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.
i. THE MALICE OF THE DEMON, LEOU
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.
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.
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."
"That manifestly is what I seek," said Ning. "But it might as well be at the bottom of its native sea, for no ladder could reach to such a height nor would the slender branch support a living form."
"Yet the emergency is one easily disposed of." With these opportune words the amiable person rose from the ground without any appearance of effort or conscious movement, and floating upward through the air he procured the jewel and restored it to Ning.
When Ning had thus learned that Tian possessed these three attainments which are united in the gods alone--that he could stand naked before others without consciousness of shame, that his eyes were able to penetrate matter impervious to those of ordinary persons, and that he controlled the power of rising through the air unaided--he understood that the one before him was a deity of some degree. He therefore questioned him closely about his history, the various omens connected with his life and the position of the planets at his birth. Finding that these presented no element of conflict, and that, furthermore, the youth's mother was a slave, formerly known as Hia, Ning declared himself more fully and greeted Tian as his undoubted son.
"The absence of such a relation is the one thing that has pressed heavily against this person's satisfaction in the past, and the deficiency is now happily removed," exclaimed Tian. "The distinction of having a deity for a father outweighs even the present admittedly distressing condition in which he reveals himself. His word shall henceforth be my law."
"The sentiment is a dutiful one," admitted Ning, "and it is possible that you are now thus discovered in pursuance of some scheme among my more influential accomplices in the Upper Air for restoring to me my former eminence."
"In so meritorious a cause this person is prepared to immerse himself to any depth," declared Tian readily. "Nothing but the absence of precise details restrains his hurrying feet."
"Those will doubtless be communicated to us by means of omens and portents as the requirement becomes more definite. In the meanwhile the first necessity is to enable this person's nails to grow again; for to present himself thus in the Upper Air would be to cover him with ridicule. When the Emperor Chow-sin endeavoured to pass himself off as a menial by throwing aside his jewelled crown, the rebels who had taken him replied: 'Omnipotence, you cannot throw away your knees.' To claim kinship with those Above and at the same time to extend towards them a hand obviously inured to probing among the stony earth would be to invite the averted face of recognition."
"Let recognition be extended in other directions and the task of returning to a forfeited inheritance will be lightened materially," remarked a significant voice.
"Estimable mother," exclaimed Tian, "this opportune stranger is my venerated father, whose continuous absence has been an overhanging cloud above my gladness, but now happily revealed and restored to our domestic altar."
"Alas!" interposed Ning, "the opening of this enterprise forecasts a questionable omen. Before this person stands the one who enticed him into the beginning of all his evil; how then--"
"Let the word remain unspoken," interrupted Hia. "Women do not entice men--though they admittedly accompany them, with an extreme absence of reluctance, in any direction. In her youth this person's feet undoubtedly bore her occasionally along a light and fantastic path, for in the nature of spring a leaf is green and pliable, and in the nature of autumn it is brown and austere, and through changeless ages thus and thus. But, as it is truly said: 'Milk by repeated agitation turns to butter,' and for many years it has been this one's ceaseless study of the Arts whereby she might avert that which she helped to bring about in her unstable youth."
"The intention is a commendable one, though expressed with unnecessary verbiage," replied Ning. "To what solution did your incantations trend?"
"Concealed somewhere within the walled city of Ti-foo are the sacred nail-sheaths on which your power so essentially depends, sent thither by Sun Wei at the crafty instance of the demon Leou, who hopes at a convenient time to secure them for himself. To discover these and bear them forth will be the part allotted to Tian, and to this end has the training of his youth been bent. By what means he shall strive to the accomplishment of the project the unrolling curtain of the future shall disclose."
"It is as the destinies shall decide and as the omens may direct," said Tian. "In the meanwhile this person's face is inexorably fixed in the direction of Ti-foo."
"Proceed with all possible discretion," advised Ning. "In so critical an undertaking you cannot be too cautious, but at the same time do not suffer the rice to grow around your advancing feet."
"A moment," conselled Hia. "Tarry yet a moment. Here is one whose rapidly-moving attitude may convey a message."
"It is Lin Fa!" exclaimed Ning, as the one alluded to drew near--"Lin Fa who guards the coffers of Sun Wei. Some calamity pursues him."
"Hence!" cried Lin Far, as he caught sight of them, yet scarcely pausing in his flight: "flee to the woods and caves until the time of this catastrophe be past. Has not the tiding reached you?"
