The High-minded Strategy of the Amiable Hwa-mei
WARNED by the mischance attending his previous meeting with Hwa-mei, Kai Lung sought the walled enclosure at the earliest moment of his permitted freedom, and secreting himself among the interlacing growth he anxiously awaited the maiden's coming.
Presently a movement in the trees without betrayed a presence, and the story-teller was on the point of disclosing himself at the shutter when the approaching one displayed an unfamiliar outline. Instead of a maiden of exceptional symmetry and peach-like charm an elderly and deformed hag drew near. As she might be hostile to his cause, Kai Lung deemed it prudent to remain concealed; but in case she should prove to be an emissary from Hwa-mei seeking him, his purpose was to stand revealed. To combine these two attitudes until she should declare herself was by no means an easy task, but she looked neither near nor far in scrutiny until she stood, mumbling and infirm, beneath the shutter.
"It is well, minstrel," she called aloud. "She whom you await bid me greet you with a sign." At Kai Lung's feet there fell a crimson flower, growing on a thorny stem. "What word shall I in turn bear back? Speak freely, for her mind is as my open hand."
"Tell me rather," said Kai Lung, looking out, "how she fares and what averts her footsteps?"
"That will appear in due time," replied the aged one. "In the meanwhile I have her message to declare. Three times foiled in his malignant scheme the now obscene Ming-shu sets all the Axioms at naught. Distrusting you and those about your path, it is his sinister intention to call up for judgment Kai-moo, who lies within the women's cell beyond the Water Way."
"What is her crime and how will this avail him?"
"Charged with the murder of her man by means of the supple splinter her condemnation is assured. The penalty is piecemeal slicing, and in it are involved those of her direct line, in the humane effort to eradicate so treacherous a strain."
"That is but just," agreed Kai Lung.
"Truly. But on the slender ligament of a kindred name you will be joined with her in that end. Ming-shu will see to it that records of your kinship are not lacking. Being accused of no crime on your own behalf there will be nothing for you to appear against."
"It is written: 'Even leprosy may be cured, but the enmity of an official underling can never be dispelled,' and the malice of the persistent Ming-shu certainly points to the wisdom of the verse. Is the person of Kai-moo known to you, and where is the prison-house you speak of?"
To this the venerable creature replied that the cell in question was in a distant quarter of the city. Kai-moo, she continued, might be regarded as fashioned like herself, being deformed in shape and repellent in appearance. Furthermore, she was of deficient understanding, these things aiding Ming-shu's plan, as she would be difficult to reach and impossible to instruct when reached.
"The extremity is almost hopeless enough to be left to the ever-protecting spirits of one's all-powerful Ancestors," declared Kai Lung at length. "Did she from whom you come forecast any confidence?"
"She had some assurance in a certain plan, which it is my message to declare to you."
"Her wisdom is to be computed neither by a rule nor by a measure. Say on."
"The keeper of the women's prison-house lies within her hollowed hand, nor will silver be wanting to still any arising doubt. Wrapped in prison garb, and with her face disguised by art, she whose word I bear will come forth at the appointed call and, taking her place before Shan Tien, will play a fictitious part."
"Alas! dotard," interrupted Kai Lung impatiently, "it would be well if I spent my few remaining hours in kowtowing to the Powers whom I shall shortly meet. An aged and unsightly hag! Know you not, O venerable bat, that the smooth perfection of the one you serve would shine dazzling through a beaten mask of tempered steel? Her matchless hair, glossier than a starling's wing, floats like an autumn cloud. Her eyes strike fire from damp clay, or make the touch of velvet harsh and stubborn, according to her several moods. Peach-bloom held against her cheek withers incapably by comparison. Her feet, if indeed she has such commonplace attributes at all, are smaller--"
"Yet," interrupted the hag, in a changed and quite melodious voice, "if it is possible to delude the imagination of one whose longing eyes dwell so constantly on these threadbare charms, what then will be the position of the obtuse Ming-shu and the superficial Mandarin Shan Tien, burdened as they now are by outside cares?"
