The Timely Intervention of the Mandarin Shan Tien's Lucky Day
WHEN Kai Lung at length reached the shutter, after the delay caused by Li-loe's inopportune presence, he found that Hwa-mei was already standing there beneath the wall.
"Alas!" he exclaimed, in an access of self-reproach, "is it possible that I have failed to greet your arriving footsteps? Hear the degrading cause of my--"
"Forbear," interrupted the maiden, with a magnanimous gesture of the hand that was not engaged in bestowing a gift of fruit. "There is a time to scatter flowers and a time to prepare the soil. To-morrow a further trial awaits you, for which we must conspire."
"I am in your large and all-embracing grasp," replied Kai Lung. "Proceed to spread your golden counsel."
"The implacable Ming-shu has deliberated with himself, and deeming it unlikely that you should a third time allure the imagination of the Mandarin Shan Tien by your art, he has ordered that you are again to be the first led out to judgment. On this occasion, however, he has prepared a cloud of witnesses who will, once they are given a voice, quickly overwhelm you in a flood of calumny."
"Even a silver trumpet may not prevail above a score of brazen horns," confessed the story-teller doubtfully. "Would it not be well to engage an even larger company who will outlast the first?"
"The effete Ming-shu has hired all there are," replied Hwa-mei, with a curbing glance. "Nevertheless, do not despair. At a convenient hour a trusty hand will let fall a skin of wine at their assembling place. Their testimony, should any arrive, will entail some conflict."
"I bow before the practical many-sidedness of your mind, enchanting one," murmured Kai Lung, in deep-felt admiration.
"To-morrow, being the first of the Month of Gathering-in, will be one of Shan Tien's lucky days," continued the maiden, her look acknowledging the fitness of the compliment, but at the same time indicating that the moment was not a suitable one to pursue the detail further. "After holding court the Mandarin will accordingly proceed to hazard his accustomed stake upon the chances of certain of the competitors in the approaching examinations. His mind will thus be alertly watchful for a guiding omen. The rest should lie within your persuasive tongue."
"The story of Lao Ting--" began Kai Lung.
"Enough," replied Hwa-mei, listening to a distant sound. "Already has this one strayed beyond her appointed limit. May your virtuous cause prevail!"
With this auspicious message the maiden fled, leaving Kai Lung more than ever resolved to conduct the enterprise in a manner worthy of her high regard.
On the following day, at the appointed hour, Kai Lung was again led before the Mandarin Shan Tien. To the alert yet downcast gaze of the former person it seemed as if the usually inscrutable expression of that high official was not wholly stern as it moved in his direction. Ming-shu, on the contrary, disclosed all his voracious teeth without restraint.
"Calling himself Kai Lung," began the detestable accuser, in a voice even more repulsive than its wont, "and claiming--"
"The name has a somewhat familiar echo," interrupted the Fountain of Justice, with a genial interest in what was going on, rare in one of his exalted rank. "Have we not seen the ill-conditioned thing before?"
"He has tasted of your unutterable clemency in the past," replied Ming-shu, "this being by no means his first appearance thus. Claiming to be a story-teller--"
"What," demanded the enlightened law-giver with leisurely precision, "is a story-teller, and how is he defined?"
"A story-teller, Excellence," replied the inscriber of his spoken word, with the concise manner of one who is not entirely grateful to another, "is one who tells stories. Having on--"
"The profession must be widely spread," remarked the gracious administrator thoughtfully. "All those who supplicate in this very average court practise it to a more or less degree."
"The prisoner," continued the insufferable Ming-shu, so lost to true refinement that he did not even relax his dignity at a remark handed down as gravity-removing from times immemorial, "has already been charged and made his plea. It only remains, therefore, to call the witnesses and to condemn him."
"The usual band appears to be more retiring than their custom is," observed Shan Tien, looking around. "Their lack of punctual respect does not enlarge our sympathy towards their cause."
"They are all hard-striving persons of studious or commercial habits," replied Ming-shu, "and have doubtless become immersed in their various traffics."
