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:
"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.
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.