"There are times when the classical perfection of our graceful tongue is strangely inadequate to express emotion," confessed Kai Lung, colouring deeply, as Hwa-mei stood revealed before him. "It is truly said: 'The ingenuity of a guileless woman will undermine nine mountains.' You have cut off all the words of my misgivings."
"To that end have I wrought, for in this I also need your skill. Listen well and think deeply as I speak. Everywhere the outcome of the strife grows more uncertain day by day and no man really knows which side to favour yet. In this emergency each plays a double part. While visibly loyal to the Imperial cause, the Mandarin Shan Tien fans the whisper that in secret he upholds the rebellious banners. Ming-shu now openly avers that if this and that are thus and thus the rising has justice in its ranks, while at the same time he has it put abroad that this is but a cloak the better to serve the state. Thus every man maintains a double face in the hope that if the one side fails the other will preserve him, and as a band all pledge to save (or if need be to betray) each other."
"This is the more readily understood as it is the common case on every like occasion."
"Then doubtless there are instances waiting on your lips. Teach me such a story whereby the hope of those who are thus swayed may be engaged and leave the rest to my arranging hand."
On the following day at the appointed hour a bent and forbidding hag was brought before Shan Tien, and the nature of her offence proclaimed.
"It is possible to find an excuse for almost everything, regarding it from one angle or another," remarked the Mandarin impartially; "but the crime of destroying a husband--and by a means so unpleasantly insinuating--really seems to leave nothing to be said."
"Yet, imperishable, even a bad coin must have two sides," replied the hag. "That I should be guilty and yet innocent would be no more wonderful than the case of Weng Cho, who, when faced with the alternative of either defying the Avenging Societies or of opposing fixed authority found a way out of escaping both."
"That should be worth--that is to say, if you base your defence upon an existing case--"
"Providing the notorious thug Kai Lung is not thereby brought in," suggested the narrow-minded Ming-shu, who equally desired to learn the stratagem involved.
"Weng Cho was the only one concerned," replied the ancient obtusely--"he who escaped the consequences. Is it permitted to this one to make clear her plea?"
"If the fatigue is not more than your venerable personality can reasonably bear," replied Shan Tien courteously.
"To bear is the lot of every woman, be she young or old," replied the one before them. "I comply, omnipotence."
There was peach-blossom in the orchards of Kien-fi, a blue sky above, and in the air much gladness; but in Wu Chi's yamen gloom hung like the herald of a thunderstorm. At one end of a table in the ceremonial hall sat Wu Chi, heaviness upon his brow, deceit in his eyes, and a sour enmity about the lines of his mouth; at the other end stood his son Weng, and between them, as it were, his whole life lay.
Wu Chi was an official of some consequence and had two wives, as became him. His union with the first had failed in its essential purpose; therefore he had taken another to carry on the direct line which alone could bring him contentment in this world and a reputable existence in the next. This degree of happiness was supplied by Weng's mother, yet she must ever remain but a "secondary wife," with no rights and a very insecure position. In the heart of the chief wife smouldered a most bitter hatred, but the hour of her ascendancy came, for after many years she also bore her lord a son. Thenceforward she was strong in her authority; but Weng's mother remained, for she was very beautiful, and despite all the arts of the other woman Wu Chi could not be prevailed upon to dismiss her. The easy solution of this difficulty was that she soon died--the "white powder death" was the shrewd comment of the inner chambers of Kien-fi.
Wu Chi put on no mourning, custom did not require it; and now that the woman had Passed Beyond he saw no necessity to honour her memory at the expense of his own domestic peace. His wife donned her gayest robes and made a feast. Weng alone stood apart, and in funereal sackcloth moved through the house like an accusing ghost. Each day his father met him with a frown, the woman whom alone he must regard as his mother with a mocking smile, but he passed them without any word of dutiful and submissive greeting. The period of all seemly mourning ended--it touched that allotted to a legal parent; still Weng cast himself down and made no pretence to hide his grief. His father's frown became a scowl, his mother's smile framed a biting word. A wise and venerable friend who loved the youth took him aside one day and with many sympathetic words counselled restraint.