"Should the immersion referred to prove to be so deep--"
"A speedy messenger has already gone, but his returning footsteps tarry," urged Ming-shu anxiously. "In this extremity, Excellence, I will myself--"
"High Excellence," appealed Kai Lung, as soon as Ming-shu's departing sandals were obscured to view, "out of the magnanimous condescension of your unworldly heart hear an added plea. Taught by the inoffensive example of that Lao Ting whose success in the literary competitions was brought about by a conjunction of miraculous omens--"
"Arrest the stream of your acknowledged oratory for a single breathing-space," commanded the Mandarin dispassionately, yet at the same time unostentatiously studying a list that lay within his sleeve. "What was the auspicious name of the one of whom you spoke?"
"Lao Ting, exalted; to whom at various periods were subjoined those of Li, Tzu, Sun, Chu, Wang and Chin."
"Assuredly. Your prayer for a fuller hearing will reach our lenient ears. In the meanwhile, in order to prove that the example upon which you base your claim is a worthy one, proceed to narrate so much of the story of Lao Ting as bears upon the means of his success."
If is of Lao Ting that the saying has arisen, "He who can grasp Opportunity as she slips by does not need a lucky dream."
So far, however, Lao Ting may be judged to have had neither opportunities nor lucky dreams. He was one of studious nature and from an early age had devoted himself to a veneration of the Classics. Yet with that absence of foresight on the part of the providing deities (for this, of course, took place during an earlier, and probably usurping, dynasty), which then frequently resulted in the unworthy and illiterate prospering, his sleeve was so empty that at times it seemed almost impossible for him to continue in his high ambition.
As the date of the examinations drew near, Lao Ting's efforts increased, and he grudged every moment spent away from books. His few available cash scarcely satisfied his ever-moving brush, and his sleeve grew so light that it seemed as though it might become a balloon and carry him into the Upper Air; for, as the Wisdom has it, "A well-filled purse is a trusty earth anchor." On food he spent even less, but the inability to procure light after the sun had withdrawn his benevolence from the narrow street in which he lived was an ever-present shadow across his hopes. On this extremity he patiently and with noiseless skill bored a hole through the wall into the house of a wealthy neighbour, and by this inoffensive stratagem he was able to distinguish the imperishable writings of the Sages far into the night. Soon, however, the gross hearted person in question discovered the device, owing to the symmetrical breathing of Lao Ting, and applying himself to the opening unperceived, he suddenly blew a jet of water through and afterwards nailed in a wooden skewer. This he did because he himself was also entering for the competitions, though he did not really fear Lao Ting.
Thus denied, Lao Ting sought other means to continue his study, if for only a few minutes longer daily, and it became his custom to leave his ill-equipped room when it grew dusk and to walk into the outer ways, always with his face towards the west, so that he might prolong the benefit of the great luminary to the last possible moment. When the time of no-light definitely arrived he would climb up into one of the high places to await the first beam of the great sky-lantern, and also in the reasonable belief that the nearer he got to it the more powerful would be its light.
It was upon such an occasion that Lao Ting first became aware of the entrancing presence of Chun Hoa-mi, and although he plainly recognized from the outset that the graceful determination with which she led a water-buffalo across the landscape by means of a slender cord attached to its nose was not conducive to his taking a high place in the competitions, he soon found that he was unable to withdraw himself from frequenting the spot at the same hour on each succeeding day. Presently, however, he decided that his previous misgiving was inaccurate, as her existence inspired him with an all-conquering determination to outdistance every other candidate in so marked a manner that his name would at once become famous throughout the province, to attain high office without delay, to lead a victorious army against the encroaching barbarian foe and thus to save the Empire in a moment of emergency, to acquire vast riches (in a not clearly defined manner), to become the intimate counsellor of the grateful Emperor, and finally to receive posthumous honours of unique distinction, the harmonious personality of Hoa-Mi being inextricably entwined among these achievements.
At other times, however, he became subject to a funereal conviction that he would fail discreditably in the examinations to an accompaniment of the ridicule and contempt of all who knew him, that he would never succeed in acquiring sufficient brass cash to ensure a meagre sustenance even for himself, and that he would probably end his lower existence by ignominious decapitation, so that his pale and hungry ghost would be unable to find its way from place to place and be compelled to remain on the same spot through all eternity. Yet so quickly did these two widely diverging vistas alternate in Lao Ting's mind that on many occasions he was under the influence of both presentiments at the same time.
