The Propitious Dissension between Two whose General Attributes have already been sufficiently Described
WHEN Kai Lung had related the story of Chang Tao and had made an end of speaking, those who were seated there agreed with an undivided voice that he had competently fulfilled his task. Nor did Shan Tien omit an approving word, adding:
"On one point the historical balance of a certain detail seemed open to contention. Accompany me, therefore, to my own severe retreat, where this necessarily flat and unentertaining topic can be looked at from all round."
When they were alone together the Mandarin unsealed a jar of wine, apportioned melon seeds, and indicated to Kai Lung that he should sit upon the floor at a suitable distance from himself.
"So long as we do not lose sight of the necessity whereby my official position will presently involve me in condemning you to a painful death, and your loyal subjection will necessitate your whole-hearted co-operation in the act, there is no reason why the flower of literary excellence should wither for lack of mutual husbandry," remarked the broad-minded official tolerantly.
"Your enlightened patronage is a continual nourishment to the soil of my imagination," replied the story teller.
"As regards the doings of Chang Tao and of the various other personages who unite with him to form the fabric of the narrative, would not a strict adherence to the fable in its classical simplicity require the filling in of certain details which under your elusive tongue seemed, as you proceeded, to melt imperceptibly into a discreet background?"
"Your voice is just," confessed Kai Lung, "and your harmonious ear corrects the deficiencies of my afflicted style. Admittedly in the story of Chang Tao there are here and there analogies which may be fittingly left to the imagination as the occasion should demand. Is it not rightly said: 'Discretion is the handmaiden of Truth'? and in that spacious and well-appointed palace there is every kind of vessel, but the meaner are not to be seen in the more ceremonial halls. Thus he who tells a story prudently suits his furnishing to the condition of his hearers."
"Wisdom directs your course," replied Shan Tien, "and propriety sits beneath your supple tongue. As the necessity for this very seemly expurgation is now over, I would myself listen to your recital of the fullest and most detailed version--purely, let it be freely stated, in order to judge whether its literary qualities transcend those of the other."
"I comply, benevolence," replied Kai Lung. "This rendering shall be to the one that has gone before as a spreading banyan-tree overshadowing an immature shrub."
"Forbear!" exclaimed a discordant voice, and the sour-eyed Ming-shu revealed his inopportune presence from behind a hanging veil. "Is it meet, O eminence, that in this person's absence you should thus consort on terms of fraternity with tomb-riflers and grain-thieves?"
"The reproach is easily removed," replied Shan Tien hospitably. "Join the circle of our refined felicity and hear at full length by what means the ingenious Chang Tao--"
"There are moments when one despairs before the spectacle of authority thus displayed," murmured Ming-shu, his throat thickening with acrimony. "Understand, pre-eminence," he continued more aloud, "that not this one's absence but your own presence is the distressing feature, as being an obstacle in the path of that undeviating justice in which our legal system is embedded. From the first moment of our encountering it had been my well-intentioned purpose that loyal confidence should be strengthened and rebellion cowed by submitting this opportune but otherwise inoffensive stranger to a sordid and degrading end. Yet how shall this beneficent example be attained if on every occasion--"
"Your design is a worthy and enlightened one," interposed the Mandarin, with dignity. "What you have somewhat incapably overlooked, Ming-shu, is the fact that I never greet this intelligent and painstaking young man without reminding him of the imminence of his fate and of his suitability for it."
"Truth adorns your lips and accuracy anoints your palate," volunteered Kai Lung.
"Be this as the destinies permit, there is much that is circuitous in the bending of events," contended Ming-shu stubbornly. "Is it by chance or through some hidden tricklage that occasion always finds Kai Lung so adequately prepared?"
"It is, as the story of Chang Tao has this day justified, and as this discriminating person has frequently maintained, that the one in question has a story framed to meet the requirement of every circumstance," declared Shan Tien.
"Or that each requirement is subtly shaped to meet his preparation," retorted Ming-shu darkly. "Be that as it shall perchance ultimately appear, it is undeniable that your admitted weaknesses--"
"Weaknesses!" exclaimed the astonished Mandarin, looking around the room as though to discover in what crevice the unheard-of attributes were hidden. "This person's weaknesses? Can the sounding properties of this ill-constructed roof thus pervert one word into the semblance of another? If not, the bounds set to the admissable from the taker-down of the spoken word, Ming-shu, do not in their most elastic moods extend to calumny and distortion. . . . The one before you has no weaknesses. . . . Doubtless before another moon has changed you will impute to him actual faults!"
"Humility directs my gaze," replied Ming-shu, with downcast eyes, and he plainly recognized that his presumption had been too maintained. "Yet," he added, with polished irony, "there is a well-timed adage that rises to the lips: 'Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a missile at the Tablets!'"
"Truly," agreed Shan Tien, with smooth concurrence, "the line is not unknown to me. Who, however, was the one in question and under what provocation did he so behave?"
"That is beyond the province of the saying," replied Ming-shu. "Nor is it known to my remembrance."
"Then out of your own mouth a fitting test is set, which if Kai Lung can agreeably perform will at once demonstrate a secret and a guilty confederacy between you both. Proceed, O story-teller, to incriminate Ming-shu together with yourself!"
"I proceed, High Excellence, but chiefly to the glorification of your all-discerning mind," replied Kai Lung.
