegotten goat-track enticed this person from his
appointed line by the elusive semblance of an avoided li. Is there,
within your enlightened knowledge, the house of one Shen Yi, who makes
a feast to-day, positioned about this inauspicious region? It is
further described as fronting on a summer-seat domed with red copper."
"There is such a house as you describe, at no great distance to the
west," replied Chang Tao. "But that he marks the day with music had
not reached these superficial ears."
"It is but among those of his inner chamber, this being the name-day
of one whom he would honour in a refined and at the same time
inexpensive manner. To that end am I bidden."
"Of what does your incomparable exhibition consist?" inquired Chang
"Of a variety of quite commonplace efforts. It is entitled
'Half-a-gong-stroke among the No-realities; or Gravity-removing devoid
of Inelegance.' Thus, borrowing the neck-scarf of the most
dignified-looking among the lesser ones assembled I will at once
discover among its folds the unsuspected presence of a family of
tortoises; from all parts of the person of the roundest-bodied
mandarin available I will control the appearance of an inexhaustible
stream of copper cash, and beneath the scrutinizing eyes of all a
bunch of paper chrysanthemums will change into the similitude of a
crystal bowl in whose clear depth a company of gold and silver carp
glide from side to side."
"These things are well enough for the immature, and the sight of an
unnaturally stout official having an interminable succession of white
rabbits produced from the various recesses of his waistcloth
admittedly melts the austerity of the superficial of both sexes. But
can you, beneath the undeceptive light of day, turn a sere and
unattractive hag into the substantial image of a young and beguiling
maiden, and by a further complexity into a fruitful fig-tree; or
induce a serpent so far to forsake its natural instincts as to poise
on the extremity of its tail and hold a charm within its mouth?"
"None of these things lies within my admitted powers," confessed the
stranger. "To what end does your gracious inquiry tend?"
"It is in the nature of a warning, for within the shadow of the house
you seek manifestations such as I describe pass almost without remark.
Indeed it is not unlikely that while in the act of displaying your
engaging but simple skill you may find yourself transformed into a
chameleon or saddled with the necessity of finishing your
gravity-removing entertainment under the outward form of a Manchurian
"Alas!" exclaimed the other. "The eleventh of the moon was ever this
person's unlucky day, and he would have done well to be warned by a
dream in which he saw an unsuspecting kid walk into the mouth of a
"Undoubtedly the tiger was an allusion to the dangers awaiting you,
but it is not yet too late for you to prove that you are no kid,"
counselled Chang Tao. "Take this piece of silver so that the
enterprise of the day may not have been unfruitful and depart with all
speed on a homeward path. He who speaks is going westward, and at the
lattice of Shen Yi he will not fail to leave a sufficient excuse for
"Your voice has the compelling ring of authority, beneficence,"
replied the stranger gratefully. "The obscure name of the one who
prostrates himself is Wo, that of his degraded father being Weh. For
this service he binds his ghost to attend your ghost through three
cycles of time in the After."
"It is remitted," said Chang Tao generously, as he resumed his way.
"May the path be flattened before your weary feet."
Thus, unsought as it were, there was placed within Chang Tao's grasp a
staff that might haply bear his weight into the very presence of
Melodious Vision herself. The exact strategy of the undertaking did
not clearly yet reveal itself, but "When fully ripe the fruit falls of
its own accord," and Chang Tao was content to leave such detail to the
guiding spirits of his destinies. As he approached the outer door he
sang cheerful ballads of heroic doings, partly because he was glad,
but also to reassure himself.
"One whom he expects awaits," he announced to the keeper of the gate.
"The name of Wo, the son of Weh, should suffice."
"It does not," replied the keeper, swinging his roomy sleeve
specifically. "So far it has an empty, short-stopping sound. It lacks
sparkle; it has no metallic ring. . . . He sleeps."
"Doubtless the sound of these may awaken him," said Chang Tao, shaking
out a score of cash.