It will thus be seen that Lao Ting was becoming involved in emotions of a many-sided hue, by which his whole future would inevitably be affected, when an event took place which greatly tended to restore his tranquillity of mind. He was, at the usual hour, lurking unseen on the path of Hoa-mi's approach when the water-buffalo, with the perversity of its kind, suddenly withdrew itself from the amiable control of its attendant's restraining hand and precipitated its resistless footsteps towards the long grass in which Lao Ting lay concealed. Recognizing that a decisive moment in the maiden's esteem lay before him, the latter, in spite of an incapable doubt as to the habits and manner of behaviour of creatures of this part, set out resolutely to subdue it. . . . At a later period, by clinging tenaciously to its tail, he undoubtedly impeded its progress, and thereby enabled Hoa-mi to greet him as one who had a claim upon her gratitude.
"The person who has performed this slight service is Ting, of the outcast line of Lao," said the student with an admiring bow in spite of a benumbing pain that involved all his lower attributes. "Having as yet achieved nothing, the world lies before him."
"She who speaks is Hoa-mi, her father's house being Chun," replied the maiden agreeably. "In addition to the erratic but now repentant animal that has thus, as it were, brought us within the same narrow compass, he possesses a wooden plough, two wheel-barrows, a red bow with three-score arrows, and a rice-field, and is therefore a person of some consequence."
"True," agreed Lao Ting, "though perhaps the dignity is less imposing than might be imagined in the eye of one who, by means of successive examinations, may ultimately become the Right hand of the Emperor."
"Is the contingency an impending one?" inquired Hoa-mi, with polite interest.
"So far," admitted Lao Ting, "it is more in the nature of a vision. There are, of necessity, many trials, and few can reach the ultimate end. Yet even the Yangtze-kiang has a source."
"Of your unswerving tenacity this person has already been witness," said the maiden, with a glance of refined encouragement.
"Your words are more inspiring than the example of the aged woman of Shang-li to the student Tsung," declared Lao Ting gratefully. "Unless the Omens are asleep they should tend to the same auspicious end."
"The exact instance of the moment escapes my recollection." Probably Hoa-mi was by no means willing that one of studious mind should associate her exclusively with water-buffaloes. "Is it related in the Classics?"
"Possibly, though in which actual masterpiece just now evades my grasp. The youth referred to was on the point of abandoning a literary career, appalled at the magnitude of the task before him, when he encountered an aged woman who was employed in laboriously rubbing away the surface of an iron crowbar on a block of stone. To his inquiry she cheerfully replied: 'The one who is thus engaged required a needle to complete a task. Being unable to procure one she was about to give way to an ignoble despair when chance put into her hands this bar, which only requires bringing down to the necessary size.' Encouraged by this painstaking example Tsung returned to his books and in due course became a high official."
"Doubtless in the time of his prosperity he retraced his footsteps and lavishly rewarded the one to whom he was thus indebted," suggested Hoa-mi gracefully.
"Doubtless," admitted Lao Ting, "but the detail is not pursued to so remote an extremity in the Classic. The delicate poise of the analogy is what is chiefly dwelt upon, the sign for a needle harmonizing with that for official, and there being a similar balance between crowbar and books."
"Your words are like a page written in vermilion ink," exclaimed Hoa-mi, with a sideway-expressed admiration.
"Alas!" he declared, with conscious humility, "my style is meagre and almost wholly threadbare. To remedy this, each day I strive to perfect myself in the correct formation of five new written signs. When equipped with a knowledge of every one there is I shall be competent to write so striking and original an essay on any subject that it will no longer be possible to exclude my name from the list of official appointments."
"It will be a day of well-achieved triumph for the spirits of your expectant ancestors," said Hoa-mi sympathetically.
"It will also have a beneficial effect on my own material prospects," replied Lao Ting, with a commendable desire to awaken images of a more specific nature in the maiden's imagination. "Where hitherto it has been difficult to support one, there will then be a lavish profusion for two. The moment the announcement is made, my impatient feet will carry me to this spot. Can it be hoped--?"
"It has long been this one's favourite resort also," confessed Hoa-mi, with every appearance of having adequately grasped Lao Ting's desired inference, "Yet to what number do the written signs in question stretch?"
"So highly favoured is our unapproachable language that the number can only be faintly conjectured. Some claim five-score thousand different written symbols; the least exacting agree to fourscore thousand."
