The Timely Disputation among Those of an Inner Chamber of Yu-Ping
FOR the space of three days Ming-shu remained absent from Yu-pin, and the affections of Kai Lung and Hwa-mei prospered. On the evening of the third day the maiden stood beneath the shutter with a more definite look, and Kai Lung understood that a further period of unworthy trial was now at hand.
"Behold!" she explained, "at dawn the corrupt Ming-shu will pass within our gates again, nor is it prudent to assume that his enmity has lessened."
"On the contrary," replied Kai Lung, "like that unnatural reptile that lives on air, his malice will have grown upon the voidness of its cause. As the wise Ling-kwang remarks: 'He who plants a vineyard with one hand--'"
"Assuredly, beloved," interposed Hwa-mei dexterously. "But our immediate need is less to describe Ming-shu's hate in terms of classical analogy than to find a potent means of baffling its vevom."
"You are all-wise as usual," confessed Kai Lung, with due humility. "I will restrain my much too verbose tongue."
"The invading Banners from the north have for the moment failed and those who drew swords in their cause are flying to the hills. In Yu-ping, therefore, loyalty wears a fully round face and about the yamen of Shan Tien men speak almost in set terms. While these conditions prevail, justice will continue to be administered precisely as before. We have thus nothing to hope in that direction."
"Yet in the ideal state of purity aimed at by the illustrious founders of our race--" began Kai Lung, and ceased abruptly, remembering.
"As it is, we are in the state of Tsin in the fourteenth of the heaven-sent Ching," retorted Hwa-mei capably. "The insatiable Ming-shu will continue to seek your life, calling to his aid every degraded subterfuge. When the nature of these can be learned somewhat in advance, as the means within my power have hitherto enabled us to do, a trusty shield is raised in your defence."
Kai Lung would have spoken of the length and the breadth of his indebtedness, but she who stood below did not encourage this.
"Ming-shu's absence makes this plan fruitless here to-day, and as a consequence he may suddenly disclose a subtle snare to which your feet must bend. In this emergency my strategy has been towards safeguarding your irreplaceable life to-morrow at all hazard. Should this avail, Ming-shu's later schemes will present no baffling veil."
"Your virtuous little finger is as strong as Ming-shu's offensive thumb," remarked Kai Lung. "This person has no fear."
"Doubtless," acquiesced Hwa-mei. "But she who has spun the thread knows the weakness of the net. Heed well to the end that no ineptness may arise. Shan Tien of late extols your art, claiming that in every circumstance you have a story fitted to the need."
"He measures with a golden rule," agreed Kai Lung. "Left to himself, Shan Tien is a just, if superficial, judge."
The knowledge of this boast, Hwa-mei continued to relate, had spread to the inner chambers of the yamen, where the lesser ones vied with each other in proclaiming the merit of the captive minstrel. Amid this eulogy Hwa-mei moved craftily and played an insidious part, until she who was their appointed head was committed to the claim. Then the maiden raised a contentious voice.
"Our lord's trout were ever salmon," she declared, "and lo! here is another great and weighty fish! Assuredly no living man is thus and thus; or are the T'ang epicists returned to earth? Truly our noble one is easily pleased--in many ways!" With these well-fitted words she fixed her eyes upon the countenance of Shan Tien's chief wife and waited.
"The sun shines through his words and the moon adorns his utterances," replied the chief wife, with unswerving loyalty, though she added, no less suitably: "That one should please him easily and another therein fail, despite her ceaseless efforts, is as the Destinies provide."
"You are all-seeing," admitted Hwa-mei generously; "nor is a locked door any obstacle to your discovering eye. Let this arisement be submitted to a facile test. Dependent from my ill-formed ears are rings of priceless jade that have ever tinged your thoughts, while about your shapely neck is a crystal charm, to which an unclouded background would doubtless give some lustre. I will set aside the rings and thou shalt set aside the charm. Then, at a chosen time, this vaunted one shall attend before us here, and I having disclosed the substance of a theme, he shall make good the claim. If he so does, capably and without delay, thou shalt possess the jewels. But if, in the judgment of these around, he shall fail therein, then are both jewels mine. Is it so agreed?"
"It is agreed!" cried those who were the least concerned, seeing some entertainment to themselves. "Shall the trial take place at once?"
"Not so," replied Hwa-mei. "A sufficient space must be allowed for this one wherein to select the matter of the test. To-morrow let it be, before the hour of evening rice. And thou?"
"Inasmuch as it will enlarge the prescience of our lord in minds that are light and vaporous, I also do consent," replied the chief wife. "Yet must he too be of our company, to be witness of the upholding of his word and, if need be, to cast a decisive voice."
"Thus," continued Hwa-mei, as she narrated these events, "Shan Tien is committed to the trial and thereby he must preserve you until that hour. Tell me now the answer to the test, that I may frame the question to agree."
Kai Lung thought a while, then said:
"There is the story of Chang Tao. It concerns one who, bidden to do an impossible task, succeeded though he failed, and shows how two identically similar beings may be essentially diverse. To this should be subjoined the apophthegm that that which we are eager to obtain may be that which we have striven to avoid."
"It suffices," agreed Hwa-mei. "Bear well your part."
"Still," suggested Kai Lung, hoping to detain her retiring footsteps for yet another span, "were it not better that I should fall short at the test, thus to enlarge your word before your fellows?"
"And in so doing demean yourself, darken the face of Shan Tien's present regard, and alienate all those who stand around! O most obtuse Kai Lung!"
"I will then bare my throat," confessed Kai Lung. "The barbed thought had assailed my mind that perchance the rings of precious jade lay coiled around your heart. Thus and thus I spoke."
