"In that case," she replied in high-souled liberality, while her eyes scintillated towards me with a really all-overpowering radiance, "I will forgive you."
"We have an old but very appropriate saying, 'To every man the voice of one maiden carries further than the rolling of thunder,'" I remarked in a significantly restrained tone; for, although conscious that the circumstance was becoming more menace-laden than I had any previous intention, I found myself to be incapable of extrication. "Florence—"
"Oh," she exclaimed quickly, raising her polished hand with an undeniable gesture of reproof, "you must not call me by my christian name, Mr. Ho."
"Yet," replied this person, with a confessedly stubborn inelegance, "you call me by the name of Ho."
Her eyes became ox-like in an utter absence of almond outline. "Yes," she said gazing, "but that—that is not your christian name, is it?"
"In a position of speaking—this one being as a matter of fact a discreditable follower of the sublime Confucius—it may be so regarded," I answered, "inasmuch as it is the milk-name of childhood."
"But you always put it last," she urged.
"Assuredly," I replied. "Being irrevocably born with the family name of Kong, it is thought more reasonable that that should stand first. After that, others are attached as the various contingencies demand it, as Ho upon participating in the month-age feast, the book-name of Tsin at a later period, Paik upon taking a degree, and so forth."
"I am very sorry, Mr. Kong," said the maiden, adding, with what at the time certainly struck this person as shallow-witted prejudice. "Of course it is really quite your own fault for being so tospy-turvily arranged in every way. But, to return to the subject, why should not one speak of one's heart?"
"Because," replied this person, colouring deeply, and scarcely able to control his unbearable offence that so irreproachably-moulded a creature should openly refer to the detail, "because it is a gross and unrefined particular, much more internal and much less pleasantly-outlined than those extremities whose spoken equivalent shall henceforth be an abandoned word from my lips."
"But, in any case, it is not the actual organ that one infers," protested the maiden. "As the seat of the affections, passions, virtues, and will, it is the conventional emblem of every thought and emotion."
"By no means," I cried, forgetting in the face of so heterodox an assertion that it would be well to walk warily at every point. "That is the stomach."
"Ah!" exclaimed the maiden, burying her face in a gracefully-perfumed remnant of lace, to so overwhelming a degree that for the moment I feared she might become involved in the dizzy falling. "Never, by any mischance, use that word again the society of the presentable, Mr. Kong."
"The ceremonial usage of my own land of the Heavenly Dynasty is proverbially elaborate," I said, with a gesture of self-abasement, "but in comparison with yours it may be regarded as an undeviating walk when opposed to a stately and many-figured dance. Among the company of the really excessively select (in which must ever be included the one whom I am now addressing), it becomes difficult for an outcast of my illimitable obtuseness to move to one side or the other without putting his foot into that."
"Oh no," exclaimed the maiden, in fragrant encouragement, "I think you are getting on very nicely, Mr. Kong, and one does not look for absolute conformance from a foreigner—especially one who is so extremely foreign. If I can help you with anything—of course I could not even speak as I have done to an ordinary stranger, but with one of a distant race it seems different—if I can tell you anything that will save you—"
"You are all-exalted," I replied, with seemly humility, "and virtue and wisdom press out your temples on either side. Certainly, since I have learned that the heart is so poetically regarded, I have been assailed by a fear lest other organs which I have hitherto despised might be used in a similar way. Now, as regards liver—"
"It is only used with bacon," replied the maiden, rising abruptly.
"Kidneys?" suggested this person diffidently, really anxious to detain her footsteps, although from her expression it did not rest assured that the incident was taking an actually auspicious movement.
"I don't think you need speak of those except at breakfast," she said; "but I hear the others returning, and I must really go to dress for dinner."
Among the barbarians many keep books wherein to inscribe their deep and beautiful thoughts. This person had therefore provided himself with one also, and, drawing it forth, he now added to a page of many other interesting compositions: "Maidens of immaculate refinement do not hesitate to admit before a person of a different sex that they are on the point of changing their robes. The liver is in some intricate way an emblem representing bacon, or together with it the two stand for a widely differing analogy. Among those of the highest exclusiveness kidneys are never alluded to after the tenth gong-stroke of the morning."
With a sincerely ingrained trust that the scenes of dignity, opulence, and wisdom, set forth in these superficial letters, are not unsettling your intellect and causing you to yearn for a fuller existence.
Concerning this person's well-sustained efforts to discover further demons. The behaviour of those invoked on two occasions.