"Pass in munificence. Already his expectant eyes rebuke the unopen
Although he had been in a measure prepared by Wo, Chang Tao was
surprised to find that three persons alone occupied the chamber to
which he was conducted. Two of these were Shen Yi and a trusted slave;
at the sight of the third Chang Tao's face grew very red and the
deficiencies of his various attributes began to fill his mind with
dark forebodings, for this was Melodious Vision and no man could look
upon her without her splendour engulfing his imagination. No record of
her pearly beauty is preserved beyond a scattered phrase or two; for
the poets and minstrels of the age all burned what they had written,
in despair at the inadequacy of words. Yet it remains that whatever a
man looked for, that he found, and the measure of his requirement was
"Greeting," said Shen Yi, with easy-going courtesy. He was a more
meagre man than Chang Tao had expected, his face not subtle, and his
manner restrained rather than oppressive. "You have come on a long and
winding path; have you taken your rice?"
"Nothing remains lacking," replied Chang Tao, his eyes again
elsewhere. "Command your slave, Excellence."
"In what particular direction do your agreeable powers of
So far Chang Tao had left the full consideration of this inevitable
detail to the inspiration of the moment, but when the moment came the
prompting spirits did not disclose themselves. His hesitation became
more elaborate under the expression of gathering enlightenment that
began to appear in Melodious Vision's eyes.
"An indifferent store of badly sung ballads," he was constrained to
reply at length, "and--perchance--a threadbare assortment of involved
questions and replies."
"Was it your harmonious voice that we were privileged to hear raised
beneath our ill-fitting window a brief space ago?" inquired Shen Yi.
"Admittedly at the sight of this noble palace I was impelled to put my
presumptuous gladness into song."
"Then let it fain be the other thing," interposed the maiden, with
decision. "Your gladness came to a sad end, minstrel."
"Involved questions are by no means void of divertisement," remarked
Shen Yi, with conciliatory mildness in his voice. "There was one,
turning on the contradictory nature of a door which under favourable
conditions was indistinguishable from an earthenware vessel, that
seldom failed to baffle the unalert in the days before the binding of
this person's hair."
"That was the one which it had been my feeble intention to propound,"
confessed Chang Tao.
"Doubtless there are many others equally enticing," suggested Shen Yi
"Alas," admitted Chang Tao with conscious humiliation; "of all those
wherein I retain an adequate grasp of the solution, the complication
eludes me at the moment, and thus in a like but converse manner with
"Esteemed parent," remarked Melodious Vision, without emotion, "this
is neither a minstrel nor one in any way entertaining. It is merely
"Another!" exclaimed Chang Tao in refined bitterness. "Is it possible
that after taking so extreme and unorthodox a course as to ignore the
Usages and advance myself in person I am to find that I have not even
the mediocre originality of being the first, as a recommendation?"
"If the matter is thus and thus, so far from being the first, you are
only the last of a considerable line of worthy and enterprising youths
who have succeeded in gaining access to the inner part of this not
really attractive residence on one pretext or another," replied the
tolerant Shen Yi. "In any case you are honourably welcome. From the
position of your various features I now judge you to be Tao, only son
of the virtuous house of Chang. May you prove more successful in your
enterprise than those who have preceded you."
"The adventure appears to be tending in unforeseen directions," said
Chang Tao uneasily. "Your felicitation, benign, though doubtless gold
at heart, is set in a doubtful frame."
"It is for your stalwart endeavour to assure a happy picture," replied
Shen Yi, with undisturbed cordiality. "You bear a sword."
"What added involvement is this?" demanded Chang Tao. "This one's
thoughts and intention were not turned towards savagery and arms, but
in the direction of a pacific union of two distinguished lines."
"In such cases my attitude has invariably been one of sympathetic
unconcern," declared Shen Yi. "The weight of either side produces an
atmosphere of absolute poise that cannot fail to give full play to the
decision of the destinies."
"But if this attitude is maintained on your part how can the proposal
progress to a definite issue?" inquired Chang Tao.
"So far, it never has so progressed," admitted Shen Yi. "None of the
worthy and hard-striving young men--any of whom I should have been
overjoyed to greet as a son-in-law had my inopportune sense of
impartiality permitted it--has yet returned from the trial to claim
"Even the Classics become obscure in the dark. Clear your throat of
all doubtfulness, O Shen Yi, and speak to a definite end."