"Thus also will I speak," replied Hwa-mei, and her uplifted eyes held Kai Lung by the inner fibre of his being. "Did I value them as I do, and were they a single hair of my superfluous head, the whole head were freely offered to a like result."
With these noticeable words, which plainly testified the strength of her emotion, the maiden turned and hastened on her way, leaving Kai Lung gazing from the shutter in a very complicated state of disquietude.
After Chang Tao had reached the age of manhood his grandfather took him apart one day and spoke of a certain matter, speaking as a philosopher whose mind has at length overflowed.
"Behold!" he said, when they were at a discreet distance aside, "your years are now thus and thus, but there are still empty chairs where there should be occupied cradles in your inner chamber, and the only upraised voice heard in this spacious residence is that of your esteemed father repeating the Analects. The prolific portion of the tree of our illustrious House consists of its roots; its existence onwards narrows down to a single branch which as yet has put forth no blossoms."
"The loftiest tower rises from the ground," remarked Chang Tao evasively, not wishing to implicate himself on either side as yet.
"Doubtless; and as an obedient son it is commendable that you should close your ears, but as a discriminating father there is no reason by I should not open my mouth," continued the venerable Chang in a voice from which every sympathetic modulation was withdrawn. "It is admittedly a meritorious resolve to devote one's existence to explaining the meaning of a single obscure passage of one of the Odes, but if the detachment necessary to the achievement results in a hitherto carefully-preserved line coming to an incapable end, it would have been more satisfactory to the dependent shades of our revered ancestors that the one in question should have collected street garbage rather than literary instances, or turned somersaults in place of the pages of the Classics, had he but given his first care to providing you with a wife and thereby safeguarding our unbroken continuity."
"My father is all-wise," ventured Chang Tao dutifully, but observing the nature of the other's expression he hastened to add considerately, "but my father's father is even wiser."
"Inevitably," assented the one referred to; "not merely because he is the more mature by a generation, but also in that he is thereby nearer to the inspired ancients in whom the Cardinal Principles reside."
"Yet, assuredly, there must be occasional exceptions to this rule of progressive deterioration?" suggested Chang Tao, feeling that the process was not without a definite application to himself.
"Not in our pure and orthodox line," replied the other person firmly. "To suggest otherwise is to admit the possibility of a son being the superior of his own father, and to what a discordant state of things would that contention lead! However immaturely you may think at present, you will see the position at its true angle when you have sons of your own."
"The contingency is not an overhanging one," said Chang Tao. "On the last occasion when I reminded my venerated father of my age and unmarried state, he remarked that, whether he looked backwards or forwards, extinction seemed to be the kindest destiny to which our House could be subjected."
"Originality, carried to the length of eccentricity, is a censurable accomplishment in one of official rank," remarked the elder Chang coldly. "Plainly it is time that I should lengthen the authority of my own arm very perceptibly. If a father is so neglectful of his duty, it is fitting that a grandfather should supply his place. This person will himself procure a bride for you without delay."
"The function might perhaps seem an unusual one," suggested Chang Tao, who secretly feared the outcome of an enterprise conducted under these auspices.
"So, admittedly, are the circumstances. What suitable maiden suggests herself to your doubtless better-informed mind? Is there one of the house of Tung?"
"There are eleven," replied Chang Tao, with a gesture of despair, "all reputed to be untiring with their needle, skilled in the frugal manipulation of cold rice, devout, discreet in the lines of their attire, and so sombre of feature as to be collectively known to the available manhood of the city as the Terror that Lurks for the Unwary. Suffer not your discriminating footsteps to pause before that house, O father of my father! Now had you spoken of Golden Eyebrows, daughter of Kuo Wang--"
"It would be as well to open a paper umbrella in a thunderstorm as to seek profit from an alliance with Kuo Wang. Crafty and ambitious, he is already deep in questionable ventures, and high as he carries his head at present, there will assuredly come a day when Kuo Wang will appear in public with his feet held even higher than his crown."
"The rod!" exclaimed Chang Tao in astonishment. "Can it really be that one who is so invariably polite to me is not in every way immaculate?"
"Either bamboo will greet his feet or hemp adorn his neck," persisted the other, with a significant movement of his hands in the proximity of his throat. "Walk backwards in the direction of that house, son of my son. Is there not one Ning of the worthy line of Lo, dwelling beneath the emblem of a Sprouting Aloe?"
"Truly," agreed the youth, "but at an early age she came under the malign influence of a spectral vampire, and in order to deceive the creature she was adopted to the navigable portion of the river here, and being announced as having Passed Above was henceforth regarded as a red mullet."
"Yet in what detail does that deter you?" inquired Chang, for the nature of his grandson's expression betrayed an acute absence of enthusiasm towards the maiden thus concerned.
"Perchance the vampire was not deceived after all. In any case this person dislikes red mullet," replied the youth indifferently.
The venerable shook his head reprovingly.
"It is imprudent to be fanciful in matters of business," he remarked. "Lo Chiu, her father, is certainly the possessor of many bars of silver, and, as it is truly written: 'With wealth one may command demons; without it one cannot summon even a slave.'"
"It is also said: 'When the tree is full the doubtful fruit remains upon the branch,'" retorted Chang Tao. "Are not maidens in this city as the sand upon a broad seashore? If one opens and closes one's hands suddenly out in the Ways on a dark night, the chances are that three or four will be grasped. A stone cast at a venture--"
"Peace!" interrupted the elder. "Witless spoke thus even in the days of this person's remote youth--only the virtuous did not then open and close their hands suddenly in the Ways on dark nights. Is aught reported of the inner affairs of Shen Yi, a rich philosopher who dwells somewhat remotely on the Stone Path, out beyond the Seven Terraced Bridge?"
