The Out-passing into a State of Assured Felicity of the Much-Enduring Two With Whom These Printed Leaves Have Chiefly Been Concerned
ALTHOUGH it was towards sunset, the heat of the day still hung above the dusty earth-road, and two who tarried within the shadow of an ancient arch were loath to resume their way. They had walked far, for the uncertain steed, having revealed a too contentious nature, had been disposed of in distant Tai to an honest stranger who freely explained the imperfection of its ignoble outline.
"Let us remain another space of time," pleaded Hwa-mei reposefully, "and as without your all-embracing art the course of events would undoubtedly have terminated very differently from what it has, will you not, out of an emotion of gratitude, relate a story for my ear alone, weaving into it the substance of this ancient arch whose shade proves our rest?"
"Your wish is the crown of my attainment, unearthly one," replied Kai Lung, preparing to obey. "This concerns the story of Ten-teh, whose name adorns the keystone of the fabric."
Among the lagoons of the Upper Seng river a cormorant fisher, Ten-teh by name, daily followed his occupation. In seasons of good harvest, when they of the villages had grain in abundance and money with which to procure a more varied diet, Ten-teh was able to regard the ever-changeful success of his venture without anxiety, and even to add perchance somewhat to his store; but when affliction lay upon the land the carefully gathered hoard melted away and he did not cease to upbraid himself for adopting so uncertain a means of livelihood. At these times the earth-tillers, having neither money to spend nor crops to harvest, caught such fish as they could for themselves. Others in their extremity did not scruple to drown themselves and their dependents in Ten-teh's waters, so that while none contributed to his prosperity the latter ones even greatly added to the embarrassment of his craft. When, therefore, his own harvest failed him in addition, or tempests drove him back to a dwelling which was destitute of food either for himself, his household, or his cormorants, his self-reproach did not appear to be ill-reasoned. Yet in spite of all Ten-teh was of a genial disposition, benevolent, respectful and incapable of guile. He sacrificed adequately at all festivals, and his only regret was that he had no son of his own and very scanty chances of ever becoming rich enough to procure one by adoption.
The sun was setting one day when Ten-teh reluctantly took up his propelling staff and began to urge his raft towards the shore. It was a season of parched crops and destitution in the villages, when disease could fondle the bones of even the most rotund and leprosy was the insidious condiment in every dish; yet never had the Imperial dues been higher, and each succeeding official had larger hands and a more inexorable face than the one before him. Ten-teh's hoarded resources had already followed the snows of the previous winter, his shelf was like the heart of a despot to whom the oppressed cry for pity, and the contents of the creel at his feet were too insignificant to tempt the curiosity even of his hungry cormorants. But the mists of the evening were by this time lapping the surface of the waters and he had no alternative but to abandon his fishing for the day.
"Truly they who go forth to fish, even in shallow waters, experience strange things when none are by to credit them," suddenly exclaimed his assistant--a mentally deficient youth of the villages whom Ten-teh charitably employed because all others rejected him. "Behold, master, a spectre bird approaches."
"Peace, witless," replied Ten-teh, not turning from his occupation, for it was no uncommon incident for the deficient youth to mistake widely-differing objects for one another or to claim a demoniacal insight into the most trivial happenings. "Visions do not materialize for such as thou and I."
"Nevertheless," continued the weakling, "if you will but slacken your agile proficiency with the pole, chieftain, our supper to-night may yet consist of something more substantial than the fish which it is our intention to catch to-morrow.
When the defective youth had continued for some time in this meaningless strain Ten-teh turned to rebuke him, when to his astonishment he perceived that a strange cormorant was endeavouring to reach them, its progress being impeded by an object which it carried in its mouth. Satisfying himself that his own birds were still on the raft, Ten-teh looked round in expectation for the boat of another fisherman, although none but he had ever within his memory sought those waters, but as far as he could see the wide-stretching lagoon was deserted by all but themselves. He accordingly waited, drawing in his pole, and inciting the bird on by cries of encouragement.
"A nobly-born cormorant without doubt," exclaimed the youth approvingly. "He is lacking the throat-strap, yet he holds his prey dexterously and makes no movement to consume it. But the fish itself is outlined strangely."
As the bird drew near Ten-teh also saw that it was devoid of the usual strap which in the exercise of his craft was necessary as a barrier against the gluttonous instincts of the race. It was unnaturally large, and even at a distance Ten-teh could see that its plumage was smoothed to a polished lustre, its eye alert, and the movement of its flight untamed. But, as the youth had said, the fish it carried loomed mysteriously.
"The Wise One and the Crafty Image--behold they prostrate themselves!" cried the youth in a tone of awe-inspired surprise, and without a pause he stepped off the raft and submerged himself beneath the waters.
It was even as he asserted; Ten-teh turned his eyes and lo, his two cormorants, instead of rising in anger, as their contentious nature prompted, had sunk to the ground and were doing obeisance. Much perturbed as to his own most prudent action, for the bird was nearing the craft, Ten-teh judged it safest to accept this token and falling down he thrice knocked his forehead submissively. When he looked up again the majestic bird had vanished as utterly as the flame that is quenched, and lying at his feet was a naked man-child.
"O master," said the voice of the assistant, as he cautiously protruded his head above the surface of the raft, "has the vision faded, or do creatures of the air before whom even their own kind kowtow still haunt the spot?"
"The manifestation has withdrawn," replied Ten-teh reassuringly, "but like the touch of the omnipotent Buddha it has left behind it that which proves its reality," and he pointed to the man-child.
"Beware, alas!" exclaimed the youth, preparing to immerse himself a second time if the least cause arose; "and on no account permit yourself to be drawn into the snare. Inevitably the affair tends to evil from the beginning and presently that which now appears as a man-child will assume the form of a devouring vampire and consume us all. Such occurrences are by no means uncommon when the great sky-lantern is at its full distension."
