The Incredible Obtuseness of Those who had Opposed the Virtuous Kai Lung
IT was later than the appointed hour that same day when Kai Lung and Hwa-mei met about the shutter, for the Mandarin's importunity had disturbed the harmonious balance of their fixed arrangement. As the story-teller left the inner chamber a message of understanding, veiled from those who stood around, had passed between their eyes, and so complete was the sympathy that now directed them that without a spoken word their plans were understood. Li-loe's acquiescence had been secured by the bestowal of a flask of wine (provided already by Hwa-mei against such an emergency), and though the door-keeper had indicated reproach by a variety of sounds, he forbore from speaking openly of any vaster store.
"Let the bitterness of this one's message be that which is first spoken, so that the later and more enduring words of our remembrance may be devoid of sting. A star has shone across my mediocre path which now an envious cloud has conspired to obscure. This meeting will doubtless be our last."
Then replied Kai Lung from the darkness of the space above, his voice unhurried as its wont:
"If this is indeed the end, then to the spirits of the destinies I prostrate myself in thanks for those golden hours that have gone before, and had there been no others to recall then would I equally account myself repaid in life and death by this."
"My words ascend with yours in a pale spiral to the bosom of the universal mother," Hwa-mei made response. "I likewise am content, having tasted this felicity."
"There is yet one other thing, esteemed, if such a presumption is to be endured," Kai Lung ventured to request. "Each day a stone has been displaced from off the wall and these now lie about your gentle feet. If you should inconvenience yourself to the extent of standing upon the mound thus raised, and would stretch up your hand, I, leaning forth, could touch it with my finger-tips."
"This also will I dare to do and feel it no reproach," replied Hwa-mei; thus for the first time their fingers met.
"Let me now continue the ignoble message that my unworthy lips must bear," resumed the maiden, with a gesture of refined despair. "Ming-shu and Shan Tien, recognizing a mutual need in each, have agreed to forego their wordy strife and have entered upon a common cause. To mark this reconciliation the Mandarin to-morrow night will make a feast of wine and song in honour of Ming-shu and into this assembly you will be led, bound and wearing the wooden cang, to contribute to their offensive mirth. To this end you will not be arraigned to-morrow, but on the following morning at a special court swift sentence will be passed and carried out, neither will Shan Tien suffer any interruption nor raise an arresting hand."
The darkness by this time encompassed them so that neither could see the other's face, but across the scent-laden air Hwa-mei was conscious of a subtle change, as of a poise or the tightening of a responsive cord.
"This is the end?" she whispered up, unable to sustain. "Ah, is it not the end?"
"In the high wall of destiny that bounds our lives there is ever a hidden gap to which the Pure Ones may guide our unconscious steps perchance, if they see fit to intervene. . . . So that to-morrow, being the eleventh of the Moon of Gathering-in, is to be celebrated by the noble Mandarin with song and wine? Truly the nimble-witted Ming-shu must have slumbered by the way!"
"Assuredly he has but now returned from a long journey."
"Haply he may start upon a longer. Have the musicians been commanded yet?"
"Even now one goes to inform the leader of their voices and to bid him hold his band in readiness."
"Let it be your continual aim that nothing bars their progress. Where does that just official dwell of whom you lately spoke?"
"The Censor K'o-yih, he who rebuked Shan Tien's ambitions and made him mend his questionable life? His yamen is about the Three-eyed Gate of Tai, a half-day's journey to the south."
"The lines converge and the issues of Shan Tien, Ming-shu and we who linger here will presently be brought to a very decisive point where each must play a clear-cut part. To that end is your purpose firm?"
"Lay your commands," replied Hwa-mei steadfastly, "and measure not the burden of their weight."
"It is well," agreed Kai Lung. "Let Shan Tien give the feast and the time of acquiescence will have passed. . . . The foothold of to-morrow looms insecure, yet a very pressing message must meanwhile reach your hands."
"At the feast?"
"Thus: about the door of the inner hall are two great jars of shining brass, one on either side, and at their approach a step. Being led, at that step I shall stumble. . . . the message you will thereafter find in the jar from which I seek support."
"It shall be to me as your spoken word. Alas! the moment of recall is already here."
"Doubt not; we stand on the edge of an era that is immeasurable. For that emergency I now go to consult the spirits who have so far guided us."
On the following day at an evening hour Kai Lung received an imperious summons to accompany one who led him to the inner courts. Yet neither the cords about his arms nor the pillory around his neck could contain the gladness of his heart. From within came the sounds of instruments of wood and string with the measured beating of a drum; nothing had fallen short, for on that forbidden day, incredibly blind to the depths of his impiety, the ill-starred Mandarin Shan Tien was having music!
"Gall of a misprocured she-mule!" exclaimed the unsympathetic voice of the one who had charge of him, and the rope was jerked to quicken his loitering feet. In an effort to comply Kai Lung missed the step that crossed his path and stumbling blindly forward would have fallen had he not struck heavily against a massive jar of lacquered brass, one of two that flanked the door.
"Thy province is to tell a tale rather than to dance a grotesque, as I understand the matter," said the attendant, mollified by the amusement. "In any case, restrain thy admitted ardour for a while; the call is not yet for us."
From a group that stood apart some distance from the door one moved forth and leisurely crossed the hall. Kai Lung's wounded head ceased to pain him.
"What slave is this," she demanded of the other in a slow and level tone, "and wherefore do the two of you intrude on this occasion?"
"The exalted lord commands that this one of the prisoners should attend here thus, to divert them with his fancies, he having a certain wit of the more foolish kind. Kai Lung, the dog's name is."
"Approach yet nearer to the inner door," enjoined the maiden, indicating the direction; "so that when the message comes there shall be no inept delay." As they moved off to obey she stood in languid unconcern, leaning across the opening of a tall brass vase, one hand swinging idly in its depths, until they reached their station. Kai Lung did not need his eyes to know.