"You are all-knowing," responded the maiden absently. With her face in an opposing direction her lips moved rapidly, as though she might be in the act of addressing some petition to a Power. Yet it is to be doubted if this accurately represents the nature of her inner thoughts, for when she again turned towards Lao Ting the engaging frankness of her expression had imperceptibly deviated, as she continued:
"In about nine and forty years, then, O impetuous one, our converging footsteps will doubtless again encounter upon this spot. In the meanwhile, however, this person's awaiting father is certainly preparing something against her tardy return which the sign for a crowbar would fittingly represent."
Then urging the water-buffalo to increased exertion she fled, leaving Lao Ting a prey to emotions of a very distinguished intensity.
In spite of the admittedly rough-edged nature of Hoa-mi's leave-taking, Lao Ting retraced his steps in an exalted frame of mind. He had spoken to the maiden and heard her incomparable voice. He now knew her name and the path leading to her father's house. It only remained for him to win a position worthy of her acceptance (if the Empire could offer such a thing), and their future happiness might be regarded as assured.
Thus engaged, Lao Ting walked on, seeing within his head the arrival of the bridal chair, partaking of the well-spread wedding feast, hearing the felicitations of the guests: "A hundred sons and a thousand grandsons!" Something white fluttering by the wayside recalled him to the realities of the day. He had reached the buildings of the outer city, and on a wall before him a printed notice was displayed.
It has already been set forth that the few solitary cash which from time to time fell into the student's sleeve were barely sufficient to feed his thirsty brush with ink. For the material on which to write and to practise the graceful curves essential to a style he was driven to various unworthy expedients. It had thus become his habit to lurk in the footsteps of those who affix public proclamations in the ways and spaces of the city, and when they had passed on to remove, as unostentatiously as possible, the more suitable pronouncements and to carry them to his own abode. For this reason he regarded every notice from a varying angle, being concerned less with what appeared upon it than with what did not appear. Accordingly he now crossed the way and endeavoured to secure the sheet that had attracted his attention. In this he was unsuccessful, however, for he could only detach a meagre fragment.
When Lao Ting reached his uninviting room the last pretence of daylight had faded. He recognized that he had lost many precious moments in Hoa-mi's engaging society, and although he would willingly have lost many more, there was now a deeper pang in his regret that he could not continue his study further into the night. As this was impossible, he drew his scanty night coverings around him and composed his mind for sleep, conscious of an increasing rigour in the air; for, as he found when the morning came, one who wished him well, passing in his absence, had written a lucky saying on a stone and cast it through the paper window.
When Lao Ting awoke it was still night, but the room was no longer entirely devoid of light. As his custom was, an open page lay on the floor beside him, ready to be caught up eagerly with the first gleam of day; above this a faint but sufficient radiance now hung, enabling him to read the written signs. At first the student regarded the surroundings with some awe, not doubting that this was in the nature of a visitation, but presently he discovered that the light was provided by a living creature, winged but docile, which carried a glowing lustre in its tail. When he had read to the end, Lao Ting endeavoured to indicate by a sign that he wished to turn the page. To his delight he found that the winged creature intelligently grasped the requirement and at once transferred its presence to the required spot. All through the night the youth eagerly read on, nor did this miraculously endowed visitor ever fail him. By dawn he had more than made up the time in which the admiration of Hoa-mi had involved him. If such a state of things could be assured for the future, the vista would stretch like a sunlit glade before his feet.
Early in the day he set out to visit an elderly monk, who lived in a cave on the mountain above. Before he went, however, he did not fail to procure a variety of leaves and herbs, and to display them about the room in order to indicate to his unassuming companion that he had a continued interest in his welfare. The venerable hermit received him hospitably, and after inviting him to sit upon the floor and to partake of such food as he had brought with him, listened attentively to his story.
"Your fear that in this manifestation you may be the sport of a malicious Force, conspiring to some secret ill, is merely superstition," remarked Tzu-lu when Lao Ting had reached an end. "Although creatures such as you describe are unknown in this province, they undoubtedly exist in outer barbarian lands, as do apes with the tails of peacocks, ducks with their bones outside their skins, beings whose pale green eyes can discover the precious hidden things of the earth, and men with a hole through their chests so that they require no chair to carry them, but are transposed from spot to spot by means of poles."
"Your mind is widely opened, esteemed," replied Lao Ting respectfully. "Yet the omen must surely tend towards a definite course?"
