KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS
By Ernest Bramah
First Published 1922.
Etext prepared by John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org.
KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS
With a Preface by
The Kai Lung stories have for many years been in high favour among those who relish sophisticated humour. One of the first to recognize their distinction was Hilaire Belloc, who, in his Introduction, records the impact made upon him when he first made the acquaintance of these masterpieces of narrative. Kai Lung is an itinerant story-teller in ancient China. “I spread my mat,” he says, “wherever my uplifted voice can entice together a company to listen,” and his powers of enchantment are abundantly revealed in this volume. He incurs the enmity of a sinister figure called Ming-shu, who is the confidential agent of the Mandarin, Shan Tien, and has to defend himself in the Mandarin’s court against a series of treasonable charges. Kai Lung’s defence takes the original form of inducing the Mandarin to listen to a recital of the traditional tales of China, and so well does he beguile the capricious tyrant that he secures one adjournment after the other and, finally, his freedom–as well as the love of the maiden Hwa-Mei.
/Homo faber/. Man is born to make. His business is to construct: to plan: to carry out the plan: to fit together, and to produce a finished thing.
That human art in which it is most difficult to achieve this end (and in which it is far easier to neglect it than in any other) is the art of writing. Yet this much is certain, that unconstructed writing is at once worthless and ephemeral: and nearly the whole of our modern English writing is unconstructed.
The matter of survival is perhaps not the most important, though it is a test of a kind, and it is a test which every serious writer feels most intimately. The essential is the matter of excellence: that a piece of work should achieve its end. But in either character, the character of survival or the character of intrinsic excellence, construction deliberate and successful is the fundamental condition.
It may be objected that the mass of writing must in any age neglect construction. We write to establish a record for a few days: or to send a thousand unimportant messages: or to express for others or for ourselves something very vague and perhaps very weak in the way of emotion, which does not demand construction and at any rate cannot command it. No writer can be judged by the entirety of his writings, for these would include every note he ever sent round the corner; every memorandum he ever made upon his shirt cuff. But when a man sets out to write as a serious business, proclaiming that by the nature of his publication and presentment that he is doing something he thinks worthy of the time and place in which he lives and of the people to whom he belongs, then if he does not construct he is negligible.
Yet, I say, the great mass of men to-day do not attempt it in the English tongue, and the proof is that you can discover in their slipshod pages nothing of a seal or stamp. You do not, opening a book at random, say at once: “This is the voice of such and such a one.” It is no one’s manner or voice. It is part of a common babel.
Therefore in such a time as that of our decline, to come across work which is planned, executed and achieved has something of the effect produced by the finding of a wrought human thing in the wild. It is like finding, as I once found, deep hidden in the tangled rank grass of autumn in Burgundy, on the edge of a wood not far from Dijon, a neglected statue of the eighteenth century. It is like coming round the corner of some wholly desolate upper valley in the mountains and seeing before one a well-cultivated close and a strong house in the midst.
It is now many years–I forget how many; it may be twenty or more, or it may be a little less–since /The Wallet of Kai Lung/ was sent me by a friend. The effect produced upon my mind at the first opening of its pages was in the same category as the effect produced by the discovery of that hidden statue in Burgundy, or the coming upon an unexpected house in the turn of a high Pyrenean gorge. Here was something worth doing and done. It was not a plan attempted and only part achieved (though even that would be rare enough to-day, and a memorable exception); it was a thing intended, wrought out, completed and established. Therefore it was destined to endure and, what is more important, it was a success.
The time in which we live affords very few of such moments of relief: here and there a good piece of verse, in /The New Age/ or in the now defunct /Westminster/: here and there a lapidary phrase such as a score or more of Blatchford’s which remain fixed in my memory. Here and there a letter written to the newspapers in a moment of indignation when the writer, not trained to the craft, strikes out the metal justly at white heat. But, I saw, the thing is extremely rare, and in the shape of a complete book rarest of all.
/The Wallet of Kai Lung/ was a thing made deliberately, in hard material and completely successful. It was meant to produce a particular effect of humour by the use of a foreign convention, the Chinese convention, in the English tongue. It was meant to produce a certain effect of philosophy and at the same time it was meant to produce a certain completed interest of fiction, of relation, of a short epic. It did all these things.
It is one of the tests of excellent work that such work is economic, that is, that there is nothing redundant in order or in vocabulary, and at the same time nothing elliptic–in the full sense of that word: that is, no sentence in which so much is omitted that the reader is left puzzled. That is the quality you get in really good statuary–in Houdon, for instance, or in that triumph the archaic /Archer/ in the Louvre. /The Wallet of Kai Lung/ satisfied all these conditions.
I do not know how often I have read it since I first possessed it. I know how many copies there are in my house–just over a dozen. I know with what care I have bound it constantly for presentation to friends. I have been asked for an introduction to this its successor, /Kai Lung’s Golden Hours/. It is worthy of its forerunner. There is the same plan, exactitude, working-out and achievement; and therefore the same complete satisfaction in the reading, or to be more accurate, in the incorporation of the work with oneself.
All this is not extravagant praise, nor even praise at all in the conventional sense of that term. It is merely a judgment: a putting into as carefully exact words as I can find the appreciation I make of this style and its triumph.
The reviewer in his art must quote passages. It is hardly the part of a Preface writer to do that. But to show what I mean I can at least quote the following:
“Your insight is clear and unbiased,” said the gracious Sovereign. “But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?”
“It has been said,” he began at length, withdrawing his eyes reluctantly from an usually large insect upon the ceiling and addressing himself to the maiden, “that there are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without any loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice on a dark night.”
“After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-marker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants.”
You cannot read these sentences, I think, without agreeing with what has been said above. If you doubt it, take the old test and try to write that kind of thing yourself.
In connection with such achievements it is customary to-day to deplore the lack of public appreciation. Either to blame the hurried millions of chance readers because they have only bought a few thousands of a masterpiece; or, what is worse still, to pretend that good work is for the few and that the mass will never appreciate it–in reply to which it is sufficient to say that the critic himself is one of the mass and could not be distinguished from others of the mass by his very own self were he a looker-on.
In the best of times (the most stable, the least hurried) the date at which general appreciation comes is a matter of chance, and to-day the presentation of any achieved work is like the reading of Keats to a football crowd. It is of no significance whatsoever to English Letters whether one of its glories be appreciated at the moment it issues from the press or ten years later, or twenty, or fifty. Further, after a very small margin is passed, a margin of a few hundreds at the most, it matters little whether strong permanent work finds a thousand or fifty thousand or a million of readers. Rock stands and mud washes away.
What is indeed to be deplored is the lack of communication between those who desire to find good stuff and those who can produce it: it is in the attempt to build a bridge between the one and the other that men who have the privilege of hearing a good thing betimes write such words as I am writing here.
KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS
The Encountering of Six within a Wood
ONLY at one point along the straight earth-road leading from Loo-chow to Yu-ping was there any shade, a wood of stunted growth, and here Kai Lung cast himself down in refuge from the noontide sun and slept. When he woke it was with the sound of discreet laughter trickling through his dreams. He sat up and looked around. Across the glade two maidens stood in poised expectancy within the shadow of a wild fig-tree, both their gaze and their manner denoting a fixed intention to be prepared for any emergency. Not being desirous that this should tend towards their abrupt departure, Kai Lung rose guardedly to his feet, with many gestures of polite reassurance, and having bowed several times to indicate his pacific nature, he stood in an attitude of deferential admiration. At this display the elder and less attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight. The other remained, however, and even moved a few steps nearer to Kai Lung, as though encouraged by his appearance, so that he was able to regard her varying details more appreciably. As she advanced she plucked a red blossom from a thorny bush, and from time to time she shortened the broken stalk between her jade teeth.
“Courteous loiterer,” she said, in a very pearl-like voice, when they had thus regarded one another for a few beats of time, “what is your honourable name, and who are you who tarry here, journeying neither to the east nor to the west?”
“The answer is necessarily commonplace and unworthy of your polite interest,” was the diffident reply. “My unbecoming name is Kai, to which has been added that of Lung. By profession I am an incapable relater of imagined tales, and to this end I spread my mat wherever my uplifted voice can entice together a company to listen. Should my feeble efforts be deemed worthy of reward, those who stand around may perchance contribute to my scanty store, but sometimes this is judged superfluous. For this cause I now turn my expectant feet from Loo-chow towards the untried city of Yu-ping, but the undiminished li stretching relentlessly before me, I sought beneath these trees a refuge from the noontide sun.”
“The occupation is a dignified one, being to no great degree removed from that of the Sages who compiled The Books,” remarked the maiden, with an encouraging smile. “Are there many stories known to your retentive mind?”
“In one form or another, all that exist are within my mental grasp,” admitted Kai Lung modestly. “Thus equipped, there is no arising emergency for which I am unprepared.”
“There are other things that I would learn of your craft. What kind of story is the most favourably received, and the one whereby your collecting bowl is the least ignored?”
“That depends on the nature and condition of those who stand around, and therein lies much that is essential to the art,” replied Kai Lung, not without an element of pride. “Should the company be chiefly formed of the illiterate and the immature of both sexes, stories depicting the embarrassment of unnaturally round-bodied mandarins, the unpremeditated flight of eccentrically-garbed passers-by into vats of powdered rice, the despair of guardians of the street when assailed by showers of eggs and overripe lo-quats, or any other variety of humiliating pain inflicted upon the innocent and unwary, never fail to win approval. The prosperous and substantial find contentment in hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives. Ordinary persons require stories dealing lavishly with all the emotions, so that they may thereby have a feeling of sufficiency when contributing to the collecting bowl.”
“These things being so,” remarked the maiden, “what story would you consider most appropriate to a company composed of such as she who is now conversing with you?”
“Such a company could never be obtained,” replied Kai Lung, with conviction in his tone. “It is not credible that throughout the Empire could be found even another possessing all the engaging attributes of the one before me. But should it be my miraculous fortune to be given the opportunity, my presumptuous choice for her discriminating ears alone would be the story of the peerless Princess Taik and of the noble minstrel Ch’eng, who to regain her presence chained his wrist to a passing star and was carried into the assembly of the gods.”
“Is it,” inquired the maiden, with an agreeable glance towards the opportune recumbence of a fallen tree, “is it a narration that would lie within the passage of the sun from one branch of this willow to another?”