Presently the music ceased, and summoned to appear in turn, Kai Lung stood forth among the guests. On the right hand of the Mandarin reclined the base Ming-shu, his mind already vapoury with the fumes of wine, the secret malice of his envious mind now boldly leaping from his eyes.
"The overrated person now about to try your refined patience to its limit is one who calls himself Kai Lung," declared Ming-shu offensively. "From an early age he has combined minstrelsy with other and more lucrative forms of crime. It is the boast of this contumacious mendicant that he can recite a story to fit any set of circumstances, this, indeed, being the only merit claimed for his feeble entertainment. The test selected for your tolerant amusement on this very second-rate occasion is that he relates the story of a presuming youth who fixes his covetous hopes upon one so far above his degraded state that she and all who behold his uncouth efforts are consumed by helpless laughter. Ultimately he is to be delivered to a severe but well-earned death by a conscientious official whose leisurely purpose is to possess the maiden for himself. Although occasionally bordering on the funereal, the details of the narrative are to be of a light and gravity-removing nature on the whole. Proceed."
The story-teller made obeisance towards the Mandarin, whose face meanwhile revealed a complete absence of every variety of emotion.
"Have I your genial permission to comply, nobility?" he asked.
"The word is spoken," replied Shan Tien unwillingly. "Let the vaunt be justified."
"I obey, High Excellence. This involves the story of Hien and the Chief Examiner."
In the reign of the Emperor K'ong there lived at Ho Chow an official named Thang-li, whose degree was that of Chief Examiner of Literary Competitions for the district. He had an only daughter, Fa Fei, whose mind was so liberally stored with graceful accomplishments as to give rise to the saying that to be in her presence was more refreshing than to sit in a garden of perfumes listening to the wisdom of seven elderly philosophers, while her glossy floating hair, skin of crystal lustre, crescent nails and feet smaller and more symmetrical than an opening lotus made her the most beautiful creature in all Ho Chow. Possessing no son, and maintaining an open contempt towards all his nearer relations, it had become a habit for Thang-li to converse with his daughter almost on terms of equality, so that she was not surprised on one occasion, when, calling her into his presence, he graciously commanded her to express herself freely on whatever subject seemed most important in her mind.
"The Great Middle Kingdom in which we live is not only inhabited by the most enlightened, humane and courteous-minded race, but is itself fittingly the central and most desirable point of the Universe, surrounded by other less favoured countries peopled by races of pig-tailless men and large-footed women, all destitute of refined intelligence," replied Fa Fei modestly. "The sublime Emperor is of all persons the wisest, purest and--"
"Undoubtedly," interrupted Thang-li. "These truths are of gem-like brilliance, and the ears of a patriotic subject can never be closed to the beauty and music of their ceaseless repetition. Yet between father and daughter in the security of an inner chamber there not unnaturally arise topics of more engrossing interest. For example, now that you are of a marriageable age, have your eyes turned in the direction of any particular suitor?"
"Oh, thrice-venerated sire!" exclaimed Fa Fei, looking vainly round for some attainable object behind which to conceal her honourable confusion, "should the thoughts of a maiden dwell definitely on a matter of such delicate consequence?"
"They should not," replied her father; "but as they invariably do, the speculation is one outside our immediate concern. Nor, as it is your wonted custom to ascend upon the outside roof at a certain hour of the morning, is it reasonable to assume that you are ignorant of the movements of the two young men who daily contrive to linger before this in no way attractive residence without any justifiable pretext."
"My father is all-seeing," replied Fa Fei in a commendable spirit of dutiful acquiescence, and also because it seemed useless to deny the circumstance.
"It is unnecessary," said Thang-li. "Surrounded, as he is, by a retinue of eleven female attendants, it is enough to be all-hearing. But which of the two has impressed you in the more favourable light?"
"How can the inclinations of an obedient daughter affect the matter?" said Fa Fei evasively. "Unless, O most indulgent, it is your amiable intention to permit me to follow the inspiration of my own unfettered choice?"
"Assuredly," replied the benevolent Thang-li. "Provided, of course, that the choice referred to should by no evil mischance run in a contrary direction to my own maturer judgment."
"Yet if such an eventuality did haply arise?" persisted Fa Fei.
"None but the irredeemably foolish spend their time in discussing the probable sensation of being struck by a thunderbolt," said Thang-li more coldly. "From this day forth, also, be doubly guarded in the undeviating balance of your attitude. Restrain the swallow-like flights of your admittedly brilliant eyes, and control the movements of your expressive fan within the narrowest bounds of necessity. This person's position between the two is one of exceptional delicacy and he has by no means yet decided which to favour.
"In such a case," inquired Fa Fei, caressing his pig-tail persuasively, "how does a wise man act, and by what manner of omens is he influenced in his decision?"
"In such a case," replied Thang-li, "a very wise man does not act; but maintaining an impassive countenance, he awaits the unrolling of events until he sees what must inevitably take place. It is thus that his reputation for wisdom is built up."
"Furthermore," said Fa Fei hopefully, "the ultimate pronouncement rests with the guarding deities?"
"Unquestionably," agreed Thang-li. "Yet, by a venerable custom, the esteem of the maiden's parents is the detail to which the suitors usually apply themselves with the greatest diligence."
Of the two persons thus referred to by Thang-li, one, Tsin Lung, lived beneath the sign of the Righteous Ink Brush. By hereditary right Tsin Lung followed the profession of copying out the more difficult Classics in minute characters upon parchments so small that an entire library could be concealed among the folds of a garment, in this painstaking way enabling many persons who might otherwise have failed at the public examination, and been driven to spend an idle and perhaps even dissolute life, to pass with honourable distinction to themselves and widespread credit to his resourceful system. One gratified candidate, indeed, had compared his triumphal passage through the many grades of the competition to the luxurious ease of being carried in a sedan-chair, and from that time Tsin Lung was jestingly referred to as a "sedan-chair."