"We be but dwellers on the farther bounds and no word has reached our ear, O great Lin Fa. Fill in, we pray you, the warning that has been so suddenly outlined."
"The usurper Ah-tang has lit the torch of swift rebellion and is flattening-down the land that bars his way. Already the villages of Yeng, Leu, Liang-li and the Dwellings by the Three Pure Wells are as dust beneath his trampling feet, and they who stayed there have passed up in smoke. Sun Wei swings from the roof-tree of his own ruined yamen. Ah-tang now lays siege to walled Ti-foo so that he may possess the Northern Way. Guard this bag of silver meanwhile, for what I have is more than I can reasonably bear, and when the land is once again at peace, assemble to meet me by the Five-Horned Pagoda, ready with a strict account."
"All this is plainly part of an orderly scheme for my advancement, brought about by my friends in the Upper World," remarked Ning, with some complacency. "Lin Fa has been influenced to the extent of providing us with the means for our immediate need; Sun Wei has been opportunely removed to the end that this person may now retire to a hidden spot and there suffer his dishonoured nails to grow again: Ah-tang has been impelled the raise the banner of insurrection outside Ti-foo so that Tian may make use of the necessities of either side in pursuit of his design. Assuredly the long line of our misfortunes is now practically at an end."
Nevertheless, the alternative forced on Tian was not an alluring one. If he joined the band of Ah-tang and the usurper failed, Tian himself might never get inside Ti-foo; if, however, he allied himself with the defenders of Ti-foo and Ah-tang did not fail, he might never get out of Ti-foo. Doubtless he would have reverently submitted his cause to the inspired decision of the Sticks, or some other reliable augur, had he not, while immersed in the consideration, walked into the camp of Ah-tang. The omen of this occurrence was of too specific a nature not to be regarded as conclusive.
Ah-tang was one who had neglected the Classics from his youth upwards. For this reason his detestable name is never mentioned in the Histories, and the various catastrophes he wrought are charitably ascribed to the action of earthquakes, thunderbolts and other admitted forces. He himself, with his lamentable absence of literary style, was wont to declare that while confessedly weak in analogies he was strong in holocausts. In the end he drove the sublime emperor from his capital and into the Outer Lands; with true refinement the annalists of the period explain that the condescending monarch made a journey of inspection among the barbarian tribes on the confines of his Empire.
When Tian, charged with being a hostile spy, was led into the presence of Ah-tang, it was the youth's intention to relate somewhat of his history, but the usurper, excusing himself on the ground of literary deficiency, merely commanded five of his immediate guard to bear the prisoner away and to return with his head after a fitting interval. Misunderstanding the exact requirement, Tian returned at the appointed time with the heads of the five who had charge of him and the excuse that in those times of scarcity it was easier to keep one head than five. This aptitude so pleased Ah-tang (who had expected at the most a farewell apophthegm) that he at once made Tian captain of a chosen band.
Thus was Tian positioned outside the city of Ti-foo, materially contributing to its ultimate surrender by the resourceful courage of his arms. For the first time in the history of opposing forces he tamed the strength and swiftness of wild horses to the use of man, and placing copper loops upon their feet and iron bars between their teeth, he and his band encircled Ti-foo with an ever-moving shield through which no outside word could reach the town. Cut off in this manner from all hope of succour, the stomachs of those within the walls grew very small, and their eyes became weary of watching for that which never came. On the third day of the third moon of their encirclement they sent a submissive banner, and one bearing a written message, into the camp of Ah-tang.
"We are convinced" (it ran) "of the justice of your cause. Let six of your lordly nobles appear unarmed before our ill-kept Lantern Gate at the middle gong-stroke of to-morrow and they will be freely admitted within our midst. Upon receiving a bound assurance safeguarding the limits of our temples, the persons and possessions of our chiefs, and the undepreciated condition of the first wives and virgin daughters of such as be of mandarin rank or literary degree, the inadequate keys of our broken-down defences will be laid at their sumptuous feet.
"With a fervent hand-clasp as of one brother to another, and a passionate assurance of mutual good-will,
Alas! it is well written: "There is often a space between the fish and the fish-plate." Mentally inflated at the success of their efforts and the impending surrender of Ti-foo, Tian's band suffered their energies to relax. In the dusk of that same evening one disguised in the skin of a goat browsed from bush to bush until he reached the town. There, throwing off all restraint, he declared his errand to Ko'en Cheng.