"For," he said, "your conduct, though affectionate towards the dead, may be urged by the ill-disposed as disrespectful towards the living. If you have a deeper end in view, strive towards it by a less open path."
"You are subtle and esteemed in wisdom," replied Weng, "but neither of those virtues can restore a broken jar. The wayside fountain must one day dry up at its source, but until then not even a mountain placed upon its mouth can pen back its secret stores. So is it with unfeigned grief."
"The analogy may be exact," replied the aged friend, shaking his head, "but it is no less truly said: 'The wise tortoise keeps his pain inside.' Rest assured, on the disinterested advice of one who has no great experience of mountains and hidden springs, but a life-long knowledge of Wu Chi and of his amiable wife, that if you mourn too much you will have reason to mourn more."
His words were pointed to a sharp edge. At that moment Wu Chi was being confronted by his wife, who stood before him in his inner chamber. "Who am I?" she exclaimed vehemently, "that my authority should be denied before my very eyes? Am I indeed Che of the house of Meng, whose ancestors wore the Yellow Scabbard, or am I some nameless one? Or does my lord sleep, or has he fallen blind upon the side by which Weng approaches?"
"His heart is bad and his instincts perverted," replied Wu Chi dully. "He ignores the rites, custom, and the Emperor's example, and sets at defiance all the principles of domestic government. Do not fear that I shall not shortly call him to account with a very heavy call."
"Do so, my lord," said his wife darkly, "or many valiant champions of the House of Meng may press forward to make a cast of that same account. To those of our ancient line it would not seem a trivial thing that their daughter should share her rights with a purchased slave."
"Peace, cockatrice! the woman was well enough," exclaimed Wu Chi, with slow resentment. "But the matter of this obstinacy touches the dignity of my own authority, and before to-day has passed Weng shall bring up his footsteps suddenly before a solid wall."
Accordingly, when Weng returned at his usual hour he found his father awaiting him with curbed impatience. That Wu Chi should summon him into his presence in the great hall was of itself an omen that the matter was one of moment, but the profusion of lights before the Ancestral Tablets and the various symbols arranged upon the table showed that the occasion was to be regarded as one involving irrevocable issues.
"Weng Cho," said his father dispassionately, from his seat at the head of the table, "draw near, and first pledge the Ancient Ones whose spirits hover above their Tablets in a vessel of wine."
"I am drinking affliction and move under the compact of a solemn vow," replied Weng fixedly, "therefore I cannot do this; nor, as signs are given me to declare, will the forerunners of our line, who from their high places look down deep into the mind and measure the heart with an impartial rod, deem this an action of disrespect to their illustrious shades."
"It is well to be a sharer of their councils," said Wu Chi, with pointed insincerity. "But," he continued, in the same tone, "for whom can Weng Cho of the House of Wu mourn? His father is before him in his wonted health; in the inner chamber his mother plies an unfaltering needle; while from the Dragon Throne the supreme Emperor still rules the world. Haply, however, a thorn has pierced his little finger, or does he perchance bewail the loss of a favourite bird?"
"That thorn has sunk deeply into his existence, and the memory of that loss still dims his eyes with bitterness," replied Weng. "Bid the rain cease to fall when the clouds are heavy."
"The comparison is ill-chosen," cried Whu Chi harshly. "Rather should the allusion be to the evil tendency of a self-willed branch which, in spite of the continual watering of precept and affection, maintains its perverted course, and must henceforth either submit to be bound down into an appointed line, or be utterly cut off so that the tree may not suffer. Long and patiently have I marked your footsteps, Weng Cho, and they are devious. This is not a single offence, but it is no light one. Appointed by the Board of Ceremony, approved of by the Emperor, and observed in every loyal and high-minded subject are the details of the rites and formalities which alone serve to distinguish a people refined and humane from those who are rude and barbarous. By setting these observances at defiance you insult their framers, act traitorously towards your sovereign, and assail the foundations of your House; for your attitude is a direct reflection upon others; and if you render such a tribute to one who is incompetent to receive it, how will you maintain a seemly balance when a greater occasion arises?"