It might reasonably be thought that a person enjoying this enviable position would maintain a loyal pride in the venerable traditions of his house and suffer the requirements of his craft to become the four walls of his ambition. Alas! Tsin Lung must certainly have been born under the influence of a very evil planet, for the literary quality of his profession did not entice his imagination at all, and his sole and frequently-expressed desire was to become a pirate. Nothing but the necessity of obtaining a large sum of money with which to purchase a formidable junk and to procure the services of a band of capable and bloodthirsty outlaws bound him to Ho Chow, unless, perchance, it might be the presence there of Fa Fei after he had once cast his piratical eye upon her overwhelming beauty.
The other of the two persons was Hien, a youth of studious desires and unassuming manner. His father had been the chief tax-collector of the Chunling mountains, beyond the town, and although the exact nature of the tax and the reason for its extortion had become forgotten in the process of interminable ages, he himself never admitted any doubt of his duty to collect it from all who passed over the mountains, even though the disturbed state of the country made it impossible for him to transmit the proceeds to the capital. To those who uncharitably extended the envenomed tongue of suspicion towards the very existence of any Imperial tax, the father of Hien replied with unshaken loyalty that in such a case the sublime Emperor had been very treacherously served by his advisers, as the difficulty of the paths and the intricate nature of the passes rendered the spot peculiarly suitable for the purpose, and as he was accompanied by a well-armed and somewhat impetuous band of followers, his arguments were inevitably successful. When he Passed Beyond, Hien accepted the leadership, but solely out of a conscientious respect for his father's memory, for his heart was never really in the occupation. His time was almost wholly taken up in reading the higher Classics, and even before he had seen Fa Fei his determination had been taken that when once he had succeeded in passing the examination for the second degree and thereby become entitled to an inferior mandarinship he would abandon his former life forever. From this resolution the entreaties of his devoted followers could not shake him, and presently they ceased to argue, being reassured by the fact that although Hien presented himself unfailingly for every examination his name appeared at the foot of each successive list with unvarying frequency. It was at this period that he first came under the ennobling spell of Fa Fei's influence and from that time forth he redoubled his virtuous efforts.
After conversing with her father, as already related, Fa Fei spent the day in an unusually thoughtful spirit. As soon as it was dark she stepped out from the house and veiling her purpose under the pretext of gathering some herbs to complete a charm she presently entered a grove of overhanging cedars where Hien had long been awaiting her footsteps.
"Rainbow of my prosaic existence!" he exclaimed, shaking hands with himself courteously, "have you yet carried out your bold suggestion?" and so acute was his anxiety for her reply that he continued to hold his hand unconsciously until Fa Fei turned away her face in very becoming confusion.
"Alas, O my dragon-hearted one," she replied at length, "I have indeed dared to read the scroll, but how shall this person's inelegant lips utter so detestable a truth?"
"It is already revealed," said Hien, striving to conceal from her his bitterness. "When the list of competitors at the late examination is publicly proclaimed to-morrow at the four gates of the city, the last name to be announced will again, and for the eleventh time, be that of the degraded Hien."
"Beloved," exclaimed Fa Fei, resolved that as she could not honourably deny that her Hien's name was again indeed the last one to appear she would endeavour to lead his mind subtly away to the contemplation of more pleasurable thoughts, "it is as you have said, but although your name is the last, it is by far the most dignified and romantic-sounding of all, nor is there another throughout the list which can be compared to it for the ornamental grace of its flowing curves."
"Nevertheless," replied Hien, in a violent access of self-contempt, "it is a name of abandoned omen and is destined only to reach the ears of posterity to embellish the proverb of scorn, 'The lame duck should avoid the ploughed field.' Can there--can there by no chance have been some hope-inspiring error?"
"Thus were the names inscribed on the parchment which after the public announcement will be affixed to the Hall of Ten Thousand Lustres," replied Fa Fei. "With her own unworthy eyes this incapable person beheld it."
"The name 'Hien' is in no way striking or profound," continued the one in question, endeavouring to speak as though the subject referred to some person standing at a considerable distance away. "Furthermore, so commonplace and devoid of character are its written outlines that it has very much the same appearance whichever way up it is looked at. . . . The possibility that in your graceful confusion you held the list in such a position that what appeared to be the end was in reality the beginning is remote in the extreme, yet--"
In spite of an absorbing affection Fa Fei could not disguise from herself that her feelings would have been more pleasantly arranged if her lover had been inspired to accept his position unquestioningly. "There is a detail, hitherto unrevealed, which disposes of all such amiable suggestions," she replied. "After the name referred to, someone in authority had inscribed the undeniable comment 'As usual.'"
"The omen is a most encouraging one," exclaimed Hien, throwing aside all his dejection. "Hitherto this person's untiring efforts had met with no official recognition whatever. It is now obvious that far from being lost in the crowd he is becoming an object of honourable interest to the examiners."
"One frequently hears it said, 'After being struck on the head with an axe it is a positive pleasure to be beaten about the body with a wooden club,'" said Fa Fei, "and the meaning of the formerly elusive proverb is now explained. Would it not be prudent to avail yourself at length of the admittedly outrageous Tsin Lung's services, so that this period of unworthy trial may be brought to a distinguished close?"
"It is said, 'Do not eat the fruit of the stricken branch,'" replied Hien, "and this person will never owe his success to one who is so detestable in his life and morals that with every facility for a scholarly and contemplative existence he freely announces his barbarous intention of becoming a pirate. Truly the Dragon of Justice does but sleep for a little time, and when he awakens all that will be left of the mercenary Tsin Lung and those who associate with him will scarcely be enough to fill an orange skin."
"Doubtless it will be so," agreed Fa Fei, regretting, however, that Hien had not been content to prophesy a more limited act of vengeance, until, at least, her father had come to a definite decision regarding her own future. "Alas, though, the Book of Dynasties expressly says, 'The one-legged never stumble,' and Tsin Lung is so morally ill-balanced that the proverb may even apply to him."
"Do not fear," said Hien. "It is elsewhere written, 'Love and leprosy few escape,' and the spirit of Tsin Lung's destiny is perhaps even at this moment lurking unsuspected behind some secret place."