Chang Tao looked up with a sharply awakening interest.
"It is well not to forget that one," he replied. "He is spoken of as courteous but reserved, in that he drinks tea with few though his position is assured. Is not his house that which fronts on a summer-seat domed with red copper?"
"It is the same," agreed the other. "Speak on."
"What I recall is meagre and destitute of point. Nevertheless, it so chanced that some time ago this person was proceeding along the further Stone Path when an aged female mendicant, seated by the wayside, besought his charity. Struck by her destitute appearance he bestowed upon her a few unserviceable broken cash, such as one retains for the indigent, together with an appropriate blessing, when the hag changed abruptly into the appearance of a young and alluring maiden, who smilingly extended to this one her staff, which had meanwhile become a graceful branch of flowering lotus. The manifestation was not sustained, however, for as he who is relating the incident would have received the proffered flower he found that his hand was closing on the neck of an expectant serpent, which held in its mouth an agate charm. The damsel had likewise altered, imperceptibly merging into the form of an overhanging fig-tree, among whose roots the serpent twined itself. When this person would have eaten one of the ripe fruit of the tree he found that the skin was filled with a bitter dust, whereupon he withdrew, convinced that no ultimate profit was likely to result from the encounter. His departure was accompanied by the sound of laughter, mocking yet more melodious than a carillon of silver gongs hung in a porcelain tower, which seemed to proceed from the summer-seat domed with red copper."
"Some omen doubtless lay within the meeting," said the elder Chang. "Had you but revealed the happening fully on your return, capable geomancers might have been consulted. In this matter you have fallen short."
"It is admittedly easier to rule a kingdom than to control one's thoughts," confessed Chang Tao frankly. "A great storm of wind met this person on his way back, and when he had passed through it, all recollection of the incident had, for the time, been magically blown from his mind."
"It is now too late to question the augurs. But in the face of so involved a portent it would be well to avert all thought from Melodious Vision, wealthy Shen Yi's incredibly attractive daughter."
"It is unwise to be captious in affairs of negotiation," remarked the young man thoughtfully. "Is the smile of the one referred to such that at the vision of it the internal organs of an ordinary person begin to clash together, beyond the power of all control?"
"Not in the case of the one who is speaking," replied the grandfather of Chang Tao, "but a very illustrious poet, whom Shen Yi charitably employed about his pig-yard, certainly described it as a ripple on the surface of a dark lake of wine, when the moon reveals the hidden pearls beneath; and after secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants. But when maidens are as numerous as the grains of sand--"
"Esteemed," interposed Chang Tao, with smooth determination, "wisdom lurks in the saying: 'He who considers everything decides nothing.' Already this person has spent an unprofitable score of years through having no choice in the matter; at this rate he will spend yet another score through having too much. Your timely word shall be his beacon. Neither the disadvantage of Shen Yi's oppressive wealth nor the inconvenience of Melodious Vision's excessive beauty shall deter him from striving to fulfil your delicately expressed wish."
"Yet," objected the elder Chang, by no means gladdened at having the decision thus abruptly lifted from his mouth, "so far, only a partially formed project--"
"To a thoroughly dutiful grandson half a word from your benevolent lips carries further than a full-throated command does from a less revered authority."
"Perchance. This person's feet, however, are not liable to a similar acceleration, and a period of adequate consideration must intervene before they are definitely moving in the direction of Shen Yi's mansion. 'Where the road bends abruptly take short steps,' Chang Tao."
"The necessity will be lifted from your venerable shoulders, revered," replied Chang Tao firmly. "Fortified by your approving choice, this person will himself confront Shen Yi's doubtful countenance, and that same bend in the road will be taken at a very sharp angle and upon a single foot."
"In person! It is opposed to the Usages!" exclaimed the venerable; and at the contemplation of so undignified a course his voice prudently withdrew itself, though his mouth continued to open and close for a further period.
"'As the mountains rise, so the river winds,'" replied Chang Tao, and with unquenchable deference he added respectfully as he took his leave, "Fear not, eminence; you will yet remain to see five generations of stalwart he-children, all pressing forward to worship your imperishable memory."
In such a manner Chang Tao set forth to defy the Usages and--if perchance it might be--to speak to Shen Yi face to face of Melodious Vision. Yet in this it may be that the youth was not so much hopeful of success by his own efforts as that he was certain of failure by the elder Chang's. And in the latter case the person in question might then irrevocably contract him to a maiden of the house of Tung, or to another equally forbidding. Not inaptly is it written: "To escape from fire men will plunge into boiling water."
Nevertheless, along the Stone Path many doubts and disturbances arose within Chang Tao's mind. It was not in this manner that men of weight and dignity sought wives. Even if Shen Yi graciously overlooked the absence of polite formality, would not the romantic imagination of Melodious Vision be distressed when she learned that she had been approached with so indelicate an absence of ceremony? "Here, again," said Chang Tao's self-reproach accusingly, "you have, as usual, gone on in advance of both your feet and of your head. 'It is one thing to ignore the Rites: it is quite another to expect the gods to ignore the Penalties.' Assuredly you will suffer for it."
It was at this point that Chang Tao was approached by one who had noted his coming from afar, and had awaited him, for passers-by were sparse and remote.
"Prosperity attend your opportune footsteps," said the stranger respectfully. "A misbegotten goat-track enticed this person from his appointed line by the elusive semblance of an avoided li. Is there, within your enlightened knowledge, the house of one Shen Yi, who makes a feast to-day, positioned about this inauspicious region? It is further described as fronting on a summer-seat domed with red copper."