"To maintain otherwise would be impious," admitted his master, "but at the same time there is nothing to indicate that the beneficial deities are not the ones responsible for this apparition." With these humane words the kindly-disposed Ten-teh wrapped his outer robe about the man-child and turned to lay him in the empty creel, when to his profound astonishment he saw that it was now filled with fish of the rarest and most unapproachable kinds.
"Footsteps of the dragon!" exclaimed the youth, scrambling back on to the raft hastily; "undoubtedly your acuter angle of looking at the visitation was the inspired one. Let us abandon the man-child in an unfrequented spot and then proceed to divide the result of the adventure equally among us."
"An agreed portion shall be allotted," replied Ten-teh, "but to abandon so miraculously-endowed a being would cover even an outcast with shame."
"'Shame fades in the morning; debts remain from day to day,'" replied the youth, the allusion of the proverb being to the difficulty of sustaining life in times so exacting, when men pledged their household goods, their wives, even their ancestral records for a little flour or a jar of oil. "To the starving the taste of a grain of corn is more satisfying than the thought of a roasted ox, but as many years must pass as this creel now holds fish before the little one can disengage a catch or handle the pole."
"It is as the Many-Eyed One sees," replied Ten-teh, with unmoved determination. "This person has long desired a son, and those who walk into an earthquake while imploring heaven for a sign are unworthy of consideration. Take this fish and depart until the morrow. Also, unless you would have the villagers regard you as not only deficient but profane, reveal nothing of this happening to those whom you encounter." With these words Ten-teh dismissed him, not greatly disturbed at the thought of whatever he might do; for in no case would any believe a word he spoke, while the greater likelihood tended towards his forgetting everything before he had reached his home.
As Ten-teh approached his own door his wife came forth to meet him. "Much gladness!" she cried aloud before she saw his burden; "tempered only by a regret that you did not abandon your chase at an earlier hour. Fear not for the present that the wolf-tusk of famine shall gnaw our repose or that the dreaded wings of the white and scaly one shall hover about our house-top. Your wealthy cousin, journeying back to the Capital from the land of the spice forests, has been here in your absence, leaving you gifts of fur, silk, carved ivory, oil, wine, nuts and rice and rich foods of many kinds. He would have stayed to embrace you were it not that his company of bearers awaited him at an arranged spot and he had already been long delayed."
Then said Ten-teh, well knowing that he had no such desirable relative, but drawn to secrecy by the unnatural course of events: "The years pass unperceived and all changes but the heart of man; how appeared my cousin, and has he greatly altered under the enervating sun of a barbarian land?"
"He is now a little man, with a loose skin the colour of a finely-lacquered apricot," replied the woman. "His teeth are large and jagged, his expression open and sincere, and the sound of his breathing is like the continuous beating of waves upon a stony beach. Furthermore, he has ten fingers upon his left hand and a girdle of rubies about his waist."
"The description is unmistakable," said Ten-teh evasively. "Did he chance to leave a parting message of any moment?"
"He twice remarked: 'When the sun sets the moon rises, but to-morrow the drawn will break again,'" replied his wife. "Also, upon leaving he asked for ink, brushes and a fan, and upon it he inscribed certain words." She thereupon handed the fan to Ten-teh, who read, written in characters of surpassing beauty and exactness, the proverb: "Well-guarded lips, patient alertness and a heart conscientiously discharging its accepted duty: these three things have a sure reward."
At that moment Ten-teh's wife saw that he carried something beyond his creel and discovering the man-child she cried out with delight, pouring forth a torrent of inquiries and striving to possess it. "A tale half told is the father of many lies," exclaimed Ten-teh at length, "and of the greater part of what you ask this person knows neither the beginning nor the end. Let what is written on the fan suffice." With this he explained to her the meaning of the characters and made their significance clear. Then without another word he placed the man-child in her arms and led her back into the house.
From that time Hoang, as he was thenceforward called, was received into the household of Ten-teh, and from that time Ten-teh prospered. Without ever approaching a condition of affluence or dignified ease, he was never exposed to the penury and vicissitudes which he had been wont to experience; so that none had need to go hungry or ill-clad. If famine ravaged the villages Ten-teh's store of grain was miraculously maintained; his success on the lagoons was unvaried, fish even leaping on to the structure of the raft. Frequently in dark and undisturbed parts of the house he found sums of money and other valuable articles of which he had no remembrance, while it was no uncommon thing for passing merchants to leave bales of goods at his door in mistake and to meet with some accident which prevented them from ever again visiting that part of the country. In the meanwhile Hoang grew from infancy into childhood, taking part with Ten-teh in all his pursuits, yet even in the most menial occupation never wholly shaking off the air of command and nobility of bearing which lay upon him. In strength and endurance he outpaced all the youths around, while in the manipulation of the raft and the dexterous handling of the cormorants he covered Ten-teh with gratified shame. So excessive was the devotion which he aroused in those who knew him that the deficient youth wept openly if Hoang chanced to cough or sneeze; and it is even asserted that on more than one occasion high officials, struck by the authority of his presence, though he might be in the act of carrying fish along the road, hastily descended from their chairs and prostrated themselves before him.
In the fourteenth year of the reign of the usurper Fuh-chi a little breeze rising in the Province of Sz-chuen began to spread through all the land and men's minds were again agitated by the memory of a hope which had long seemed dead. At that period the tyrannical Fuh-chi finally abandoned the last remaining vestige of restraint and by his crimes and excesses alienated even the protection of the evil spirits and the fidelity of his chosen guard; so that he conspired with himself to bring about his own destruction. One discriminating adviser alone had stood at the foot of the throne, and being no less resolute than far-seeing, he did not hesitate to warn Fuh-chi and to hold the prophetic threat of rebellion before his eyes. Such sincerity met with the reward not difficult to conjecture.
"Who are our enemies?" exclaimed Fuh-chi, turning to a notorious flatterer at his side, "and where are they who are displeased with our too lenient rule?"