"Do not despair; even Yuen Yan once cast a missile at the Tablets," is a proverb of encouragement well worn throughout the Empire; but although it is daily on the lips of some it is doubtful if a single person could give an intelligent account of the Yuen Yan in question beyond repeating the outside facts that he was of a humane and consistent disposition and during the greater part of his life possessed every desirable attribute of wealth, family and virtuous esteem. If more closely questioned with reference to the specific incident alluded to, these persons would not hesitate to assert that the proverb was not to be understood in so superficial a sense, protesting, with much indignation, that Yuen Yan was of too courteous and lofty a nature to be guilty of so unseemly an action, and contemptuously inquiring what possible reason one who enjoyed every advantage in this world and every prospect of an unruffled felicity in The Beyond could have for behaving in so outrageous a manner. This explanation by no means satisfied the one who now narrates, and after much research he has brought to light the forgotten story of Yuen Yan's early life, which may be thus related.
At the period with which this part of the narrative is concerned, Yuen Yan dwelt with his mother in one of the least attractive of the arches beneath the city wall. As a youth it had been his intention to take an exceptionally high place in the public examinations, and, rising at once to a position of responsible authority, to mark himself out for continual promotion by the exercise of unfailing discretion and indomitable zeal. Having saved his country in a moment of acute national danger, he contemplated accepting a title of unique distinction and retiring to his native province, where he would build an adequate palace which he had already planned out down to the most trivial detail. There he purposed spending the remainder of his life, receiving frequent tokens of regard from the hand of the gratified Emperor, marrying an accomplished and refined wife who would doubtless be one of the princesses of the Imperial House, and conscientiously regarding The Virtues throughout. The transition from this sumptuously contrived residence to a damp arch in the city wall, and from the high destiny indicated to the occupation of leading from place to place a company of sightless mendicants, had been neither instantaneous nor painless, but Yuen Yan had never for a moment wavered from the enlightened maxims which he had adopted as his guiding principles, nor did he suffer unending trials to lessen his reverence for The Virtues. "Having set out with the full intention of becoming a wealthy mandarin, it would have been a small achievement to have reached that position with unshattered ideals," he frequently remarked; "but having thus set out it is a matter for more than ordinary congratulation to have fallen to the position of leading a string of blind beggars about the city and still to retain unimpaired the ingenuous beliefs and aspirations of youth."
"Doubtless," replied his aged mother, whenever she chanced to overhear this honourable reflection, "doubtless the foolish calf who innocently puts his foot into the jelly finds a like consolation. This person, however, would gladly exchange the most illimitable moral satisfaction engendered by acute poverty for a few of the material comforts of a sordid competence, nor would she hesitate to throw into the balance all the aspirations and improving sayings to be found within the Classics."
"Esteemed mother," protested Yan, "more than three thousand years ago the royal philosopher Nin-hyo made the observation: 'Better an earth-lined cave from which the stars are visible than a golden pagoda roofed over with iniquity,' and the saying has stood the test of time."
"The remark would have carried a weightier conviction if the broad-minded sovereign had himself first stood the test of lying for a few years with enlarged joints and afflicted bones in the abode he so prudently recommended for others," replied his mother, and without giving Yuen Yan any opportunity of bringing forward further proof of their highly-favoured destiny she betook herself to her own straw at the farthest end of the arch.
Up to this period of his life Yuen Yan's innate reverence and courtesy of manner had enabled him to maintain an impassive outlook in the face of every discouragement, but now he was exposed to a fresh series of trials in addition to the unsympathetic attitude which his mother never failed to unroll before him. It has already been expressed that Yuen Yan's occupation and the manner by which he gained his livelihood consisted in leading a number of blind mendicants about the streets of the city and into the shops and dwelling-places of those who might reasonably be willing to pay in order to be relieved of their presence. In this profession Yan's venerating and custom-regarding nature compelled him to act as leaders of blind beggars had acted throughout all historical times and far back into the dim recesses of legendary epochs and this, in an era when the leisurely habits of the past were falling into disuse, and when rivals and competitors were springing up on all sides, tended almost daily to decrease the proceeds of his labour and to sow an insidious doubt even in his unquestioning mind.
In particular, among those whom Yan regarded most objectionably was one named Ho. Although only recently arrived in the city from a country beyond the Bitter Water, Ho was already known in every quarter both to the merchants and stallkeepers, who trembled at his approaching shadow, and to the competing mendicants who now counted their cash with two fingers where they had before needed both hands. This distressingly active person made no secret of his methods and intention; for, upon his arrival, he plainly announced that his object was to make the foundations of benevolence vibrate like the strings of a many-toned lute, and he compared his general progress through the haunts of the charitably disposed to the passage of a highly-charged firework through an assembly of meditative turtles. He was usually known, he added, as "the rapidly-moving person," or "the one devoid of outline," and it soon became apparent that he was also quite destitute of all dignified restraint. Selecting the place of commerce of some wealthy merchant, Ho entered without hesitation and thrusting aside the waiting customers he continued to strike the boards impatiently until he gained the attention of the chief merchant himself. "Honourable salutations," he would say, "but do not entreat this illiterate person to enter the inner room, for he cannot tarry to discuss the movements of the planets or the sublime Emperor's health. Behold, for half-a-tael of silver you may purchase immunity from his discreditable persistence for seven days; here is the acknowledgement duly made out and attested. Let the payment be made in pieces of metal and not in paper obligations." Unless immediate compliance followed Ho at once began noisily to cast down the articles of commerce, to roll bodily upon the more fragile objects, to become demoniacally possessed on the floor, and to resort to a variety of expedients until all the customers were driven forth in panic.