"That duty devolves upon this person, O would-be propounder of
involved questions," interposed Melodious Vision. Her voice was more
musical than a stand of hanging jewels touched by a rod of jade, and
each word fell like a separate pearl. "He who ignores the Usages must
expect to find the Usages ignored. Since the day when K'ung-tsz framed
the Ceremonies much water has passed beneath the Seven Terraced
Bridge, and that which has overflowed can never be picked up again. It
is no longer enough that you should come and thereby I must go; that
you should speak and I be silent; that you should beckon and I meekly
obey. Inspired by the uprisen sisterhood of the outer barbarian lands,
we of the inner chambers of the Illimitable Kingdom demand the right
to express ourselves freely on every occasion and on every subject,
whether the matter involved is one that we understand or not."
"Your clear-cut words will carry far," said Chang Tao deferentially,
and, indeed, Melodious Vision's voice had imperceptibly assumed a
penetrating quality that justified the remark. "Yet is it fitting that
beings so superior in every way should be swayed by the example of
those who are necessarily uncivilized and rude?"
"Even a mole may instruct a philosopher in the art of digging,"
replied the maiden, with graceful tolerance. "Thus among those uncouth
tribes it is the custom, when a valiant youth would enlarge his face
in the eyes of a maiden, that he should encounter forth and slay
dragons, to the imperishable glory of her name. By this beneficent
habit not only are the feeble and inept automatically disposed of, but
the difficulty of choosing one from among a company of suitors, all
apparently possessing the same superficial attributes, is materially
"The system may be advantageous in those dark regions," admitted Chang
Tao reluctantly, "but it must prove unsatisfactory in our more
"In what detail?" demanded the maiden, pausing in her attitude of
"By the essential drawback that whereas in those neglected outer parts
there really are no dragons, here there really are. Thus--"
"Doubtless there are barbarian maidens for those who prefer to
encounter barbarian dragons, then," exclaimed Melodious Vision, with a
very elaborately sustained air of no-concern.
"Doubtless," assented Chang Tao mildly. "Yet having set forth in the
direction of a specific Vision it is this person's intention to pursue
it to an ultimate end."
"The quiet duck puts his foot on the unobservant worm," murmured Shen
Yi, with delicate encouragement, adding "This one casts a more
definite shadow than those before."
"Yet," continued the maiden, "to all, my unbending word is this: he
who would return for approval must experience difficulties, overcome
dangers and conquer dragons. Those who do not adventure on the quest
will pass outward from this person's mind."
"And those who do will certainly Pass Upward from their own bodies,"
ran the essence of the youth's inner thoughts. Yet the network of her
unevadable power and presence was upon him; he acquiescently replied:
"It is accepted. On such an errand difficulties and dangers will not
require any especial search. Yet how many dragons slain will suffice
to win approval?"
"Crocodile-eyed one!" exclaimed Melodious Vision, surprised into
wrathfulness. "How many--" Here she withdrew in abrupt vehemence.
"Your progress has been rapid and profound," remarked Shen Yi, as,
with flattering attention, he accompanied Chang Tao some part of the
way towards the door. "Never before has that one been known to leave a
remark unsaid; I do not altogether despair of seeing her married yet.
As regards the encounter with the dragon--well, in the case of the one
whispering in your ear there was the revered mother of the one whom he
sought. After all, a dragon is soon done with--one way or the other."
In such a manner Chang Tao set forth to encounter dragons, assured
that difficulties and dangers would accompany him on either side. In
this latter detail he was inspired, but as the great light faded and
the sky-lantern rose in interminable succession, while the
unconquerable li ever stretched before his expectant feet, the
essential part of the undertaking began to assume a dubious facet. In
the valleys and fertile places he learned that creatures of this part
now chiefly inhabited the higher fastnesses, such regions being more
congenial to their wild and intractable natures. When, however, after
many laborious marches he reached the upper peaks of pathless
mountains the scanty crag-dwellers did not vary in their assertion
that the dragons had for some time past forsaken those heights for the
more settled profusion of the plains. Formerly, in both places they
had been plentiful, and all those whom Chang Tao questioned spoke
openly of many encounters between their immediate forefathers and such
It was in the downcast frame of mind to which the delays in
accomplishing his mission gave rise that Chang Tao found himself
walking side by side with one who bore the appearance of an affluent
merchant. The northernward way was remote and solitary, but seeing
that the stranger carried no outward arms Chang Tao greeted him
suitably and presently spoke of the difficulty of meeting dragons, or
of discovering their retreats from dwellers in that region.