“Adequately set forth, the history of the Princess Taik and of the virtuous youth occupies all the energies of an agile story-teller for seven weeks,” replied Kai Lung, not entirely gladdened that she should deem him capable of offering so meagre an entertainment as that she indicated. “There is a much-flattened version which may be compressed within the narrow limits of a single day and night, but even that requires for certain of the more moving passages the accompaniment of a powerful drum or a hollow wooden fish.”
“Alas!” exclaimed the maiden, “though the time should pass like a flash of lightning beneath the allurement of your art, it is questionable if those who await this one’s returning footsteps would experience a like illusion. Even now–” With a magnanimous wave of her well-formed hand she indicated the other maiden, who, finding that the danger of pursuit was not sustained, had returned to claim her part.
“One advances along the westward road,” reported the second maiden. “Let us fly elsewhere, O allurer of mankind! It may be–“
“Doubtless in Yu-ping the sound of your uplifted voice–” But at this point a noise upon the earth-road, near at hand, impelled them both to sudden flight into the deeper recesses of the wood.
Thus deprived, Kai Lung moved from the shadow of the trees and sought the track, to see if by chance he from whom they fled might turn to his advantage. On the road he found one who staggered behind a laborious wheel-barrow in the direction of Loo-chow. At that moment he had stopped to take down the sail, as the breeze was bereft of power among the obstruction of the trees, and also because he was weary.
“Greeting,” called down Kai Lung, saluting him. “There is here protection from the fierceness of the sun and a stream wherein to wash your feet.”
“Haply,” replied the other; “and a greatly over-burdened one would gladly leave this ill-nurtured earth-road even for the fields of hell, were it not that all his goods are here contained upon an utterly intractable wheel-barrow.”
Nevertheless he drew himself up from the road to the level of the wood and there reclined, yet not permitting the wheel-barrow to pass beyond his sight, though he must thereby lie half in the shade and half in the heat beyond. “Greeting, wayfarer.”
“Although you are evidently a man of some wealth, we are for the time brought to a common level by the forces that control us,” remarked Kai Lung. “I have here two onions, a gourd and a sufficiency of millet paste. Partake equally with me, therefore, before you resume your way. In the meanwhile I will procure water from the stream near by, and to this end my collecting bowl will serve.”
When Kai Lung returned he found that the other had added to their store a double handful of dates, some snuff and a little jar of oil. As they ate together the stranger thus disclosed his mind:
“The times are doubtful and it behoves each to guard himself. In the north the banners of the ‘Spreading Lotus’ and the ‘Avenging Knife’ are already raised and pressing nearer every day, while the signs and passwords are so widely flung that every man speaks slowly and with a double tongue. Lately there have been slicings and other forms of vigorous justice no farther distant than Loo-chow, and now the Mandarin Shan Tien comes to Yu-ping to flatten any signs of discontent. The occupation of this person is that of a maker of sandals and coverings for the head, but very soon there will be more wooden feet required than leather sandals in Yu-ping, and artificial ears will be greater in demand than hats. For this reason he has got together all his goods, sold the more burdensome, and now ventures on an untried way.”
“Prosperity attend your goings. Yet, as one who has set his face towards Yu-ping, is it not possible for an ordinary person of simple life and unassuming aims to escape persecution under this same Shan Tien?”
“Of the Mandarin himself those who know speak with vague lips. What is done is done by the pressing hand of one Ming-shu, who takes down his spoken word; of whom it is truly said that he has little resemblance to a man and still less to an angel.”
“Yet,” protested the story-teller hopefully, “it is wisely written: ‘He who never opens his mouth in strife can always close his eyes in peace.'”
“Doubtless,” assented the other. “He can close his eyes assuredly. Whether he will ever again open them is another matter.”
With this timely warning the sandal-maker rose and prepared to resume his journey. Nor did he again take up the burden of his task until he had satisfied himself that the westward road was destitute of traffic.
“A tranquil life and a painless death,” was his farewell parting. “Jung, of the line of Hai, wishes you well.” Then, with many imprecations on the relentless sun above, the inexorable road beneath, and on every detail of the evilly-balanced load before him, he passed out on his way.
It would have been well for Kai Lung had he also forced his reluctant feet to raise the dust, but his body clung to the moist umbrage of his couch, and his mind made reassurance that perchance the maiden would return. Thus it fell that when two others, who looked from side to side as they hastened on the road, turned as at a venture to the wood they found him still there.
“Restrain your greetings,” said the leader of the two harshly, in the midst of Kai Lung’s courteous obeisance; “and do not presume to disparage yourself as if in equality with the one who stands before you. Have two of the inner chamber, attired thus and thus, passed this way? Speak, and that to a narrow edge.”
“The road lies beyond the perception of my incapable vision, chiefest,” replied Kai lung submissively. “Furthermore, I have slept.”
“Unless you would sleep more deeply, shape your stubborn tongue to a specific point,” commanded the other, touching a meaning sword. “Who are you who loiter here, and for what purpose do you lurk? Speak fully, and be assured that your word will be put to a corroding test.”
Thus encouraged, Kai Lung freely disclosed his name and ancestry, the means whereby he earned a frugal sustenance and the nature of his journey. In addition, he professed a willingness to relate his most recently-acquired story, that entitled “Wu-yong: or The Politely Inquiring Stranger”, but the offer was thrust ungracefully aside.
“Everything you say deepens the suspicion which your criminal-looking face naturally provokes,” said the questioner, putting away his tablets on which he had recorded the replies. “At Yu-ping the matter will be probed with a very definite result. You, Li-loe, remain about this spot in case she whom we seek should pass. I return to speak of our unceasing effort.”
“I obey,” replied the dog-like Li-loe. “What men can do we have done. We are no demons to see through solid matter.”
When they were alone, Li-loe drew nearer to Kai Lung and, allowing his face to assume a more pacific bend, he cast himself down by the story-teller’s side.
“The account which you gave of yourself was ill contrived,” he said. “Being put to the test, its falsity cannot fail to be discovered.”
“Yet,” protested Kai Lung earnestly, “in no single detail did it deviate from the iron line of truth.”
“Then your case is even more desperate than before,” exclaimed Li-loe. “Know now that the repulsive-featured despot who has just left us is Ming-shu, he who takes down the Mandarin Shan Tien’s spoken word. By admitting that you are from Loo-chow, where disaffection reigns, you have noosed a rope about your neck, and by proclaiming yourself as one whose habit it is to call together a company to listen to your word you have drawn it tight.”
“Every rope has two ends,” remarked Kai Lung philosophically, “and to-morrow is yet to come. Tell me rather, since that is our present errand, who is she whom you pursue and to what intent?”
“That is not so simple as to be contained within the hollow of an acorn sheath. Let it suffice that she has the left ear of Shan Tien, even as Ming-shu has the right, but on which side his hearing is better it might be hazardous to guess.”
“And her meritorious name?”
“She is of the house of K’ang, her name being Hwa-mei, though from the nature of her charm she is ofttime called the Golden Mouse. But touching this affair of your own immediate danger: we being both but common men of the idler sort, it is only fitting that when high ones threaten I should stand by you.”
“Speak definitely,” assented Kai Lung, “yet with the understanding that the full extent of my store does not exceed four or five strings of cash.”
“The soil is somewhat shallow for the growth of deep friendship, but what we have we will share equally between us.” With these auspicious words Li-loe possessed himself of three of the strings of cash and displayed an empty sleeve. “I, alas, have nothing. The benefits I have in mind are of a subtler and more priceless kind. At Yu-ping my office will be that of the keeper of the doors of the yamen, including that of the prison-house. Thus I shall doubtless be able to render you frequent service of an inconspicuous kind. Do not forget the name of Li-loe.”
By this time the approaching sound of heavy traffic, heralded by the beating of drums, the blowing of horns and the discharge of an occasional firework, indicated the passage of some dignified official. This, declared Li-loe, could be none other than the Mandarin Shan Tien, resuming his march towards Yu-ping, and the doorkeeper prepared to join the procession at his appointed place. Kai Lung, however, remained unseen among the trees, not being desirous of obtruding himself upon Ming-shu unnecessarily. When the noise had almost died away in the distance he came forth, believing that all would by this time have passed, and approached the road. As he reached it a single chair was hurried by, its carriers striving by increased exertion to regain their fellows. It was too late for Kai Lung to retreat, whoever might be within. As it passed a curtain moved somewhat, a symmetrical hand came discreetly forth, and that which it held fell at his feet. Without varying his attitude he watched the chair until it was out of sight, then stooped and picked something up–a red blossom on a thorny stalk, the flower already parched but the stem moist and softened to his touch.
The Inexorable Justice of the Mandarin Shan Tien
“BY having access to this enclosure you will be able to walk where otherwise you must stand. That in itself is cheap at the price of three reputed strings of inferior cash. Furthermore, it is possible to breathe.”
“The outlook, in one direction, is an extensive one,” admitted Kai Lung, gazing towards the sky. “Here, moreover, is a shutter through which the vista doubtless lengthens.”
“So long as there is no chance of you exploring it any farther than your neck, it does not matter,” said Li-loe. “Outside lies a barren region of the yamen garden where no one ever comes. I will now leave you, having to meet one with whom I would traffic for a goat. When I return be prepared to retrace your steps to the prison cell.”
“The shadow moves as the sun directs,” replied Kai Lung, and with courteous afterthought he added the wonted parting: “Slowly, slowly; walk slowly.”
In such a manner the story-teller found himself in a highly-walled enclosure, lying between the prison-house and the yamen garden, a few days after his arrival in Yu-ping. Ming-shu had not eaten his word.
The yard itself possessed no attraction for Kai Lung. Almost before Li-loe had disappeared he was at the shutter in the wall, had forced it open and was looking out. Thus long he waited, motionless, but observing every leaf that stirred among the trees and shrubs and neglected growth beyond. At last a figure passed across a distant glade and at the sight Kai Lung lifted up a restrained voice in song:
“At the foot of a bleak and inhospitable mountain An insignificant stream winds its uncared way; Although inferior to the Yangtze-kiang in every detail Yet fish glide to and fro among its crannies Nor would they change their home for the depths of the widest river.
The palace of the sublime Emperor is made rich with hanging curtains. While here rough stone walls forbid repose. Yet there is one who unhesitatingly prefers the latter; For from an open shutter here he can look forth, And perchance catch a glimpse of one who may pass by.