"There is such a house as you describe, at no great distance to the west," replied Chang Tao. "But that he marks the day with music had not reached these superficial ears."
"It is but among those of his inner chamber, this being the name-day of one whom he would honour in a refined and at the same time inexpensive manner. To that end am I bidden."
"Of what does your incomparable exhibition consist?" inquired Chang Tao.
"Of a variety of quite commonplace efforts. It is entitled 'Half-a-gong-stroke among the No-realities; or Gravity-removing devoid of Inelegance.' Thus, borrowing the neck-scarf of the most dignified-looking among the lesser ones assembled I will at once discover among its folds the unsuspected presence of a family of tortoises; from all parts of the person of the roundest-bodied mandarin available I will control the appearance of an inexhaustible stream of copper cash, and beneath the scrutinizing eyes of all a bunch of paper chrysanthemums will change into the similitude of a crystal bowl in whose clear depth a company of gold and silver carp glide from side to side."
"These things are well enough for the immature, and the sight of an unnaturally stout official having an interminable succession of white rabbits produced from the various recesses of his waistcloth admittedly melts the austerity of the superficial of both sexes. But can you, beneath the undeceptive light of day, turn a sere and unattractive hag into the substantial image of a young and beguiling maiden, and by a further complexity into a fruitful fig-tree; or induce a serpent so far to forsake its natural instincts as to poise on the extremity of its tail and hold a charm within its mouth?"
"None of these things lies within my admitted powers," confessed the stranger. "To what end does your gracious inquiry tend?"
"It is in the nature of a warning, for within the shadow of the house you seek manifestations such as I describe pass almost without remark. Indeed it is not unlikely that while in the act of displaying your engaging but simple skill you may find yourself transformed into a chameleon or saddled with the necessity of finishing your gravity-removing entertainment under the outward form of a Manchurian ape."
"Alas!" exclaimed the other. "The eleventh of the moon was ever this person's unlucky day, and he would have done well to be warned by a dream in which he saw an unsuspecting kid walk into the mouth of a voracious tiger."
"Undoubtedly the tiger was an allusion to the dangers awaiting you, but it is not yet too late for you to prove that you are no kid," counselled Chang Tao. "Take this piece of silver so that the enterprise of the day may not have been unfruitful and depart with all speed on a homeward path. He who speaks is going westward, and at the lattice of Shen Yi he will not fail to leave a sufficient excuse for your no-appearance."
"Your voice has the compelling ring of authority, beneficence," replied the stranger gratefully. "The obscure name of the one who prostrates himself is Wo, that of his degraded father being Weh. For this service he binds his ghost to attend your ghost through three cycles of time in the After."
"It is remitted," said Chang Tao generously, as he resumed his way. "May the path be flattened before your weary feet."
Thus, unsought as it were, there was placed within Chang Tao's grasp a staff that might haply bear his weight into the very presence of Melodious Vision herself. The exact strategy of the undertaking did not clearly yet reveal itself, but "When fully ripe the fruit falls of its own accord," and Chang Tao was content to leave such detail to the guiding spirits of his destinies. As he approached the outer door he sang cheerful ballads of heroic doings, partly because he was glad, but also to reassure himself.
"One whom he expects awaits," he announced to the keeper of the gate. "The name of Wo, the son of Weh, should suffice."
"It does not," replied the keeper, swinging his roomy sleeve specifically. "So far it has an empty, short-stopping sound. It lacks sparkle; it has no metallic ring. . . . He sleeps."
"Doubtless the sound of these may awaken him," said Chang Tao, shaking out a score of cash.
"Pass in munificence. Already his expectant eyes rebuke the unopen door."
Although he had been in a measure prepared by Wo, Chang Tao was surprised to find that three persons alone occupied the chamber to which he was conducted. Two of these were Shen Yi and a trusted slave; at the sight of the third Chang Tao's face grew very red and the deficiencies of his various attributes began to fill his mind with dark forebodings, for this was Melodious Vision and no man could look upon her without her splendour engulfing his imagination. No record of her pearly beauty is preserved beyond a scattered phrase or two; for the poets and minstrels of the age all burned what they had written, in despair at the inadequacy of words. Yet it remains that whatever a man looked for, that he found, and the measure of his requirement was not stinted.
"Greeting," said Shen Yi, with easy-going courtesy. He was a more meagre man than Chang Tao had expected, his face not subtle, and his manner restrained rather than oppressive. "You have come on a long and winding path; have you taken your rice?"
"Nothing remains lacking," replied Chang Tao, his eyes again elsewhere. "Command your slave, Excellence."
"In what particular direction do your agreeable powers of leisure-beguiling extend?"
So far Chang Tao had left the full consideration of this inevitable detail to the inspiration of the moment, but when the moment came the prompting spirits did not disclose themselves. His hesitation became more elaborate under the expression of gathering enlightenment that began to appear in Melodious Vision's eyes.
"An indifferent store of badly sung ballads," he was constrained to reply at length, "and--perchance--a threadbare assortment of involved questions and replies."
"Was it your harmonious voice that we were privileged to hear raised beneath our ill-fitting window a brief space ago?" inquired Shen Yi.
"Admittedly at the sight of this noble palace I was impelled to put my presumptuous gladness into song."
"Then let it fain be the other thing," interposed the maiden, with decision. "Your gladness came to a sad end, minstrel."
"Involved questions are by no means void of divertisement," remarked Shen Yi, with conciliatory mildness in his voice. "There was one, turning on the contradictory nature of a door which under favourable conditions was indistinguishable from an earthenware vessel, that seldom failed to baffle the unalert in the days before the binding of this person's hair."