"Your enemies, O Brother of the Sun and Prototype of the Red-legged Crane, are dead and unmourned. The living do naught but speak of your clemency and bask in the radiance of your eye-light," protested the flatterer.
"It is well said," replied Fuh-chi. "How is it, then, that any can eat of our rice and receive our bounty and yet repay us with ingratitude and taunts, holding their joints stiffly in our presence? Lo, even lambs have the grace to suck kneeling."
"Omnipotence," replied the just minister, "if this person is deficient in the more supple graces of your illustrious Court it is because the greater part of his life has been spent in waging your wars in uncivilized regions. Nevertheless, the alarm can be as competently sounded upon a brass drum as by a silver trumpet, and his words came forth from a sincere throat."
"Then the opportunity is by no means to be lost," exclaimed Fuh-chi, who was by this time standing some distance from himself in the effects of distilled pear juice; "for we have long desired to see the difference which must undoubtedly exist between a sincere throat and one bent to the continual use of evasive flattery."
Without further consideration he ordered that both persons should be beheaded and that their bodies should be brought for his inspection. From that time there was none to stay his hand or to guide his policy, so that he mixed blood and wine in foolishness and lust until the land was sick and heaved.
The whisper starting from Sz-chuen passed from house to house and from town to town until it had cast a network over every province, yet no man could say whence it came or by whom the word was passed. It might be in the manner of a greeting or the pledging of a cup of tea, by the offer of a coin to a blind beggar at the gate, in the fold of a carelessly-worn garment, or even by the passing of a leper through a town. Oppression still lay heavily upon the people; but it was without aim and carried no restraint; famine and pestilence still went hand in hand, but the message rode on their backs and was hospitably received. Soon, growing bolder, men stood face to face and spoke of settled plans, gave signs, and openly declared themselves. On all sides proclamations began to be affixed; next weapons were distributed, hands were made proficient in their uses, until nothing remained but definite instruction and a swift summons for the appointed day. At intervals omens had appeared in the sky and prophecies had been put into the mouths of sooth-sayers, so that of the success of the undertaking and of its justice none doubted. On the north and the west entire districts had reverted to barbarism, and on the coasts the pirates anchored by the water-gates of walled cities and tossed jests to the watchmen on the towers.
Throughout this period Ten-teh had surrounded Hoang with an added care, never permitting him to wander beyond his sight, and distrusting all men in spite of his confiding nature. One night, when a fierce storm beyond the memory of man was raging, there came at the middle hour a knocking upon the outer wall, loud and insistent; nevertheless Ten-teh did not at once throw open the door in courteous invitation, but drawing aside a shutter he looked forth. Before the house stood one of commanding stature, clad from head to foot in robes composed of plaited grasses, dyed in many colours. Around him ran a stream of water, while the lightning issuing in never-ceasing flashes from his eyes revealed that his features were rugged and his ears pierced with many holes from which the wind whistled until the sound resembled the shrieks of ten thousand tortured ones under the branding-iron. From him the tempest proceeded in every direction, but he stood unmoved among it, without so much as a petal of the flowers he wore disarranged.
In spite of these indications, and of the undoubted fact that the Being could destroy the house with a single glance, Ten-teh still hesitated.
"The night is dark and stormy, and robbers and evil spirits are certainly about in large numbers, striving to enter unperceived by any open door," he protested, but with becoming deference. "With what does your welcome and opportune visit concern itself, honourable stranger?"
"The one before you is not accustomed to be questioned in his doings, or even to be spoken to by ordinary persons," replied the Being. "Nevertheless, Ten-teh, there is that in your history for the past fourteen years which saves you from the usual fatal consequences of so gross an indiscretion. Let it suffice that it is concerned with the flight of the cormorant."
Upon this assurance Ten-teh no longer sought evasion. He hastened to throw open the outer door and the stranger entered, whereupon the tempest ceased, although the thunder and lightning still lingered among the higher mountains. In passing through the doorway the robe of plaited grasses caught for a moment on the staple and pulling aside revealed that the Being wore upon his left foot a golden sandal and upon his right foot one of iron, while embedded in his throat was a great pearl. Convinced by this that he was indeed one of the Immortal Eight, Ten-teh prostrated himself fittingly, and explained that the apparent disrespect of his reception arose from a conscientious interest in the safety of the one committed to his care.
"It is well," replied the Being affably; "and your unvarying fidelity shall not go unrewarded when the proper time arrives. Now bring forward the one whom hitherto you have wisely called Hoang."
In secret during the past years Ten-teh had prepared for such an emergency a yellow silk robe bearing embroidered on it the Imperial Dragon with Five Claws. He had also provided suitable ornaments, fur coverings for the hands and face, and a sword and shield. Waking Hoang, he quickly dressed him, sprinkled a costly perfume about his head and face, and taking him for the last time by the hand he led him into the presence of the stranger.
"Kwo Kam, chosen representative of the sacred line of Tang," began the Being, when he and Hoang had exchanged signs and greetings of equality in an obscure tongue, "the grafted peach-tree on the Crystal Wall is stricken and the fruit is ripe and rotten to the touch. The flies that have fed upon its juice are drunk with it and lie helpless on the ground; the skin is empty and blown out with air, the leaves withered, and about the root is coiled a great worm which has secretly worked to this end. From the Five Points of the kingdom and beyond the Outer Willow Circle the Sheaf-binders have made a full report and it has been judged that the time is come for the tree to be roughly shaken. To this destiny the Old Ones of your race now call you; but beware of setting out unless your face should be unchangingly fixed and your heart pure from all earthly desires and base considerations."
"The decision is too ever-present in my mind to need reflection," replied Hoan resolutely. "To grind to powder that presumptuous tyrant utterly, to restore the integrity of the violated boundaries of the land, and to set up again the venerable Tablets of the true Tang line--these desires have long since worn away the softer portion of this person's heart by constant thought."
"The choice has been made and the words have been duly set down," said the Being. "If you maintain your high purpose to a prosperous end nothing can exceed your honour in the Upper Air; if you fail culpably, or even through incapacity, the lot of Fuh-chi himself will be enviable compared with yours."