VENERATED SIRE,—In an early letter I made some reference to a variety of demon invoked by certain of the barbarians. As this matter aroused your congenial interest, I have since privately bent my mind incessantly to the discovery of others; but this has been by no means easy, for, touching the more intimate details of the subject, the barbarians frequently maintain a narrow-minded suspicion. Many whom I have approached feign to become amused or have evaded a deliberate answer under the subterfuge of a jest; yet, whenever I would have lurked by night in their temples or among the enclosed spaces of their tombs to learn more, at a given signal one in authority has approached me with anxiety and mistrust engraved upon his features, and, disregarding my unassuming protest that I would remain alone in a contemplative reverie, has signified that so devout an exercise is contrary to their written law.
On one occasion only did this person seem to hold himself poised on the very edge of a fuller enlightenment. This was when, in the venerable company of several benevolent persons, he was being taken from place to place to see the more important buildings, and to observe the societies of artificers labouring at their crafts. The greater part of the day had already been spent in visiting temples, open spaces reserved to children and those whose speech, appearance, and general manner of behaving make it desirable that they should be set apart from the contact of the impressionable, halls containing relics and emblems of the past, places of no particular size or attraction but described as being of unparalleled historic interest, and the stalls of the more reputable venders of merchandise.
Doubtless, with observing so many details of a conflicting nature, this person's discriminating faculties had become obscured, but towards evening he certainly understood that we sought the company of an assembly of those who had been selected from all the Empire to pronounce definitely upon matters of supreme import. The building before which our chariot stopped had every appearance of being worthy of so exceptional a gathering, and with a most affluent joy that I should at last be able to glean a decisive pronouncement, I evaded those who had accompanied me, and, mingling self-reliantly with the throng inside, I quickly surrounded myself with many of the wisest-looking, and begged that they would open their heads freely and express their innermost opinions upon the subject of demons of all kinds.
Although I had admittedly hoped that these persons would not conceal themselves behind the wings of epigram or intangible prevarication, I was far from being prepared for the candour with which they greeted me, and although by long usage I am reasonably unconcerned at the proximity of any of our own recognised genii, it is not to be denied that my organs of ferocity grew small and unstable at the revelations.
From their words it appeared that the spot on which we stood had long been the recognised centre and meeting-place for every class of abandoned and objectionable spirit of the universe. Not only this, but several of the persons who had gathered around were confidently pointed out as the earthly embodiment of various diabolical Forces, while others cheerfully admitted that they themselves were the shadows of certain illustrious ones who had long Passed Above, and all united in declaring that those who moved among them wearing the distinction of a dark blue uniform were Evil Beings of a most ghoulish and repulsive type. Indeed, as I looked more closely, I could see that not only those pointed out, but all standing around, had expressions immeasurably more in keeping with a band of outcast spirits than suggestive of an assembly representing wisdom and dignified ease. At that moment, however, a most inelegant movement was caused by one suddenly declaring that he had recognised this one who is inscribing his experiences to be the apparition of a certain great reformer who during the period of his ordinary existence had received the name of Guy Fawkes, and amid a tumult of overwhelming acclamation a proposal was raised that I should be carried around in triumph and afterwards initiated into the observance of a time-honoured custom. Although it had now become doubtful to what end the adventure was really tending, this person would have submitted himself agreeably to the participation had not the blue-apparelled band cleft their way into the throng just as I was about to be borne off in triumph, and forming themselves into a ringed barrier around me they presently succeeded in rearranging the contending elements and in restoring me to the society of my friends. To these persons they complained with somewhat unreasoning acrimony that I had been exciting the inmates into a state of rebellion with wild imaginings, and for the first time I then began to understand that an important error had been perpetrated by some one, and that instead of being a meeting-place for those upholding the wisdom and authority of the country, the building was in reality an establishment for the mentally defective and those of treacherous instincts.
For some time after this occurrence I failed to regard the subject of demons and allied Forces in any but a spirit of complete no enthusiasm, but more recently my interest and research have been enlarged by the zeal and supernatural conversation of a liberal-minded person who sought my prosaic society with indefatigable persistence. When we had progressed to such a length that the one might speak of affairs without the other at once interposing that he himself had also unfortunately come out quite destitute of money, this stranger, who revealed to me that his name was Glidder, but that in the company of a certain chosen few he was known intimately as the Keeper of the Salograma, approached me confidentially, and inquired whether we of our Central Kingdom were in the habit of receiving manifestations from the spirits of those who had Passed Beyond.
At the unassumed ingenuousness of this remark I suffered my impassiveness to relax, as I replied with well-established pride that although a country which neglected its ancestors might doubtless be able to produce more of the ordinary or graveyard spectres, we were unapproachable for the diverse forms and malignant enmity of our apparitions. Of invisible beings alone, I continued tolerantly, we had the distinction of being harassed by upwards of seven hundred clearly-defined varieties, while the commoner inflictions of demons, shades, visions, warlocks, phantoms, sprites, imps, phenomena, ghosts, and reflections passed almost without comment; and touching our admitted national speciality of dragons, the honour of supremacy had never been questioned.