"If," exclaimed a familiar voice, "the secret place alluded to should chance to be a hollow cedar-tree of inadequate girth, the unfortunate spirit in question will have my concentrated sympathy."
"Just and magnanimous father!" exclaimed Fa Fei, thinking it more prudent not to recognize that he had learned of their meeting-place and concealing himself there had awaited their coming, "when your absence was discovered a heaven-sent inspiration led me to this spot. Have I indeed been permitted here to find you?"
"Assuredly you have," replied Thang-li, who was equally desirous of concealing the real circumstances, although the difficulty of the position into which he had hastily and incautiously thrust his body on their approach compelled him to reveal himself. "The same inspiration led me to lose myself in this secluded spot, as being the one which you would inevitably search."
"Yet by what incredible perversity does it arise, venerable Thang-li, that a leisurely and philosophical stroll should result in a person of your dignified proportions occupying so unattractive a position?" said Hien, who appeared to be too ingenuous to suspect Thang-li's craft, in spite of a warning glance from Fa Fei's expressive eyes.
"The remark is a natural one, O estimable youth," replied Thang-li, doubtless smiling benevolently, although nothing of his person could be actually seen by Hien or Fa Fei, "but the recital is not devoid of humiliation. While peacefully studying the position of the heavens this person happened to glance into the upper branches of a tree and among them he beheld a bird's nest of unusual size and richness--one that would promise to yield a dish of the rarest flavour. Lured on by the anticipation of so sumptuous a course, he rashly trusted his body to an unworthy branch, and the next moment, notwithstanding his unceasing protests to the protecting Powers, he was impetuously deposited within this hollow trunk."
"Not unreasonably is it said, 'A bird in the soup is better than an eagle's nest in the desert,'" exclaimed Hien. "The pursuit of a fair and lofty object is set about with hidden pitfalls to others beyond you, O noble Chief Examiner! By what nimble-witted act of adroitness is it now your enlightened purpose to extricate yourself?"
At this admittedly polite but in no way inspiring question a silence of a very acute intensity seemed to fall on that part of the forest. The mild and inscrutable expression of Hien's face did not vary, but into Fa Fei's eyes there came an unexpected but not altogether disapproving radiance, while, without actually altering, the appearance of the tree encircling Thang-li's form undoubtedly conveyed the impression that the benevolent smile which might hitherto have been reasonably assumed to exist within had been abruptly withdrawn.
"Your meaning is perhaps well-intentioned, gracious Hien," said Thang-li at length, "but as an offer of disinterested assistance your words lack the gong-like clash of spontaneous enthusiasm. Nevertheless, if you will inconvenience yourself to the extent of climbing this not really difficult tree for a short distance you will be able to grasp some outlying portion of this one's body without any excessive fatigue."
"Mandarin," replied Hien, "to touch even the extremity of your incomparable pig-tail would be an honour repaying all earthly fatigue--"
"Do not hesitate to seize it, then," said Thang-li, as Hien paused. "Yet, if this person may without ostentation continue the analogy, to grasp him firmly by the shoulders must confer a higher distinction and would be even more agreeable to his own feelings."
"The proposal is a flattering one," continued Hien, "but my hands are bound down by the decree of the High Powers, for among the most inviolable of the edicts is it not written: 'Do the lame offer to carry the footsore; the blind to protect the one-eyed? Distrust the threadbare person who from an upper back room invites you to join him in an infallible process of enrichment; turn aside from the one devoid of pig-tail who says, "Behold, a few drops daily at the hour of the morning sacrifice and your virtuous head shall be again like a well-sown rice-field at the time of harvest"; and towards the passing stranger who offers you that mark of confidence which your friends withhold close and yet again open a different eye. So shall you grow obese in wisdom'?"
"Alas!" exclaimed Thang-li, "the inconveniences of living in an Empire where a person has to regulate the affairs of his everyday life by the sacred but antiquated proverbial wisdom of his remote ancestors are by no means trivial. Cannot this possibly mythical obstacle be flattened-out by the amiable acceptance of a jar of sea snails or some other seasonable delicacy, honourable Hien?"
"Nothing but a really well-grounded encouragement as regards Fa Fei can persuade this person to regard himself as anything but a solitary outcast," replied Hien, "and one paralysed in every useful impulse. Rather than abandon the opportunity of coming to such an arrangement he would almost be prepared to give up all idea of ever passing the examination for the second degree."
"By no means," exclaimed Thang-li hastily. "The sacrifice would be too excessive. Do not relinquish your sleuth-hound-like persistence, and success will inevitably reward your ultimate end."
"Can it really be," said Hien incredulously, "that my contemptible efforts are a matter of sympathetic interest to one so high up in every way as the renowned Chief Examiner?"
"They are indeed," replied Thang-li, with that ingratiating candour that marked his whole existence. "Doubtless so prosaic a detail as the system of remuneration has never occupied your refined thoughts, but when it is understood that those in the position of this person are rewarded according to the success of the candidates you will begin to grasp the attitude."
"In that case," remarked Hien, with conscious humiliation, "nothing but a really sublime tolerance can have restrained you from upbraiding this obscure competitor as a thoroughly corrupt egg."
"On the contrary," replied Thang-li reassuringly, "I have long regarded you as the auriferous fowl itself. It is necessary to explain, perhaps, that the payment by result alluded to is not based on the number of successful candidates, but--much more reasonably as all those have to be provided with lucrative appointments by the authorities--on the economy effected to the State by those whom I can conscientiously reject. Owing to the malignant Tsin Lung's sinister dexterity these form an ever-decreasing band, so that you may now be fittingly deemed the chief prop of a virtuous but poverty-afflicted line. When you reflect that for the past eleven years you have thus really had the honour of providing the engaging Fa Fei with all the necessities of her very ornamental existence you will see that you already possess practically all the advantages of matrimony. Nevertheless, if you will now bring our agreeable conversation to an end by releasing this inauspicious person he will consider the matter with the most indulgent sympathies."