The occupation of the Imperial viceroy is both lucrative and noble; While that of a relater of imagined tales is by no means esteemed. But he who thus expressed himself would not exchange with the other; For around the identity of each heroine he can entwine the personality of one whom he has encountered. And thus she is ever by his side.”
“Your uplifted voice comes from an unexpected quarter, minstrel,” said a melodious voice, and the maiden whom he had encountered in the wood stood before him. “What crime have you now committed?”
“An ancient one. I presumed to raise my unworthy eyes–“
“Alas, story-teller,” interposed the maiden hastily, “it would seem that the star to which you chained /your/ wrist has not carried you into the assembly of the gods.”
“Yet already it has borne me half-way–into a company of malefactors. Doubtless on the morrow the obliging Mandarin Shan Tien will arrange for the journey to be complete.”
“Yet have you then no further wish to continue in an ordinary existence?” asked the maiden.
“To this person,” replied Kai Lung, with a deep-seated look, “existence can never again be ordinary. Admittedly it may be short.”
As they conversed together in this inoffensive manner she whom Li-loe had called the Golden Mouse held in her delicately-formed hands a priceless bowl filled with ripe fruit of the rarer kinds which she had gathered. These from time to time she threw up to the opening, rightly deciding that one in Kai Lung’s position would stand in need of sustenance, and he no less dexterously held and retained them. When the bowl was empty she continued for a space to regard it silently, as though exploring the many-sided recesses of her mind.
“You have claimed to be a story-teller and have indeed made a boast that there is no arising emergency for which you are unprepared,” she said at length. “It now befalls that you may be put to a speedy test. Is the nature of this imagined scene”–thus she indicated the embellishment of the bowl–“familiar to your eyes?”
“It is that known as ‘The Willow,'” replied Kai Lung. “There is a story–“
“There is a story!” exclaimed the maiden, loosening from her brow the overhanging look of care. “Thus and thus. Frequently have I importuned him before whom you will appear to explain to me the meaning of the scene. When you are called upon to plead your cause, see to it well that your knowledge of such a tale is clearly shown. He before whom you kneel, craftily plied meanwhile by my unceasing petulance, will then desire to hear it from your lips . . . At the striking of the fourth gong the day is done. What lies between rests with your discriminating wit.”
“You are deep in the subtler kinds of wisdom, such as the weak possess,” confessed Kai Lung. “Yet how will this avail to any length?”
“That which is put off from to-day is put off from to-morrow,” was the confident reply. “For the rest–at a corresponding gong-stroke of each day it is this person’s custom to gather fruit. Farewell, minstrel.”
When Li-loe returned a little later Kai Lung threw his two remaining strings of cash about that rapacious person’s neck and embraced him as he exclaimed:
“Chieftain among doorkeepers, when I go to the Capital to receive the all-coveted title ‘Leaf-crowned’ and to chant ceremonial odes before the Court, thou shalt accompany me as forerunner, and an agile tribe of selected goats shall sport about thy path.”
“Alas, manlet,” replied the other, weeping readily, “greatly do I fear that the next journey thou wilt take will be in an upward or a downward rather than a sideway direction. This much have I learned, and to this end, at some cost admittedly, I enticed into loquacity one who knows another whose brother holds the key of Ming-shu’s confidence: that to-morrow the Mandarin will begin to distribute justice here, and out of the depths of Ming-shu’s malignity the name of Kai Lung is the first set down.”
“With the title,” continued Kai Lung cheerfully, “there goes a sufficiency of taels; also a vat of a potent wine of a certain kind.”
“If,” suggested Li-loe, looking anxiously around, “you have really discovered hidden about this place a secret store of wine, consider well whether it would not be prudent to entrust it to a faithful friend before it is too late.”
It was indeed as Li-loe had foretold. On the following day, at the second gong-stroke after noon, the order came and, closely guarded, Kai Lung was led forth. The middle court had been duly arranged, with a formidable display of chains, weights, presses, saws, branding irons and other implements for securing justice. At the head of a table draped with red sat the Mandarin Shan Tien, on his right the secretary of his hand, the contemptible Ming-shu. Round about were positioned others who in one necessity or another might be relied upon to play an ordered part. After a lavish explosion of fire-crackers had been discharged, sonorous bells rung and gongs beaten, a venerable geomancer disclosed by means of certain tests that all doubtful influences had been driven off and that truth and impartiality alone remained.
“Except on the part of the prisoners, doubtless,” remarked the Mandarin, thereby imperilling the gravity of all who stood around.
“The first of those to prostrate themselves before your enlightened clemency, Excellence, is a notorious assassin who, under another name, has committed many crimes,” began the execrable Ming-shu. “He confesses that, now calling himself Kai Lung, he has recently journeyed from Loo-chow, where treason ever wears a smiling face.”
“Perchance he is saddened by our city’s loyalty,” interposed the benign Shan Tien, “for if he is smiling now it is on the side of his face removed from this one’s gaze.”
“The other side of his face is assuredly where he will be made to smile ere long,” acquiesced Ming-shu, not altogether to his chief’s approval, as the analogy was already his. “Furthermore, he has been detected lurking in secret meeting-places by the wayside, and on reaching Yu-ping he raised his rebellious voice inviting all to gather round and join his unlawful band. The usual remedy in such cases during periods of stress, Excellence, is strangulation.”
“The times are indeed pressing,” remarked the agile-minded Mandarin, “and the penalty would appear to be adequate.” As no one suffered inconvenience at his attitude, however, Shan Tien’s expression assumed a more unbending cast.
“Let the witnesses appear,” he commanded sharply.
“In so clear a case it has not been thought necessary to incur the expense of hiring the usual witnesses,” urged Ming-shu; “but they are doubtless clustered about the opium floor and will, if necessary, testify to whatever is required.”
“The argument is a timely one,” admitted the Mandarin. “As the result cannot fail to be the same in either case, perhaps the accommodating prisoner will assist the ends of justice by making a full confession of his crimes?”
“High Excellence,” replied the story-teller, speaking for the first time, “it is truly said that that which would appear as a mountain in the evening may stand revealed as a mud-hut by the light of day. Hear my unpainted word. I am of the abject House of Kai and my inoffensive rice is earned as a narrator of imagined tales. Unrolling my threadbare mat at the middle hour of yesterday, I had raised my distressing voice and announced an intention to relate the Story of Wong Ts’in, that which is known as ‘The Legend of the Willow Plate Embellishment,’ when a company of armed warriors, converging upon me–“
“Restrain the melodious flow of your admitted eloquence,” interrupted the Mandarin, veiling his arising interest. “Is the story, to which you have made reference, that of the scene widely depicted on plates and earthenware?”
“Undoubtedly. It is the true and authentic legend as related by the eminent Tso-yi.”
“In that case,” declared Shan Tien dispassionately, “it will be necessary for you to relate it now, in order to uphold your claim. Proceed.”
“Alas, Excellence,” protested Ming-shu from a bitter throat, “this matter will attenuate down to the stroke of evening rice. Kowtowing beneath your authoritative hand, that which the prisoner only had the intention to relate does not come within the confines of his evidence.”
“The objection is superficial and cannot be sustained,” replied Shan Tien. “If an evilly-disposed one raised a sword to strike this person, but was withheld before the blow could fall, none but a leper would contend that because he did not progress beyond the intention thereby he should go free. Justice must be impartially upheld and greatly do I fear that we must all submit.”
With these opportune words the discriminating personage signified to Kai Lung that he should begin.
The Story of Wong T’sin and the Willow Plate Embellishment
Wong Ts’in, the rich porcelain maker, was ill at ease within himself. He had partaken of his customary midday meal, flavoured the repast by unsealing a jar of matured wine, consumed a little fruit, a few sweetmeats and half a dozen cups of unapproachable tea, and then retired to an inner chamber to contemplate philosophically from the reposeful attitude of a reclining couch.
But upon this occasion the merchant did not contemplate restfully. He paced the floor in deep dejection and when he did use the couch at all it was to roll upon it in a sudden access of internal pain. The cause of his distress was well known to the unhappy person thus concerned, nor did it lessen the pangs of his emotion that it arose entirely from his own ill-considered action.
When Wong Ts’in had discovered, by the side of a remote and obscure river, the inexhaustible bed of porcelain clay that ensured his prosperity, his first care was to erect adequate sheds and labouring-places; his next to build a house sufficient for himself and those in attendance round about him.
So far prudence had ruled his actions, for there is a keen edge to the saying: “He who sleeps over his workshop brings four eyes into the business,” but in one detail Wong T’sin’s head and feet went on different journeys, for with incredible oversight he omitted to secure the experience of competent astrologers and omen-casters in fixing the exact site of his mansion.
The result was what might have been expected. In excavating for the foundations, Wong T’sin’s slaves disturbed the repose of a small but rapacious earth-demon that had already been sleeping there for nine hundred and ninety-nine years. With the insatiable cunning of its kind, this vindictive creature waited until the house was completed and then proceeded to transfer its unseen but formidable presence to the quarters that were designed for Wong Ts’in himself. Thenceforth, from time to time, it continued to revenge itself for the trouble to which it had been put by an insidious persecution. This frequently took the form of fastening its claws upon the merchant’s digestive organs, especially after he had partaken of an unusually rich repast (for in some way the display of certain viands excited its unreasoning animosity), pressing heavily upon his chest, invading his repose with dragon-dreams while he slept, and the like. Only by the exercise of an ingenuity greater than its own could Wong Ts’in succeed in baffling its ill-conditioned spite.
On this occasion, recognizing from the nature of his pangs what was taking place, Wong Ts’in resorted to a stratagem that rarely failed him. Announcing in a loud voice that it was his intention to refresh the surface of his body by the purifying action of heated vapour, and then to proceed to his mixing-floor, the merchant withdrew. The demon, being an earth-dweller with the ineradicable objection of this class of creatures towards all the elements of moisture, at once relinquished its hold, and going direct to the part of the works indicated, it there awaited its victim with the design of resuming its discreditable persecution.
Wong Ts’in had spoken with a double tongue. On leaving the inner chamber he quickly traversed certain obscure passages of his house until he reached an inferior portal. Even if the demon had suspected his purpose it would not have occurred to a creature of its narrow outlook that anyone of Wong Ts’in’s importance would make use of so menial an outway. The merchant therefore reached his garden unperceived and thenceforward maintained an undeviating face in the direction of the Outer Expanses. Before he had covered many li he was assured that he had indeed succeeded for the time in shaking off his unscrupulous tormentor. His internal organs again resumed their habitual calm and his mind was lightened as from an overhanging cloud.