At this, the agreeable person said that the pleasure he derived from meeting me was all-excelling, and that I must certainly accompany him to a meeting-place of this same chosen few the following evening, when, by the means of sacred expedients, they hoped to invoke the presence of some departed spirits, and perchance successfully raise a tangible vision or two. To so fair-minded a proposal I held myself acquiescently, and then inquired where the meeting-place in question was destined to be—whether in a ruined and abandoned sanctuary, or upon some precipitous spot of desolation.
The inquiry was gracefully intended, but a passing cloud of unworthy annoyance revealed itself upon the upper part of the other's expression as he replied, "We, the true seekers, despise theatrical accessories, and, as a matter of act, I couldn't well get away from the office in time to go anywhere far. To-morrow we meet at my place in the Camden Road. It's only a three-half-penny tram stage from the Euston and Tottenham Court corner, so it couldn't be much more convenient for you." He thereupon gave me an inscribed fragment of paper and mentioned the appointed hour.
"I'll tell you why I am particularly anxious for you to come to-morrow," he said as we were each departing from one another. "Pash—he's the Reader of the Veda among us—and his people have got hold of a Greek woman (they SAY she is a princess, of course), who can do a lot of things with flowers and plate glass. They are bringing her for the first time to-morrow, and it struck me that if I have YOU there already when they arrive—you'll come in your national costume by the way?—it will be a considerable set-off. Since his daughter was presented to the duchess at the opening of a bazaar, there has been no holding Pash; why he was ever elected Reader of the Books, I don't know. Er—we have had scoffers sometimes, but I trust I may rely upon you not to laugh at anything you may not happen to agree with?"
With conscientious dignity I replied that I had only really laughed seven times in my life, and therefore the entertainment was one which I was not likely to embark upon hastily or with inadequate cause. He immediately expressed a seemly regret that the detail had been spoken, and again assuring him that at the stated hour I would present myself at the house bearing the symbol engraved upon the card, we definitely parted.
That, as a matter of fact, I did not so present myself at the exact hour, chiefly concerns the uncouth and arbitrary-minded charioteer who controlled the movements of the vehicle to which the one whom I was seeking had explicitly referred; for at an angle in the road he suffered the horses to draw us aside into a path which did not correspond to the engraved signs upon the card, nor by any word of persuasion could he be prevailed upon to return.
Thus, without any possible reproach upon the manner in which I was conducting the enterprise, it came about that by the time I reached the spot indicated, all those persons who had been spoken of as constituting a chosen band were assembled, and with them the barbarian princess. Nevertheless, this person was irreproachably greeted, and the maiden indicated even spoke a few words to him in an outside tongue. Being necessarily unacquainted with the import of the remark I spread out my hands with a sign of harmonious sympathy and smiled agreeably, whereat she appeared to receive an added esteem from the faces of those around (excluding those directly of the House of Glidder), and was thereby encouraged to speak similarly at intervals, this person each time replying in a like fashion.
"Is he then a Guide of the Way, also, princess?" said the one Pash, who had noted the occurrence; to which the maiden replied, "To a degree, yet lacking the Innermost Mysteries."
Presently it was announced that all things were fittingly prepared in another chamber. Here, upon a table of polished wood, stood on the one side a round stone with certain markings, a group of inscribed books, and various other emblems; and on the other side a bowl of water, a sphere of crystal, pieces of unwritten parchment, and behind all, and at a distance away, a sheet of transparent glass, greater in height than an ordinary person and as wide. When all were seated—the one who had enticed me among them placing himself before the stone, the person Pash guarding the books, the barbarian princess being surrounded by her symbols and alone in a self-imposed solitude, and the others at various points—the lights were subdued and the appearances awaited.