In the case of an excessively stubborn merchant he had not hesitated to draw a formidable knife and to gash himself in a superficial but very imposing manner; then he had rushed out uttering cries of terror, and sinking down by the door had remained there for the greater part of the day, warning those who would have entered to be upon their guard against being enticed in and murdered, at the same time groaning aloud and displaying his own wounds. Even this seeming disregard of time was well considered, for when the tidings spread about the city other merchants did not wait for Ho to enter and greet them, but standing at their doors money in hand they pressed it upon him the moment he appeared and besought him to remove his distinguished presence from their plague-infected street. To the ordinary mendicants of the city this stress of competition was disastrous, but to Yuen Yan it was overwhelming. Thoroughly imbued with the deferential systems of antiquity, he led his band from place to place with a fitting regard for the requirements of ceremonial etiquette and a due observance of leisurely unconcern. Those to whom he addressed himself he approached with obsequious tact, and in the face of refusal to contribute to his store his most violent expedient did not go beyond marshalling his company of suppliants in an orderly group upon the shop floor, where they sang in unison a composed chant extolling the fruits of munificence and setting forth the evil plight which would certainly attend the flinty-stomached in the Upper Air. In this way Yuen Yan had been content to devote several hours to a single shop in the hope of receiving finally a few pieces of brass money; but now his persecutions were so mild that the merchants and vendors rather welcomed him by comparison with the intolerable Ho, and would on no account pay to be relieved of the infliction of his presence. "Have we not disbursed in one day to the piratical Ho thrice the sum which we had set by to serve its purpose for a hand-count of moons; and do we possess the Great Secret?" they cried. "Nevertheless, dispose your engaging band of mendicants about the place freely until it suits your refined convenience to proceed elsewhere, O meritorious Yuen Yan, for your unassuming qualities have won our consistent regard; but an insatiable sponge has already been laid upon the well-spring of our benevolence and the tenacity of our closed hand is inflexible."
Even the passive mendicants began to murmur against his leadership, urging him that he should adopt some of the simpler methods of the gifted Ho and thereby save them all from an otherwise inevitable starvation. The Emperor Kai-tsing, said the one who led their voices (referring in his malignant bitterness to a sovereign of the previous dynasty), was dead, although the fact had doubtless escaped Yuen Yan's deliberate perception. The methods of four thousand years ago were becoming obsolete in the face of a strenuous competition, and unless Yuen Yan was disposed to assume a more highly-coiled appearance they must certainly address themselves to another leader.
It was on this occasion that the incident took place which has passed down in the form of an inspiriting proverb. Yuen Yan had conscientiously delivered at the door of his abode the last of his company and was turning his footsteps towards his own arch when he encountered the contumelious Ho, who was likewise returning at the close of a day's mendicancy--but with this distinction: that, whereas Ho was followed by two stalwart attendants carrying between them a sack full of money, Yan's share of his band's enterprise consisted solely of one base coin of a kind which the charitable set aside for bestowing upon the blind and quite useless for all ordinary purposes of exchange. A few paces farther on Yan reached the Temple of the Unseen Forces and paused for a moment, as his custom was, to cast his eyes up to the tablets engraved with The Virtues, before which some devout person nightly hung a lantern. Goaded by a sudden impulse, Yan looked each way about the deserted street, and perceiving that he was alone he deliberately extended his out-thrust tongue towards the inspired precepts. Then taking from an inner sleeve the base coin he flung it at the inscribed characters and observed with satisfaction that it struck the verse beginning, "The Rewards of a Quiescent and Mentally-introspective Life are Unbounded--"
When Yan entered his arch some hours later his mother could not fail to perceive that a subtle change had come over his manner of behaving. Much of the leisurely dignity had melted out of his footsteps, and he wore his hat and outer garments at an angle which plainly testified that he was a person who might be supposed to have a marked objection to returning home before the early hours of the morning. Furthermore, as he entered he was chanting certain melodious words by which he endeavoured to convey the misleading impression that his chief amusement consisted in defying the official watchers of the town, and he continually reiterated a claim to be regarded as "one of the beardless goats." Thus expressing himself, Yan sank down in his appointed corner and would doubtlessly soon have been floating peacefully in the Middle Distance had not the door been again thrown open and a stranger named Chou-hu entered.
"Prosperity!" said Chou-hu courteously, addressing himself to Yan's mother. "Have you eaten your rice? Behold, I come to lay before you a very attractive proposal regarding your son."
"The flower attracts the bee, but when he departs it is to his lips that the honey clings," replied the woman cautiously; for after Yan's boastful words on entering she had a fear lest haply this person might be one on behalf of some guardian of the night whom her son had flung across the street (as he had specifically declared his habitual treatment of them to be) come to take him by stratagem.
"Does the pacific lamb become a wolf by night?" said Chou-hu, displaying himself reassuringly. "Wrap your ears well round my words, for they may prove very remunerative. It cannot be a matter outside your knowledge that the profession of conducting an assembly of blind mendicants from place to place no longer yields the wage of even a frugal existence in this city. In the future, for all the sympathy that he will arouse, Yan might as well go begging with a silver bowl. In consequence of his speechless condition he will be unable to support either you or himself by any other form of labour, and your line will thereupon become extinct and your standing in the Upper Air be rendered intolerable."