"Withhold!" exclaimed a harsh voice before Hien could reply, and from behind a tree where he had heard Thang-li's impolite reference to himself Tsin Lung stood forth. "How does it chance, O two-complexioned Chief Examiner, that after weighing this one's definite proposals--even to the extent of demanding a certain proportion in advance--you are now engaged in holding out the same alluring hope to another? Assuredly, if your existence is so critically imperilled this person and none other will release you and claim the reward."
"Turn your face backwards, imperious Tsin Lung," cried Hien. "These incapable hands alone shall have the overwhelming distinction of drawing forth the illustrious Thang-li."
"Do not get entangled among my advancing footsteps, immature one," contemptuously replied Tsin Lung, shaking the massive armour in which he was encased from head to foot. "It is inept for pigmies to stand before one who has every intention of becoming a rapacious pirate shortly."
"The sedan-chair is certainly in need of new shafts," retorted Hien, and drawing his sword with an expression of ferocity he caused it to whistle around his head so loudly that a flock of migratory doves began to arrive, under the impression that others of their tribe were calling them to assemble.
"Alas!" exclaimed Thang-li, in an accent of despair, "doubtless the wise Nung-yu was surrounded by disciples all eager that no other should succour him when he remarked: 'A humble friend in the same village is better than sixteen influential brothers in the Royal Palace.' In all this illimitable Empire is there not room for one whose aspirations are bounded by the submerged walls of a predatory junk and another whose occupation is limited to the upper passes of the Chunling mountains? Consider the poignant nature of this person's vain regrets if by a couple of evilly directed blows you succeeded at this inopportune moment in exterminating one another!"
"Do not fear, exalted Thang-li," cried Hien, who, being necessarily somewhat occupied in preparing himself against Tsin Lung's attack, failed to interpret these words as anything but a direct encouragement to his own cause. "Before the polluting hands of one who disdains the Classics shall be laid upon your sacred extremities this tenacious person will fix upon his antagonist with a serpent-like embrace and, if necessary, suffer the spirits of both to Pass Upward in one breath." And to impress Tsin Lung with his resolution he threw away his scabbard and picked it up again several times.
"Grow large in hope, worthy Chief Examiner," cried Tsin Lung, who from a like cause was involved in a similar misapprehension. "Rather shall your imperishable bones adorn the interior of a hollow cedar-tree throughout all futurity than you shall suffer the indignity of being extricated by an earth-nurtured sleeve-snatcher." And to intimidate Hien by the display he continued to clash his open hand against his leg armour until the pain became intolerable.
"Honourable warriors!" implored Thang-li in so agonized a voice--and also because they were weary of the exercise--that Hien and Tsin Lung paused, "curb your bloodthirsty ambitions for a breathing-space and listen to what will probably be a Last Expression. Believe the passionate sincerity of this one's throat when he proclaims that there would be nothing repugnant to his very keenest susceptibilities if an escaping parricide, who was also guilty of rebellion, temple-robbing, book-burning, murder and indiscriminate violence, and the pollution of tombs, took him familiarly by the hand at this moment. What, therefore, would be his gratified feelings if two such nobly-born subjects joined forces and drew him up dexterously by the body-cloth? Accept his definite assurance that without delay a specific pronouncement would be made respecting the bestowal of the one around whose jade-like personality this encounter has arisen."
"The proposal casts a reasonable shadow, gracious Hien," remarked Tsin Lung, turning towards the other with courteous deference. "Shall we bring a scene of irrational carnage to an end and agree to regard the incomparable Thang-li's benevolent tongue as an outstretched olive branch?"
"It is admittedly said, 'Every road leads in two directions,' and the alternative you suggest, O virtue-loving Tsin Lung, is both reputable and just," replied Hien pleasantly. In this amiable spirit they extricated Thang-li and bore him to the ground. At an appointed hour he received them with becoming ceremony and after a many-coursed repast rose to fulfil the specific terms of his pledge.
"The Line of Thang," he remarked with inoffensive pride, "has for seven generations been identified with a high standard of literary achievement. Undeniably it is a very creditable thing to control the movements of an ofttime erratic vessel and to emerge triumphantly from a combat with every junk you encounter, and it is no less worthy of esteem to gather round about one, on the sterile slopes of the Chunlings, a devoted band of followers. Despite these virtues, however, neither occupation is marked by any appreciable literary flavour, and my word is, therefore, that both persons shall present themselves for the next examination, and when in due course the result is declared the more successful shall be hailed as the chosen suitor. Lo, I have spoken into a sealed bottle, and my voice cannot vary."
Then replied Tsin Lung: "Truly, it is as it is said, astute Thang-li, though the encircling wall of a hollow cedar-tree, for example, might impart to the voice in question a less uncompromising ring of finality than it possesses when raised in a silk-lined chamber and surrounded by a band of armed retainers. Nevertheless the pronouncement is one which appeals to this person's sense of justice, and the only improvement he can suggest is that the superfluous Hien should hasten that ceremony at which he will be an honoured guest by now signifying his intention of retiring from so certain a defeat. For by what expedient," he continued, with arrogant persistence, "can you avert that end, O ill-destined Hien? Have you not burned joss-sticks to the deities, both good and bad, for eleven years unceasingly? Can you, as this person admittedly can, inscribe the Classics with such inimitable delicacy that an entire volume of the Book of Decorum, copied in his most painstaking style, may be safely carried about within a hollow tooth, a lengthy ode, traced on a shred of silk, wrapped undetectably around a single eyelash?"