It would scarcely be respectful, O my enlightened father, to take up your well-spent leisure by a too prolific account of the matters which followed, they being in no way dissimilar from the manifestations by which the uninitiated little ones of Yuen-ping are wont to amuse themselves and pass the winter evenings. From time to time harmonious sounds could be plainly detected, flowers and branches of wood were scattered sparsely here and there, persons claimed that passing objects had touched their faces, and misshapen forms of smoke-like density (which some confidently recognised as the outlines of departed ones whom they had known), revealed themselves against the glass. When this had been accomplished, the lights were recalled, and the barbarian maiden, sinking into a condition of languor, announced and foretold events and happenings upon which she was consulted, sometimes replying by spoken words, at others suffering her hand to trace them lightly upon the parchment sheets. Thus, to an inquirer it was announced that one, Aunt Mary, in the Upper Air, was well and happy, though undeniably pained at the action of Cousin William in the matter of the freehold houses, and more than sceptical how his marriage would turn out. Another was advised that although the interest on Consols was admittedly lower than that anticipated by those controlling the destines of a new venture entitled, The Great Rosy Dawn Gold Mine Development Syndicate, and the name certainly less poetically inspiring, the advising spirits were of the opinion that the former enterprise would prove the more stable of the two, and, in any case, they recommended the person in question to begin by placing not more than half of her life's savings into the mine. The family of the House of Pash was assured that beneficent spirits surrounded them at every turn, and that their good deeds were not suffered to fall unfruitfully to the ground; while many bearing the name of Glidder, on the other hand, were reproved by one who had known them in infancy for the offences of jealousy, ostentation, vain thoughts, shallowness of character, and the like.
At length, revered, as there seemed to be no reasonable indication of any barbarian phantom of weight or authority appearing—nothing, indeed, beyond what a person in our country, of no admitted skill, would accomplish in the penetrating light of day with two others holding his hands, and a third reposing upon his head, I formed the perhaps immature judgment that the one to whom I was indebted for the entertainment would be suffering a grievous frustration of his hopes and a diminution of his outward authority. Therefore, without sufficient consideration of the restricted surroundings, as it afterwards appeared, I threw myself into a retrospective vision, and floating unencumbered through space, I sought for Kwan Kiang-ti, the Demon of the Waters, upon whom I might fittingly call, as I was given into his keeping by the ceremony of spirit-adoption at an early age. Meeting an influence which I recognised to be an indication of his presence, in the vicinity of the Eighth Region, I obsequiously entreated that he would reveal himself without delay, and then, convinced of his sympathetic intervention, I suffered my spirit to recall itself, and revived into the condition of an ordinary existence.
"We have among us this evening, my friends," the one Pash was saying, "a very remarkable lady—if I may use so democratic a term in the connection—to whom the limits of Time and Space are empty words, and before whose supreme Will the most portentous Forces of Occult Nature mutely confess themselves her attending slaves—" But at that moment the rolling drums of Kiang-ti's thunder drowned his words, although he subsequently raised his voice above it to entreat that any knives or other articles of a bright and attractive kind should at once be removed to a place of safety.
Heralded by these continuous sounds, and accompanied by innumerable flashes of lightning, the genius presently manifested himself, leisurely developing out of the air around. He appeared in his favourite guise of an upright dragon, his scales being arranged in rows of nine each way, a pearl showing within his throat, and upon his head the wooden bar. The lights were extinguished incapably by the rain which fell continually in his presence, but from his body there proceeded a luminous breath which sufficiently revealed the various incidents.
"Kong Ho," said this opportune vision, speaking with a voice like the beating of a brass gong, "the course you have adopted is an unusual one, but the weight and regularity of your offerings have merit in my eyes. Nevertheless, if your invocation is only the outcome of a shallow vanity or a profane love of display, nothing can save you from a painful death. Speak now, fully and without evasion, and fear nothing."
"Amiable Being," said this person, kow-towing profoundly, "the matter was designed to the end only that your incomparable versatility might be fittingly displayed. These barbarians sought vainly to raise phantoms capable of any useful purpose, whereupon I, jealous of your superior omnipotence, judged it would be an unseemly neglect not to inform you of the opportunity."
"It is well," said the demon affably. "All doubt in the matter shall now be set at rest. Could any more convincing act be found than that I should breath upon these barbarians and reduce them instantly to a scattering of thin white ashes?"
"Assuredly it would be a conclusive testimony," I replied; "yet in that case consider how inadequate a witness could be borne to your enlightened condescension, when none would be left but one to whom the spoken language of this Island is more in the nature of a trap than a comfortable vehicle."
"Your reasoning is profound, Kong Ho," he replied, "yet abundant proof shall not be wanting." With these words he raised his hand, and immediately the air became filled with an overwhelming shower of those productions with which Kwan Kiang-ti's name is chiefly associated—shells and pebbles of all kinds, lotus and other roots from the river banks, weeds from seas of greater depths, fish of interminable variety from both fresh and bitter waters, all falling in really embarrassing abundance, and mingled with an incessant rain of sand and water. In the midst of this the demon suddenly passed away, striking the table as he went, so that it was scarred with the brand of a five-clawed hand, shattering all the objects upon it (excepting the stone and the books, which he doubtless regarded as sacred to some extent), and leaving the room involved in a profound darkness.