"Be guided by the mature philosophy of the resolute Heng-ki, who, after an unfortunate augury, exclaimed to his desponding warriors: 'Do your best and let the Omens do their worst!' What has happened is as clear as the iridescence of a dragon's eye. In the past you have lent a sum of money to a friend who has thereupon passed into the Upper Air, leaving you unrequited."
"A friend receiving a sum of money from this person would have every excuse for passing away suddenly."
"Or," continued the accommodating recluse, "you have in some other way placed so formidable an obligation upon one now in the Beyond that his disturbed spirit can no longer endure the burden. For this reason it has taken the form of a luminous insect, and has thus returned to earth in order that it may assist you and thereby discharge the debt."
"The explanation is a convincing one," replied Lao Ting. "Might it not have been more satisfactory in the end, however, if the gracious person in question had clothed himself with the attributes of the examining chancellor or some high mandarin, so that he could have upheld my cause in any extremity?"
Without actually smiling, a form of entertainment that was contrary to his strict vow, the patriarchal anchorite moved his features somewhat at the youth's innocence.
"Do not forget that it is written: 'Though you set a monkey on horseback yet will his hands and feet remain hairy,'" he remarked. "The one whose conduct we are discussing may well be aware of his own deficiencies, and know that if he adopted such a course a humiliating exposure would await him. Do not have any fear for the future, however: thus protected, this person is inspired to prophesy that you will certainly take a high place in the examinations. . . . Indeed," he added thoughtfully, "it might be prudent to venture a string of cash upon your lucky number."
With this auspicious leave-taking Tzu-lu dismissed him, and Lao Ting returned to the city greatly refreshed in spirit by the encounter. Instead of retiring to his home he continued into the more reputable ways beyond, it then being about the hour at which the affixers of official notices were wont to display their energies.
So it chanced indeed, but walking with his feet off the ground, owing to the obliging solitary's encouragement, Lao Ting forgot his usual caution, and came suddenly into the midst of a band of these men at an angle of the paths.
"Honourable greetings," he exclaimed, feeling that if he passed them by unregarded his purpose might be suspected. "Have you eaten your rice?"
"How is your warmth and cold?" they replied courteously. "Yet why do you arrest your dignified footsteps to converse with outcasts so illiterate as ourselves?"
"The reason," admitted Lao Ting frankly, "need not be buried in a well. Had I avoided the encounter you might have said among yourselves: 'Here is one who shuns our gaze. This, perchance, is he who of late has lurked within the shadow of our backs to bear away our labour.' Not to create this unworthy suspicion I freely came among you, for, as the Ancient Wisdom says: 'Do not adjust your sandals while passing through a melon-field, nor yet arrange your hat beneath an orange-tree.'"
"Yet," said the leader of the band, "we were waiting thus in expectation of the one whom you describe. The incredible leper who rules our goings has, even at this hour and notwithstanding that now is the appointed day and time for the gathering together of the Harmonious Constellation of Paste Appliers and Long Brush Wielders, thrust within our hands a double task."
"May bats defile his Ancestral Tablets and goats propagate within his neglected tomb!" chanted the band in unison. "May the sinews of his hams snap suddenly in moments of achievement! May the principles of his warmth and cold never be properly adjusted but--"
"Thus positioned," continued the leader, indicating by a gesture that while he agreed with these sentiments the moment was not opportune for their full recital, "we await. If he who lurks in our past draws near he will doubtless accept from our hands that which he will assuredly possess behind our backs. Thus mutual help will lighten the toil of all."
"The one whom you require dwells beneath my scanty roof," said the youth. "He is now, however, absent on a secret mission. Entrust to me the burden of your harassment and I will answer, by the sanctity of the Four-eyed Image, that it shall reach his speedy hand."
When Lao Ting gained his own room, bowed down but rejoicing beneath the weight of his unexpected fortune, his eyes were gladdened by the soft light that hung about his books. Although it was not yet dark, the radiance of the glow seemed greater than before. Going to the spot the delighted student saw that in place of one there were now four, the grateful insect having meanwhile summoned others to his cause. All these stood in an expectant attitude awaiting his control, so that through the night he plied an untiring brush and leapt onward in the garden of similitudes.