"When the earth that has nourished it grows cold the leaves of the branch fall--doubtless the edicts of the Board referred to having failed to reach their ears," replied Weng bitterly. "Revered father, is it not permitted that I should now depart? Behold I am stricken and out of place."
"You are evil and your heart is fat with presumptuous pride!" exclaimed Wu Chi, releasing the cords of his hatred and anger so that they leapt out from his throat like the sudden spring of a tiger from a cave. "Evil in birth, grown under an evil star and now come to a full maturity. Go you shall, Weng Cho, and that on a straight journey forthwith or else bend your knees with an acquiescent face." With these words he beat furiously on a gong, and summoning the entire household he commanded that before Weng should be placed a jar of wine and two glass vessels, and on the other side a staff and a pair of sandals. From an open shutter the face of the woman Che looked down in mocking triumph.
The alternatives thus presented were simple and irrevocable. On the one hand Weng must put from him all further grief, ignore his vows, and join in mirth and feast; on the other he must depart, never to return, and be deprived of every tie of kinship, relinquishing ancestry, possessions and name. It was a course severer than anything that Wu Chi had intended when he sent for his son, but resentment had distorted his eyesight. It was a greater test than Weng had anticipated, but his mind was clear, and his heart charged with fragrant memories of his loss. Deliberately but with silent dignity he poured the untasted wine upon the ground, drew his sword and touched the vessels lightly so that they broke, took from off his thumb the jade ring inscribed with the sign of the House of Wu, and putting on the sandals grasped the staff and prepared to leave the hall.
"Weng Cho, for the last time spoken of as of the House of Wu, now alienated from that noble line, and henceforth and for ever an outcast, you have made a choice and chosen as befits your rebellious life. Between us stretches a barrier wider and deeper than the Yellow Sea, and throughout all future time no sign shall pass from that distant shore to this. From every record of our race your name shall be cut out; no mention of it shall profane the Tablets, and both in this world and the next it shall be to us as though you have never been. As I break this bowl so are all ties broken, as I quench this candle so are all memories extinguished, and as, when you go, the space is filled with empty air, so shall it be."
"Ho, nameless stranger," laughed the woman from above, "here is food and drink to bear you on your way"; and from the grille she threw a withered fig and spat.
"The fruit is the cankered effort of a barren tree," cast back Weng over his shoulder. "Look to your own offspring, basilisk. It is given me to speak." Even as he spoke there was a great cry from the upper part of the house, the sound of many feet and much turmoil, but he went on his way without another word.
Thus it was that Weng Cho came to be cut off from the past. From his father's house he stepped out into the streets of Kien-fi a being without a name, destitute, and suffering the pangs of many keen emotions. Friends whom he encountered he saluted distantly, not desirous of sharing their affection until they should have learned his state; but there was one who stood in his mind as removed above the possibility of change, and to the summer-house of Tiao's home he therefore turned his steps.
Tiao was the daughter of a minor official, an unsuccessful man of no particular descent. He had many daughters, and had encouraged Weng's affection, with frequent professions that he regarded only the youth's virtuous life and discernment, and would otherwise have desired one not so highly placed. Tiao also had spoken of rice and contentment in a ruined pagoda. Yet as she listened to Weng's relation a new expression gradually revealed itself about her face, and when he had finished many paces lay between them.
"A breaker of sacred customs, a disobeyer of parents and an outcast! How do you disclose yourself!" she exclaimed wildly. "What vile thing has possessed you?"
"One hitherto which now rejects me," replied Weng slowly. "I had thought that here alone I might find a familiar greeting, but that also fails."