"For the love av the saints—for the love av the saints, save us from the yellow devils!" exclaimed a voice from the spot where last the barbarian princess had reclined, and upon this person going to her assistance with lights it was presently revealed that she alone had remained seated, the others having all assembled themselves beneath the table in spite of the incapability of the space at their disposal. Most of the weightier evidences of Kwan Kiang-ti's majestic presence had faded away, though the table retained the print of his impressive hand, many objects remained irretrievably torn apart, and in a distant corner of the room an insignificant heap of shells and seaweed still lingered. From the floor covering a sprinkling of the purest Fuh-chow sand rose at every step, the salt dew of the Tung-Hai still dropped from the surroundings, and, at a later period, a shore crab was found endeavouring to make its escape undetected.
Convinced that the success of the manifestation would have enlarged the one Glidder's esteem towards me to an inexpressible degree, I now approached him with words of self-deprecation ready on my tongue, but before he spoke I became aware, from the nature of his glance, that the provision had been unnecessary, for already his face had begun to assume, to a most distended amount, the expression which I had long recognised as a synonym that some detail had been regarded at a different angle from that anticipated.
"May I ask," he began in a somewhat heavily-laden voice, after he had assured himself that the person who was speaking was himself, and his external attributes unchanged, "May I ask, sir" (and at this title, which is untranslatable in its many-sided significance when technically employed, I recognised that all complimentary intercourse might be regarded as having closed), "whether you accept the responsibility of these proceedings?"
"Touching the appearance which has so essentially contributed to the success of the occasion, it is undeniably due to this one's foresight," I replied modestly.
"Then let me tell you, sir, that I consider it an outrage—a dastardly outrage."
"Yet," protested this person with retiring assertiveness, "the expressed object of the ceremony, as it stood before my intelligence, was for the set purpose of invoking spirits and raising certain visions."
"Spirits!" exclaimed the one before me with an accent of concentrated aversion; "yes, spirits; impalpable, civilised, genuine spirits, who manifest themselves through recognised media, and are conformable to the usages of the best drawing-room society—yes. But not demons, sir; not Chinese devils in the Camden Road—no. Truth and Light at any cost, not paganism. It's perfectly scandalous. Look at the mahogany table—ruined; look at the wall-paper—conventional mackerels with a fishing-net background, new this spring—soused; look at the Brussels carpet, seventeen six by twenty-five—saturated!"
"I quite agree with you, Mr. Glidder," here interposed the individual Pash. "I was watching you, sir, closely the whole time, and I have my suspicions about how it was done. I don't know whether Mr. Glidder has any legal redress, but I should certainly advise him to see his solicitors to-morrow, and in the meantime—"
"He is my guest," exclaimed the one whose hospitality I was enjoying, "and while he is beneath my roof he is sacred."
"But I do not think that it would be kind to detain him any longer in his wet things," said another of the household, with pointed malignity, and accepting this as an omen of departure, I withdrew myself, bowing repeatedly, but offering no closer cordiality.
"Through a torn sleeve one drops a purse of gold," it is well said; and as if to prove to a deeper end that misfortune is ever double-handed, this incapable being, involved in thoughts of funereal density, bent his footsteps to an inaccurate turning, and after much wandering was compelled to pass the night upon a desolate heath—but that would be the matter of another narrative.
With an insidious doubt whether, after all, the far-seeing Kwan Kiang-ti's first impulse would not have been the most satisfactory conclusion to the enterprise.
Concerning warfare, both as waged by ourselves and by a nation devoid of true civilisation. The aged man and the meeting and the parting of our ways. The instance of the one who expressed emotion by leaping.
VENERATED SIRE,—You are omniscient, but I cannot regard the fear which you express in your beautifully-written letter, bearing the sign of the eleventh day of the seventh moon, as anything more than the imaginings prompted by a too-lavish supper of your favourite shark's fin and peanut oil. Unless the dexterously-elusive attributes of the genial-spoken persons high in office at Pekin have deteriorated contemptibly since this one's departure, it is quite impossible for our great and enlightened Empire to be drawn into a conflict with the northern barbarians whom you indicate, against our will. When the matter becomes urgent, doubtless a prince of the Imperial line will loyally suffer himself to Pass Above, and during the period of ceremonial mourning for so pure and exalted an official it would indeed be an unseemly desecration to engage in any public business. If this failed, and an ultimatum were pressed with truly savage contempt for all that is sacred and refined, it might be well next to consider the health even of the sublime Emperor himself (or, perhaps better, that of the select and ever-present Dowager Empress); but should the barbarians still advance, and, setting the usages of civilised warfare at defiance, threaten an engagement in the midst of this unparalleled calamity, there will be no alternative but to have a formidable rebellion in the Capital. All the barbarian powers will then assemble as usual, and in the general involvement none dare move alone, and everything will have to be regarded as being put back to where it was before. It is well said, "The broken vessel can never be made whole, but it may be delicately arranged so that another shall displace it."