There was another reason why Wong Ts’in sought the solitude of the thinly-peopled outer places, away from the influence and distraction of his own estate. For some time past a problem that had once been remote was assuming dimensions of increasing urgency. This detail concerns Fa Fai, who had already been referred to by a person of literary distinction, in a poetical analogy occupying three written volumes, as a pearl-tinted peach-blossom shielded and restrained by the silken net-work of wise parental affection (and recognizing the justice of the comparison, Wong Ts’in had been induced to purchase the work in question). Now that Fa Fai had attained an age when she could fittingly be sought in marriage the contingency might occur at any time, and the problem confronting her father’s decision was this: owing to her incomparable perfection Fa Fai must be accounted one of Wong Ts’in’s chief possessions, the other undoubtedly being his secret process of simulating the lustrous effect of pure gold embellishment on china by the application of a much less expensive substitute. Would it be more prudent to concentrate the power of both influences and let it become known that with Fa Fai would go the essential part of his very remunerative clay enterprise, or would it be more prudent to divide these attractions and secure two distinct influences, both concerned about his welfare? In the first case there need be no reasonable limit to the extending vista of his ambition, and he might even aspire to greet as a son the highest functionary of the province–an official of such heavily-sustained importance that when he went about it required six chosen slaves to carry him, and of late it had been considered more prudent to employ eight.
If, on the other hand, Fa Fai went without any added inducement, a mandarin of moderate rank would probably be as high as Wong Ts’in could look, but he would certainly be able to adopt another of at least equal position, at the price of making over to him the ultimate benefit of his discovery. He could thus acquire either two sons of reasonable influence, or one who exercised almost unlimited authority. In view of his own childlessness, and of his final dependence on the services of others, which arrangement promised the most regular and liberal transmission of supplies to his expectant spirit when he had passed into the Upper Air, and would his connection with one very important official or with two subordinate ones secure him the greater amount of honour and serviceable recognition among the more useful deities?
To Wong Ts’in’s logical mind it seemed as though there must be a definite answer to this problem. If one manner of behaving was right the other must prove wrong, for as the wise philosopher Ning-hy was wont to say: “Where the road divides, there stand two Ning-hys.” The decision on a matter so essential to his future comfort ought not to be left to chance. Thus it had become a habit of Wong Ts’in’s to penetrate the Outer Spaces in the hope of there encountering a specific omen.
Alas, it has been well written: “He who thinks that he is raising a mound may only in reality be digging a pit.” In his continual search for a celestial portent among the solitudes Wong Ts’in had of late necessarily somewhat neglected his earthly (as it may thus be expressed) interests. In these emergencies certain of the more turbulent among his workers had banded themselves together into a confederacy under the leadership of a craftsman named Fang. It was the custom of these men, who wore a badge and recognized a mutual oath and imprecation, to present themselves suddenly before Wong Ts’in and demand a greater reward for their exertions than they had previously agreed to, threatening that unless this was accorded they would cast down the implements of their labour in unison and involve in idleness those who otherwise would have continued at their task. This menace Wong Ts’in bought off from time to time by agreeing to their exactions, but it began presently to appear that this way of appeasing them resembled Chou Hong’s method of extinguishing a fire by directing jets of wind against it. On the day with which this related story has so far concerned itself, a band of the most highly remunerated and privileged of the craftsmen had appeared before Wong Ts’in with the intolerable Fang at their head. These men were they whose skill enabled them laboriously to copy upon the surfaces of porcelain a given scene without appreciable deviation from one to the other, for in those remote cycles of history no other method was yet known or even dreamed of.
“Suitable greetings, employer of our worthless services,” remarked their leader, seating himself upon the floor unbidden. “These who speak through the mouth of the cringing mendicant before you are the Bound-together Brotherhood of Colour-mixers and Putters-on of Thought-out Designs, bent upon a just cause.”
“May their Ancestral Tablets never fall into disrepair,” replied Wong Ts’in courteously. “For the rest–let the mouth referred to shape itself into the likeness of a narrow funnel, for the lengthening gong-strokes press round about my unfinished labours.”
“That which in justice requires the amplitude of a full-sized cask shall be pressed down into the confines of an inadequate vessel,” assented Fang. “Know then, O battener upon our ill-requited skill, how it has come to our knowledge that one who is not of our Brotherhood moves among us and performs an equal task for a less reward. This is our spoken word in consequence: in place of one tael every man among us shall now take two, and he who before has laboured eight gongs to receive it shall henceforth labour four. Furthermore, he who is speaking shall, as their recognized head and authority, always be addressed by the honourable title of ‘Polished,’ and the dog who is not one of us shall be cast forth.”
“My hand itches to reward you in accordance with the inner prompting of a full heart,” replied the merchant, after a well-sustained pause. “But in this matter my very deficient ears must be leading my threadbare mind astray. The moon has not been eaten up since the day when you stood before me in a like attitude and bargained that every man should henceforth receive a full tael where hitherto a half had been his portion, and that in place of the toil of sixteen gong-strokes eight should suffice. Upon this being granted all bound themselves by spoken word that the matter should stand thus and thus between us until the gathering-in of the next rice harvest.”
“That may have been so at the time,” admitted Fang, with dog-like obstinacy, “but it was not then known that you had pledged yourself to Hien Nan for tenscore embellished plates of porcelain within a stated time, and that our services would therefore be essential to your reputation. There has thus arisen what may be regarded as a new vista of eventualities, and this frees us from the bondage of our spoken word. Having thus moderately stated our unbending demand, we will depart until the like gong-stroke of to-morrow, when, if our claim be not agreed to, all will cast down their implements of labour with the swiftness of a lightning-flash and thereby involve the whole of your too-profitable undertaking in well-merited stagnation. We go, venerable head; auspicious omens attend your movements!”
“May the All-Seeing guide your footsteps,” responded Wong Ts’in, and with courteous forbearance he waited until they were out of hearing before he added–“into a vat of boiling sulphur!”
Thus may the position be outlined when Wei Chang, the unassuming youth whom the black-hearted Fang had branded with so degrading a comparison, sat at his appointed place rather than join in the discreditable conspiracy, and strove by his unaided dexterity to enable Wong Ts’in to complete the tenscore embellished plates by the appointed time. Yet already he knew that in this commendable ambition his head grew larger than his hands, for he was the slowest-working among all Wong Ts’in’s craftsmen, and even then his copy could frequently be detected from the original. Not to overwhelm his memory with unmerited contempt it is fitting now to reveal somewhat more of the unfolding curtain of events.
Wei Chang was not in reality a worker in the art of applying coloured designs to porcelain at all. He was a student of the literary excellences and had decided to devote his entire life to the engaging task of reducing the most perfectly matched analogy to the least possible number of words when the unexpected appearance of Fa Fai unsettled his ambitions. She was restraining the impatience of a powerful horse and controlling its movements by means of a leather thong, while at the same time she surveyed the landscape with a disinterested glance in which Wei Chang found himself becoming involved. Without stopping even to consult the spirits of his revered ancestors on so important a decision, he at once burned the greater part of his collection of classical analogies and engaged himself, as one who is willing to become more proficient, about Wong Ts’in’s earth-yards. Here, without any reasonable intention of ever becoming in any way personally congenial to her, he was in a position occasionally to see the distant outline of Fa Fai’s movements, and when a day passed and even this was withheld he was content that the shadow of the many-towered building that contained her should obscure the sunlight from the window before which he worked.
While Wei Chang was thus engaged the door of the enclosure in which he laboured was thrust cautiously inwards, and presently he became aware that the being whose individuality was never completely absent from his thoughts was standing in an expectant attitude at no great distance from him. As no other person was present, the craftsmen having departed in order to consult an oracle that dwelt beneath an appropriate sign, and Wong Ts’in being by this time among the Outer Ways seeking an omen as to Fa Fai’s disposal, Wei Chang did not think it respectful to become aware of the maiden’s presence until a persistent distress of her throat compelled him to recognize the incident.
“Unapproachable perfection,” he said, with becoming deference, “is it permissible that in the absence of your enlightened sire you should descend from your golden eminence and stand, entirely unattended, at no great distance from so ordinary a person as myself?”
“Whether it be strictly permissible or not, it is only on like occasions that she ever has the opportunity of descending from the solitary pinnacle referred to,” replied Fa Fai, not only with no outward appearance of alarm at being directly addressed by one of a different sex, but even moving nearer to Wei Chang as she spoke. “A more essential detail in the circumstances concerns the length of time that he may be prudently relied upon to be away?”
“Doubtless several gong-strokes will intervene before his returning footsteps gladden our expectant vision,” replied Wei Chang. “He is spoken of as having set his face towards the Outer Ways, there perchance to come within the influence of a portent.”
“Its probable object is not altogether unknown to the one who stands before you,” admitted Fa Fai, “and as a dutiful and affectionate daughter it has become a consideration with her whether she ought not to press forward, as it were, to a solution on her own account. . . . If the one whom I am addressing could divert his attention from the embellishment of the very inadequate claw of a wholly superfluous winged dragon, possibly he might add his sage counsel on that point.”
“It is said that a bull-frog once rent his throat in a well-meant endeavour to advise an eagle in the art of flying,” replied Wei Chang, concealing the bitterness of his heart beneath an easy tongue. “For this reason it is inexpedient for earthlings to fix their eyes on those who dwell in very high places.”
“To the intrepid, very high places exist solely to be scaled; with others, however, the only scaling they attempt is lavished on the armour of preposterous flying monsters, O youth of the House of Wei!”
“Is it possible,” exclaimed Wei Chang, moving forward with so sudden an ardour that the maiden hastily withdrew herself several paces from beyond his enthusiasm, “is it possible that this person’s hitherto obscure and execrated name is indeed known to your incomparable lips?”
“As the one who periodically casts up the computations of the sums of money due to those who labour about the earth-yards, it would be strange if the name had so far escaped my notice,” replied Fa Fai, with a distance in her voice that the few paces between them very inadequately represented. “Certain details engrave themselves upon the tablets of recollection by their persistence. For instance, the name of Fang is generally at the head of each list; that of Wei Chang is invariably at the foot.”