Understanding that the time had now come for his departure, Hoang approached Ten-teh as though he would have embraced him, but the Being made a gesture of restraint.
"Yet, O instructor, for the space of fourteen years--" protested Hoang.
"It has been well and discreetly accomplished," replied the Being in a firm but not unsympathetic voice, "and Ten-teh's reward, which shall be neither slight nor grudging, is awaiting him in the Upper Air, where already his immediate ancestors are very honourably regarded in consequence. For many years, O Ten-teh, there has dwelt beneath your roof one who from this moment must be regarded as having passed away without leaving even a breath of memory behind. Before you stands your sovereign, to whom it is seemly that you should prostrate yourself in unquestioning obeisance. Do not look for any recompense or distinction here below in return for that which you have done towards a nameless one; for in the State there are many things which for high reasons cannot be openly proclaimed for the ill-disposed to use as feathers in their darts. Yet take this ring; the ears of the Illimitable Emperor are never closed to the supplicating petition of his children and should such a contingency arise you may freely lay your cause before him with the full assurance of an unswerving justice."
A moment later the storm broke out again with redoubled vigour, and raising his face from the ground Ten-teh perceived that he was again alone.
After the departure of Hoang the affairs of Ten-teh ceased to prosper. The fish which for so many years had leaped to meet his hand now maintained an unparalleled dexterity in avoiding it; continual storms drove him day after day back to the shore, and the fostering beneficence of the deities seemed to be withdrawn, so that he no longer found forgotten stores of wealth nor did merchants ever again mistake his door for that of another to whom they were indebted.
In the year that followed there passed from time to time through the secluded villages lying in the Upper Seng valley persons who spoke of the tumultuous events progressing everywhere. In such a manner those who had remained behind learned that the great rising had been honourably received by the justice-loving in every province, but that many of official rank, inspired by no friendship towards Fuh-chi, but terror-stricken at the alternatives before them, had closed certain strong cities against the Army of the Avenging Pure. It was at this crisis, when the balance of the nation's destiny hung poised, that Kwo Kam, the only son of the Emperor Tung Kwei, and rightful heir of the dynasty of the glorious Tang, miraculously appeared at the head of the Avenging Pure and being acclaimed their leader with a unanimous shout led them on through a series of overwhelming and irresistible victories. At a later period it was told how Kwo Kam had been crowned and installed upon his father's throne, after receiving a mark of celestial approbation in the Temple of Heaven, how Fuh-chi had escaped and fled and how his misleading records had been publicly burned and his detestable name utterly blotted out.
At this period an even greater misfortune than his consistent ill success met Ten-teh. A neighbouring mandarin, on a false pretext, caused him to be brought before him, and speaking very sternly of certain matters in the past, which, he said, out of a well-intentioned regard for the memory of Ten-teh's father he would not cast abroad, he fined him a much larger sum than all he possessed, and then at once caused the raft and the cormorants to be seized in satisfaction of the claim. This he did because his heart was bad, and the sight of Ten-teh bearing a cheerful countenance under continual privation had become offensive to him.
The story of this act of rapine Ten-teh at once carried to the appointed head of the village communities, assuring him that he was ignorant of the cause, but that no crime or wrong-doing had been committed to call for so overwhelming an affliction in return, and entreating him to compel a just restitution and liberty to pursue his inoffensive calling peaceably in the future.
"Listen well, O unassuming Ten-teh, for you are a person of discernment and one with a mature knowledge of the habits of all swimming creatures," said the headman after attending patiently to Ten-teh's words. "If two lean and insignificant carp encountered a voracious pike and one at length fell into his jaws, by what means would the other compel the assailant to release his prey?"
"So courageous an emotion would serve no useful purpose," replied Ten-teh. "Being ill-equipped for such a conflict, it would inevitably result in the second fish also falling a prey to the voracious pike, and recognizing this, the more fortunate of the two would endeavour to escape by lying unperceived among the reeds about."
"The answer is inspired and at the same time sufficiently concise to lie within the hollow bowl of an opium pipe," replied the headman, and turning to his bench he continued in his occupation of beating flax with a wooden mallet.
"Yet," protested Ten-teh, when at length the other paused, "surely the matter could be placed before those in authority in so convincing a light by one possessing your admitted eloquence that Justice would stumble over herself in her haste to liberate the oppressed and to degrade the guilty."
"The phenomenon has occasionally been witnessed, but latterly it would appear that the conscientious deity in question must have lost all power of movement, or perhaps even fatally injured herself, as the result of some such act of rash impulsiveness in the past," replied the headman sympathetically.
"Alas, then," exclaimed Ten-teh, "is there, under the most enlightened form of government in the world, no prescribed method of obtaining redress?"
"Assuredly," replied the headman; "the prescribed method is the part of the system that has received the most attention. As the one of whom you complain is a mandarin of the fifth degree, you may fittingly address yourself to his superiors of the fourth, third, second and first degrees. Then there are the city governors, the district prefects, the provincial rulers, the Imperial Assessors, the Board of Censors, the Guider of the Vermilion Pencil, and, finally, the supreme Emperor himself. To each of these, if you are wealthy enough to reach his actual presence, you may prostrate yourself in turn, and each one, with many courteous expressions of intolerable regret that the matter does not come within his office, will refer you to another. The more prudent course, therefore, would seem to be that of beginning with the Emperor rather than reaching him as the last resort, and as you are now without means of livelihood if you remain here there is no reason why you should not journey to the Capital and make the attempt."
"The Highest!" exclaimed Ten-teh, with a pang of unfathomable emotion. "Is there, then, no middle way? Who is Ten-teh, the obscure and illiterate fisherman, that he should thrust himself into the presence of the Son of Heaven? If the mother of the dutiful Chou Yii could destroy herself and her family at one blow to the end that her son might serve his sovereign with a single heart, how degraded an outcast must he be who would obtrude his own trivial misfortunes at so critical a time."