"It is a remote contingency, but, as the proverb says, 'The wise hen is never too old to dread the Spring,'" replied Yan's mother, with commendable prudence. "By what means, then, may this calamity be averted?"
"The person before you," continued Chou-hu, "is a barber and embellisher of pig-tails from the street leading to the Three-tiered Pagoda of Eggs. He has long observed the restraint and moderation of Yan's demeanour and now being in need of one to assist him his earliest thought turns to him. The affliction which would be an insuperable barrier in all ordinary cases may here be used to advantage, for being unable to converse with those seated before him, or to hear their salutations, Yan will be absolved from the necessity of engaging in diffuse and refined conversation, and in consequence he will submit at least twice the number of persons to his dexterous energies. In that way he will secure a higher reward than this person could otherwise afford and many additional comforts will doubtless fall into the sleeve of his engaging mother."
At this point the woman began to understand that the sense in which Chou-hu had referred to Yan's speechless condition was not that which she had at the time deemed it to be. It may here be made clear that it was Yuen Yan's custom to wear suspended about his neck an inscribed board bearing the words, "Speechless, and devoid of the faculty of hearing," but this originated out of his courteous and deferential nature (for to his self-obliterative mind it did not seem respectful that he should appear to be better endowed than those whom he led), nor could it be asserted that he wilfully deceived even the passing stranger, for he would freely enter into conversation with anyone whom he encountered. Nevertheless an impression had thus been formed in Chou-hu's mind and the woman forbore to correct it, thinking that it would be scarcely polite to assert herself better informed on any subject than he was, especially as he had spoken of Yan thereby receiving a higher wage. Yan himself would certainly have revealed something had he not been otherwise employed. Hearing the conversation turn towards his afflictions, he at once began to search very industriously among the straw upon which he lay for the inscribed board in question; for to his somewhat confused imagination it seemed at the time that only by displaying it openly could he prove to Chou-hu that he was in no way deficient. As the board was found on the following morning nailed to the great outer door of the Hall of Public Justice (where it remained for many days owing to the official impression that so bold and undeniable a pronouncement must have received the direct authority of the sublime Emperor), Yan was not unnaturally engaged for a considerable time, and in the meanwhile his mother contrived to impress upon him by an unmistakable sign that he should reveal nothing, but leave the matter in her hands.
Then said Yan's mother: "Truly the proposal is not altogether wanting in alluring colours, but in what manner will Yan interpret the commands of those who place themselves before him, when he has attained sufficient proficiency to be entrusted with the knife and the shearing irons?"
"The objection is a superficial one," replied Chou-hu. "When a person seats himself upon the operating stool he either throws back his head, fixing his eyes upon the upper room with a set and resolute air, or inclines it slightly forward as in a reverent tranquillity. In the former case he requires his uneven surfaces to be made smooth; in the latter he is desirous that his pig-tail should be drawn out and trimmed. Do not doubt Yan's capability to conduct himself in a discreet and becoming manner, but communicate to him, by the usual means which you adopt, the offer thus laid out, and unless he should be incredibly obtuse or unfilial to a criminal degree he will present himself at the Sign of the Gilt Thunderbolt at an early hour to-morrow."
There is a prudent caution expressed in the proverb, "The hand that feeds the ox grasps the knife when it is fattened: crawl backwards from the presence of a munificent official." Chou-hu, in spite of his plausible pretext, would have experienced no difficulty in obtaining the services of one better equipped to assist him than was Yuen Yan, so that in order to discover his real object it becomes necessary to look underneath his words. He was indeed, as he had stated, a barber and an embellisher of pig-tails, and for many years he had grown rich and round-bodied on the reputation of being one of the most skilful within his quarter of the city. In an evil moment, however, he had abandoned the moderation of his past life and surrounded himself with an atmosphere of opium smoke and existed continually in the mind-dimming effects of rice-spirit. From this cause his custom began to languish; his hand no longer swept in the graceful and unhesitating curves which had once been the admiration of all beholders, but displayed on the contrary a very disconcerting irregularity of movement, and on the day of his visit he had shorn away the venerable moustaches of the baker Heng-cho under a mistaken impression as to the reality of things and a wavering vision of their exact position. Now the baker had been inordinately proud of his long white moustaches and valued them above all his possessions, so that, invoking the spirits of his ancestors to behold his degradation and to support him in his resolve, and calling in all the passers-by to bear witness to his oath, he had solemnly bound himself either to cut down Chou-hu fatally, or, should that prove too difficult an accomplishment, to commit suicide within his shop. This twofold danger thoroughly stupefied Chou-hu and made him incapable of taking any action beyond consuming further and more unstinted portions of rice-spirit and rending article after article of his apparel until his wife Tsae-che modestly dismissed such persons as loitered, and barred the outer door.
"Open your eyes upon the facts by which you are surrounded, O contemptible Chou-hu," she said, returning to his side and standing over him. "Already your degraded instincts have brought us within measurable distance of poverty, and if you neglect your business to avoid Heng-cho, actual want will soon beset us. If you remain openly within his sight you will certainly be removed forcibly to the Upper Air, leaving this inoffensive person destitute and abandoned, and if by the exercise of unfailing vigilance you escape both these dangers, you will be reserved to an even worse plight, for Heng-cho in desperation will inevitably carry out the latter part of his threat, dedicating his spirit to the duty of continually haunting you and frustrating your ambitions here on earth and calling to his assistance myriads of ancestors and relations to torment you in the Upper Air."