“It is undeniable,” admitted Wei Chang, in a tone of well-merited humiliation; “and the attainment of never having yet applied a design in such a manner that the copy might be mistaken for the original has entirely flattened-out this person’s self-esteem.”
“Doubtless,” suggested Fa Fai, with delicate encouragement, “there are other pursuits in which you would disclose a more highly developed proficiency–as that of watching the gyrations of untamed horses, for example. Our more immediate need, however, is to discover a means of defeating the malignity of the detestable Fang. With this object I have for some time past secretly applied myself to the task of contriving a design which, by blending simplicity with picturesque effect, will enable one person in a given length of time to achieve the amount of work hitherto done by two.”
With these auspicious words the accomplished maiden disclosed a plate of translucent porcelain, embellished in the manner which she had described. At the sight of the ingenious way in which trees and persons, stream and buildings, and objects of a widely differing nature had been so arranged as to give the impression that they all existed at the same time, and were equally visible without undue exertion on the part of the spectator who regarded them, Wei Chang could not restrain an exclamation of delight.
“How cunningly imagined is the device by which objects so varied in size as an orange and an island can be depicted within the narrow compass of a porcelain plate without the larger one completely obliterating the smaller or the smaller becoming actually invisible by comparison with the other! Hitherto this unimaginative person had not considered the possibility of showing other than dragons, demons, spirits, and the forces which from their celestial nature may be regarded as possessing no real thickness of substance and therefore being particularly suitable for treatment on a flat surface. But this engaging display might indeed be a scene having an actual existence at no great space away.”
“Such is assuredly the case,” admitted Fa Fai. “Within certain limitations, imposed by this new art of depicting realities as they are, we may be regarded as standing before an open window. The important-looking building on the right is that erected by this person’s venerated father. Its prosperity is indicated by the luxurious profusion of the fruit-tree overhanging it. Pressed somewhat to the back, but of dignified proportion, are the outer buildings of those who labour among the clay.”
“In a state of actuality, they are of measurably less dignified dimensions,” suggested Wei Chang.
“The objection is inept,” replied Fa Fai. “The buildings in question undoubtedly exist at the indicated position. If, therefore, the actuality is to be maintained, it is necessary either to raise their stature or to cut down the trees obscuring them. To this gentle-minded person the former alternative seemed the less drastic. As, however, it is regarded in a spirit of no-satisfaction–“
“Proceed, incomparable one, proceed,” implored Wei Chang. “It was but a breath of thought, arising from a recollection of the many times that this incapable person has struck his unworthy head against the roof-beams of those nobly-proportioned buildings.”
“The three stunted individuals crossing the bridge in undignified attitudes are the debased Fang and two of his mercenary accomplices. They are, as usual, bending their footsteps in the direction of the hospitality of a house that announces its purpose beneath the sign of a spreading bush. They are positioned as crossing the river to a set purpose, and the bridge is devoid of a rail in the hope that on their return they may all fall into the torrent in a helpless condition and be drowned, to the satisfaction of the beholders.”
“It would be a fitting conclusion to their ill-spent lives,” agreed Wei Chang. “Would it not add to their indignity to depict them as struggling beneath the waves?”
“It might do so,” admitted Fa Fai graciously, “but in order to express the arisement adequately it would be necessary to display them twice–first on the bridge with their faces turned towards the west, and then in the flood with their faces towards the east; and the superficial might hastily assume that the three on the bridge would rescue the three in the river.”
“You are all-wise,” said Wei Chang, with well-marked admiration in his voice. “This person’s suggestion was opaque.”
“In any case,” continued Fa Fai, with a reassuring glance, “it is a detail that is not essential to the frustration of Fang’s malignant scheme, for already well on its way towards Hien Nan may be seen a trustworthy junk, laden with two formidable crates, each one containing fivescore plates of the justly esteemed Wong Ts’in porcelain.”
“Nevertheless,” maintained Wei Chang mildly, “the out-passing of Fang would have been a satisfactory detail of the occurrence.”
“Do not despair,” replied Fa Fai. “Not idly is it written: ‘Destiny has four feet, eight hands and sixteen eyes: how then shall the ill-doer with only two of each hope to escape?’ An even more ignominious end may await Fang, should he escape drowning, for, conveniently placed by the side of the stream, this person has introduced a spreading willow-tree. Any of its lower branches is capable of sustaining Fang’s weight, should a reliable rope connect the two.”
“There is something about that which this person now learns is a willow that distinguishes it above all the other trees of the design,” remarked Wei Chang admiringly. “It has a wild and yet a romantic aspect.”
“This person had not yet chanced upon a suitable title for the device,” said Fa Fai, “and a distinguishing name is necessary, for possibly scores of copies may be made before its utility is exhausted. Your discriminating praise shall be accepted as a fortunate omen, and henceforth this shall be known as the Willow Pattern Embellishment.”
“The honour of suggesting the title is more than this commonplace person can reasonably carry,” protested Wei Chang, feeling that very little worth considering existed outside the earth-shed. “Not only scores, but even hundreds of copies may be required in the process of time, for a crust of rice-bread and handful of dried figs eaten from such a plate would be more satisfying than a repast of many-coursed richness elsewhere.”
In this well-sustained and painless manner Fa Fai and Wei Chang continued to express themselves agreeably to each other, until the lengthening gong-strokes warned the former person that her absence might inconvenience Wong Ts’in’s sense of tranquillity on his return, nor did Wei Chang contest the desirability of a great space intervening between them should the merchant chance to pass that way. In the meanwhile Chang had explained many of the inner details of his craft so that Fa Fai should the better understand the requirements of her new art.
“Yet where is the Willow plate itself?” said the maiden, as she began to arrange her mind towards departure. “As the colours were still in a receptive state this person placed it safely aside for the time. It was somewhat near the spot where you–“
During the amiable exchange of shafts of polished conversation Wei Chang had followed Fa Fai’s indication and had seated himself upon a low bench without any very definite perception of his movements. He now arose with the unstudied haste of one who has inconvenienced a scorpion.
“Alas!” he exclaimed, in a tone of the acutest mental distress; “can it be possible that this utterly profane outcast has so desecrated–“
“Certainly comment of an admittedly crushing nature has been imposed on this one’s well-meant handiwork,” said Fa Fai. With these lightly-barbed words, which were plainly devised to restore the other person’s face towards himself, the magnanimous maiden examined the plate which Wei Chang’s uprising had revealed.
“Not only has the embellishment suffered no real detriment,” she continued, after an adequate glance, “but there has been imparted to the higher lights–doubtless owing to the nature of the fabric in which your lower half is encased–a certain nebulous quality that adds greatly to the successful effect of the various tones.”
At the first perception of the indignity to which he had subjected the entrancing Fa Fai’s work, and the swift feeling that much more than the coloured adornment of a plate would thereby be destroyed, all power of retention had forsaken Wei Chang’s incapable knees and he sank down heavily upon another bench. From this dejection the maiden’s well-chosen encouragement recalled him to a position of ordinary uprightness.
“A tombstone is lifted from this person’s mind by your gracefully-placed words,” he declared, and he was continuing to indicate the nature of his self-reproach by means of a suitable analogy when the expression of Fa Fai’s eyes turned him to a point behind himself. There, lying on the spot from which he had just risen, was a second Willow plate, differing in no detail of resemblance from the first.
“Shadow of the Great Image!” exclaimed Chang, in an awe-filled voice. “It is no marvel that miracles should attend your footsteps, celestial one, but it is incredible that this clay-souled person should be involved in the display.”
“Yet,” declared Fa Fai, not hesitating to allude to things as they existed, in the highly-raised stress of the discovery, “it would appear that the miracle is not specifically connected with this person’s feet. Would you not, in furtherance of this line of suggestion, place yourself in a similar attitude on yet another plate, Wei Chang?”
Not without many protests that it was scarcely becoming thus to sit repeatedly in her presence, Chang complied with the request, and upon Fa Fai’s further insistence he continued to impress himself, as it were, upon a succession of porcelain plates, with a like result. Not until the eleventh process was reached did the Willow design begin to lose its potency.
“Ten perfect copies produced within as many moments, and not one distinguishable from the first!” exclaimed Wei Chang, regarding the array of plates with pleasurable emotion. “Here is a means of baffling Fang’s crafty confederacy that will fill Wong Ts’in’s ears with waves of gladness on his return.”
“Doubtless,” agreed Fa Fai, with a dark intent. She was standing by the door of the enclosure in the process of making her departure, and she regarded Wei Chang with a set deliberation. “Yet,” she continued definitely, “if this person possessed that which was essential to Wong Ts’in’s prosperity, and Wong Ts’in held that which was necessary for this one’s tranquillity, a locked bolt would be upon the one until the other was pledged in return.”
With these opportune words the maiden vanished, leaving Wei Chang prostrating himself in spirit before the many-sidedness of her wisdom.
Wong T’sin was not altogether benevolently inclined towards the universe on his return a little later. The persistent image of Fang’s overthreatening act still corroded the merchant’s throat with bitterness, for on his right he saw the extinction of his business as unremunerative if he agreed, and on his left he saw the extinction of his business as undependable if he refused to agree.
Furthermore, the omens were ill-arranged.
On his way outwards he had encountered an aged man who possessed two fruit-trees, on which he relied for sustenance. As Wong Ts’in drew near, this venerable person carried from his dwelling two beaten cakes of dog-dung and began to bury them about the root of the larger tree. This action, on the part of one who might easily be a disguised wizard, aroused Wong Ts’in’s interest.
“Why,” he demanded, “having two cakes of dung and two fruit-trees, do you not allot one to each tree, so that both may benefit and return to you their produce in the time of your necessity?”
“The season promises to be one of rigour and great need,” replied the other. “A single cake of dung might not provide sufficient nourishment for either tree, so that both should wither away. By reducing life to a bare necessity I could pass from one harvest to another on the fruit of this tree alone, but if both should fail I am undone. To this end I safeguard my existence by ensuring that at least the better of the two shall thrive.”
“Peace attend your efforts!” said Wong Ts’in, and he began to retrace his footsteps, well content.
Yet he had not covered half the distance back when his progress was impeded by an elderly hag who fed two goats, whose milk alone preserved her from starvation. One small measure of dry grass was all that she was able to provide them with, but she divided it equally between them, to the discontent of both.