These barbarians, less resourceful in device, have only recently emerged from a conflict into which they do not hesitate to admit they were drawn despite their protests. Such incompetence is characteristic of their methods throughout. Not in any way disguising their purpose, they at once sent out an army of those whom could be the readiest seized, certainly furnishing them with weapons, charms to use in case of emergency, and three-coloured standards (their adversaries adopting a white banner to symbolise the conciliation of their attitude, and displaying both freely in every extremity), but utterly neglecting to teach them the arts of painting their bodies with awe-inspiring forms, of imitating the cries of wild animals as they attacked, of clashing their weapons together with menacing vigour, or any of the recognised artifices by which terror may be struck into the ranks of an awaiting foeman. The result was that which the prudent must have foreseen. The more accomplished enemy, without exposing themselves to any unnecessary inconvenience, gained many advantages by their intrepid power of dissimulation—arranging their garments and positions in such a way that they had the appearance of attacking when in reality they were effecting a prudent retreat; rapidly concealing themselves among the earth on the approach of an overwhelming force; becoming openly possessed with the prophetic vision of an assured final victory whenever it could be no longer concealed that matters were becoming very desperate indeed; and gaining an effective respite when all other ways of extrication were barred against them by the stratagem of feigning that they were other than those whom they had at first appeared to be.
In the meantime the adventure was not progressing pleasantly for those chiefly concerned at home. With the earliest tidings of repulse it was discovered that in the haste of embarkation the wrong persons had been sent, all those who were really the fittest to command remaining behind, and many of these did not hesitate to write to the printed papers, resolutely admitting that they themselves were in every way better qualified to bring the expedition to a successful end, at the same time skilfully pointing out how the disasters which those in the field had incurred could easily have been avoided by acting in a precisely contrary manner.
In the emergency the most far-seeing recommended a more unbending policy of extermination. Among these, one in particular, a statesman bearing an illustrious name of two-edged import, distinguished himself by the liberal broad-mindedness of his opinions, and for the time he even did not flinch from making himself excessively unpopular by the wide and sweeping variety of his censure. "We are confessedly a barbarian nation," fearlessly declared this unprejudiced person (who, although entitled by hereditary right to carry a banner on the field of battle, with patriotic self-effacement preferred to remain at home and encourage those who were fighting by pointing out their inadequacy to the task and the extreme unlikelihood of their ever accomplishing it), "and in order to achieve our purpose speedily it is necessary to resort to the methods of barbarism." The most effective measure, as he proceeded to explain with well-thought-out detail, would be to capture all those least capable of resistance, concentrate them into a given camp, and then at an agreed signal reduce the entire assembly to what he termed, in a passage of high-minded eloquence, "a smoking hecatomb of women and children."
His advice was pointed with a crafty insight, for not only would such a course have brought the stubborn enemy to a realisation of the weakness of their position and thus paved the way to a dignified peace, but by the act itself few would have been left to hand down the tradition of a relentless antagonism. Yet with incredible obtuseness his advice was ignored and he himself was referred to at the time by those who regarded the matter from a different angle, with a scarcely-veiled dislike, which towards many of his followers took the form of building materials and other dissentient messages whenever they attempted to raise their voices publicly. As an inevitable result the conquest of the country took years, where it would have been moons had the more truly humane policy been adopted, commerce and the arts languished, and in the end so little spoil was taken that it was more common to meet six mendicants wearing the honourable embellishment of the campaign than to see one captured slave maiden offered for sale in the market places—indeed, even to this day the deficiency is clearly admitted and openly referred to as The Great "Domestic" Problem.
At various times during my residence here I have been filled with a most acute gratification when the words of those around have seemed to indicate that they recognised the undoubted superiority of the laws and institutions of our enlightened country. Sometimes, it is true, upon a more detailed investigation of the incident, it has presently appeared that either I had misunderstood the exact nature of their sentiments or they had slow-wittedly failed to grasp the precise operation of the enactment I had described; but these exceptions are clearly the outcome of their superficial training, and do not affect the fact my feeble and frequently even eccentric arguments are at length certainly moving the more intelligent into an admission of what constitutes true justice and refinement. It is not to be denied that here and there exists a prejudice against our customs even in the minds of the studious; but as this is invariably the shadow of misconception, it has frequently been my sympathetic privilege to promote harmony by means of the inexorable logic of fact and reason. "But are not your officials uncompromisingly opposed to the freedom of the Press?" said one who conversed with me on the varying phases of the two countries, and knowing that in his eyes this would constitute an unendurable offence, I at once appeased his mind. "By no means," I replied; "if anything, the exact contrary is the case. As a matter of reality, of course, there is no Press now, the all-seeing Board of Censors having wisely determined that it was not stimulating to the public welfare; but if such an institution was permitted to exist you may rest genially assured that nothing could exceed the lenient toleration which all in office would extend towards it." A similar instance of malicious inaccuracy is widely spoken of regarding our lesser ones. "Is it really a fact, Mr. Kong," exclaimed a maiden of magnanimous condescension, to this person recently, "that we poor women are despised in your country, and that among the working-classes female children are even systematically abandoned as soon as they are born?" Suffering my features to express amusement at this unending calumny, I indicated my violent contempt towards the one who had first uttered it. "So far from despising them," I continued, with ingratiating gallantry, "we recognise that they are quite necessary for the purposes of preparing our food, carrying weighty burdens, and the like; and how grotesque an action would it be for poor but affectionate parents to abandon one who in a few years' time could be sold at a really remunerative profit, this, indeed, being the principal means of sustenance in many frugal families."