"'A thorn in one's own little finger is more difficult to endure than a sword piercing the sublime Emperor's arm,'" replied the headman, resuming his occupation. "But if your angle of regarding the various obligations is as you have stated it, then there is obviously nothing more to be said. In any case it is more than doubtful whether the Fountain of Justice would raise an eyelash if you, by every combination of fortunate circumstance, succeeded in reaching his presence."
"The headman has spoken, and his word is ten times more weighty than that of an ill-educated fisherman," replied Ten-teh submissively, and he departed.
From that time Ten-teh sought to sustain life upon roots and wild herbs which he collected laboriously and not always in sufficient quantities from the woods and rank wastes around. Soon even this resource failed him in a great measure, for a famine of unprecedented harshness swept over that part of the province. All supplies of adequate food ceased, and those who survived were driven by the pangs of hunger to consume weeds and the bark of trees, fallen leaves, insects of the lowest orders and the bones of wild animals which had died in the forest. To carry a little rice openly was a rash challenge to those who still valued life, and a loaf of chaff and black mould was guarded as a precious jewel. No wife or daughter could weigh in the balance against a measure of corn, and men sold themselves into captivity to secure the coarse nourishment which the rich allotted to their slaves. Those who remained in the villages followed in Ten-teh's footsteps, so that the meagre harvest that hitherto had failed to supply one household now constituted the whole provision for many. At length these persons, seeing a lingering but inevitable death before them all, came together and spoke of how this might perchance be avoided.
"Let us consider well," said one of their number, "for it may be that succour would not be withheld did we but know the precise manner in which to invoke it."
"Your words are light, O Tan-yung, and your eyes too bright in looking at things which present no encouragement whatever," replied another. "We who remain are old, infirm, or in some way deficient, or we would ere this have sold ourselves into slavery or left this accursed desert in search of a more prolific land. Therefore our existence is of no value to the State, so that they will not take any pains to preserve it. Furthermore, now being beyond the grasp of the most covetous extortion, the district officials have no reason for maintaining an interest in our lives. Assuredly there is no escape except by the White Door of which each one himself holds the key."
"Yet," objected a third, "the aged Ning has often recounted how in the latter years of the reign of the charitable Emperor Kwong, when a similar infliction lay upon the land, a bullock-load of rice was sent daily into the villages of the valley and freely distributed by the headman. Now that same munificent Kwong was a direct ancestor to the third degree of our own Kwo Kam."
"Alas!" remarked a person who had lost many of his features during a raid of brigands, "since the days of the commendable Kwong, while the feet of our lesser ones have been growing smaller the hands of our greater ones have been growing larger. Yet even nowadays, by the protection of the deities, the bullock might reach us."
"The wheel-grease of the cart would alone make the day memorable," murmured another.
"O brothers," interposed one who had not yet spoken, "do not cause our throats to twitch convulsively; nor is it in any way useful to leave the date of solid reflection in pursuit of the stone of light and versatile fancy. Is it thought to be expedient that we should send an emissary to those in authority, pleading our straits?"
"Have not two already journeyed to Kuing-yi in our cause, and to what end?" replied the second one who had raised his voice.
"They did but seek the city mandarin and failed to reach his ear, being empty-handed," urged Tan-yung. "The distance to the Capital is admittedly great, yet it is no more than a persevering and resolute-minded man could certainly achieve. There prostrating himself before the Sublime One and invoking the memory of the imperishable Kwong he could so outline our necessity and despair that the one wagon-load referred to would be increased by nine and the unwieldy oxen give place to relays of swift horses."
"The Emperor!" exclaimed the one who had last spoken, in tones of undisguised contempt towards Tan-yung. "Is the eye of the Unapproachable Sovereign less than that of a city mandarin, that having failed to come near the one we should now strive to reach the other; or are we, peradventure, to fill the sleeves of our messenger with gold and his inner scrip with sapphires!" Nevertheless the greater part of those who stood around zealously supported Tan-yung, crying aloud: "The Emperor! The suggestion is inspired! Undoubtedly the beneficent Kwo Kam will uphold our cause and our troubles may now be considered as almost at an end."
"Yet," interposed a faltering voice, "who among us is to go?"
At the mention of this necessary detail of the plan the cries which were the loudest raised in exultation suddenly leapt back upon themselves as each person looked in turn at all the others and then at himself. The one who had urged the opportune but disconcerting point was lacking in the power of movement in his lower limbs and progressed at a pace little advanced to that of a shell-cow upon two slabs of wood. Tan-yung was subject to a disorder which without any warning cast him to the ground almost daily in a condition of writhing frenzy; the one who had opposed him was paralysed in all but his head and feet, while those who stood about were either blind, lame, camel-backed, leprous, armless, misshapen, or in some way mentally or bodily deficient in an insuperable degree. "Alas!" exclaimed one, as the true understanding of their deformities possessed him, "not only would they of the Court receive it as a most detestable insult if we sent such as ourselves, but the probability of anyone so harassed overcoming the difficulties of river, desert and mountain barrier is so remote that this person is more than willing to stake his entire share of the anticipated bounty against a span-length of succulent lotus root or an embossed coffin handle."
"Let unworthy despair fade!" suddenly exclaimed Tan-yung, who nevertheless had been more downcast than any other a moment before; "for among us has been retained one who has probably been especially destined for this very service. There is yet Ten-teh. Let us seek him out."