"Behold!" he exclaimed, "the period of your illustrious suffering is almost at an end. With an army capable in size and invincible in determination, the ever-victorious Wu Sien is marching to your aid. Defy the puny Ah-tang for yet three days more and great glory will be yours."
"Doubtless," replied Ko'en Cheng, with velvet bitterness: "but the sun has long since set and the moon is not yet risen. The appearance of a solitary star yesterday would have been more foot-guiding than the forecast of a meteor next week. This person's thumb-signed word is passed and to-morrow Ah-tang will hold him to it."
Now there was present among the council one wrapped in a mantle made of rustling leaves, who spoke in a smooth, low voice, very cunning and persuasive, with a plan already shaped that seemed to offer well and to safeguard Ko'en Cheng's word. None remembered to have seen him there before, and for this reason it is now held by some that this was Leou, the Whisperer, perturbed lest the sacred nail-sheaths of Ning should pass beyond his grasp. As to this, says not the Wise One: "When two men cannot agree over the price of an onion who shall decide what happened in the time of Yu?" But the voice of the unknown prevailed, all saying: "At the worst it is but as it will be; perchance it may be better."
That night there was much gladness in the camp of Ah-tang, and men sang songs of victory and cups of wine were freely passed, though in the outer walks a strict watch was kept. When it was dark the word was passed that an engaging company was approaching from the town, openly and with lights. These being admitted revealed themselves as a band of maidens, bearing gifts of fruit and wine and assurances of their agreeable behaviour. Distributing themselves impartially about the tents of the chiefs and upper ones, they melted the hours of the night in graceful accomplishments and by their seemly compliance dispelled all thought of treachery. Having thus gained the esteem of their companions, and by the lavish persuasion of bemusing wine dimmed their alertness, all this band, while it was still dark, crept back to the town, each secretly carrying with her the arms, robes and insignia of the one who had possessed her.
When the morning broke and the sound of trumpets called each man to an appointed spot, direful was the outcry from the tents of all the chiefs, and though many heads were out-thrust in rage of indignation, no single person could be prevailed upon wholly to emerge. Only the lesser warriors, the slaves and the bearers of the loads moved freely to and fro and from between closed teeth and with fluttering eyelids tossed doubtful jests among themselves.
It was close upon the middle gong-stroke of the day when Ah-tang, himself clad in a shred torn from his tent (for in all the camp there did not remain a single garment bearing a sign of noble rank), got together a council of his chiefs. Some were clad in like attire, others carried a henchman's shield, a paper lantern or a branch of flowers; Tian alone displayed himself without reserve.
"There are moments," said Ah-tang, "when this person's admitted accomplishment of transfixing three foemen with a single javelin at a score of measured paces does not seem to provide a possible solution. Undoubtedly we are face to face with a crafty plan, and Ko'en Cheng has surely heard that Wu Sien is marching from the west. If we fail to knock upon the outer gate of Ti-foo at noon to-day Ko'en Cheng will say: 'My word returns. It is as naught.' If they who go are clad as underlings, Ko'en Cheng will cry: 'What slaves be these! Do men break plate with dogs? Our message was for six of noble style. Ah-tang but mocks.'" He sat down again moodily. "Let others speak."
"Chieftain"--Tian threw forth his voice--"your word must be as iron--'Six captains shall attend.' There is yet another way."
"Speak on," Ah-tang commanded.
"The quality of Ah-tang's chiefs resides not in a cloak of silk nor in a silver-hilted sword, but in the sinews of their arms and the lightning of their eyes. If they but carry these they proclaim their rank for all to see. Let six attend taking neither sword nor shield, neither hat nor sandal, nor yet anything between. 'There are six thousand more,' shall be their taunt, 'but Ko'en Cheng's hospitality drew rein at six. He feared lest they might carry arms; behold they have come naked. Ti-foo need not tremble."
"It is well," agreed Ah-tang. "At least, nothing better offers. Let five accompany you."
Seated on a powerful horse Tian led the way. The others, not being of his immediate band, had not acquired the necessary control, so that they walked in a company. Coming to the Lantern Gate Tian turned his horse suddenly so that its angry hoof struck the gate. Looking back he saw the others following, with no great space between, and so passed in.
When the five naked captains reached the open gate they paused. Within stood a great concourse of the people, these being equally of both sexes, but they of the inner chambers pressing resolutely to the front. Through the throng of these their way must lead, and at the sight the hearts of all became as stagnant water in the sun.