On another occasion I had seated myself upon a wooden couch in one of the open spaces about the outskirts of the city, when an aged man chanced to pass by. Him I saluted with ceremonious politeness, on account of his years and the venerable dignity of his beard. Thereupon he approached near, and remarking affably that the afternoon was good (though, to use no subtle evasion, it was very evil), he congenially sat by my side and entered into familiar discourse.
"They say that in your part of the world we old grandfathers are worshipped," he said, after recounting to my ears all the most intimate details of his existence from his youth upwards; "now, might that be right?"
"Truly," I replied. "It is the unchanging foundation of our system of morality."
"Ay, ay," he admitted pleasantly. "We are a long way behind them foreigners in everything. At the rate we're going there won't be any trade nor work nor religion left in this country in another twenty years. I often wish I had gone abroad when I was younger. And if I had chanced upon your parts I should be worshipped, eh?" and at the agreeable thought the aged man laughed in his throat with simple humour.
"Assuredly," I replied; "—after you were dead."
"Eh?" exclaimed the venerable person, checking the fountain of his mirth abruptly at the word. "Dead! not before? Doesn't—doesn't that seem a bit of a waste?"
"Such has been the observance from the time of unrecorded antiquity," I replied. "'Obey parents, respect the old, loyally uphold the sovereign, and worship ancestors.'"
"Well, well," remarked the one beside me, "obedience and respect—that's something nowadays. And you make them do it?"
"Our laws are unflinching in their application," I said. "No crime is held to be more detestable than disrespect of those to whom we owe our existence."
"Quite right," he agreed, "it's a pleasure to hear it. It must be a great country, yours; a country with a future, I should say. Now, about that youngest lad of my son Henry's—the one that drops pet lizards down my neck, and threatened to put rat poison into his mother's tea when she wouldn't take him to the Military Turneyment; what would they do to him by your laws?"
"If the assertion were well sustained by competent witnesses," I replied, "it would probably be judged so execrable an offence, that a new punishment would have to be contrived. Failing that, he would certainly be wrapped round from head to foot in red-hot chains, and thus exposed to public derision."
"Ah, red-hot chains!" said the aged person, as though the words formed a pleasurable taste upon his palate. "The young beggar! Well, he'd deserve it."
"Furthermore," I continued, gratified at having found one who so intelligently appreciated the deficiencies of his own country and the unblemished perfection of ours, "his parents and immediate descendants, if any should exist, would be submitted to a fate as inevitable but slightly less contemptuous—slow compression, perchance; his parents once removed (thus enclosing your venerable personality), and remoter offsprings would be merely put to the sword without further ignominy, and those of less kinship to about the fourth degree would doubtless escape with branding and a reprimand."
"Lordelpus!" exclaimed the patriarchal one, hastily leaping to the extreme limit of the wooden couch, and grasping his staff into a significant attitude of defence; "what's that for?"
"Our system of justice is all-embracing," I explained. "It is reasonably held that in such a case either that there is an inherent strain of criminality which must be eradicated at all hazard, or else that those who are responsible for the virtuous instruction of the young have been grossly neglectful of their duty. Whichever is the true cause, by this unfailing method we reach the desired end, for, as our proverb aptly says, 'Do the wise pluck the weed and leave the roots to spread?'"
"It's butchery, nothing short of Smithfield," said the ancient person definitely, rising and moving to a more remote distance as he spoke the words, yet never for a moment relaxing the aggressive angle at which he thrust out his staff before him. "You're a bloodthirsty race in my opinion, and when they get this door open in China that there's so much talk about, out you go through it, my lad, or old England will know why." With this narrow-minded imprecation on his lips he left me, not even permitting me to continue expounding what would be the most likely sentences meted out to the witnesses in the case, the dwellers of the same street, and the members of the household with whom the youth in question had contemplated forming an alliance.