From this time forward Lao Ting could not fail to be aware that the faces of those whom he familiarly encountered were changed towards him. Men greeted him as one worthy of their consideration, and he even heard his name spoken of respectfully in the society of learned strangers. More than once he found garlands of flowers hung upon his outer door, harmonious messages, and--once--a gift of food. Incredible as it seemed to him it had come to be freely admitted that the unknown scholar Lao Ting would take a very high place in the forthcoming competition, and those who were alert and watchful did not hesitate to place him first. To this general feeling a variety of portents had contributed. Doubtless the beginning was the significant fact, known to the few at first, that the miracle-working Tzu-lu had staked his inner garment on Lao Ting's success. Brilliant lights were seen throughout the night to be moving in the meagre dwelling (for the four efficacious creatures had by this time greatly added to their numbers), and the one within was credited with being assisted by the Forces. It is well said that that which passes out of one mouth passes into a hundred ears, and before dawn had become dusk all the early and astute were following the inspired hermit's example. They who conducted the lotteries, becoming suddenly aware of the burden of the hazard they incurred, thereat declared that upon the venture of Lao Ting's success there must be set two taels in return for one. Whereupon the desire of those who had refrained waxed larger than before, and thus the omens grew.
When the days that remained before the opening of the trial could be counted on the fingers of one hand, there came, at a certain hour, a summons on the outer door of Lao Ting's house, and in response to his spoken invitation there entered one, Sheng-yin, a competitor.
"Lao Ting," said this person, when they had exchanged formalities, "in spite of the flattering attentions of the shallow"--he here threw upon the floor a garland which he had conveyed from off Lao Ting's door--"it is exceedingly unlikely that at the first attempt your name will be among those of the chosen, and the possibility of it heading the list may be dismissed as vapid."
"Your experience is deep and wide," replied Lao Ting, the circumstance that Sheng-yin had already tried and failed three and thirty times adding an edge to the words; "yet if it is written it is written."
"Doubtless," retorted Sheng-yin no less capably; "but it will never be set to music. Now, until your inconsiderate activities prevailed, this person was confidently greeted as the one who would be first."
"The names of Wang-san and Yin Ho were not unknown to the expectant," suggested Lao Ting mildly.
"The mind of Wang-san is only comparable with a wastepaper basket," exclaimed the visitor harshly; "and Yin Ho is in reality as dull as split ebony. But in your case, unfortunately, there is nothing to go on, and, unlikely though it be, it is just possible that this person's well-arranged ambitions may thereby be brought to a barren end. For that reason he is here to discuss this matter as between virtuous friends."
"Let your auspicious mouth be widely opened," replied Lao Ting guardedly. "My ears will not refrain."
"Is there not, perchance, some venerable relative in a distant part of the province whose failing eyes crave, at this juncture, to rest upon your wholesome features before he passes Upwards?"
"Assuredly some such inopportune person might be forthcoming," admitted Lao Ting. "Yet the cost of so formidable a journey would be far beyond this necessitous one's means."
"In so charitable a cause affluent friends would not be lacking. Depart on the third day and remain until the ninth and twenty taels of silver will glide imperceptibly into your awaiting sleeve."
"The prospect of not taking the foremost place in the competition--added to the pangs of those who have hazarded their store upon the unworthy name of Lao--is an ignoble one," replied the student, after a moment's thought. "The journey will be a costly task at this season of the rains; it cannot possibly be accomplished for less than fifty taels."
"It is well said, 'Do not look at robbers sharing out their spoil: look at them being executed,'" urged Sheng-yin. "Should you be so ill-destined as to compete, and, as would certainly be the case, be awarded a position of contempt, how unendurable would be your anguish when, amidst the execrations of the deluded mob, you remembered that thirty taels of the purest had slipped from your effete grasp."
"Should the Bridge of the Camel Back be passable, five and forty might suffice," mused Lao Tung to himself.
"Thirty-seven taels, five hundred cash, are the utmost that your obliging friends would hazard in the quest," announced Sheng-yin definitely. "On the day following that of the final competition the sum will be honourably--"
"By no means," interrupted the other, with unswerving firmness. "How thus is the journey to be defrayed? In advance, assuredly."
"The requirement is unusual. Yet upon satisfactory oaths being offered--"
"This person will pledge the repose of the spirits of his venerated ancestors practically back to prehistoric times," agreed Lao Ting readily. "From the third to the ninth day he will be absent from the city and will take no part in anything therein. Should he eat his words, may his body be suffocated beneath five cart-loads of books and his weary ghost chained to that of a leprous mule. It is spoken."