"It is true that the one before you cannot bend his brush to such deceptive ends," replied Hien modestly. "A detail, however, has escaped your reckoning. Hitherto Hien has been opposed by a thousand, and against so many it is true that the spirits of his ancestors have been able to afford him very little help. On this occasion he need regard one adversary alone. Giving those Forces which he invokes clearly to understand that they need not concern themselves with any other, he will plainly intimate that after so many sacrifices on his part something of a really tangible affliction is required to overwhelm Tsin Lung. Whether this shall take the form of mental stagnation, bodily paralysis, demoniacal possession, derangement of the internal faculties, or being changed into one of the lower animals, it might be presumptuous on this person's part to stipulate, but by invoking every accessible power and confining himself to this sole petition a very definite tragedy may be expected. Beware, O contumacious Lung, 'However high the tree the shortest axe can reach its trunk.'"
As the time for the examination drew near the streets of Ho Chow began to wear a fuller and more animated appearance both by day and night. Tsin Lung's outer hall was never clear of anxious suppliants all entreating him to supply them with minute and reliable copies of the passages which they found most difficult in the selected works, but although his low and avaricious nature was incapable of rejecting this means of gain he devoted his closest energies and his most inspired moments to his own personal copies, a set of books so ethereal that they floated in the air without support and so cunningly devised in the blending of their colour as to be, in fact, quite invisible to any but his microscopic eyes. Hien, on the other hand, devoted himself solely to interesting the Powers against his rival's success by every variety of incentive, omen, sacrifice, imprecation, firework, inscribed curse, promise, threat or combination of inducements. Through the crowded streets and by-ways of Ho Chow moved the imperturbable Thang-li, smiling benevolently on those whom he encountered and encouraging each competitor, and especially Hien and Tsin Lung, with a cheerful proverb suited to the moment.
An outside cause had further contributed to make this period one of the most animated in the annals of Ho Chow, for not only was the city, together with the rest of the imperishable Empire, celebrating a great and popular victory, but, as a direct consequence of that event, the sublime Emperor himself was holding his court at no great distance away. An armed and turbulent rabble of illiterate barbarians had suddenly appeared in the north and, not giving a really sufficient indication of their purpose, had traitorously assaulted the capital. Had he followed the prompting of his own excessive magnanimity, the charitable Monarch would have refused to take any notice whatever of so puny and contemptible a foe, but so unmistakable became the wishes of the Ever-victorious Army that, yielding to their importunity, he placed himself at their head and resolutely led them backward. Had the opposing army been more intelligent, this crafty move would certainly have enticed them on into the plains, where they would have fallen an easy victim to the Imperial troops and all perished miserably. Owing to their low standard of reasoning, however, the mule-like invaders utterly failed to grasp the advantage which, as far as the appearance tended, they might reasonably be supposed to reap by an immediate pursuit. They remained incapably within the capital slavishly increasing its defences, while the Ever-victorious lurked resourcefully in the neighbourhood of Ho Chow, satisfied that with so dull-witted an adversary they could, if the necessity arose, go still further.
Upon a certain day of the period thus indicated there arrived at the gate of the royal pavilion one having the appearance of an aged seer, who craved to be led into the Imperial Presence.
"Lo, Mightiest," said a slave, bearing in this message, "there stands at the outer gate one resembling an ancient philosopher, desiring to gladden his failing eyesight before he Passes Up with a brief vision of your illuminated countenance."
"The petition is natural but inopportune," replied the agreeable Monarch. "Let the worthy soothsayer be informed that after an exceptionally fatiguing day we are now snatching a few short hours of necessary repose, from which it would be unseemly to recall us."
"He received your gracious words with distended ears and then observed that it was for your All-wisdom to decide whether an inspired message which he had read among the stars was not of more consequence than even a refreshing sleep," reported the slave, returning.
"In that case," replied the Sublimest, "tell the persevering wizard that we have changed our minds and are religiously engaged in worshipping our ancestors, so that it would be really sacrilegious to interrupt us."
"He kowtowed profoundly at the mere mention of your charitable occupation and proceeded to depart, remarking that it would indeed be corrupt to disturb so meritorious an exercise with a scheme simply for your earthly enrichment," again reported the message-bearer.
"Restrain him!" hastily exclaimed the broadminded Sovereign. "Give the venerable necromancer clearly to understand that we have worshipped them enough for one day. Doubtless the accommodating soothsayer has discovered some rare jewel which he is loyally bringing to embellish our crown."
"There are rarer jewels than those which can be pasted in a crown, Supreme Head," said the stranger, entering unperceived behind the attending slave. He bore the external signs of an infirm magician, while his face was hidden in a cloth to mark the imposition of a solemn vow. "With what apter simile," he continued, "can this person describe an imperishable set of verses which he heard this morning falling from the lips of a wandering musician like a seven-roped cable of pearls pouring into a silver bucket? The striking and original title was 'Concerning Spring,' and although the snow lay deep at the time several bystanders agreed that an azalea bush within hearing came into blossom at the eighty-seventh verse."
"We have heard of the poem to which you refer with so just a sense of balance," said the impartial Monarch encouragingly. (Though not to create a two-sided impression it may be freely stated that he himself was the author of the inspired composition.) "Which part, in your mature judgment, reflected the highest genius and maintained the most perfectly-matched analogy?"
"It is aptly said: 'When it is dark the sun no longer shines, but who shall forget the colours of the rainbow?'" replied the astrologer evasively. "How is it possible to suspend topaz in one cup of the balance and weigh it against amethyst in the other; or who in a single language can compare the tranquillizing grace of a maiden with the invigorating pleasure of witnessing a well-contested rat-fight?"
"Your insight is clear and unbiased," said the gracious Sovereign. "But however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?"
"There is yet another detail, it is true," admitted the sage, "but regarding its comparative importance a thoroughly loyal subject may be permitted to amend the remark of a certain wise Emperor of a former dynasty: 'Any person in the City can discover a score of gold mines if necessary, but One only could possibly have written "Concerning Spring."'"
"The arts may indeed be regarded as lost," acquiesced the magnanimous Head, "with the exception of a solitary meteor here and there. Yet in the trivial matter of mere earthly enrichment--"
"Truly," agreed the other. "There is, then, a whisper in the province that the floor of the Imperial treasury is almost visible."