"What other seemly course presents itself?" demanded the maiden unsympathetically. "How degrading a position might easily become that of the one who linked her lot with yours if all fit and proper sequences are to be reversed! What menial one might supplant her not only in your affections but also in your Rites! He had defied the Principles!" she exclaimed, as her father entered from behind a screen.
"He has lost his inheritance," muttered the little old man, eyeing him contemptuously. "Weng Cho," he continued aloud, "you have played a double part and crossed our step with only half your heart. Now the past is past and the future an unwritten sheet."
"It shall be written in vermilion ink," replied Weng, regaining an impassive dignity; "and upon that darker half of my heart can now be traced two added names."
He had no aim now, but instinct drove him towards the mountains, the retreat of the lost and despairing. A three days' journey lay between. He went forward vacantly, without food and without rest. A falling leaf, as it is said, would have turned the balance of his destiny, and at the wayside village of Li-yong so it chanced. The noisome smell of burning thatch stung his face as he approached, and presently the object came into view. It was the bare cabin of a needy widow who had become involved in a lawsuit through the rapacity of a tax-gatherer. As she had the means neither to satisfy the tax nor to discharge the dues, the powerful Mandarin before whom she had been called ordered all her possessions to be seized, and that she should then be burned within her hut as a warning to others. This was the act of justice being carried out, and even as Weng heard the tale the Mandarin in question drew near, carried in his state chair to satisfy his eyes that his authority was scrupulously maintained. All those villagers who had not drawn off unseen at once fell upon their faces, so that Weng along remained standing, doubtful what course to take.
"Ill-nurtured dog!" exclaimed the Mandarin, stepping up to him, "prostrate yourself! Do you not know that I am of the Sapphire Button, and have fivescore bowmen at my yamen, ready to do my word?" And he struck the youth across the face with a jewelled rod.
"I have only one sword, but it is in my hand," cried Weng, reckless beneath the blow, and drawing it he at one stroke cut down the Mandarin before any could raise a hand. Then breaking in the door of the hovel he would have saved the woman, but it was too late, so he took the head and body and threw them into the fire, saying: "There, Mandarin, follow to secure justice. They shall not bear witness against you Up There in your absence."
The chair-carriers had fled in terror, but the villagers murmured against Weng as he passed through them. "It was a small thing that one house and one person should be burned; now, through this, the whole village will assuredly be consumed. He was a high official and visited justice impartially on us all. It was our affair, and you, who are a stranger, have done ill."
"I did you wrong, Mandarin," said Weng, resuming his journey; "you took me for one of them. I pass you the parting of the woman Che, burrowers in the cow-heap called Li-yong."
"Oi-ye!" exclaimed a voice behind, "but yonder earth-beetles haply have not been struck off the Tablets and found that a maiden with well-matched eyes can watch two ways at once, all of a morning: and thereby death through red spectacles is not that same death through blue spectacles. Things in their appointed places, noble companion."
"Greetings, wayfarer," said Weng, stopping. "The path narrows somewhat inconveniently hereabout. Take honourable precedence."
"The narrower the better to defend then," replied the stranger good-humouredly. "Whereto, also, two swords cut a larger slice than one. Without doubt fivescore valiant bowmen will soon be a-ranging when they hear that the enemy goes upon two feet, and then ill befall who knows not the passes." As he spoke an arrow, shot from a distance, flew above their heads.
"Why should you bear a part with me, and who are you who know these recent things?" demanded Weng doubtfully.
"I am one of many, we being a branch of that great spreading lotus the Triad, though called by the tillers here around the League of Tomb-Haunters, because we must be sought in secret places. The things I have spoken I know because we have many ears, and in our care a whisper passes from east to west and from north to south without a word being spilled."
"And the price of your sword is that I should join the confederacy?" asked Weng thoughtfully.
"I had set out to greet you before the estimable Mandarin who is now saluting his ancestors was so inopportune as to do so," replied the emissary. "Yet it is not to be denied that we offer an adequate protection among each other, while at the same time punishing guilt and administering a rigorous justice secretly."