"That was the one which it had been my feeble intention to propound," confessed Chang Tao.
"Doubtless there are many others equally enticing," suggested Shen Yi helpfully.
"Alas," admitted Chang Tao with conscious humiliation; "of all those wherein I retain an adequate grasp of the solution, the complication eludes me at the moment, and thus in a like but converse manner with the others."
"Esteemed parent," remarked Melodious Vision, without emotion, "this is neither a minstrel nor one in any way entertaining. It is merely Another."
"Another!" exclaimed Chang Tao in refined bitterness. "Is it possible that after taking so extreme and unorthodox a course as to ignore the Usages and advance myself in person I am to find that I have not even the mediocre originality of being the first, as a recommendation?"
"If the matter is thus and thus, so far from being the first, you are only the last of a considerable line of worthy and enterprising youths who have succeeded in gaining access to the inner part of this not really attractive residence on one pretext or another," replied the tolerant Shen Yi. "In any case you are honourably welcome. From the position of your various features I now judge you to be Tao, only son of the virtuous house of Chang. May you prove more successful in your enterprise than those who have preceded you."
"The adventure appears to be tending in unforeseen directions," said Chang Tao uneasily. "Your felicitation, benign, though doubtless gold at heart, is set in a doubtful frame."
"It is for your stalwart endeavour to assure a happy picture," replied Shen Yi, with undisturbed cordiality. "You bear a sword."
"What added involvement is this?" demanded Chang Tao. "This one's thoughts and intention were not turned towards savagery and arms, but in the direction of a pacific union of two distinguished lines."
"In such cases my attitude has invariably been one of sympathetic unconcern," declared Shen Yi. "The weight of either side produces an atmosphere of absolute poise that cannot fail to give full play to the decision of the destinies."
"But if this attitude is maintained on your part how can the proposal progress to a definite issue?" inquired Chang Tao.
"So far, it never has so progressed," admitted Shen Yi. "None of the worthy and hard-striving young men--any of whom I should have been overjoyed to greet as a son-in-law had my inopportune sense of impartiality permitted it--has yet returned from the trial to claim the reward."
"Even the Classics become obscure in the dark. Clear your throat of all doubtfulness, O Shen Yi, and speak to a definite end."
"That duty devolves upon this person, O would-be propounder of involved questions," interposed Melodious Vision. Her voice was more musical than a stand of hanging jewels touched by a rod of jade, and each word fell like a separate pearl. "He who ignores the Usages must expect to find the Usages ignored. Since the day when K'ung-tsz framed the Ceremonies much water has passed beneath the Seven Terraced Bridge, and that which has overflowed can never be picked up again. It is no longer enough that you should come and thereby I must go; that you should speak and I be silent; that you should beckon and I meekly obey. Inspired by the uprisen sisterhood of the outer barbarian lands, we of the inner chambers of the Illimitable Kingdom demand the right to express ourselves freely on every occasion and on every subject, whether the matter involved is one that we understand or not."
"Your clear-cut words will carry far," said Chang Tao deferentially, and, indeed, Melodious Vision's voice had imperceptibly assumed a penetrating quality that justified the remark. "Yet is it fitting that beings so superior in every way should be swayed by the example of those who are necessarily uncivilized and rude?"
"Even a mole may instruct a philosopher in the art of digging," replied the maiden, with graceful tolerance. "Thus among those uncouth tribes it is the custom, when a valiant youth would enlarge his face in the eyes of a maiden, that he should encounter forth and slay dragons, to the imperishable glory of her name. By this beneficent habit not only are the feeble and inept automatically disposed of, but the difficulty of choosing one from among a company of suitors, all apparently possessing the same superficial attributes, is materially lightened."
"The system may be advantageous in those dark regions," admitted Chang Tao reluctantly, "but it must prove unsatisfactory in our more favoured land."
"In what detail?" demanded the maiden, pausing in her attitude of assured superiority.
"By the essential drawback that whereas in those neglected outer parts there really are no dragons, here there really are. Thus--"
"Doubtless there are barbarian maidens for those who prefer to encounter barbarian dragons, then," exclaimed Melodious Vision, with a very elaborately sustained air of no-concern.
"Doubtless," assented Chang Tao mildly. "Yet having set forth in the direction of a specific Vision it is this person's intention to pursue it to an ultimate end."
"The quiet duck puts his foot on the unobservant worm," murmured Shen Yi, with delicate encouragement, adding "This one casts a more definite shadow than those before."
"Yet," continued the maiden, "to all, my unbending word is this: he who would return for approval must experience difficulties, overcome dangers and conquer dragons. Those who do not adventure on the quest will pass outward from this person's mind."
"And those who do will certainly Pass Upward from their own bodies," ran the essence of the youth's inner thoughts. Yet the network of her unevadable power and presence was upon him; he acquiescently replied:
"It is accepted. On such an errand difficulties and dangers will not require any especial search. Yet how many dragons slain will suffice to win approval?"
"Crocodile-eyed one!" exclaimed Melodious Vision, surprised into wrathfulness. "How many--" Here she withdrew in abrupt vehemence.
"Your progress has been rapid and profound," remarked Shen Yi, as, with flattering attention, he accompanied Chang Tao some part of the way towards the door. "Never before has that one been known to leave a remark unsaid; I do not altogether despair of seeing her married yet. As regards the encounter with the dragon--well, in the case of the one whispering in your ear there was the revered mother of the one whom he sought. After all, a dragon is soon done with--one way or the other."