"In such delicate matters those who know don't talk, and those who
talk don't know," replied the other sympathetically. "Yet for what
purpose should one who would pass as a pacific student seek to
"For a sufficient private reason it is necessary that I should kill a
certain number," replied Chang Tao freely. "Thus their absence
involves me in much ill-spared delay."
At this avowal the stranger's looks became more sombre, and he
breathed inwards several times between his formidable teeth before he
"This is doubtless your angle, but there is another; nor is it well to
ignore the saying, 'Should you miss the tiger be assured that he will
not miss you,'" he remarked at length. "Have you sufficiently
considered the eventuality of a dragon killing you?"
"It is no less aptly said: 'To be born is in the course of nature, but
to die is according to the decree of destiny.'"
"That is a two-edged weapon, and the dragon may be the first to apply
"In that case this person will fall back upon the point of the adage:
'It is better to die two years too soon than to live one year too
long,'" replied Chang Tao. "Should he fail in the adventure and thus
lose all hope of Melodious Vision, of the house of Shen, there will be
no further object in prolonging a wearisome career."
"You speak of Melodious Vision, she being of the house of Shen," said
the stranger, regarding his companion with an added scrutiny. "Is the
unmentioned part of her father's honourable name Yi, and is his
agreeable house so positioned that it fronts upon a summer-seat domed
with red copper?"
"The description is exact," admitted Chang Tao. "Have you, then, in
the course of your many-sided travels, passed that way?"
"It is not unknown to me," replied the other briefly. "Learn now how
incautious had been your speech, and how narrowly you have avoided the
exact fate of which I warned you. The one speaking to you is in
reality a powerful dragon, his name being Pe-lung, from the
circumstance that the northern limits are within his sway. Had it not
been for a chance reference you would certainly have been struck dead
at the parting of our ways."
"If this is so it admittedly puts a new face upon the matter," agreed
Chang Tao. "Yet how can reliance be spontaneously placed upon so
incredible a claim? You are a man of moderate cast, neither diffident
nor austere, and with no unnatural attributes. All the dragons with
which history is concerned possess a long body and a scaly skin, and
have, moreover, the power of breathing fire at will."
"That is easily put to the test." No sooner had Pe-lung uttered these
words than he faded, and in his place appeared a formidable monster
possessing all the terror-inspiring characteristics of his kind. Yet
in spite of his tree-like eyebrows, fiercely-moving whiskers and
fire-breathing jaws, his voice was mild and pacific as he continued:
"What further proof can be required? Assuredly, the self-opinionated
spirit in which you conduct your quest will bring you no nearer to a
"Yet this will!" exclaimed Chang Tao, and suddenly drawing his
reliable sword he drove it through the middle part of the dragon's
body. So expertly was the thrust weighted that the point of the weapon
protruded on the other side and scarred the earth. Instead of falling
lifeless to the ground, however, the Being continued to regard its
assailant with benignant composure, whereupon the youth withdrew the
blade and drove it through again, five or six times more. As this
produced no effect beyond rendering the edge of the weapon unfit for
further use, and almost paralysing the sinews of his own right arm,
Chang Tao threw away the sword and sat down on the road in order to
recall his breath. When he raised his head again the dragon had
disappeared and Pe-lung stood there as before.
"Fortunately it is possible to take a broad-minded view of your
uncourteous action, owing to your sense of the fitnesses being for the
time in abeyance through allegiance to so engaging a maiden as
Melodious Vision," said Pe-lung in a voice not devoid of reproach.
"Had you but confided in me more fully I should certainly have
cautioned you in time. As it is, you have ended by notching your
otherwise capable weapon beyond repair and seriously damaging the
scanty cloak I wear"--indicating the numerous rents that marred his
dress of costly fur. "No wonder dejection sits upon your downcast
"Your priceless robe is a matter of profuse regret and my self-esteem
can only be restored by your accepting in its place this threadbare
one of mine. My rust-eaten sword is unworthy of your second thought.
But certainly neither of these two details is the real reason of my
"Disclose yourself more openly," urged Pe-lung.
"I now plainly recognize the futility of my well-intentioned quest.