"Lead me to your meeting-place, then," said Weng determinedly. "I have done with the outer things."
The guide pointed to a rock, shaped like a locusts head, which marked the highest point of the steep mountain before them. Soon the fertile lowlands ended and they passed beyond the limit of the inhabitable region. Still ascending they reached the Tiger's High Retreat, which defines the spot where even the animal kind turn back and where watercourses cease to flow. Beyond this the most meagre indication of vegetable sustenance came to an end, and thenceforward their passage was rendered more slow and laborious by frequent snow-storms, barriers of ice, and sudden tempests which strove to hurl them to destruction. Nevertheless, by about the hour of midnight they reached the rock shaped like a locust's head, which stood in the wildest and most inaccessible part of the mountain, and masked the entrance to a strongly-guarded cave. Here Weng suffered himself to be blindfolded, and being led forward he was taken into the innermost council. Closely questioned, he professed a spontaneous desire to be admitted into their band, to join in their dangers and share their honours; whereupon the oath was administered to him, the passwords and secret signs revealed, and he was bound from that time forth, under the bonds of a most painful death and torments in the afterworld, to submerge all passions save those for the benefit of their community, and to cherish no interests, wrongs or possessions that did not affect them all alike.
For the space of seven years Weng remained about the shadow of the mountain, carrying out, together with the other members of the band, the instructions which from time to time they received from the higher circles of the Society, as well as such acts of retributive justice as they themselves determined upon, and in this quiet and unostentatious manner maintaining peace and greatly purifying the entire province. In this passionless subservience to the principles of the Order none exceeded him; yet at no time have men been forbidden to burn joss-sticks to the spirit of the destinies, and who shall say?
At the end of seven years the first breath from out of the past reached Weng (or Thang, as he had announced himself to be when cast out nameless). One day he was summoned before the chief of their company and a mission laid upon him.
"You have proved yourself to be capable and sincere in the past, and this matter is one of delicacy," said the leader. "Furthermore, it is reported that you know something of the paths about Kien-fi?"
"There is not a forgotten turn within those paths by which I might stumble in the dark," replied Weng, striving to subdue his mind.
"See that out of so poignant a memory no more formidable barrier than a forgotten path arises," said the leader, observing him closely. "Know you, then a house bearing as a sign the figure of a golden ibis?"
"Truly; I have noted it," replied Weng, changing his position, so that he now leaned against a rock. "There dwelt an old man of some lower official rank, who had no son but many daughters."
"He has Passed, and one of those--Tiao by name," said the other, referring to a parchment--"has schemingly driven out the rest and held the patrimony. Crafty and ambitious, she has of late married a high official who has ever been hostile to ourselves. Out of a private enmity the woman seeks the lives of two who are under our most solemn protection, and now uses her husband's wealth and influence to that end. It is on him that the blow must fall, for men kill only men, and she, having no son, will then be discredited and impotent."
"And concerning this official?" asked Weng.
"It has not been thought prudent to speak of him by name," replied the chief. "Stricken with a painful but not dangerous malady he has retired for a time to the healthier seclusion of his wife's house, and there he may be found. The woman you will know with certainty by a crescent scar--above the right eye."
"Beneath the eye," corrected Weng instantly.
"Assuredly, beneath: I misread the sign," said the head, appearing to consult the scroll. "Yet, out of a keen regard for your virtues, Thang, let me point a warning that it is antagonistic to our strict rule to remember these ancient scars too well. Further, in accordance with that same esteem, do not stoop too closely nor too long to identify the mark. By our pure and exacting standard no high attainment in the past can justify defection. The pains and penalties of failure you well know."
"I bow, chieftain," replied Weng acquiescently.