"Truly. But it may as well be written also." With this expression of narrow-minded suspicion Sheng-yin would have taken up one from a considerable mass of papers lying near at hand, had not Lao Ting suddenly restrained him.
"It shall be written with clarified ink on paper of a special excellence," declared the student. "Take the brush, Seng-yin, and write. It almost repays this person for the loss of a degree to behold the formation of signs so unapproachable as yours."
"Lao Ting," replied the visitor, pausing in his task, "you are occasionally inspired, but the weakness of your character results in a lack of caution. In this matter, therefore, be warned: 'The crocodile opens his jaws; the rat-trap closes his; keep yours shut.'"
When Lao Ting returned after a scrupulously observed six days of absence he could not fail to become aware that the city was in an uproar, and the evidence of this increased as he approached the cheap and lightly esteemed quarter in which those of literary ambitions found it convenient to reside. Remembering Sheng-yin's parting, he forbore to draw attention to himself by questioning any, but when he reached the door of his own dwelling he discovered the one of whom he was thinking, standing, as it were, between the posts.
"Lao Ting," exclaimed Sheng-yin, without waiting to make any polite reference to the former person's food or condition, "in spite of this calamity you are doubtless prepared to carry out the spirit of your oath?"
"Doubtless," replied Lao Ting affably. "Yet what is the nature of the calamity referred to, and how does it affect the burden of my vow?"
"Has not the tiding reached your ear? The examinations, alas! have been withheld for seven full days. Your journey has been in vain!"
"By no means!" declared the youth. "Debarred by your enticement from a literary career this person turned his mind to other aims, and has now gained a deep insight into the habits and behaviour of water-buffaloes."
"They who control the competitions from the Capital," continued Sheng-yin, without even hearing the other's words, "when all had been arranged, learned from the Chief Astrologer (may subterranean fires singe his venerable moustaches!) that a forgotten obscuration of the sun would take place on the opening day of the test. In the face of so formidable a portent they acted thus and thus."
"How then fares it that due warning of the change was not set forth?"
"The matter is as long as The Wall and as deep as seven wells," grumbled Sheng-yin, "and the Hoang Ho in flood is limpid by its side. Proclamations were sent forth, yet none appeared, and they entrusted with their wide disposal have a dragon-story of a shining lordly youth who ever followed in their steps. . . . Thus in a manner of expressing it, the spirit--"
"Sheng-yin," said Lao Ting, with courteous firmness, yet so moving the door so that while he passed in the former person remained outside, "you have sought, at the expenditure of thirty-seven taels five hundred cash, to deflect Destiny from her appointed line. The result has been lamentable to all--or nearly all--concerned. The lawless effort must not be repeated, for when heaven itself goes out of its way to set a correcting omen in the sky, who dare disobey?"
When the list and order of the competition was proclaimed, the name of Wang-san stood at the very head and that of Yin Ho was next. Lao Ting was the very last of those who were successful; Sheng-yin was the next, and was thus the first of those who were unsuccessful. It was as much as the youth had secretly dared to hope, and much better than he had generally feared. In Sheng-yin's case, however, it was infinitely worse than he had ever contemplated. Regarding Lao Ting as the cause of his disgrace he planned a sordid revenge. Waiting until night had fallen he sought the student's door-step and there took a potent drug, laying upon his ghost a strict injunction to devote itself to haunting and thwarting the ambitions of the one who dwelt within. But even in this he was inept, for the poison was less speedy than he thought, and Lao Ting returned in time to convey him to another door.
On the strength of his degree Lao Ting found no difficulty in earning a meagre competence by instructing others who wished to follow in his footsteps. He was also now free to compete for the next degree, where success would bring him higher honour and a slightly less meagre competence. In the meanwhile he married Hoa-mi, being able to display thirty-seven taels and nearly five hundred cash towards that end. Ultimately he rose to a position of remunerative ease, but it is understood that he attained this more by a habit of acting as the necessities of the moment required than by his literary achievements.
Over the door of his country residence in the days of his profusion he caused the image of a luminous insect to be depicted, and he engraved its semblance on his seal. He would also have added the presentment of a water-buffalo, but Hoa-mi deemed this inexpedient.