Obviously it is impossible to kill a dragon, and I am thus the sport
either of Melodious Vision's deliberate ridicule or of my own
"Set your mind at rest upon that score: each blow was competently
struck and convincingly fatal. You may quite fittingly claim to have
slain half a dozen dragons at the least--none of the legendary
champions of the past has done more."
"Yet how can so arrogant a claim be held, seeing that you stand before
me in the unimpaired state of an ordinary existence?"
"The explanation is simple and assuring. It is, in reality, very easy
to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead. The reason
for this is that the Five Essential Constituents of fire, water,
earth, wood and metal are blended in our bodies in the Sublime or
Indivisible proportion. Thus although it is not difficult by extreme
violence to disturb the harmonious balance of the Constituents, and so
bring about the effect of no-existence, they at once re-tranquillize
again, and all effect of the ill usage is spontaneously repaired."
"That is certainly a logical solution, but it stands in doubtful stead
when applied to the familiar requirements of life; nor is it probable
that one so acute-witted as Melodious Vision would greet the claim
with an acquiescent face," replied Chang Tao. "Not unnaturally is it
said: 'He who kills tigers does not wear rat-skin sleeves.' It would
be one thing to make a boast of having slain six dragons; it would be
quite another to be bidden to bring in their tails."
"That is a difficulty which must be considered," admitted Pe-lung,
"but a path round it will inevitably be found. In the meantime night
is beginning to encircle us, and many dark Powers will be freed and
resort to these inaccessible slopes. Accompany me, therefore, to my
bankrupt hovel, where you will be safe until you care to resume your
To this agreeable proposal Chang Tao at once assented. The way was
long and laborious, "For," remarked Pe-lung, "in an ordinary course I
should fly there in a single breath of time; but to seize an honoured
guest by the body-cloth and thus transfer him over the side of a
mountain is toilsome to the one and humiliating to the other."
To beguile the time he spoke freely of the hardships of his lot.
"We dragons are frequently objects of envy at the hands of the
undiscriminating, but the few superficial privileges we enjoy are
heavily balanced by the exacting scope of our duties. Thus to-night it
is my degraded task to divert the course of the river flowing below
us, so as to overwhelm the misguided town of Yang, wherein swells a
sordid outcast who has reviled the Sacred Claw. In order to do this
properly it will be my distressing part to lie across the bed of the
stream, my head resting upon one bank and my tail upon the other, and
so remain throughout the rigour of the night.
As they approached the cloudy pinnacle whereon was situated the
dragon's cave, one came forth at a distance to meet them. As she drew
near, alternating emotions from time to time swayed Chang Tao's mind.
From beneath a well-ruled eyebrow Pe-lung continued to observe him
"Fuh-sang, the unattractive daughter of my dwindling line," remarked
the former person, with refined indifference. "I have rendered you
invisible, and she, as her custom is, would advance to greet me."
"But this enchanting apparition is Melodious Vision!" exclaimed Chang
Tao. "What new bewilderment is here?"
"Since you have thus expressed yourself, I will now throw off the mask
and reveal fully why I have hitherto spared your life, and for what
purpose I have brought you to these barren heights," replied Pe-lung.
"In the past Shen Yi provoked the Deities, and to mark their
displeasure it was decided to take away his she-child and to
substitute for it one of demoniac birth. Accordingly Fuh-sang, being
of like age, was moulded to its counterpart, and an attendant gnome
was despatched with her secretly to make the change. Becoming
overwhelmed with the fumes of rice-spirit, until then unknown to his
simple taste, this clay-brained earth-pig left the two she-children
alone for a space while he slept. Discovering each other to be the
creature of another part, they battled together and tore from one
another the signs of recognition. When the untrustworthy gnome
recovered from his stupor he saw what he had done, but being
terror-driven he took up one of the she-children at a venture and
returned with a pliant tale. It was not until a few moons ago that
while in a close extremity he confessed his crime. Meanwhile Shen Yi
had made his peace with those Above and the order being revoked the
she-children had been exchanged again. Thus the matter rests."
"Which, then, of the twain is she inherent of your house and which
Melodious Vision?" demanded Chang Tao in some concern. "The matter can
assuredly not rest thus."
"That," replied Pe-lung affably, "it will be your engaging task to
unravel, and to this end will be your opportunity of closely watching
Fuh-sang's unsuspecting movements in my absence through the night."