With this design they sought for Ten-teh and finding him in his hut they confidently invoked his assistance, pointing out how he would save all their lives and receive great honour. To their dismay Ten-teh received them with solemn curses and drove them from his door with blows, calling them traitors, ungrateful ones, and rebellious subjects whose minds were so far removed from submissive loyalty that rather than perish harmlessly they would inopportunely thrust themselves in upon the attention of the divine Emperor when his mind was full of great matters and his thoughts tenaciously fixed upon the scheme for reclaiming the abandoned outer lands of his forefathers. "Behold," he cried, "when a hand is raised to sweep into oblivion a thousand earthworms they lift no voice in protest, and in this matter ye are less than earthworms. The dogs are content to starve dumbly while their masters feast, and ye are less than dogs. The dutiful son cheerfully submits himself to torture on the chance that his father's sufferings may be lessened, and the Emperor, as the supreme head, is more to be venerated than any father; but your hearts are sheathed in avarice and greed." Thus he drove them away, and their last hope being gone they wandered back to the forest, wailing and filling the air with their despairing moans; for the brief light that had inspired them was extinguished and the thought that by a patient endurance they might spare the Emperor an unnecessary pang was not a sufficient recompense in their eyes.
The time of warmth and green life passed. With winter came floods and snow-storms, great tempests from the north and bitter winds that cut men down as though they had been smitten by the sword. The rivers and lagoons were frozen over; the meagre sustenance of the earth lay hidden beneath an impenetrable crust of snow and ice, until those who had hitherto found it a desperate chance to live from day to day now abandoned the unequal struggle for the more attractive certainty of a swift and painless death. One by one the fires went out in the houses of the dead; the ever-increasing snow broke down the walls. Wild beasts from the mountains walked openly about the deserted streets, thrust themselves through such doors as were closed against them and lurked by night in the most sacred recesses of the ruined temples. The strong and the wealthy had long since fled, and presently out of all the eleven villages of the valley but one man remained alive and Ten-teh lay upon the floor of his inner chamber, dying.
"There was a sign--there was a sign in the past that more was yet to be accomplished," ran the one thought of his mind as he lay there helpless, his last grain consumed and the ashes on his hearthstone black. "Can it be that so solemn an omen has fallen unfulfilled to the ground; or has this person long walked hand in hand with shadows in the Middle Air?"
"Dwellers of Yin; dwellers of Chung-yo; of Wei, Shan-ta, Feng, the Rock of the Bleak Pagoda and all the eleven villages of the valley!" cried a voice from without. "Ho, inhospitable sleeping ones, I have reached the last dwelling of the plain and no one has as yet bidden me enter, no voice invited me to unlace my sandals and partake of tea. Do they fear that this person is a robber in disguise, or is this the courtesy of the Upper Seng valley?"
"They sleep more deeply," said Ten-teh, speaking back to the full extent of his failing power; "perchance your voice was not raised high enough, O estimable wayfarer. Nevertheless, whether you come in peace or armed with violence, enter here, for the one who lies within is past help and beyond injury."
Upon this invitation the stranger entered and stood before Ten-teh. He was of a fierce and martial aspect, carrying a sword at his belt and a bow and arrows slung across his back, but privation had set a deep mark upon his features and his body bore unmistakable traces of a long and arduous march. His garments were ragged, his limbs torn by rocks and thorny undergrowth, while his ears had fallen away before the rigour of the ice-laden blasts. In his right hand he carried a staff upon which he leaned at every step, and glancing to the ground Ten-teh perceived that the lower part of his sandals were worn away so that he trod painfully upon his bruised and naked feet.
"Greeting," said Ten-teh, when they had regarded each other for a moment; "yet, alas, no more substantial than of the lips, for the hospitality of the eleven villages is shrunk to what you see before you," and he waved his arm feebly towards the empty bowl and the blackened hearth. "Whence come you?"
"From the outer land of Im-kau," replied the other. "Over the Kang-ling mountains."
"It is a moon-to-moon journey," said Ten-teh. "Few travellers have ever reached the valley by that inaccessible track."
"More may come before the snow has melted," replied the stranger, with a stress of significance. "Less than seven days ago this person stood upon the northern plains."
Ten-teh raised himself upon his arm. "There existed, many cycles ago, a path--of a single foot's width, it is said--along the edge of the Pass called the Ram's Horn, but it has been lost beyond the memory of man."
"It has been found again," said the stranger, "and Kha-hia and his horde of Kins, joined by the vengeance-breathing Fuh-chi, lie encamped less than a short march beyond the Pass."
"It can matter little," said Ten-teh, trembling but speaking to reassure himself. "The people are at peace among themselves, the Capital adequately defended, and an army sufficiently large to meet any invasion can march out and engage the enemy at a spot most convenient to ourselves."
"A few days hence, when all preparation is made," continued the stranger, "a cloud of armed men will suddenly appear openly, menacing the western boundaries. The Capital and the fortified places will be denuded, and all who are available will march out to meet them. They will be but as an empty shell designed to serve a crafty purpose, for in the meanwhile Kha-hia will creep unsuspected through the Kang-lings by the Ram's Horn and before the army can be recalled he will swiftly fall upon the defenceless Capital and possess it."
"Alas!" exclaimed Ten-teh, "why has the end tarried thus long if it be but for this person's ears to carry to the grave so tormenting a message! Yet how comes it, O stranger, that having been admitted to Kha-hia's innermost council you now betray his trust, or how can reliance be placed upon the word of one so treacherous?"
"Touching the reason," replied the stranger, with no appearance of resentment, "that is a matter which must one day lie between Kha-hia, this person, and one long since Passed Beyond, and to this end have I uncomplainingly striven for the greater part of a lifetime. For the rest, men do not cross the King-langs in midwinter, wearing away their lives upon those stormy heights, to make a jest of empty words. Already sinking into the Under World, even as I am now powerless to raise myself above the ground, I, Nau-Kaou, swear and attest what I have spoken."
"Yet, alas!" exclaimed Ten-teh, striking his breast bitterly in his dejection, "to what end is it that you have journeyed? Know that out of all the eleven villages by famine and pestilence not another man remains. Beyond the valley stretch the uninhabited sand plains, so that between here and the Capital not a solitary dweller could be found to bear the message."
"The Silent One laughs!" replied Nau-Kaou dispassionately; and drawing his cloak more closely about him he would have composed himself into a reverent attitude to Pass Beyond.