“The season promises to be one of rigour and great need,” remarked Wong Ts’in affably, for the being before him might well be a creature of another part who had assumed that form for his guidance. “Why do you not therefore ensure sustenance to the better of the two goats by devoting to it the whole of the measure of dry grass? In this way you would receive at least some nourishment in return and thereby safeguard your own existence until the rice is grown again.”
“In the matter of the two goats,” replied the aged hag, “there is no better, both being equally stubborn and perverse, though one may be finer-looking and more vainglorious than the other. Yet should I foster this one to the detriment of her fellow, what would be this person’s plight if haply the weaker died and the stronger broke away and fled! By treating both alike I retain a double thread on life, even if neither is capable of much.”
“May the Unseen weigh your labours!” exclaimed Wong Ts’in in a two-edged voice, and he departed.
When he reached his own house he would have closed himself in his own chamber with himself had not Wei Chang persisted that he sought his master’s inner ear with a heavy project. This interruption did not please Wong Ts’in, for he had begun to recognize the day as being unlucky, yet Chang succeeded by a device in reaching his side, bearing in his hands a guarded burden.
Though no written record of this memorable interview exists, it is now generally admitted that Wei Chang either involved himself in an unbearably attenuated caution before he would reveal his errand, or else that he made a definite allusion to Fa Fai with a too sudden conciseness, for the slaves who stood without heard Wong Ts’in clear his voice of all restraint and express himself freely on a variety of subjects. But this gave place to a subdued murmur, ending with the ceremonial breaking of a plate, and later Wong Ts’in beat on a silver bell and called for wine and fruit.
The next day Fang presented himself a few gong-strokes later than the appointed time, and being met by an unbending word he withdrew the labour of those whom he controlled. Thenceforth these men, providing themselves with knives and axes, surrounded the gate of the earth-yards and by the pacific argument of their attitudes succeeded in persuading others who would willingly have continued at their task that the air of Wong Ts’in’s sheds was not congenial to their health. Towards Wei Chang, whose efforts they despised, they raised a cloud of derision, and presently noticing that henceforth he invariable clad himself in lower garments of a dark blue material (to a set purpose that will be as crystal to the sagacious), they greeted his appearance with cries of: “Behold the sombre one! Thou dark leg!” so that this reproach continues to be hurled even to this day at those in a like case, though few could answer why.
Long before the stipulated time the tenscore plates were delivered to Hien Nan. So greatly were they esteemed, both on account of their accuracy of unvarying detail and the ingenuity of their novel embellishment, that orders for scores, hundreds and even thousands began to arrive from all quarters of the Empire. The clay enterprise of Wong Ts’in took upon itself an added lustre, and in order to deal adequately with so vast an undertaking the grateful merchant adopted Wei Chang and placed him upon an equal footing with himself. On the same day Wong Ts’in honourably fulfilled his spoken word and the marriage of Wei Chang and Fa Fai took place, accompanied by the most lavish display of fireworks and coloured lights that the province had ever seen. The controlling deities approved, and they had seven sons, one of whom had seven fingers upon each hand. All these sons became expert in Wei Chang’s process of transferring porcelain embellishment, for some centuries elapsed before it was discovered that it was not absolutely necessary to sit upon each plate to produce the desired effect.
This chronicle of an event that is now regarded as almost classical would not be complete without an added reference to the ultimate end of the sordid Fang.
Fallen into disrepute among his fellows owing to the evil plight towards which he had enticed them, it became his increasing purpose to frequent the house beyond the river. On his return at nightfall he invariably drew aside on reaching the bridge, well knowing that he could not prudently rely upon his feet among so insecure a crossing, and composed himself to sleep amid the rushes. While in this position one night he was discovered and pushed into the river by a devout ox (an instrument of high destinies), where he perished incapably.
Those who found his body, not being able to withdraw so formidable a weight direct, cast a rope across the lower branch of a convenient willow-tree and thus raised it to the shore. In this striking manner Fa Fai’s definite opinion achieved a destined end.
The Degraded Persistence of the Effete Ming-shu
AT about the same gong-stroke as before, Kai Lung again stood at the open shutter, and to him presently came the maiden Hwa-mei, bearing in her hands a gift of fruit.
“The story of the much-harassed merchant Wong Ts’in and of the assiduous youth Wei Chang has reached this person’s ears by a devious road, and though it doubtless lost some of the subtler qualities in the telling, the ultimate tragedy had a convincing tone,” she remarked pleasantly.
“It is scarcely to be expected that one who has spent his life beneath an official umbrella should have at his command the finer analogies of light and shade,” tolerantly replied Kai Lung. “Though by no means comparable with the unapproachable history of the Princess Taik and the minstrel Ch’eng as a means for conveying the unexpressed aspirations of the one who relates towards the one who is receptive, there are many passages even in the behaviour of Wei Chang into which this person could infuse an unmistakable stress of significance were he but given the opportunity.”
“The day of that opportunity has not yet dawned,” replied the Golden Mouse; “nor has the night preceding it yet run its gloomy course. Foiled in his first attempt, the vindictive Ming-shu now creeps towards his end by a more tortuous path. Whether or not dimly suspecting something of the strategy by which your imperishable life was preserved to-day, it is no part of his depraved scheme that you should be given a like opportunity again. To-morrow another will be led to judgment, one Cho-kow, a tribesman of the barbarian land of Khim.”
“With him I have already conversed and shared rice,” interposed Kai Lung. “Proceed, elegance.”
“Accused of plundering mountain tombs and of other crimes now held in disrepute, he will be offered a comparatively painless death if he will implicate his fellows, of whom you will be held to be the chief. By this ignoble artifice you will be condemned on his testimony in your absence, nor will you have any warning of your fate until you are led forth to suffer.”
Then replied Kai Lung, after a space of thought: “Not ineptly is it written: ‘When the leading carriage is upset the next one is more careful,’ and Ming-shu has taken the proverb to his heart. To counteract his detestable plot will not be easy, but it should not be beyond our united power, backed by a reasonable activity on the part of our protecting ancestors.”
“The devotional side of the emergency has had this one’s early care,” remarked Hwa-mei. “From daybreak to-morrow six zealous and deep-throated monks will curse Ming-shu and all his ways unceasingly, while a like number will invoke blessings and success upon your enlightened head. In the matter of noise and illumination everything that can contribute has been suitably prepared.”
“It is difficult to conjecture what more could be done in that direction,” confessed Kai Lung gratefully.
“Yet as regards a more material effort–?” suggested the maiden, amid a cloud of involving doubt.
“If there is a subject in which the imagination of the Mandarin Shan Tien can be again enmeshed it might be yet accomplished,” replied Kai Lung. “Have you a knowledge of any such deep concern?”
“Truly there is a matter that disturbs his peace of late. He has dreamed a dream three times, and its meaning is beyond the skill of any man to solve. Yet how shall this avail you who are no geomancer?”
“What is the nature of the dream?” inquired Kai Lung. “For remember, ‘Though Shen-fi has but one gate, many roads lead to it.'”
“The substance of the dream is this: that herein he who sleeps walks freely in the ways of men wearing no robe or covering of any kind, yet suffering no concern or indignity therefrom; that the secret and hidden things of the earth are revealed to his seeing eyes; and that he can float in space and project himself upon the air at will. These three things are alien to his nature, and being three times repeated, the uncertainty assails his ease.”
“Let it, under your persistent care, assail him more and that unceasingly,” exclaimed Kai Lung, with renewed lightness in his voice. “Breathe on the surface of his self-repose as a summer breeze moves the smooth water of a mountain lake–not deeply, but never quite at rest. Be assured: it is no longer possible to doubt that powerful Beings are interested in our cause.”
“I go, oppressed one,” replied Hwa-mei. “May this period of your ignoble trial be brought to a distinguished close.”
On the following day at the appointed hour Cho-kow was led before the Mandarin Shan Tien, and the nature of his crimes having been explained to him by the contemptible Ming-shu, he was bidden to implicate Kai Lung and thus come to an earlier and less painful end.
“All-powerful,” he replied, addressing himself to the Mandarin, “the words that have been spoken are bent to a deceptive end. They of our community are a simple race and doubtless in the past their ways were thus and thus. But, as it is truly said, ‘Tian went bare, his eyes could pierce the earth and his body float in space, but they of his seed do but dream the dream.’ We, being but the puny descendants–“
“You have spoken of one Tian whose attributes were such, and of those who dream thereof,” interrupted the Mandarin, as one who performs a reluctant duty. “That which you adduce to uphold your cause must bear the full light of day.”
“Alas, omnipotence,” replied Cho-kow, “this concerns the doing of the gods and those who share their line. Now I am but an ill-conditioned outcast from the obscure land of Khim, and possess no lore beyond what happens there. Haply the gods that rule in Khim have a different manner of behaving from those in the Upper Air above Yu-ping, and this person’s narration would avoid the semblance of the things that are and he himself would thereby be brought to disrepute.”
“Suffer not that apprehension to retard your impending eloquence,” replied Shan Tien affably. “Be assured that the gods have exactly the same manner of behaving in every land.”
“Furthermore,” continued Cho-kow, with patient craft, “I am a man of barbarian tongue, the full half of my speech being foreign to your ear. The history of the much-accomplished Tian and the meaning of the dreams that mark those of his race require for a full understanding the subtle analogies of an acquired style. Now that same Kai Lung whom you have implicated to my band–“
“Excellence!” protested Ming-shu, with a sudden apprehension in his throat, “yesterday our labours dissolved in air through the very doubtful precedent of allowing one to testify what he had had the intention to relate. Now we are asked to allow a tomb-haunter to call a parricide to disclose that which he himself is ignorant of. Press down your autocratic thumb–“
“Alas, instructor,” interposed Shan Tien compassionately, “the sympathetic concern of my mind overflows upon the spectacle of your ill-used forbearance, yet you having banded together the two in a common infamy, it is the ancient privilege of this one to call the other to his cause. We are but the feeble mouthpieces of a benevolent scheme of all-embracing justice and greatly do I fear that we must again submit.”
With these well-timed words the broad-minded personage settled himself more reposefully among his cushions and signified that Kai Lung should be led forward and begin.
The Story of Ning, the Captive God, and the Dreams tha mark his Race
i. THE MALICE OF THE DEMON, LEOU
When Sun Wei definitely understood that the deities were against him (for on every occasion his enemies prospered and the voice of his own authority grew less), he looked this way and that with a well-considering mind.