"Yet how should I, to whom the way of either maiden is as yet no more
than the title-page of a many-volumed book, succeed where the father
native to one has failed?"
"Because in your case the incentive will be deeper. Destined, as you
doubtless are, to espouse Melodious Vision, the Forces connected with
marriage and its Rites will certainly endeavour to inspire you. This
person admittedly has no desire to nurture one who should prove to be
of merely human seed, but your objection to propagating a race of
dragonets turns on a keener edge. Added to all, a not unnatural
disinclination to be dropped from so great a height as this into so
deep and rocky a valley as that will conceivably lend wings to your
usually nimble-footed mind."
While speaking to Chang Tao in this encouraging strain, Pe-lung was
also conversing suitably with Fuh-sang, who had by this time joined
them, warning her of his absence until the dawn, and the like. When he
had completed his instruction he stroked her face affectionately,
greeting Chang Tao with a short but appropriate farewell, and changing
his form projected himself downwards into the darkness of the valley
below. Recognizing that the situation into which he had been drawn
possessed no other outlet, Chang Tao followed Fuh-sang on her backward
path, and with her passed unsuspected into the dragon's cave.
Early as was Pe-lung's return on the ensuing morning, Chang Tao stood
on a rocky eminence to greet him, and the outline of his face, though
not altogether free of doubt, was by no means hopeless. Pe-lung still
retained the impressive form of a gigantic dragon as he cleft the
Middle Air, shining and iridescent, each beat of his majestic wings
being as a roll of thunder and the skittering of sand and water from
his crepitant scales leaving blights and rain-storms in his wake. When
he saw Chang Tao he drove an earthward angle and alighting near at
hand considerately changed into the semblance of an affluent merchant
as he approached.
"Greeting," he remarked cheerfully. "Did you find your early rice?"
"It has sufficed," replied Chang Tao. "How is your own incomparable
Pe-lung pointed to the empty bed of the deflected river and moved his
head from side to side as one who draws an analogy to his own
condition. "But of your more pressing enterprise," he continued, with
sympathetic concern: "have you persevered to a fruitful end, or will
it be necessary--?" And with tactful feeling he indicated the gesture
of propelling an antagonist over the side of a precipice rather than
allude to the disagreeable contingency in spoken words.
"When the oil is exhausted the lamp goes out," admitted Chang Tao,
"but my time is not yet come. During the visionary watches of the
night my poising mind was sustained by Forces as you so presciently
foretold, and my groping hand was led to an inspired solution of the
"This points to a specific end. Proceed," urged Pe-lung, for Chang Tao
had hesitated among his words as though their import might not be
soothing to the other's mind.
"Thus it is given me to declare: she who is called Melodious Vision is
rightly of the house of Shen, and Fuh-sang is no less innate of your
exalted tribe. The erring gnome, in spite of his misdeed, was but a
finger of the larger hand of destiny, and as it is, it is."
"This assurance gladdens my face, no less for your sake than for my
own," declared Pe-lung heartily. "For my part, I have found a way to
enlarge you in the eyes of those whom you solicit. It is a custom with
me that every thousand years I should discard my outer skin--not that
it requires it, but there are certain standards to which we
better-class dragons must conform. These sloughs are hidden beneath a
secret stone, beyond the reach of the merely vain or curious. When you
have disclosed the signs by which I shall have securance of Fuh-sang's
identity I will pronounce the word and the stone being thus released
you shall bear away six suits of scales in token of your prowess."
Then replied Chang Tao: "The signs, Assuredly. Yet, omnipotence,
without your express command the specific detail would be elusive to
my respectful tongue."
"You have the authority of my extended hand," conceded Pe-lung
readily, raising it as he spoke. "Speak freely."