"How attractively and in what brilliantly-coloured outlines do you present the various facts of existence!" exclaimed Chou-hu, with inelegant resentment. "Do not neglect to add that, to-morrow being the occasion of the Moon Festival, the inexorable person who owns this residence will present himself to collect his dues, that, in consequence of the rebellion in the south, the sagacious viceroy has doubled the price of opium, that some irredeemable outcast has carried away this person's blue silk umbrella, and then doubtless the alluring picture of internal felicity around the Ancestral Altar of the Gilt Thunderbolt will be complete."
"Light words are easily spoken behind barred doors," said his wife scornfully. "Let my lord, then, recline indolently upon the floor of his inner chamber while this person sumptuously lulls him into oblivion with the music of her voice, regardless of the morrow and of the fate in which his apathy involves us both."
"By no means!" exclaimed Chou-hu, rising hastily and tearing away much of his elaborately arranged pigtail in his uncontrollable rage; "there is yet a more pleasurable alternative than that and one which will ensure to this person a period of otherwise unattainable domestic calm and at the same time involve a detestable enemy in confusion. Anticipating the dull-witted Heng-cho this one will now proceed across the street and, committing suicide within his door, will henceforth enjoy the honourable satisfaction of haunting his footsteps and rending his bakehouses and ovens untenable." With this assurance Chou-hu seized one of his most formidable business weapons and caused it to revolve around his head with great rapidity, but at the same time with extreme carefulness.
"There is a ready saying: 'The new-born lamb does not fear a tiger, but before he becomes a sheep he will flee from a wolf,'" said Tsae-che without in any way deeming it necessary to arrest Chou-hu's hand. "Full confidently will you set out, O Chou-hu, but to reach the shop of Heng-cho it is necessary to pass the stall of the dealer in abandoned articles, and next to it are enticingly spread out the wares of Kong, the merchant in distilled spirits. Put aside your reliable scraping iron while you still have it, and this not ill-disposed person will lay before you a plan by which you may even yet avoid all inconveniences and at the same time regain your failing commerce."
"It is also said: 'The advice of a wise woman will ruin a walled city,'" replied Chou-hu, somewhat annoyed at his wife so opportunely comparing him to a sheep, but still more concerned to hear by what possible expedient she could successfully avert all the contending dangers of his position. "Nevertheless, proceed."
"In one of the least reputable quarters of the city there dwells a person called Yuen Yan," said the woman. "He is the leader of a band of sightless mendicants and in this position he has frequently passed your open door, though--probably being warned by the benevolent--he has never yet entered. Now this Yuen Yan, save for one or two unimportant details, is the reflected personification of your own exalted image, nor would those most intimate with your form and outline be able to pronounce definitely unless you stood side by side before them. Furthermore, he is by nature unable to hear any remark addressed to him, and is incapable of expressing himself in spoken words. Doubtless by these indications my lord's locust-like intelligence will already have leapt to an inspired understanding of the full project?"
"Assuredly," replied Chou-hu, caressing himself approvingly. "The essential details of the scheme are built about the ease with which this person could present himself at the abode of Yuen Yan in his absence and, gathering together that one's store of wealth unquestioned, retire with it to a distant and unknown spot and thereby elude the implacable Heng-cho's vengeance."
"Leaving your menial one in the 'walled city' referred to, to share its fate, and, in particular, to undertake the distressing obligation of gathering up the atrocious Heng-cho after he has carried his final threat into effect? Truly must the crystal stream of your usually undimmed intelligence have become vaporized. Listen well. Disguising your external features slightly so that the resemblance may pass without remark, present yourself openly at the residence of the Yuen Yan in question--"
"First learning where it is situated?" interposed Chou-hu, with a desire to grasp the details competently.
"Unless a person of your retrospective taste would prefer to leave so trivial a point until afterwards," replied his wife in a tone of concentrated no-sincerity. "In either case, however, having arrived there, bargain with the one who has authority over Yuen Yan's movements, praising his demeanour and offering to accept him into the honours and profits of your craft. The words of acquiescence should spring to meet your own, for the various branches of mendicancy are languishing, and Yuen Yan can have no secret store of wealth. Do not hesitate to offer a higher wage than you would as an affair of ordinary commerce, for your safety depends upon it. Having secured Yan, teach him quickly the unpolished outlines of your business and then clothing him in robes similar to your own let him take his stand within the shop and withdraw yourself to the inner chamber. None will suspect the artifice, and Yuen Yan is manifestly incapable of betraying it. Heng-cho, seeing him display himself openly, will not deem it necessary to commit suicide yet, and, should he cut down Yan fatally, the officials of the street will seize him and your own safety will be assured. Finally, if nothing particular happens, at least your prosperity will be increased, for Yuen Yan will prove industrious, frugal, not addicted to excesses and in every way reliable, and towards the shop of so exceptional a barber customers will turn in an unending stream."