"It is well," said the chief. "Your strategy will be easy. To cure this lord's disorder a celebrated physician is even now travelling from the Capital towards Kien-fi. A day's journey from that place he will encounter obstacles and fall into the hands of those who will take away his robes and papers. About the same place you will meet one with a bowl on the roadside who will hail you, saying, 'Charity, out of your superfluity, noble mandarin coming from the north!' To him you will reply, 'Do mandarins garb thus and thus and go afoot? It is I who need a change of raiment and a chair; aye, by the token of the Locust's Head!' He will then lead you to a place where you will find all ready and a suitable chair with trusty bearers. The rest lies beneath your grinding heel. Prosperity!"
Weng prostrated himself and withdrew. The meeting by the wayside befell as he had received assurance--they who serve the Triad do not stumble--and at the appointed time he stood before Tiao's door and called for admission. He looked to the right and the left as one who examines a new prospect, and among the azalea flowers the burnished roof of the summer-house glittered in the sun.
"Lucky omens attend your coming, benevolence," said the chief attendant obsequiously; "for since he sent for you an unpropitious planet has cast its influence upon our master, so that his power languishes."
"Its malignity must be controlled," said Weng, in a feigned voice, for he recognized the one before him. "Does any watch?"
"Not now," replied the attendant; "for he has slept since these two hours. Would your graciousness have speech with the one of the inner chamber?"
"In season perchance. First lead me to your lord's side and then see that we are undisturbed until I reappear. It may be expedient to invoke a powerful charm without delay."
In another minute Weng stood alone in the sick man's room, between them no more barrier than the silk-hung curtains of the couch. He slid down his right hand and drew a keen-edged knife; about his left he looped the even more fatal cord; then advancing with a noiseless step he pulled back the drapery and looked down. It was the moment for swift and silent action; nothing but hesitation and delay could imperil him, yet in that supreme moment he stepped back, released the curtain from his faltering grasp and, suffering the weapons to fall unheeded to the floor, covered his face with his hands, for lying before him he had seen the outstretched form, the hard contemptuous features, of his father.
Yet most solemnly alienated from him in every degree. By Wu Chi's own acts every tie of kinship had been effaced between them: the bowl had been broken, the taper blown out, empty air had filled his place. Wu Chi acknowledged no memory of a son; he could claim no reverence as a father. . . . Tiao's husband. . . . Then he was doubly childless. . . . The woman and her seed had withered, as he had prophesied.
On the one hand stood the Society, powerful enough to protect him in every extremity, yet holding failure as treason; most terrible and inexorable towards set disobedience. His body might find a painless escape from their earthly torments, but by his oaths his spirit lay in their keeping to be punished through all eternity.
That he was no longer Wu Chi's son, that he had no father--this conviction had been strong enough to rule him in every contingency of life save this. By every law of men and deities the ties between them had been dissolved, and they stood as a man and man; yet the salt can never be quite washed out of sea-water.
For a time which ceased to be hours or minutes, but seemed as a fragment broken off eternity, he stood, motionless but most deeply racked. With an effort he stooped to take the cord, and paused again; twice he would have seized the dagger, but doubt again possessed him. From a distant point of the house came the chant of a monk singing a prayer and beating upon a wooden drum. The rays of the sun falling upon the gilded roof in the garden again caught his eyes; nothing else stirred.
"These in their turn have settled great issues lightly," thought Weng bitterly. "Must I wait upon an omen?"
". . . submitting oneself to purifying scars," droned the voice far off; "propitiating if need be by even greater self-inflictions . . ."
"It suffices," said Weng dispassionately, and picking up the knife he turned to leave the room.
At the door he paused again, but not in an arising doubt. "I will leave a token for Tiao to wear as a jest," was the image that had sprung from his new abasement, and taking a sheet of parchment he quickly wrote thereon: "A wave has beat from that distant shore to this, and now sinks in the unknown depths."
Again he stepped noiselessly to the couch, drew the curtain and dropped the paper lightly on the form. As he did so his breath stopped; his fingers stiffened. Cautiously, on one knee, he listened intently, lightly touched the face; then recklessly taking a hand he raised the arm and suffered it to fall again. No power restrained it; no alertness of awakening life came into the dull face. Wu Chi had already Passed Beyond.