He did nothing hastily, but when once a decision was reached it was as unbending as iron and as smoothly finished as polished jade. At about the evening hour when others were preparing to offer sacrifice he took the images and the altars of his Rites down from their honourable positions and cast them into a heap on a waste expanse beyond his courtyard. Then with an axe he unceremoniously detached their incomparable limbs from their sublime bodies and flung the parts into a fire that he had prepared.
“It is better,” declared Sun Wei, standing beside the pile, his hands buried within his sleeves–“it is better to be struck down at once, rather than to wither away slowly like a half-uprooted cassia-tree.”
When this act of defiance was reported in the Upper World the air grew thick with the cries of indignation of the lesser deities, and the sound of their passage as they projected themselves across vast regions of space and into the presence of the supreme N’guk was like the continuous rending of innumerable pieces of the finest silk.
In his musk-scented heaven, however, N’guk slept, as his habit was at the close of each celestial day. It was with some difficulty that he could be aroused and made to understand the nature of Sun Wei’s profanity, for his mind was dull with the smoke of never-ending incense.
“To-morrow,” he promised, with a benignant gesture, turning over again on his crystal throne, “some time to-morrow impartial justice shall be done. In the meanwhile–courteous dismissal attend your opportune footsteps.”
“He is becoming old and obese,” murmured the less respectful of the demons. “He is not the god he was, even ten thousand cycles ago. It were well–“
“But, omnipotence,” protested certain conciliatory spirits, pressing to the front, “consider, if but for a short breath of time. A day here is as threescore of their years as these mortals live. By to-morrow night not only Sun Wei, but most of those now dwelling down below, will have Passed Beyond. But the story of his unpunished infamy will live. We shall become discredited and our altar fires extinct. Sacrifice of either food or raiment will cease to reach us. The Season of White Rain is approaching and will find us ill provided. We who speak are but Beings of small part–“
“Peace!” commanded N’guk, now thoroughly disturbed, for the voices of the few had grown into a tumult; “how is it possible to consider with a torrent like the Hoang-Ho in flood pouring through my very ordinary ears? Your omniscient but quite inadequate Chief would think.”
At this rebuke the uproar ceased. So deep became the nature of N’guk’s profound thoughts that they could be heard rolling like thunder among the caverns of his gigantic brain. To aid the process, female slaves on either side fanned his fiery head with celestial lotus leaves. On the earth, far beneath, cyclones, sand-storms and sweeping water-spouts were forced into being.
“Hear the contemptible wisdom of my ill-formed mouth,” said N’guk at length. “If we at once put forth our strength, the degraded Wun Sei is ground–“
“Sun Wei, All-knowing One,” murmured an attending spirit beneath his breath.
“–the unmentionable outcast whom we are discussing is immediately ground into powder,” continued the Highest, looking fixedly at a distant spot situated directly beyond his painstaking attendant. “But what follows? Henceforth no man can be allowed to whisper ill of us but we must at once seek him out and destroy him, or the obtuse and superficial will exclaim: ‘It was not so in the days of–of So-and-So. Behold'”–here the Great One bent a look of sudden resentment on the band of those who would have reproached him–“‘behold the gods become old and obese. They are not the Powers they were. It would be better to address ourselves to other altars.'”
At this prospect many of the more venerable spirits began to lose their enthusiasm. If every mortal who spoke ill of them was to be pursued what leisure for dignified seclusion would remain?
“If, however,” continued the dispassionate Being, “the profaner is left to himself he will, sooner or later, in the ordinary course of human intelligence, become involved in some disaster of his own contriving. Then they who dwell around will say: ‘He destroyed the alters! Truly the hands of the Unseen are slow to close, but their arms are very long. Lo, we have this day ourselves beheld it. Come, let us burn incense lest some forgotten misdeed from the past lurk in our path.'”
When he had finished speaking all the more reputable of those present extolled his judgment. Some still whispered together, however, whereupon the sagacious N’guk opened his mouth more fully and shot forth tongues of consuming fire among the murmurers so that they fled howling from his presence.
Now among the spirits who had stood before the Pearly Ruler without taking any share in the decision were two who at this point are drawn into the narration, Leou and Ning. Leou was a revengeful demon, ever at enmity with one or another of the gods and striving how he might enmesh his feet in destruction. Ning was a better-class deity, voluptuous but well-meaning, and little able to cope with Leou’s subtlety. Thus it came about that the latter one, seeing in the outcome a chance to achieve his end, at once dropped headlong down to earth and sought out Sun Wei.
Sun Wei was reclining at his evening rice when Leou found him. Becoming invisible, the demon entered a date that Sun Wei held in his hand and took the form of a stone. Sun Wei recognized the doubtful nature of the stone as it passed between his teeth, and he would have spat it forth again, but Leou had the questionable agility of the serpent and slipped down the other’s throat. He was thus able to converse familiarly with Sun Wei without fear of interruption.
“Sun Wei,” said the voice of Leou inwardly, “the position you have chosen is a desperate one, and we of the Upper Air who are well disposed towards you find the path of assistance fringed with two-edged swords.”
“It is well said: ‘He who lacks a single tael sees many bargains,'” replied Sun Wei, a refined bitterness weighing the import of his words. “Truly this person’s friends in the Upper Air are a never-failing lantern behind his back.”
At this justly-barbed reproach Leou began to shake with disturbed gravity until he remembered that the motion might not be pleasing to Sun Wei’s inner feelings.
“It is not that the well-disposed are slow to urge your claims, but that your enemies number some of the most influential demons in all the Nine Spaces,” he declared, speaking with a false smoothness that marked all his detestable plans. “Assuredly in the past you must have led a very abandoned life, Sun Wei, to come within the circle of their malignity.”
“By no means,” replied Sun Wei. “Until driven to despair this person not only duly observed the Rites and Ceremonies, but he even avoided the Six Offences. He remained by the side of his parents while they lived, provided an adequate posterity, forbore to tread on any of the benevolent insects, safeguarded all printed paper, did not consume the meat of the industrious ox, and was charitable towards the needs of hungry and homeless ghosts.”
“These observances are well enough,” admitted Leou, restraining his narrow-minded impatience; “and with an ordinary number of written charms worn about the head and body they would doubtless carry you through the lesser contingencies of existence. But by, as it were, extending contempt, you have invited the retaliatory propulsion of the sandal of authority.”
“To one who has been pushed over the edge of a precipice, a rut across the path is devoid of menace; nor do the destitute tremble at the departing watchman’s cry: ‘Sleep warily; robbers are about.'”
“As regards bodily suffering and material extortion, it is possible to attain such a limit as no longer to excite the cupidity of even the most rapacious deity,” admitted Leou. “Other forms of flattening-out a transgressor’s self-content remain however. For instance, it has come within the knowledge of the controlling Powers that seven generations of your distinguished ancestors occupy positions of dignified seclusion in the Upper Air.”
For the first time Sun Wei’s attitude was not entirely devoid of an emotion of concern.
“They would not–?”
“To mark their sense of your really unsupportable behaviour it has been decided that all seven shall return to the humiliating scenes of their former existences in admittedly objectionable forms,” replied the outrageous Leou. “Sun Chen, your venerated sire, will become an agile grasshopper; your incomparable grandfather, Yuen, will have the similitude of a yellow goat; as a tortoise your leisurely-minded ancestor Huang, the high public official–“
“Forbear!” exclaimed the conscience-stricken Sun Wei; “rather would this person suffer every imaginable form of torture than that the spirit of one of his revered ancestors should be submitted to so intolerable a bondage. Is there no amiable form of compromise whereby the ancestors of some less devoted and liberally-inspired son might be imperceptibly, as it were, substituted?”
“In ordinary cases some such arrangement is generally possible,” conceded Leou; “but not idly is it written: ‘There is a time to silence an adversary with the honey of logical persuasion, and there is a time to silence him with the argument of a heavily-directed club.’ In your extremity a hostage is the only efficient safeguard. Seize the person of one of the gods themselves and raise a strong wall around your destiny by holding him to ransom.”
“‘Ho Tai, requiring a light for his pipe, stretched out his hand towards the great sky-lantern,'” quoted Sun Wei.
“‘Do not despise Ching To because his armour is invisible,'” retorted Leou, with equal point. “Your friends in the Above are neither feeble nor inept. Do as I shall instruct you and no less a Being than Ning will be delivered into your hand.”
Then replied Sun Wei dubiously: “A spreading mango-tree affords a pleasant shade within one’s courtyard, and a captive god might for a season undoubtedly confer an enviable distinction. But presently the tree’s encroaching roots may disturb the foundation of the house so that the walls fall and crush those who are within, and the head of a restrained god would in the end certainly displace my very inadequate roof-tree.”
“A too-prolific root can be pruned back,” replied Leou, “and the activities of a bondaged god may be efficiently curtailed. How this shall be accomplished will be revealed to you in a dream: take heed that you do not fail by the deviation of a single hair.”
Having thus prepared his discreditable plot, Leou twice struck the walls enclosing him, so that Sun Wei coughed violently. The demon was thereby enabled to escape, and he never actually appeared in a tangible form again, although he frequently communicated, by means of signs and omens, with those whom he wished to involve in his sinister designs.
ii. THE PART PLAYED BY THE SLAVE-GIRL, HIA
Among the remaining possessions that the hostility of the deities still left to Sun Wei at the time of these happenings was a young slave of many-sided attraction. The name of Hia had been given to her, but she was generally known as Tsing-ai on account of the extremely affectionate gladness of her nature.
On the day following that in which Sun Wei and the demon Leou had conversed together, Hia was disporting herself in the dark shades of a secluded pool, as her custom was after the heat of her labours, when a phoenix, flying across the glade, dropped a pearl of unusual size and lustre into the stream. Possessing herself of the jewel and placing it in her mouth, so that it should not impede the action of her hands, Hia sought the bank and would have drawn herself up when she became aware of the presence of one having the guise of a noble commander. He was regarding her with a look in which well-expressed admiration was blended with a delicate intimation that owing to the unparalleled brilliance of her eyes he was unable to perceive any other detail of her appearance, and was, indeed, under the impression that she was devoid of ordinary outline. At the same time, without permitting her glance to be in any but an entirely opposite direction, Hia was able to satisfy herself that the stranger was a person on whom she might prudently lavish the full depths of her regard if the necessity arose. His apparel was rich, voluminous and of colours then unknown within the Empire; his hair long and abundant; his face placid but sincere. He carried no weapons, but wherever he trod there came a yellow flame from below his right foot and a white vapour from beneath his left. His insignia were those of a royal prince, and when he spoke his voice resembled the noise of arrows passing through the upper branches of a prickly forest. His long and pointed nails indicated the high and dignified nature of all his occupations; each nail was protected by a solid sheath, there being amethyst, ruby, topaz, ivory, emerald, white jade, iron, chalcedony, gold and malachite.