In such a manner Chang Tao set forth to encounter dragons, assured that difficulties and dangers would accompany him on either side. In this latter detail he was inspired, but as the great light faded and the sky-lantern rose in interminable succession, while the unconquerable li ever stretched before his expectant feet, the essential part of the undertaking began to assume a dubious facet. In the valleys and fertile places he learned that creatures of this part now chiefly inhabited the higher fastnesses, such regions being more congenial to their wild and intractable natures. When, however, after many laborious marches he reached the upper peaks of pathless mountains the scanty crag-dwellers did not vary in their assertion that the dragons had for some time past forsaken those heights for the more settled profusion of the plains. Formerly, in both places they had been plentiful, and all those whom Chang Tao questioned spoke openly of many encounters between their immediate forefathers and such Beings.
It was in the downcast frame of mind to which the delays in accomplishing his mission gave rise that Chang Tao found himself walking side by side with one who bore the appearance of an affluent merchant. The northernward way was remote and solitary, but seeing that the stranger carried no outward arms Chang Tao greeted him suitably and presently spoke of the difficulty of meeting dragons, or of discovering their retreats from dwellers in that region.
"In such delicate matters those who know don't talk, and those who talk don't know," replied the other sympathetically. "Yet for what purpose should one who would pass as a pacific student seek to encounter dragons?"
"For a sufficient private reason it is necessary that I should kill a certain number," replied Chang Tao freely. "Thus their absence involves me in much ill-spared delay."
At this avowal the stranger's looks became more sombre, and he breathed inwards several times between his formidable teeth before he made reply.
"This is doubtless your angle, but there is another; nor is it well to ignore the saying, 'Should you miss the tiger be assured that he will not miss you,'" he remarked at length. "Have you sufficiently considered the eventuality of a dragon killing you?"
"It is no less aptly said: 'To be born is in the course of nature, but to die is according to the decree of destiny.'"
"That is a two-edged weapon, and the dragon may be the first to apply it."
"In that case this person will fall back upon the point of the adage: 'It is better to die two years too soon than to live one year too long,'" replied Chang Tao. "Should he fail in the adventure and thus lose all hope of Melodious Vision, of the house of Shen, there will be no further object in prolonging a wearisome career."
"You speak of Melodious Vision, she being of the house of Shen," said the stranger, regarding his companion with an added scrutiny. "Is the unmentioned part of her father's honourable name Yi, and is his agreeable house so positioned that it fronts upon a summer-seat domed with red copper?"
"The description is exact," admitted Chang Tao. "Have you, then, in the course of your many-sided travels, passed that way?"
"It is not unknown to me," replied the other briefly. "Learn now how incautious had been your speech, and how narrowly you have avoided the exact fate of which I warned you. The one speaking to you is in reality a powerful dragon, his name being Pe-lung, from the circumstance that the northern limits are within his sway. Had it not been for a chance reference you would certainly have been struck dead at the parting of our ways."
"If this is so it admittedly puts a new face upon the matter," agreed Chang Tao. "Yet how can reliance be spontaneously placed upon so incredible a claim? You are a man of moderate cast, neither diffident nor austere, and with no unnatural attributes. All the dragons with which history is concerned possess a long body and a scaly skin, and have, moreover, the power of breathing fire at will."
"That is easily put to the test." No sooner had Pe-lung uttered these words than he faded, and in his place appeared a formidable monster possessing all the terror-inspiring characteristics of his kind. Yet in spite of his tree-like eyebrows, fiercely-moving whiskers and fire-breathing jaws, his voice was mild and pacific as he continued: "What further proof can be required? Assuredly, the self-opinionated spirit in which you conduct your quest will bring you no nearer to a desired end."
"Yet this will!" exclaimed Chang Tao, and suddenly drawing his reliable sword he drove it through the middle part of the dragon's body. So expertly was the thrust weighted that the point of the weapon protruded on the other side and scarred the earth. Instead of falling lifeless to the ground, however, the Being continued to regard its assailant with benignant composure, whereupon the youth withdrew the blade and drove it through again, five or six times more. As this produced no effect beyond rendering the edge of the weapon unfit for further use, and almost paralysing the sinews of his own right arm, Chang Tao threw away the sword and sat down on the road in order to recall his breath. When he raised his head again the dragon had disappeared and Pe-lung stood there as before.
"Fortunately it is possible to take a broad-minded view of your uncourteous action, owing to your sense of the fitnesses being for the time in abeyance through allegiance to so engaging a maiden as Melodious Vision," said Pe-lung in a voice not devoid of reproach. "Had you but confided in me more fully I should certainly have cautioned you in time. As it is, you have ended by notching your otherwise capable weapon beyond repair and seriously damaging the scanty cloak I wear"--indicating the numerous rents that marred his dress of costly fur. "No wonder dejection sits upon your downcast brow."
"Your priceless robe is a matter of profuse regret and my self-esteem can only be restored by your accepting in its place this threadbare one of mine. My rust-eaten sword is unworthy of your second thought. But certainly neither of these two details is the real reason of my dark despair."
"Disclose yourself more openly," urged Pe-lung.
"I now plainly recognize the futility of my well-intentioned quest. Obviously it is impossible to kill a dragon, and I am thus the sport either of Melodious Vision's deliberate ridicule or of my own ill-arranged presumption."
"Set your mind at rest upon that score: each blow was competently struck and convincingly fatal. You may quite fittingly claim to have slain half a dozen dragons at the least--none of the legendary champions of the past has done more."
"Yet how can so arrogant a claim be held, seeing that you stand before me in the unimpaired state of an ordinary existence?"