"Alas!" exclaimed Chou-hu, "when you boasted of an inspired scheme this person for a moment foolishly allowed his mind to contemplate the possibility of your having accidentally stumbled upon such an expedient haply, but your suggestion is only comparable with a company of ducks attempting to cross an ice-bound stream--an excessive outlay of action but no beneficial progress. Should Yuen Yan freely present himself here on the morrow, pleading destitution and craving to be employed, this person will consider the petition with an open head, but it is beneath his dignity to wait upon so low-class an object." Affecting to recollect an arranged meeting of some importance, Chou-hu then clad himself in other robes, altered the appearance of his face, and set out to act in the manner already described, confident that the exact happening would never reach his lesser one's ears.
On the following day Yuen Yan presented himself at the door of the Gilt Thunderbolt, and quickly perfecting himself in the simpler methods of smoothing surfaces and adorning pig-tails he took his stand within the shop and operated upon all who came to submit themselves to his embellishment. To those who addressed him with salutations he replied by a gesture, tactfully bestowing an agreeable welcome yet at the same time conveying the impression that he was desirous of remaining undisturbed in the philosophical reflection upon which he was engaged. In spite of this it was impossible to lead his mind astray from any weighty detail, and those who, presuming upon his absorbed attitude, endeavoured to evade a just payment on any pretext whatever invariably found themselves firmly but courteously pressed to the wall by the neck, while a highly polished smoothing blade was flashed to and fro before their eyes with an action of unmistakable significance. The number of customers increased almost daily, for Yan quickly proved himself to be expert above all comparison, while others came from every quarter of the city to test with their own eyes and ears the report that had reached them, to the effect that in the street leading to the Three-tiered Pagoda of Eggs there dwelt a barber who made no pretence of elegant and refined conversation and who did not even press upon those lying helpless in his power miraculous ointments and infallible charm-waters. Thus Chou-hu prospered greatly, but Yan still obeyed his mother's warning and raised a mask before his face so that Chou-hu and his wife never doubted the reality of his infirmities. From this cause they did not refrain from conversing together freely before him on subjects of the most poignant detail, whereby Yan learned much of their past lives and conduct while maintaining an attitude of impassive unconcern.
Upon a certain evening in the month when the grass-blades are transformed into silk-worms Yan was alone in the shop, improving the edge and reflecting brilliance of some of his implements, when he head the woman exclaim from the inner room: "Truly the air from the desert is as hot and devoid of relief as the breath of the Great Dragon. Let us repose for the time in the outer chamber." Whereupon they entered the shop and seating themselves upon a couch resumed their occupations, the barber fanning himself while he smoked, his wife gumming her hair and coiling it into the semblance of a bird with outstretched wings.
"The necessity for the elaborate caution of the past no longer exists," remarked Chou-hu presently. "The baker Heng-cho is desirous of becoming one of those who select the paving-stones and regulate the number of hanging lanterns for the district lying around the Three-tiered Pagoda. In this ambition he is opposed by Kong, the distilled-spirit vendor, who claims to be a more competent judge of paving-stones and hanging lanterns and one who will exercise a lynx-eyed vigilance upon the public outlay and especially devote himself to curbing the avarice of those bread-makers who habitually mix powdered white earth with their flour. Heng-cho is therefore very concerned that many should bear honourable testimony of his engaging qualities when the day of trial arrives, and thus positioned he has inscribed and sent to this person a written message offering a dignified reconciliation and adding that he is convinced of the necessity of an enactment compelling all persons to wear a smooth face and a neatly braided pig-tail."
"It is a creditable solution of the matter," said Tsae-che, speaking between the ivory pins which she held in her mouth. "Henceforth, then, you will take up your accustomed stand as in the past?"
"Undoubtedly," replied Chou-hu. "Yuen Yan is painstaking, and has perhaps done as well as could be expected of one of his shallow intellect, but the absence of suave and high-minded conversation cannot fail to be alienating the custom of the more polished. Plainly it is a short-sighted policy for a person to try and evade his destiny. Yan seems to have been born for the express purpose of leading blind beggars about the streets of the city and to that profession he must return."
"O distressingly superficial Chou-hu!" exclaimed his wife, "do men turn willingly from wine to partake of vinegar, or having been clothed in silk do they accept sackcloth without a struggle? Indeed, your eyes, which are large to regard your own deeds and comforts, grow small when they are turned towards the attainments of another. In no case will Yan return to his mendicants, for his band is by this time scattered and dispersed. His sleeve being now well lined and his hand proficient in every detail of his craft, he will erect a stall, perchance even directly opposite or next to ourselves, and by subtlety, low charges and diligence he will draw away the greater part of your custom."
"Alas!" cried Chou-hu, turning an exceedingly inferior yellow, "there is a deeper wisdom in the proverb, 'Do not seek to escape from a flood by clinging to a tiger's tail,' than appears at a casual glance. Now that this person is contemplating gathering again into his own hands the execution of his business, he cannot reasonably afford to employ another, yet it is an intolerable thought that Yan should make use of his experience to set up a sign opposed to the Gilt Thunderbolt. Obviously the only really safe course out of an unpleasant dilemma will be to slay Yan with as little delay as possible. After receiving continuous marks of our approval for so long it is certainly very thoughtless of him to put us to so unpardonable an inconvenience."
"It is not an alluring alternative," confessed Tsae-che, crossing the room to where Yan was seated in order to survey her hair to greater advantage in a hanging mirror of three sides composed of burnished copper; "but there seems nothing else to be done in the difficult circumstances."