"I claim the protection of its benignant shadow," said Chang Tao, with
content. "You, O Pe-lung, are one who has mingled freely with
creatures of every kind in all the Nine Spaces. Yet have you not, out
of your vast experience thus gained, perceived the essential wherein
men and dragons differ? Briefly and devoid of graceful metaphor, every
dragon, esteemed, would seem to possess a tail; beings of my part have
For a concise moment the nature of Pe-lung's reflection was clouded in
ambiguity, though the fact that he became entirely enveloped in a
dense purple vapour indicated feelings of more than usual vigour. When
this cleared away it left his outer form unchanged indeed, but the
affable condescension of his manner was merged into one of dignified
"Certainly all members of our enlightened tribe have tails," he
replied, with distant precision, "nor does this one see how any other
state is possible. Changing as we constantly do, both male and female,
into Beings, Influences, Shadows and unclothed creatures of the lower
parts, it is essential for our mutual self-esteem that in every
manifestation we should be thus equipped. At this moment, though in
the guise of a substantial trader, I possess a tail--small but
adequate. Is it possible that you and those of your insolvent race are
"In this particular, magnificence, I and those of my threadbare
species are most lamentably deficient. To the proving of this end
shall I display myself?"
"It is not necessary," said Pe-lung coldly. "It is inconceivable that,
were it otherwise, you would admit the humiliating fact."
"Yet out of your millenaries of experience you must already--"
"It is well said that after passing a commonplace object a hundred
times a day, at nightfall its size and colour are unknown to one,"
replied Pe-lung. "In this matter, from motives which cannot have been
otherwise than delicate, I took too much for granted it would
seem. . . . Then you--all--Shen Yi, Melodious Vision, the military
governor of this province, even the sublime Emperor--all--?"
"All tailless," admitted Chang Tao, with conscious humility.
"Nevertheless there is a tradition that in distant aeons--"
"Doubtless on some issue you roused the High Ones past forgiveness and
were thus deprived as the most signal mark of their displeasure."
"Doubtless," assented Chang Tao, with unquenchable politeness.
"Coming to the correct attitude that you have maintained throughout, it
would appear that during the silent gong-strokes of the night, by some
obscure and indirect guidance it was revealed to you that Fuh--that
any Being of my superior race was, on the contrary--" The menace of
Pe-lung's challenging eye, though less direct and assured than
formerly, had the manner of being uncertainly restrained by a single
much-frayed thread, but Chang Tao continued to meet it with respectful
"The inference is unflinching," he replied acquiescently. "I prostrate
"You have competently performed your part," admitted Pe-lung, although
an occasional jet of purple vapour clouded his upper person and the
passage of his breath among his teeth would have been distasteful to
one of sensitive refinement. "Nothing remains but the fulfilling of my
Thereupon he pronounced a mystic sign and revealing the opening to a
cave he presently brought forth six sets of armoured skin. Binding
these upon Chang Tao's back, he dismissed him, yet the manner of his
parting was as of one who is doubtful even to the end.
But who having made a distant journey into Outer Land speaks lengthily
of the level path of his return, or of the evening glow upon the
gilded roof of his awaiting home? Thus, this limit being reached in
the essential story of Chang Tao, Melodious Vision and the Dragon, he
who relates their commonplace happenings bows submissively.
Nevertheless it is true that once again in a later time Chang Tao
encountered in the throng one whom he recognized. Encouraged by the
presence of so many of his kind, he approached the other and saluted
"Greeting, O Pe-lung," he said, with outward confidence. "What bends
your footsteps to this busy place of men?"
"I come to buy an imitation pig-tail to pass for one," replied
Pe-lung, with quiet composure. "Greeting, valorous champion! How fares
"Agreeably so," admitted Chang Tao, and then, fearing that so far his
reply had been inadequate, he added: "Yet, despite the facts, there
are moments when this person almost doubts if he did not make a wrong
decision in the matter after all."
"That is a very common complaint," said Pe-lung, becoming most
The Propitious Dissension between Two whose General
Attributes have already been sufficiently Described
WHEN Kai Lung had related the story of Chang Tao and had made an end
of speaking, those who were seated there agreed with an undivided
voice that he had competently fulfilled his task. Nor did Shan Tien
omit an approving word, adding:
"On one point the historical balance of a certain detail seemed open
to contention. Accompany me, therefore, to my own severe retreat,
where this necessarily flat and unentertaining topic can be looked at
from all round."
When they were alone together the Mandarin unsealed a jar of wine,
apportioned melon seeds, and indicated to Kai Lung that he should sit
upon the floor at a suitable distance from himself.
"So long as we do not lose sight of the necessity whereby my official
position will presently involve me in condemning you to a painful
death, and your loyal subjection will necessitate your whole-hearted
co-operation in the act, there is no reason why the flower of literary
excellence should wither for lack of mutual husbandry," remarked the
broad-minded official tolerantly.