"Tarry not for me, O brothers," said the one who led. "A thorn has pierced my foot. Take honourable precedence while I draw it forth."
"Never," declared the second of the band, "never shall it be cast abroad that Kang of the House of Ka failed his brother in necessity. I sustain thy shoulder, comrade."
"Alas!" exclaimed the third. "This person broke his fast on rhubarb stewed in fat. Inopportunely--" So he too turned aside.
"Have we considered well," said they who remained, "whether this be not a subtle snare, and while the camp is denuded of its foremost warriors a strong force--?"
Unconscious of these details, Tian went on alone. In spite of the absence of gravity on the part of the more explicit portion of the throng he suffered no embarrassment, partly because of his position, but chiefly through his inability to understand that his condition differed in any degree from theirs; for, owing to the piercing nature of his vision, they were to him as he to them. In this way he came to the open space known as the Space of the Eight Directions, where Ko'en Cheng and his nobles were assembled.
"One comes alone," they cried. "This guise is as a taunt." "Naked to a naked town--the analogy is plain." "Shall the mocker be suffered to return?"
Thus the murmur grew. Then one, more impetuous than the rest, swung clear his sword and drew it. For the first time Tian understood that treachery was afoot. He looked round for any of his band, but found that he was as a foam-tossed cork upon a turbulent Whang Hai. Cries of anger and derision filled the air; threatening arms waved encouragement to each other to begin. The one with drawn sword raised it above his head and made a step. Then Tian, recognizing that he was unarmed, and that a decisive moment had arrived, stooped low and tore a copper hoop from off his horse's foot. High he swung its polished brightness in the engaging sun, resolutely brought it down, so that it pressed over the sword-warrior's shattered head and hung about his neck. Having thus effected as much bloodshed as could reasonably be expected in the circumstances, Tian curved his feet about his horse's sides and imparting to it the virtue of his own condition they rose into the air together. When those who stood below were able to exert themselves a flight of arrows, spears and every kind of weapon followed, but horse and rider were by that time beyond their reach, and the only benevolent result attained was that many of their band were themselves transfixed by the falling shafts.
In such a manner Tian continued his progress from the town until he came above the Temple of Fire and Water Forces, where on a high tower a strong box of many woods was chained beneath a canopy, guarded by an incantation laid upon it by Leou, that no one should lift it down. Recognizing the contents as the object of his search, Tian brought his horse to rest upon the tower, and breaking the chains he bore the magic sheaths away, the charm (owing to Leou's superficial habits) being powerless against one who instead of lifting the box down carried it up.
In spite of this distinguished achievement it was many moons before Tian was able to lay the filial tribute of restored power at Ning's feet, for with shallow-witted obstinacy Ti-foo continued to hold out, and, scarcely less inept, Ah-tang declined to release Tian even to carry on so charitable a mission. Yet when the latter one ultimately returned and was, as the reward of his intrepid services, looking forward to a period of domestic reunion under the benevolent guidance of an affectionate father, it was but to point the seasoned proverb: "The fuller the cup the sooner the spill," for scarcely had Ning drawn on the recovered sheaths and with incautious joy repeated the magic sentence than he was instantly projected across vast space and into the trackless confines of the Outer Upper Paths. If this were an imagined tale, framed to entice the credulous, herein would its falseness cry aloud, but even in this age Ning may still be seen from time to time with a tail of fire in his wake, missing the path of his return as N'guk ordained.
Thus bereft, Tian was on the point of giving way to a seemly despair when a message concerned with Mu, the only daughter of Ko'en Cheng, reached him. It professed a high-minded regard for his welfare, and added that although the one who was inspiring the communication had been careful to avoid seeing him on the occasion of his entry into Ti-foo, it was impossible for her not to be impressed by the dignity of his bearing. Ko'en Cheng having become vastly wealthy as the result of entering into an arrangement with Ah-tang before Ti-foo was sacked, it did not seem unreasonable to Tian that Ning was in some way influencing his destiny from afar. On this understanding he ultimately married Mu, and thereby founded a prolific posterity who inherited a great degree of his powers. In the course of countless generations the attributes have faded, but even to this day the true descendants of the line of Ning are frequently vouchsafed dreams in which they stand naked and without shame, see gems or metals hidden or buried in the earth and float at will through space.