"The street is opportunely empty and there is little likelihood of anyone approaching at this hour," suggested Chou-hu. "What better scheme could be devised than that I should indicate to Yan by signs that I would honour him, and at the same time instruct him further in the correct pose of some of the recognized attitudes, by making smooth the surface of his face? Then during the operation I might perchance slip upon an overripe whampee lying unperceived upon the floor; my hand--"
"Ah-ah!" cried Tsae-che aloud, pressing her symmetrical fingers against her gracefully-proportioned ears; "do not, thou dragon-headed one, lead the conversation to such an extremity of detail, still less carry the resolution into effect before the very eyes of this delicately-susceptible person. Now to-morrow, after the midday meal, she will be journeying as far as the street of the venders of woven fabrics in order to procure a piece of silk similar to the pearl-grey robe which she is wearing. The opportunity will be a favourable one, for to-morrow is the weekly occasion on which you raise the shutters and deny customers at an earlier hour; and it is really more modest that one of my impressionable refinement should be away from the house altogether and not merely in the inner chamber when that which is now here passes out."
"The suggestion is well timed," replied Chou-hu. "No interruption will then be possible."
"Furthermore," continued his wife, sprinkling upon her hair a perfumed powder of gold which made it sparkle as it engaged the light at every point with a most entrancing lustre, "would it not be desirable to use a weapon less identified with your own hand? In the corner nearest to Yan there stands a massive and heavily knotted club which could afterwards be burned. It would be an easy matter to call the simple Yan's attention to some object upon the floor and then as he bent down suffer him to Pass Beyond."
"Assuredly," agreed Chou-hu, at once perceiving the wisdom of the change; "also, in that case, there would be less--"
"Ah!" again cried the woman, shaking her upraised finger reprovingly at Chou-hu (for so daintily endowed was her mind that she shrank from any of the grosser realities of the act unless they were clothed in the very gilded flowers of speech). "Desist, O crimson-minded barbarian! Let us now walk side by side along the river bank and drink in the soul-stirring melody of the musicians who at this hour will be making the spot doubly attractive with the concord of stringed woods and instruments of brass struck with harmonious unison."
The scheme for freeing Chou-hu from the embarrassment of Yan's position was not really badly arranged, nor would it have failed in most cases, but the barber was not sufficiently broad-witted to see that many of the inspired sayings which he used as arguments could be taken in another light and conveyed a decisive warning to himself. A pleasantly devised proverb has been aptly compared to a precious jewel, and as the one has a hundred light-reflecting surfaces, so has the other a diversity of applications, until it is not infrequently beyond the comprehension of an ordinary person to know upon which side wisdom and prudence lie. On the following afternoon Yan was seated in his accustomed corner when Chou-hu entered the shop with uneven feet. The barriers against the street had been raised and the outer door was barred so that none might intrude, while Chou-hu had already carefully examined the walls to ensure that no crevices remained unsealed. As he entered he was seeking, somewhat incoherently, to justify himself by assuring the deities that he had almost changed his mind until he remembered the many impious acts on Yan's part in the past, to avenge which he felt himself to be their duly appointed instrument. Furthermore, to convince them of the excellence of his motive (and also to protect himself against the influence of evil spirits) he advanced repeating the words of an invocation which in his youth he had been accustomed to say daily in the temple, and thereupon Yan knew that the moment was at hand.
"Behold, master!" he exclaimed suddenly, in clearly expressed words, "something lies at your feet."
Chou-hu looked down to the floor and lying before him was a piece of silver. To his dull and confused faculties it sounded an inaccurate detail of his pre-arranged plan that Yan should have addressed him, and the remark itself seemed dimly to remind him of something that he had intended to say, but he was too involved with himself to be able to attach any logical significance to the facts and he at once stooped greedily to possess the coin. Then Yan, who had an unfaltering grasp upon the necessities of each passing second, sprang agilely forward, swung the staff, and brought it so proficiently down upon Chou-hu's lowered head that the barber dropped lifeless to the ground and the weapon itself was shattered by the blow. Without a pause Yan clothed himself with his master's robes and ornaments, wrapped his own garment about Chou-hu instead, and opening a stone door let into the ground rolled the body through so that it dropped down into the cave beneath. He next altered the binding of his hair a little, cut his lips deeply for a set purpose, and then reposing upon the couch of the inner chamber he took up one of Chou-hu's pipes and awaited Tsae-che's return.
"It is unendurable that they of the silk market should be so ill-equipped," remarked Tsae-che discontentedly as she entered. "This pitiable one has worn away the heels of her sandals in a vain endeavour to procure a suitable embroidery, and has turned over the contents of every stall to no material end. How have the events of the day progressed with you, my lord?"
"To the fulfilling of a written destiny. Yet in a measure darkly, for a light has gone out," replied Yuen Yan.
"There was no unanticipated divergence?" inquired the woman with interest and a marked approval of this delicate way of expressing the operation of an unpleasant necessity.
"From detail to detail it was as this person desired and contrived," said Yan.
"And, of a surety, this one also?" claimed Tsae-che, with an internal emotion that something was insidiously changed in which she had no adequate part.
"The language may be fully expressed in six styles of writing, but who shall read the mind of a woman?" replied Yan evasively. "Nevertheless, in explicit words, the overhanging shadow has departed and the future is assured."