"Not so!" cried Ten-teh, rising in his inspired purpose and standing upright despite the fever that possessed him; "the jewel is precious beyond comparison and the casket mean and falling to pieces, but there is none other. This person will bear the warning."
The stranger looked up from the ground in an increasing wonder. "You do but dream, old man," he said in a compassionate voice. "Before me stands one of trembling limbs and infirm appearance. His face is the colour of potter's clay; his eyes sunken and yellow. His bones protrude everywhere like the points of armour, while his garment is scarcely fitted to afford protection against a summer breeze."
"Such dreams do not fade with the light," replied Ten-teh resolutely. "His feet are whole and untired; his mind clear. His heart is as inflexibly fixed as the decrees of destiny, and, above all, his purpose is one which may reasonably demand divine encouragement."
"Yet there are the Han-sing mountains, flung as an insurmountable barrier across the way," said Nau-Kaou.
"The wind passes over them," replied Ten-teh, binding on his sandals.
"The Girdle," continued the other, thereby indicating the formidable obstacle presented by the tempestuous river, swollen by the mountain snows.
"The fish, moved by no great purpose, swim from bank to bank," again replied Ten-teh. "Tell me rather, for the time presses when such issues hang on the lips of dying men, to what extent Kha-hia's legions stretch?"
"In number," replied Nau-Kaou, closing his eyes, "they are as the stars on a very clear night, when the thousands in front do but serve to conceal the innumerable throng behind. Yet even a small and resolute army taking up its stand secretly in this valley and falling upon them unexpectedly when half were crossed could throw them into disorder and rout, and utterly destroy the power of Kha-hia for all time."
"So shall it be," said Ten-Teh from the door. "Pass Upward with a tranquil mind, O stranger from the outer land. The torch which you have borne so far will not fail until his pyre is lit."
"Stay but a moment," cried Nau-Kaou. "This person, full of vigour and resource, needed the spur of a most poignant hate to urge his trailing footsteps. Have you, O decrepit one, any such incentive to your failing powers?"
"A mightier one," came back the voice of Ten-teh, across the snow from afar. "Fear not."
"It is well; they are the great twin brothers," exclaimed Nau-Kaou. "Kha-hia is doomed!" Then twice beating the ground with his open hand he loosened his spirit and passed contentedly into the Upper Air.
The wise and accomplished Emperor Kwo Kam (to whom later historians have justly given the title "Profound") sat upon his agate throne in the Hall of Audience. Around him were gathered the most illustrious from every province of the Empire, while emissaries from the courts of other rulers throughout the world passed in procession before him, prostrating themselves in token of the dependence which their sovereigns confessed, and imploring his tolerant acceptance of the priceless gifts they brought. Along the walls stood musicians and singers who filled the air with melodious visions, while fan-bearing slaves dexterously wafted perfumed breezes into every group. So unparalleled was the splendour of the scene that rare embroidered silks were trodden under foot and a great fountain was composed of diamonds dropping into a jade basin full of pearls, but Kwo Kam outshone all else by the dignity of his air and the magnificence of his apparel.
Suddenly, and without any of the heralding strains of drums and cymbals by which persons of distinction had been announced, the arras before the chief door was plucked aside and a figure, blinded by so much jewelled brilliance, stumbled into the chamber, still holding thrust out before him the engraved ring bearing the Imperial emblem which alone had enabled him to pass the keepers of the outer gates alive. He had the appearance of being a very aged man, for his hair was white and scanty, his face deep with shadows and lined like a river bank when the waters have receded, and as he advanced, bent down with infirmity, he mumbled certain words in ceaseless repetition. From his feet and garment there fell a sprinkling of sand as he moved, and blood dropped to the floor from many an unhealed wound, but his eyes were very bright, and though sword-handles were grasped on all sides at the sight of so presumptuous an intrusion, yet none opposed him. Rather, they fell back, leaving an open passage to the foot of the throne; so that when the Emperor lifted his eyes he saw the aged man moving slowly forward to do obeisance.
"Ten-teh, revered father!" exclaimed Kwo Kam, and without pausing a moment he leapt down from off his throne, thrust aside those who stood about him and casting his own outer robe of state about Ten-teh's shoulders embraced him affectionately.
"Supreme ruler," murmured Ten-teh, speaking for the Emperor's ear alone, and in such a tone of voice as of one who has taught himself a lesson which remains after all other consciousness has passed away, "an army swiftly to the north! Let them dispose themselves about the eleven villages and, overlooking the invaders as they assemble, strike when they are sufficiently numerous for the victory to be lasting and decisive. The passage of the Ram's Horn has been found and the malignant Fuh-chi, banded in an unnatural alliance with the barbarian Kins, lies with itching feet beyond the Kang-lings. The invasion threatening on the west is but a snare; let a single camp, feigning to be a multitudinous legion, be thrown against it. Suffer delay from no cause. Weigh no alternative. He who speaks is Ten-teh, at whose assuring word the youth Hoang was wont to cast himself into the deepest waters fearlessly. His eyes are no less clear to-day, but his heart is made small with overwhelming deference or in unshrinking loyalty he would cry: 'Hear and obey! All, all--Flags, Ironcaps, Tigers, Braves--all to the Seng valley, leaving behind them the swallow in their march and moving with the guile and secrecy of the ringed tree-snake.'" With these words Ten-teh's endurance passed its drawn-out limit and again repeating in a clear and decisive voice, "All, all to the north!" he released his joints and would have fallen to the ground had it not been for the Emperor's restraining arms.
When Ten-teh again returned to a knowledge of the lower world he was seated upon the throne to which the Emperor had borne him. His rest had been made easy by the luxurious cloaks of the courtiers and emissaries which had been lavishly heaped about him, while during his trance the truly high-minded Kwo Kam had not disdained to wash his feet in a golden basin of perfumed water, to shave his limbs, and to anoint his head. The greater part of the assembly had been dismissed, but some of the most trusted among the ministers and officials still waited in attendance about the door.