"Your enlightened patronage is a continual nourishment to the soil of
my imagination," replied the story teller.
"As regards the doings of Chang Tao and of the various other
personages who unite with him to form the fabric of the narrative,
would not a strict adherence to the fable in its classical simplicity
require the filling in of certain details which under your elusive
tongue seemed, as you proceeded, to melt imperceptibly into a discreet
"Your voice is just," confessed Kai Lung, "and your harmonious ear
corrects the deficiencies of my afflicted style. Admittedly in the
story of Chang Tao there are here and there analogies which may be
fittingly left to the imagination as the occasion should demand. Is it
not rightly said: 'Discretion is the handmaiden of Truth'? and in that
spacious and well-appointed palace there is every kind of vessel, but
the meaner are not to be seen in the more ceremonial halls. Thus he
who tells a story prudently suits his furnishing to the condition of
"Wisdom directs your course," replied Shan Tien, "and propriety sits
beneath your supple tongue. As the necessity for this very seemly
expurgation is now over, I would myself listen to your recital of the
fullest and most detailed version--purely, let it be freely stated, in
order to judge whether its literary qualities transcend those of the
"I comply, benevolence," replied Kai Lung. "This rendering shall be to
the one that has gone before as a spreading banyan-tree overshadowing
an immature shrub."
"Forbear!" exclaimed a discordant voice, and the sour-eyed Ming-shu
revealed his inopportune presence from behind a hanging veil. "Is it
meet, O eminence, that in this person's absence you should thus
consort on terms of fraternity with tomb-riflers and grain-thieves?"
"The reproach is easily removed," replied Shan Tien hospitably. "Join
the circle of our refined felicity and hear at full length by what
means the ingenious Chang Tao--"
"There are moments when one despairs before the spectacle of authority
thus displayed," murmured Ming-shu, his throat thickening with
acrimony. "Understand, pre-eminence," he continued more aloud, "that
not this one's absence but your own presence is the distressing
feature, as being an obstacle in the path of that undeviating justice
in which our legal system is embedded. From the first moment of our
encountering it had been my well-intentioned purpose that loyal
confidence should be strengthened and rebellion cowed by submitting
this opportune but otherwise inoffensive stranger to a sordid and
degrading end. Yet how shall this beneficent example be attained if on
"Your design is a worthy and enlightened one," interposed the
Mandarin, with dignity. "What you have somewhat incapably overlooked,
Ming-shu, is the fact that I never greet this intelligent and
painstaking young man without reminding him of the imminence of his
fate and of his suitability for it."
"Truth adorns your lips and accuracy anoints your palate,"
volunteered Kai Lung.
"Be this as the destinies permit, there is much that is circuitous in
the bending of events," contended Ming-shu stubbornly. "Is it by
chance or through some hidden tricklage that occasion always finds Kai
Lung so adequately prepared?"
"It is, as the story of Chang Tao has this day justified, and as this
discriminating person has frequently maintained, that the one in
question has a story framed to meet the requirement of every
circumstance," declared Shan Tien.
"Or that each requirement is subtly shaped to meet his preparation,"
retorted Ming-shu darkly. "Be that as it shall perchance ultimately
appear, it is undeniable that your admitted weaknesses--"
"Weaknesses!" exclaimed the astonished Mandarin, looking around the
room as though to discover in what crevice the unheard-of attributes
were hidden. "This person's weaknesses? Can the sounding properties of
this ill-constructed roof thus pervert one word into the semblance of
another? If not, the bounds set to the admissable from the taker-down
of the spoken word, Ming-shu, do not in their most elastic moods
extend to calumny and distortion. . . . The one before you has no
weaknesses. . . . Doubtless before another moon has changed you will
impute to him actual faults!"
"Humility directs my gaze," replied Ming-shu, with downcast eyes, and
he plainly recognized that his presumption had been too maintained.
"Yet," he added, with polished irony, "there is a well-timed adage
that rises to the lips: 'Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a
missile at the Tablets!'"
"Truly," agreed Shan Tien, with smooth concurrence, "the line is not
unknown to me. Who, however, was the one in question and under what
provocation did he so behave?"
"That is beyond the province of the saying," replied Ming-shu. "Nor is
it known to my remembrance."