"The rumour, as usual, exaggerates the facts grossly," replied the Greatest. "The floor of the Imperial treasury is quite visible."
"Yet on the first day of the next moon the not inconsiderable revenue contributed by those who present themselves for the examination will flow in."
"And by an effete and unworthy custom almost immediately flow out again to reward the efforts of the successful," replied the Wearer of the Yellow in an accent of refined bitterness. "On other occasions it is possible to assist the overworked treasurer with a large and glutinous hand, but from time immemorial the claims of the competitors have been inviolable."
"Yet if by a heaven-sent chance none, or very few, reached the necessary standard of excellence--?"
"Such a chance, whether proceeding from the Upper Air or the Other Parts would be equally welcome to a very hard-lined Ruler," replied the one who thus described himself.
"Then listen, O K'ong-hi, of the imperishable dynasty of Chung," said the stranger. "Thus was it laid upon me in the form of a spontaneous dream. For seven centuries the Book of the Observances has been the unvarying Classic of the examinations because during that period it has never been surpassed. Yet as the Empire has admittedly existed from all time, and as it would be impious not to agree that the immortal System is equally antique, it is reasonable to suppose that the Book of the Observances displaced an earlier and inferior work, and is destined in the cycle of time to be itself laid aside for a still greater."
"The inference is self-evident," acknowledged the Emperor uneasily, "but the logical development is one which this diffident Monarch hesitates to commit to spoken words."
"It is not a matter for words but for a stroke of the Vermilion Pencil," replied the other in a tone of inspired authority. "Across the faint and puny effusions of the past this person sees written in very large and obliterating strokes the words 'Concerning Spring.' Where else can be found so novel a conception combined with so unique a way of carrying it out? What other poem contains so many thoughts that one instinctively remembers as having heard before, so many involved allusions that baffle the imagination of the keenest, and so much sound in so many words? With the possible exception of Meng-hu's masterpiece, 'The Empty Coffin,' what other work so skilfully conveys the impression of being taken down farther than one can ever again come up and then suddenly upraised beyond the possible descent? Where else can be found so complete a defiance of all that has hitherto been deemed essential, and, to insert a final wedge, what other poem is half so long?"
"Your criticism is severe but just," replied the Sovereign, "except that part having reference to Meng-hu. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the proposal, though reasonable, looms a degree stormily into a troubled future. Can it be permissible even for--"
"Omnipotence!" exclaimed the seer.
"The title is well recalled," confessed the Emperor. "Yet although unquestionably omnipotent there must surely be some limits to our powers in dealing with so old established a system as that of the examinations."
"Who can doubt a universal admission that the composer of 'Concerning Spring' is capable of doing anything?" was the profound reply. "Let the mandate be sent out--but, to an obvious end, let it be withheld until the eve of the competitions."
"The moment of hesitancy has faded; go forth in the certainty, esteemed," said the Emperor reassuringly. "You have carried your message with a discreet hand. Yet before you go, if there is any particular mark of Imperial favour that we can show--something of a special but necessarily honorary nature--do not set an iron screen between your ambition and the light of our favourable countenance."
"There is indeed such a signal reward," assented the aged person, with an air of prepossessing diffidence. "A priceless copy of the immortal work--"
"By all means," exclaimed the liberal-minded Sovereign, with an expression of great relief. "Take three or four in case any of your fascinating relations have large literary appetites. Or, still more conveniently arranged, here is an unopened package from the stall of those who send forth the printed leaves--'thirteen in the semblance of twelve,' as the quaint and harmonious phrase of their craft has it. Walk slowly, revered, and a thousand rainbows guide your retiring footsteps."
Concerning the episode of this discreetly-veiled personage the historians who have handed down the story of the imperishable affection of Hien and Fa Fei have maintained an illogical silence. Yet it is related that about the same time, as Hien was walking by the side of a bamboo forest of stunted growth, he was astonished by the maiden suddenly appearing before him from the direction of the royal camp. She was incomparably radiant and had the appearance of being exceptionally well satisfied with herself. Commanding him that he should stand motionless with closed eyes, in order to ascertain what the presiding deities would allot him, she bound a somewhat weighty object to the end of his pig-tail, at the same time asking him in how short a period he could commit about nineteen thousand lines of atrociously ill-arranged verse to the tablets of his mind.
"Then do not suffer the rice to grow above your ankles," she continued, when Hien had modestly replied that six days with good omens should be sufficient, "but retiring to your innermost chamber bar the door and digest this scroll as though it contained the last expression of an eccentric and vastly rich relation," and with a laugh more musical than the vibrating of a lute of the purest Yun-nan jade in the Grotto of Ten Thousand Echoes she vanished.
It has been sympathetically remarked that no matter how painstakingly a person may strive to lead Destiny along a carefully-prepared path and towards a fit and thoroughly virtuous end there is never lacking some inopportune creature to thrust his superfluous influence into an opposing balance. This naturally suggests the intolerable Tsin Lung, whose ghoulish tastes led him to seek the depths of that same glade on the following day. Walking with downcast eyes, after his degraded custom, he presently became aware of an object lying some distance from his way. To those who have already fathomed the real character of this repulsive person it will occasion no surprise to know that, urged on by the insatiable curiosity that was deeply grafted on to his avaricious nature, he turned aside to probe into a matter with which he had no possible concern, and at length succeeded in drawing a package from the thick bush in which it had been hastily concealed. Finding that it contained twelve lengthy poems entitled "Concerning Spring", he greedily thrust one in his sleeve, and upon his return, with no other object than the prompting of an ill-regulated mind, he spent all the time that remained before the contest in learning it from end to end.