"It is well," said Tsae-che. "Yet how altered is your voice, and for what reason do you hold a cloth before your mouth?"
"The staff broke and a splinter flying upwards pierced my lips," said Yan, lowering the cloth. "You speak truly, for the pain attending each word is by no means slight, and scarcely can this person recognize his own voice."
"Oh, incomparable Chou-hu, how valiantly do you bear your sufferings!" exclaimed Tsae-che remorsefully. "And while this heedless one has been passing the time pleasantly in handling rich brocades you have been lying here in anguish. Behold now, without delay she will prepare food to divert your mind, and to mark the occasion she had already purchased a little jar of gold-fish gills, two eggs branded with the assurance that they have been earth-buried for eleven years, and a small serpent preserved in oil."
When they had eaten for some time in silence Yuen Yan again spoke. "Attend closely to my words," he said, "and if you perceive any disconcerting oversight in the scheme which I am about to lay before you do not hesitate to declare it. The threat which Heng-cho the baker swore he swore openly, and many reputable witnesses could be gathered together who would confirm his words, while the written message of reconciliation which he sent will be known to none. Let us therefore take that which lies in the cave beneath and clothing it in my robes bear it unperceived as soon as the night has descended and leave it in the courtyard of Heng-cho's house. Now Heng-cho has a fig plantation outside the city, so that when he rises early, as his custom is, and finds the body, he will carry it away to bury it secretly there, remembering his impetuous words and well knowing the net of entangling circumstances which must otherwise close around him. At that moment you will appear before him, searching for your husband, and suspecting his burden raise an outcry that may draw the neighbours to your side if necessary. On this point, however, be discreetly observant, for if the tumult calls down the official watch it will go evilly with Heng-cho, but we shall profit little. The greater likelihood is that as soon as you lift up your voice the baker will implore you to accompany him back to his house so that he may make a full and honourable compensation. This you will do, and hastening the negotiation as much as is consistent with a seemly regard for your overwhelming grief, you will accept not less than five hundred taels and an undertaking that a suitable funeral will be provided."
"O thrice-versatile Chou-hu!" exclaimed Tsae-che, whose eyes had reflected an ever-increasing sparkle of admiration as Yan unfolded the details of his scheme, "how insignificant are the minds of others compared with yours! Assuredly you have been drinking at some magic well in this one's absence, for never before was your intellect so keen and lustreful. Let us at once carry your noble stratagem into effect, for this person's toes vibrate to bear her on a project of such remunerative ingenuity."
Accordingly they descended into the cave beneath and taking up Chou-hu they again dressed him in his own robes. In his inner sleeve Yan placed some parchments of slight importance; he returned the jade bracelet to his wrist and by other signs he made his identity unmistakable; then lifting him between them, when the night was well advanced, they carried him through unfrequented ways and left him unperceived within Heng-cho's gate.
"There is yet another precaution which will ensure to you the sympathetic voices of all if it should become necessary to appeal openly," said Yuen Yan when they had returned. "I will make out a deed of final intention conferring all I possess upon Yuen Yan as a mark of esteem for his conscientious services, and this you can produce if necessary in order to crush the niggard baker in the wine-press of your necessitous destitution." Thereupon Yan drew up such a document as he had described, signing it with Chou-hu's name and sealing it with his ring, while Tsae-che also added her sign and attestation. He then sent her to lurk upon the roof, strictly commanding her to keep an undeviating watch upon Heng-cho's movements.
It was about the hour before dawn when Heng-cho appeared, bearing across his back a well-filled sack and carrying in his right hand a spade. His steps were turned towards the fig orchard of which Yan had spoken, so that he must pass Chou-hu's house, but before he reached it Tsae-che had glided out and with loosened hair and trailing robes she sped along the street. Presently there came to Yuen Yan's waiting ear a long-drawn cry and the sounds of many shutters being flung open and the tread of hurrying feet. The moments hung about him like the wings of a dragon-dream, but a prudent restraint chained him to the inner chamber.
It was fully light when Tsae-che returned, accompanied by one whom she dismissed before she entered. "Felicity," she explained, placing before Yan a heavy bag of silver. "Your word has been accomplished."
"It is sufficient," replied Yan in a tone from which every tender modulation was absent, as he laid the silver by the side of the parchment which he had drawn up. "For what reason is the outer door now barred and they who drink tea with us prevented from entering to wish Yuen Yan prosperity?"
"Strange are my lord's words, and the touch of his breath is cold to his menial one," said the woman in doubting reproach.
"It will scarcely warm even the roots of Heng-cho's fig-trees," replied Yuen Yan with unveiled contempt. "Stretch across your hand."
In trembling wonder Tsae-che laid her hand upon the ebony table which stood between them and slowly advanced it until Yan seized it and held it firmly in his own. For a moment he held it, compelling the woman to gaze with a soul-crushing dread into his face, then his features relaxed somewhat from the effort by which he had controlled them, and at the sight Tsae-che tore away her hand and with a scream which caused those outside to forget the memory of every other cry they had ever heard, she cast herself from the house and was seen in the city no more.
These are the pages of the forgotten incident in the life of Yuen Yan which this narrator has sought out and discovered. Elsewhere, in the lesser Classics, it may be read that the person in question afterwards lived to a venerable age and finally Passed Above surrounded by every luxury, after leading an existence consistently benevolent and marked by an even exceptional adherence to the principles and requirements of The Virtues.