"Great and enlightened one," said Ten-teh, as soon as his stupor was lifted, "has this person delivered his message competently, for his mind was still a seared vision of snow and sand and perchance his tongue has stumbled?"
"Bend your ears to the wall, O my father," replied the Emperor, "and be assured."
A radiance of the fullest satisfaction lifted the settling shadows for a moment from Ten-teh's countenance as from the outer court came at intervals the low and guarded words of command, the orderly clashing of weapons as they fell into their appointed places, and the regular and unceasing tread of armed men marching forth. "To the Seng valley--by no chance to the west?" he demanded, trembling between anxiety and hope, and drinking in the sound of the rhythmic tramp which to his ears possessed a more alluring charm than if it were the melody of blind singing girls.
"Even to the eleven villages," replied the Emperor. "At your unquestioned word, though my kingdom should hang upon the outcome."
"It is sufficient to have lived so long," said Ten-teh. Then perceiving that it was evening, for the jade and crystal lamps were lighted, he cried out: "The time has leapt unnoted. How many are by this hour upon the march?"
"Sixscore companies of a hundred spearmen each," said Kwo Kam. "By dawn four times that number will be on their way. In less than three days a like force will be disposed about the passes of the Han-sing mountains and the river fords, while at the same time the guards from less important towns will have been withdrawn to take their place upon the city walls."
"Such words are more melodious than the sound of many marble lutes," said Ten-teh, sinking back as though in repose. "Now is mine that peace spoken of by the philosopher Chi-chey as the greatest: 'The eye closing upon its accomplished work.'"
"Assuredly do you stand in need of the healing sleep of nature," said the Emperor, not grasping the inner significance of the words. "Now that you are somewhat rested, esteemed sire, suffer this one to show you the various apartments of the palace so that you may select for your own such as most pleasingly attract your notice."
"Yet a little longer," entreated Ten-teh. "A little longer by your side and listening to your voice alone, if it may be permitted, O sublime one."
"It is for my father to command," replied Kwo Kam. "Perchance they of the eleven villages sent some special message of gratifying loyalty which you would relate without delay?"
"They slept, omnipotence, or without doubt it would be so," replied Ten-teh.
"Truly," agreed the Emperor. "It was night when you set forth, my father?"
"The shadows had fallen deeply upon the Upper Seng Valley," said Ten-teh evasively.
"The Keeper of the Imperial Stores has frequently conveyed to us their expressions of unfeigned gratitude for the bounty by which we have sought to keep alive the memory of their hospitality and our own indebtedness," said the Emperor.
"The sympathetic person cannot have overstated their words," replied Ten-teh falteringly. "Never, as their own utterances bear testimony, never was food more welcome, fuel more eagerly sought for, and clothing more necessary than in the years of the most recent past."
"The assurance is as dew upon the drooping lotus," said Kwo Kam, with a lightening countenance. "To maintain the people in an unshaken prosperity, to frown heavily upon extortion and to establish justice throughout the land--these have been the achievements of the years of peace. Yet often, O my father, this one's mind has turned yearningly to the happier absence of strife and the simple abundance which you and they of the valley know."
"The deities ordain and the balance weighs; your reward will be the greater," replied Ten-teh. Already he spoke with difficulty, and his eyes were fast closing, but he held himself rigidly, well knowing that his spirit must still obey his will.
"Do you not crave now to partake of food and wine?" inquired the Emperor, with tender solicitude. "A feast has long been prepared of the choicest dishes in your honour. Consider well the fatigue through which you have passed."
"It has faded," replied Ten-teh, in a voice scarcely above a whisper, "the earthly body has ceased to sway the mind. A little longer, restored one; a very brief span of time."
"Your words are my breath, my father," said the Emperor, deferentially. "Yet there is one matter which we had reserved for affectionate censure. It would have spared the feet of one who is foremost in our concern if you had been content to send the warning by one of the slaves whose acceptance we craved last year, while you followed more leisurely by the chariot and the eight white horses which we deemed suited to your use."
Ten-teh was no longer able to express himself in words, but at this indication of the Emperor's unceasing thought a great happiness shone on his face. "What remains?" must reasonably have been his reflection; "or who shall leave the shade of the fruitful palm-tree to search for raisins?" Therefore having reached so supreme an eminence that there was nothing human above, he relaxed the effort by which he had so long sustained himself, and suffering his spirit to pass unchecked, he at once fell back lifeless among the cushions of the throne.
That all who should come after might learn by his example, the history of Ten-teh was inscribed upon eighteen tablets of jade, carved patiently and with graceful skill by the most expert stone-cutters of the age. A triumphal arch of seven heights was also erected outside the city and called by his name, but the efforts of story-tellers and poets will keep alive the memory of Ten-teh even when these imperishable monuments shall have long fallen from their destined use.
When Kai Lung had completed the story of the loyalty of Ten-teh and had pointed out the forgotten splendour of the crumbling arch, the coolness of the evening tempted them to resume their way. Moving without discomfort to themselves before nightfall they reached a small but seemly cottage conveniently placed upon the mountain-side. At the gate stood an aged person whose dignified appearance was greatly added to by his long white moustaches. These possessions he pointed out to Hwa-mei with inoffensive pride as he welcomed the two who stood before him.
"Venerated father," explained Kai Lung dutifully, "this is she who has been destined from the beginning of time to raise up a hundred sons to keep your line extant."
"In that case," remarked the patriarch, "your troubles are only just beginning. As for me, since all that is now arranged, I can see about my own departure--'Whatever height the tree, its leaves return to the earth at last.'"
"It is thus at evening-time--to-morrow the light will again shine forth," whispered Kai Lung. "Alas, radiance, that you who have dwelt about a palace should be brought to so mean a hut!"
"If it is small, your presence will pervade it; in a palace there are many empty rooms," replied Hwa-mei, with a reassuring glance. "I enter to prepare our evening rice."