There have been many remarkable scenes enacted in the great Examination Halls and in the narrow cells around, but it can at once be definitely stated that nothing either before or since has approached the unanimous burst of frenzy that shook the dynasty of Chung when in the third year of his reign the well-meaning but too-easily-led-aside Emperor K'ong inopportunely sought to replace the sublime Classic then in use with a work that has since been recognized to be not only shallow but inept. At Ho Chow nine hundred and ninety-eight voices blended into one soul-benumbing cry of rage, having all the force and precision of a carefully drilled chorus, when the papers were opened, and had not the candidates been securely barred within their solitary pens a popular rising must certainly have taken place. There they remained for three days and nights, until the clamour had subsided into a low but continuous hum, and they were too weak to carry out a combined effort.
Throughout this turmoil Hien and Tsin Lung each plied an unfaltering brush. It may here be advantageously stated that the former person was not really slow or obtuse and his previous failures were occasioned solely by the inequality he strove under in relying upon his memory alone when every other competitor without exception had provided himself with a concealed scrip. Tsin Lung also had a very retentive mind. The inevitable consequence was, therefore, that when the papers were collected Hien and Tsin Lung had accomplished an identical number of correct lines and no other person had made even an attempt.
In explaining Thang-li's subsequent behaviour it has been claimed by many that the strain of being compelled, in the exercise of his duty, to remain for three days and three nights in the middle of the Hall surrounded by that ferocious horde, all clamouring to reach him, and the contemplation of the immense sum which he would gain by so unparalleled a batch of rejections, contorted his faculties of discrimination and sapped the resources of his usually active mind. Whatever cause is accepted, it is agreed that as soon as he returned to his house he summoned Hien and Tsin Lung together and leaving them for a moment presently returned, leading Fa Fei by the hand. It is further agreed by all that these three persons noticed upon his face a somewhat preoccupied expression, and on the one side much has been made of the admitted fact that as he spoke he wandered round the room catching flies, an occupation eminently suited to his age and leisurely tastes but, it may be confessed, not altogether well chosen at so ceremonious a moment.
"It has been said," he began at length, withdrawing his eyes reluctantly from an unusually large insect upon the ceiling and addressing himself to the maiden, "that there are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice upon a dark night. This inoffensive person, however, has striven to arrive at the conclusion of a slight domestic arrangement both by passively waiting for the event to unroll itself and, at a later period, by the offer of a definite omen. Both of the male persons concerned have applied themselves so tenaciously to the ordeal that the result, to this simple one's antique mind, savours overmuch of the questionable arts. The genial and light-witted Emperor appears to have put his foot into the embarrassment ineffectually; and Destiny herself has every indication of being disinclined to settle so doubtful a point. As a last resort it now remains for you yourself to decide which of these strenuous and evenly-balanced suitors I may acclaim with ten thousand felicitations."
"In that case, venerated and commanding sire," replied Fa Fei simply, yet concealing her real regard behind the retiring mask of a modest indifference, "it shall be Hien, because his complexion goes the more prettily with my favourite heliotrope silk."
When the results of the examination were announced it was at once assumed by those with whom he had trafficked that Tsin Lung had been guilty of the most degraded treachery. Understanding the dangers of his position, that person decided upon an immediate flight. Disguised as a wild-beast tamer, and leading several apparently ferocious creatures by a cord, he succeeded in making his way undetected through the crowds of competitors watching his house, and hastily collecting his wealth together he set out towards the coast. But the evil spirits which had hitherto protected him now withdrew their aid. In the wildest passes of the Chunlings Hien's band was celebrating his unexpected success by a costly display of fireworks, varied with music and dancing. . . . So heavily did they tax him that when he reached his destination he was only able to purchase a small and dilapidated junk and to enlist the services of three thoroughly incompetent mercenaries. The vessels which he endeavoured to pursue stealthily in the hope of restoring his fortunes frequently sailed towards him under the impression that he was sinking and trying to attract their benevolent assistance. When his real intention was at length understood both he and his crew were invariably beaten about the head with clubs, so that although he persevered until the three hired assassins rebelled, he never succeeded in committing a single act of piracy. Afterwards he gained a precarious livelihood by entering into conversation with strangers, and still later he stood upon a board and dived for small coins which the charitable threw into the water. In this pursuit he was one day overtaken by a voracious sea-monster and perished miserably.
The large-meaning but never fully-accomplishing Emperor K'ong reigned for yet another year, when he was deposed by the powerful League of the Three Brothers. To the end of his life he steadfastly persisted that the rebellion was insidiously fanned, if not actually carried out, by a secret confederacy of all the verse-makers of the Empire, who were distrustful of his superior powers. He spent the years of his exile in composing a poetical epitaph to be carved upon his tomb, but his successor, the practical-minded Liu-yen, declined to sanction the expense of procuring so fabulous a supply of marble.
When Kai Lung had repeated the story of the well-intentioned youth Hien and of the Chief Examiner Thang-li and had ceased to speak, a pause of questionable import filled the room, broken only by the undignified sleep-noises of the gross Ming-shu. Glances of implied perplexity were freely passed among the guests, but it remained for Shan Tien to voice their doubt.
"Yet wherein is the essence of the test maintained," he asked, "seeing that the one whom you call Hien obtained all that which he desired and he who chiefly opposed his aims was himself involved in ridicule and delivered to a sudden end?"
"Beneficence," replied Kai Lung, with courteous ease, despite the pinions that restrained him, "herein it is one thing to demand and another to comply, for among the Platitudes is the admission made: 'No needle has two sharp points.' The conditions which the subtlety of Ming-shu imposed ceased to bind, for their corollary was inexact. In no romance composed by poet or sage are the unassuming hopes of virtuous love brought to a barren end or the one who holds them delivered to an ignominious doom. That which was called for does not therefore exist, but the story of Hien may be taken as indicating the actual course of events should the case arise in an ordinary state of life."
This reply was not deemed inept by most of those who heard, and they even pressed upon the one who spoke slight gifts of snuff and wine. The Mandarin Shan Tien, however, held himself apart.
"It is doubtful if your lips will be able thus to frame so confident a boast when to-morrow fades," was his dark forecast.
"Doubtless their tenor will be changed, revered, in accordance with your far-seeing word," replied Kai Lung submissively as he was led away.