When the distinguished-looking personage had thus regarded Hia for some moments he drew an instrument of hollow tubes from a fold of his garment and began to sing of two who, as the outcome of a romantic encounter similar to that then existing, had professed an agreeable attachment for one another and had, without unnecessary delay, entered upon a period of incomparable felicity. Doubtless Hia would have uttered words of high-minded rebuke at some of the more detailed analogies of the recital had not the pearl deprived her of the power of expressing herself clearly on any subject whatever, nor did it seem practicable to her to remove it without withdrawing her hands from the modest attitudes into which she had at once distributed them. Thus positioned, she was compelled to listen to the stranger’s well-considered flattery, and this (together with the increasing coldness of the stream as the evening deepened) convincingly explains her ultimate acquiescence to his questionable offers.
Yet it cannot be denied that Ning (as he may now fittingly be revealed) conducted the enterprise with a seemly liberality; for upon receiving from Hia a glance not expressive of discouragement he at once caused the appearance of a suitably-furnished tent, a train of Nubian slaves offering rich viands, rare wine and costly perfumes, companies of expert dancers and musicians, a retinue of discreet elderly women to robe her and to attend her movements, a carpet of golden silk stretching from the water’s edge to the tent, and all the accessories of a high-class profligacy.
When the night was advanced and Hia and Ning, after partaking of a many-coursed feast, were reclining on an ebony couch, the Being freely expressed the delight that he discovered in her amiable society, incautiously adding: “Demand any recompense that is within the power of this one to grant, O most delectable of water-nymphs, and its accomplishment will be written by a flash of lightning.” In this, however, he merely spoke as the treacherous Leou (who had enticed him into the adventure) had assured him was usual in similar circumstances, he himself being privately of the opinion that the expenditure already incurred was more than adequate to the occasion.
Then replied Hia, as she had been fully instructed against the emergency: “The word has been spoken. But what is precious metal after listening to the pure gold of thy lips, or who shall again esteem gems while gazing upon the full round radiance of thy moon-like face? One thing only remains: remove the various sheaths from off thy hands, for they not only conceal the undoubted perfection of the nails within, but their massive angularity renders the affectionate ardour of your embrace almost intolerable.”
At this very ordinary request a sudden flatness overspread Ning’s manner and he began to describe the many much more profitable rewards that Hia might fittingly demand. As none of these appeared to entice her imagination, he went on to rebuke her want of foresight, and, still later, having unsuccessfully pointed out to her the inevitable penury and degradation in which her thriftless perversity would involve her later years, to kick the less substantial appointments across the tent.
“The night thickens, with every indication of a storm,” remarked Hia pleasantly. “Yet that same impending flash of promised lightning tarries somewhat.”
“Truly is it written: ‘A gracious woman will cause more strife than twelve armed men can quell,'” retorted Ning bitterly.
“Not, perchance, if one of them bares his nails?” Thus she lightly mocked him, but always with a set intent, as a poised dragon-fly sips water yet does not wet his wings. Whereupon, finally, Ning tore the sheaths from off his fingers and cast them passionately about her feet, immediately afterwards sinking into a profound sleep, for both the measure and the potency of the wine he had consumed exceeded his usual custom. Otherwise he would scarcely have acted in this incapable manner, for each sheath was inscribed with one symbol of a magic charm and in the possession of the complete sentence resided the whole of the Being’s authority and power.
Then Hia, seeing that he could no longer control her movements, and that the end to which she had been bending was attained, gathered together the fruits of her conscientious strategy and fled.
When Ning returned to the condition of ordinary perceptions he was lying alone in the field by the river-side. The great sky-fire made no pretence of averting its rays from his uncovered head, and the lesser creatures of the ground did not hesitate to walk over his once sacred form. The tent and all the other circumstances of the quest of Hia had passed into a state of no-existence, for with a somewhat narrow-minded economy the deity had called them into being with the express provision that they need only be of such a quality as would last for a single night.
With this recollection, other details began to assail his mind. His irreplaceable nail-sheaths–there was no trace of one of them. He looked again. Alas! his incomparable nails were also gone, shorn off to the level of his finger-ends. For all their evidence he might be one who had passed his days in discreditable industry. Each moment a fresh point of degradation met his benumbed vision. His profuse and ornamental locks were reduced to a single roughly-plaited coil; his sandals were inelegant and harsh; in place of his many-coloured flowing robes a scanty blue gown clothed his form. He who had been a god was undistinguishable from the labourers of the fields. Only in one thing did the resemblance fail: about his neck he found a weighty block of wood controlled by an iron ring: while they at least were free he was a captive slave.
A shadow on the grass caused him to turn. Sun Wei approached, a knotted thong in one hand, in the other a hoe. He pointed to an unweeded rice-field and with many ceremonious bows pressed the hoe upon Ning as one who confers high honours. As Ning hesitated, Sun Wei pressed the knotted thong upon him until it would have been obtuse to disregard his meaning. Then Ning definitely understood that he had become involved in the workings of very powerful forces, hostile to himself, and picking up the hoe he bent his submissive footsteps in the direction of the laborious rice-field.
iii. THE IN-COMING OF THE YOUTH, TIAN
It was dawn in the High Heaven and the illimitable N’guk, waking to his labours for the day, looked graciously around on the assembled myriads who were there to carry his word through boundless space. Not wanting are they who speak two-sided words of the Venerable One from behind fan-like hands, but when his voice takes upon it the authority of a brazen drum knees become flaccid.
“There is a void in the unanimity of our council,” remarked the Supreme, his eye resting like a flash of lightning on a vacant place. “Wherefore tarries Ning, the son of Shin, the Seed-sower?”
For a moment there was an edging of N’guk’s inquiring glance from each Being to his neighbour. Then Leou stood audaciously forth.
“He is reported to be engaged on a private family matter,” he replied gravely. “Haply his feet have become entangled in a mesh of hair.”
N’guk turned his benevolent gaze upon another–one higher in authority.
“Perchance,” admitted the superior Being tolerantly. “Such things are. How comes it else that among the earth-creatures we find the faces of the deities–both the good and the bad?”
“How long has he been absent from our paths?”
They pressed another forward–keeper of the Outer Path of the West Expanses, he.
“He went, High Excellence, in the fifteenth of the earth-ruler Chun, whom your enlightened tolerance has allowed to occupy the lower dragon throne for twoscore years, as these earthlings count. Thus and thus–“
“Enough!” exclaimed the Supreme. “Hear my iron word. When the buffoon-witted Ning rises from his congenial slough this shall be his lot: for sixty thousand ages he shall fail to find the path of his return, but shall, instead, thread an aimless flight among the frozen ambits of the outer stars, carrying a tormenting rain of fire at his tail. And Leou, the Whisperer,” added the Divining One, with the inscrutable wisdom that marked even his most opaque moments, “Leou shall meanwhile perform Ning’s neglected task.”
For five and twenty years Ning had laboured in the fields of Sun Wei with a wooden collar girt about his neck, and Sun Wei had prospered. Yet it is to be doubted whether this last detail deliberately hinged on the policy of Leou or whether Sun Wei had not rather been drawn into some wider sphere of destiny and among converging lines of purpose. The ways of the gods are deep and sombre, and water once poured out will flow as freely to the north as to the south. The wise kowtows acquiescently whatever happens and thus his face is to the ground. “Respect the deities,” says the imperishable Sage, “but do not become familiar with them.” Sun Wei was clearly wrong.
To Ning, however, standing on a grassy space on the edge of a flowing river, such thoughts do not extend. He is now a little hairy man of gnarled appearance, and his skin of a colour and texture like a ripe lo-quat. As he stands there, something in the outline of the vista stirs the retentive tablets of his mind: it was on this spot that he first encountered Hia, and from that involvement began the cycle of his unending ill.
As he stood thus, implicated with his own inner emotions, a figure emerged from the river at its nearest point and, crossing the intervening sward, approached. He had the aspect of being a young man of high and dignified manner, and walked with the air of one accustomed to a silk umbrella, but when Ning looked more closely, to see by his insignia what amount of reverence he should pay, he discovered that the youth was destitute of the meagrest garment.
“Rise, venerable,” said the stranger affably, for Ning had prostrated himself as being more prudent in the circumstances. “The one before you is only Tian, of obscure birth, and himself of no particular merit or attainment. You, doubtless, are of considerably more honourable lineage?”
“Far from that being the case,” replied Ning, “the one who speaks bears now the commonplace name of Lieu, and is branded with the brand of Sun Wei. Formerly, indeed, he was a god, moving in the Upper Space and known to the devout as Ning, but now deposed by treachery.”
“Unless the subject is one that has painful associations,” remarked Tian considerately, “it is one on which this person would willingly learn somewhat deeper. What, in short, are the various differences existing between gods and men?”
“The gods are gods; men are men,” replied Ning. “There is no other difference.”
“Yet why do not the gods now exert their strength and raise from your present admittedly inferior position one who is of their band?”
“Behind their barrier the gods laugh at all men. How much more, then, is their gravity removed at the sight of one of themselves who has fallen lower than mankind?”
“Your plight would certainly seem to be an ill-destined one,” admitted Tian, “for, as the Verses say: ‘Gold sinks deeper than dross.’ Is there anything that an ordinary person can do to alleviate your subjection?”
“The offer is a gracious one,” replied Ning, “and such an occasion undoubtedly exists. Some time ago a pearl of unusual size and lustre slipped from its setting about this spot. I have looked for it in vain, but your acuter eyes, perchance–“
Thus urged, the youth Tian searched the ground, but to no avail. Then chancing to look upwards, he exclaimed:
“Among the higher branches of the tallest bamboo there is an ancient phoenix nest, and concealed within its wall is a pearl such as you describe.”