"The explanation is simple and assuring. It is, in reality, very easy to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead. The reason for this is that the Five Essential Constituents of fire, water, earth, wood and metal are blended in our bodies in the Sublime or Indivisible proportion. Thus although it is not difficult by extreme violence to disturb the harmonious balance of the Constituents, and so bring about the effect of no-existence, they at once re-tranquillize again, and all effect of the ill usage is spontaneously repaired."
"That is certainly a logical solution, but it stands in doubtful stead when applied to the familiar requirements of life; nor is it probable that one so acute-witted as Melodious Vision would greet the claim with an acquiescent face," replied Chang Tao. "Not unnaturally is it said: 'He who kills tigers does not wear rat-skin sleeves.' It would be one thing to make a boast of having slain six dragons; it would be quite another to be bidden to bring in their tails."
"That is a difficulty which must be considered," admitted Pe-lung, "but a path round it will inevitably be found. In the meantime night is beginning to encircle us, and many dark Powers will be freed and resort to these inaccessible slopes. Accompany me, therefore, to my bankrupt hovel, where you will be safe until you care to resume your journey."
To this agreeable proposal Chang Tao at once assented. The way was long and laborious, "For," remarked Pe-lung, "in an ordinary course I should fly there in a single breath of time; but to seize an honoured guest by the body-cloth and thus transfer him over the side of a mountain is toilsome to the one and humiliating to the other."
To beguile the time he spoke freely of the hardships of his lot.
"We dragons are frequently objects of envy at the hands of the undiscriminating, but the few superficial privileges we enjoy are heavily balanced by the exacting scope of our duties. Thus to-night it is my degraded task to divert the course of the river flowing below us, so as to overwhelm the misguided town of Yang, wherein swells a sordid outcast who has reviled the Sacred Claw. In order to do this properly it will be my distressing part to lie across the bed of the stream, my head resting upon one bank and my tail upon the other, and so remain throughout the rigour of the night.
As they approached the cloudy pinnacle whereon was situated the dragon's cave, one came forth at a distance to meet them. As she drew near, alternating emotions from time to time swayed Chang Tao's mind. From beneath a well-ruled eyebrow Pe-lung continued to observe him closely.
"Fuh-sang, the unattractive daughter of my dwindling line," remarked the former person, with refined indifference. "I have rendered you invisible, and she, as her custom is, would advance to greet me."
"But this enchanting apparition is Melodious Vision!" exclaimed Chang Tao. "What new bewilderment is here?"
"Since you have thus expressed yourself, I will now throw off the mask and reveal fully why I have hitherto spared your life, and for what purpose I have brought you to these barren heights," replied Pe-lung. "In the past Shen Yi provoked the Deities, and to mark their displeasure it was decided to take away his she-child and to substitute for it one of demoniac birth. Accordingly Fuh-sang, being of like age, was moulded to its counterpart, and an attendant gnome was despatched with her secretly to make the change. Becoming overwhelmed with the fumes of rice-spirit, until then unknown to his simple taste, this clay-brained earth-pig left the two she-children alone for a space while he slept. Discovering each other to be the creature of another part, they battled together and tore from one another the signs of recognition. When the untrustworthy gnome recovered from his stupor he saw what he had done, but being terror-driven he took up one of the she-children at a venture and returned with a pliant tale. It was not until a few moons ago that while in a close extremity he confessed his crime. Meanwhile Shen Yi had made his peace with those Above and the order being revoked the she-children had been exchanged again. Thus the matter rests."
"Which, then, of the twain is she inherent of your house and which Melodious Vision?" demanded Chang Tao in some concern. "The matter can assuredly not rest thus."
"That," replied Pe-lung affably, "it will be your engaging task to unravel, and to this end will be your opportunity of closely watching Fuh-sang's unsuspecting movements in my absence through the night."
"Yet how should I, to whom the way of either maiden is as yet no more than the title-page of a many-volumed book, succeed where the father native to one has failed?"
"Because in your case the incentive will be deeper. Destined, as you doubtless are, to espouse Melodious Vision, the Forces connected with marriage and its Rites will certainly endeavour to inspire you. This person admittedly has no desire to nurture one who should prove to be of merely human seed, but your objection to propagating a race of dragonets turns on a keener edge. Added to all, a not unnatural disinclination to be dropped from so great a height as this into so deep and rocky a valley as that will conceivably lend wings to your usually nimble-footed mind."
While speaking to Chang Tao in this encouraging strain, Pe-lung was also conversing suitably with Fuh-sang, who had by this time joined them, warning her of his absence until the dawn, and the like. When he had completed his instruction he stroked her face affectionately, greeting Chang Tao with a short but appropriate farewell, and changing his form projected himself downwards into the darkness of the valley below. Recognizing that the situation into which he had been drawn possessed no other outlet, Chang Tao followed Fuh-sang on her backward path, and with her passed unsuspected into the dragon's cave.
Early as was Pe-lung's return on the ensuing morning, Chang Tao stood on a rocky eminence to greet him, and the outline of his face, though not altogether free of doubt, was by no means hopeless. Pe-lung still retained the impressive form of a gigantic dragon as he cleft the Middle Air, shining and iridescent, each beat of his majestic wings being as a roll of thunder and the skittering of sand and water from his crepitant scales leaving blights and rain-storms in his wake. When he saw Chang Tao he drove an earthward angle and alighting near at hand considerately changed into the semblance of an affluent merchant as he approached.
"Greeting," he remarked cheerfully. "Did you find your early rice?"
"It has sufficed," replied Chang Tao. "How is your own incomparable stomach?"
Pe-lung pointed to the empty bed of the deflected river and moved his head from side to side as one who draws an analogy to his own condition. "But of your more pressing enterprise," he continued, with sympathetic concern: "have you persevered to a fruitful end, or will it be necessary--?" And with tactful feeling he indicated the gesture of propelling an antagonist over the side of a precipice rather than allude to the disagreeable contingency in spoken words.
"When the oil is exhausted the lamp goes out," admitted Chang Tao, "but my time is not yet come. During the visionary watches of the night my poising mind was sustained by Forces as you so presciently foretold, and my groping hand was led to an inspired solution of the truth."
"This points to a specific end. Proceed," urged Pe-lung, for Chang Tao had hesitated among his words as though their import might not be soothing to the other's mind.
"Thus it is given me to declare: she who is called Melodious Vision is rightly of the house of Shen, and Fuh-sang is no less innate of your exalted tribe. The erring gnome, in spite of his misdeed, was but a finger of the larger hand of destiny, and as it is, it is."
"This assurance gladdens my face, no less for your sake than for my own," declared Pe-lung heartily. "For my part, I have found a way to enlarge you in the eyes of those whom you solicit. It is a custom with me that every thousand years I should discard my outer skin--not that it requires it, but there are certain standards to which we better-class dragons must conform. These sloughs are hidden beneath a secret stone, beyond the reach of the merely vain or curious. When you have disclosed the signs by which I shall have securance of Fuh-sang's identity I will pronounce the word and the stone being thus released you shall bear away six suits of scales in token of your prowess."
Then replied Chang Tao: "The signs, Assuredly. Yet, omnipotence, without your express command the specific detail would be elusive to my respectful tongue."
"You have the authority of my extended hand," conceded Pe-lung readily, raising it as he spoke. "Speak freely."
"I claim the protection of its benignant shadow," said Chang Tao, with content. "You, O Pe-lung, are one who has mingled freely with creatures of every kind in all the Nine Spaces. Yet have you not, out of your vast experience thus gained, perceived the essential wherein men and dragons differ? Briefly and devoid of graceful metaphor, every dragon, esteemed, would seem to possess a tail; beings of my part have none."
For a concise moment the nature of Pe-lung's reflection was clouded in ambiguity, though the fact that he became entirely enveloped in a dense purple vapour indicated feelings of more than usual vigour. When this cleared away it left his outer form unchanged indeed, but the affable condescension of his manner was merged into one of dignified aloofness.
"Certainly all members of our enlightened tribe have tails," he replied, with distant precision, "nor does this one see how any other state is possible. Changing as we constantly do, both male and female, into Beings, Influences, Shadows and unclothed creatures of the lower parts, it is essential for our mutual self-esteem that in every manifestation we should be thus equipped. At this moment, though in the guise of a substantial trader, I possess a tail--small but adequate. Is it possible that you and those of your insolvent race are destitute?"
"In this particular, magnificence, I and those of my threadbare species are most lamentably deficient. To the proving of this end shall I display myself?"
"It is not necessary," said Pe-lung coldly. "It is inconceivable that, were it otherwise, you would admit the humiliating fact."
"Yet out of your millenaries of experience you must already--"
"It is well said that after passing a commonplace object a hundred times a day, at nightfall its size and colour are unknown to one," replied Pe-lung. "In this matter, from motives which cannot have been otherwise than delicate, I took too much for granted it would seem. . . . Then you--all--Shen Yi, Melodious Vision, the military governor of this province, even the sublime Emperor--all--?"
"All tailless," admitted Chang Tao, with conscious humility. "Nevertheless there is a tradition that in distant aeons--"
"Doubtless on some issue you roused the High Ones past forgiveness and were thus deprived as the most signal mark of their displeasure."
"Doubtless," assented Chang Tao, with unquenchable politeness.
"Coming to the correct attitude that you have maintained throughout, it would appear that during the silent gong-strokes of the night, by some obscure and indirect guidance it was revealed to you that Fuh--that any Being of my superior race was, on the contrary--" The menace of Pe-lung's challenging eye, though less direct and assured than formerly, had the manner of being uncertainly restrained by a single much-frayed thread, but Chang Tao continued to meet it with respectful self-possession.
"The inference is unflinching," he replied acquiescently. "I prostrate myself expectantly."
"You have competently performed your part," admitted Pe-lung, although an occasional jet of purple vapour clouded his upper person and the passage of his breath among his teeth would have been distasteful to one of sensitive refinement. "Nothing remains but the fulfilling of my iron word."
Thereupon he pronounced a mystic sign and revealing the opening to a cave he presently brought forth six sets of armoured skin. Binding these upon Chang Tao's back, he dismissed him, yet the manner of his parting was as of one who is doubtful even to the end.
But who having made a distant journey into Outer Land speaks lengthily of the level path of his return, or of the evening glow upon the gilded roof of his awaiting home? Thus, this limit being reached in the essential story of Chang Tao, Melodious Vision and the Dragon, he who relates their commonplace happenings bows submissively.
Nevertheless it is true that once again in a later time Chang Tao encountered in the throng one whom he recognized. Encouraged by the presence of so many of his kind, he approached the other and saluted him.
"Greeting, O Pe-lung," he said, with outward confidence. "What bends your footsteps to this busy place of men?"
"I come to buy an imitation pig-tail to pass for one," replied Pe-lung, with quiet composure. "Greeting, valorous champion! How fares Melodious Vision?"
"Agreeably so," admitted Chang Tao, and then, fearing that so far his reply had been inadequate, he added: "Yet, despite the facts, there are moments when this person almost doubts if he did not make a wrong decision in the matter after all."
"That is a very common complaint," said Pe-lung, becoming most offensively amused.