Among the many contradictions which really almost seem purposely arranged to entrap the unwary in this strangely under-side-up country, is the fact that while the ennobled and those of high official rank are courteous in their attitude and urbane—frequently even to the extent of refusing money from those whom they have obliged, no matter how privately pressed upon them—the low-caste and slavish are not only deficient in obsequiousness, but are permitted to retort openly to those who address them with fitting dignity. Here such a state of things is too general to excite remark, but as instances are well called the flowers of the tree of assertion, this person will set forth the manner in which he was contumaciously opposed by an oblique-eyed outcast who attended within the stall of one selling wrought gold, jewels, and merchandise of the finer sort.
Being desirous of procuring a gift wherewith to propitiate a certain maiden's esteem, and seeing above a shop of varied attraction a suspended sign emblematic of three times repeated gild abundance I drew near, not doubting to find beneath so auspicious a token the fulfilment of an honourable accommodation. Inside the window was displayed one of the implements by which the various details of a garment are joined together upon turning a wheel, hung about with an inscription setting forth that it was esteemed at the price of two units of gold, nineteen pieces of silver, and eleven and three-quarters of the brass cash of the land, and judging that no more suitable object could be procured for the purpose, I entered the shop, and desired the attending slave to submit it to my closer scrutiny.
"Behold," I exclaimed, when I had made a feint of setting the device into motion (for it need not be concealed from you, O discreet one, that I was really inadequate to the attempt, and, indeed, narrowly escaped impaling myself upon its sudden and unexpected protrusions), "the highly-burnished surface of your dexterously arranged window gave to this engine a rich attractiveness which is altogether lacking at a closer examination. Nevertheless, this person will not recede from a perhaps too impulsive offer of one unit of gold, three pieces of silver, and four and a half brass cash," my object, of course, being that after the mutual recrimination of disparagement and over-praise we should in the length of an hour or two reach a becoming compromise in the middle distance.
"Well," responded the menial one, regarding me with an expression in which he did not even attempt to subdue the baser emotions, "you HAVE come a long way for nothing"; and he made a pretence of wishing to replace the object.
"Yet," I continued, "observe with calm impartiality how insidiously the rust has assailed the outer polish of the lacquer; perceive here upon the beneath part of wood the ineffaceable depression of a deeply-pointed blow; note well the—"
"It was good enough for you to want me to muck up out of the window, wasn't it?" demanded the obstinate barbarian, becoming passionate in his bearing rather than reluctantly, but with courteous grace, lessening the price to a trifling degree, as we regard the proper way of carrying on the enterprise.
"It is well said," I admitted, hoping that he might yet learn wisdom from my attitude of unruffled urbanity, though I feared that his angle of negotiating was unconquerably opposed to mine, "but now its many imperfections are revealed. The inelegance of its outline, the grossness of the applied colours, the unlucky combination of numbers engraved upon this plate, the—"
"Damme!" cried the utterly perverse rebel standing opposite, "why don't you keep on your Compound, you Yellow Peril? Who asked you to come into my shop to blackguard the things? Come now, who did?"
"Assuredly it is your place of commerce," I replied cheerfully, preparing to bring forward an argument, which in our country never fails to shake the most stubborn, "yet bend your eyes to the fact that at no great distance away there stands another and a more alluring stall of merchandise where—"
"Go to it then!" screamed the abandoned outcast, leaping over his counter and shouting aloud in a frenzy of uncontrollable rage. "Clear out, or I'll bend my feet—" but concluding at this point that some private calumny from which he was doubtless suffering was disturbing his mind to so great an extent that there was little likelihood of our bringing the transaction to a profitable end, I left the shop immediately but with befitting dignity.
With a fell-founded assurance that you will now be acquiring a really precise and bird's-eye-like insight into practically all phases of this country.
Concerning the wisdom of the sublime Wei Chung and its application to the ordinary problems of existence. The meeting of three, hitherto unknown to each other, about a wayside inn, and their various manners of conducting the enterprise.
VENERATED SIRE,—You will doubtless remember the behaviour of the aged philosopher Wei Chung, when commanded by the broad-minded emperor of his time to reveal the hidden sources of his illimitable knowledge, so that all might freely acquire, and the race thereby become raised to a position of unparalleled excellence. Taking the well-disposed sovereign familiarly by the arm, Wei Chung led him to the mouth of his cave in the forest, and, standing by his side, bade him reflect with open eyes for a short space of time, and then express aloud what he had seen. "Nothing of grave import," declared the emperor when the period was accomplished; "only the trees shaken by the breeze." "It is enough," replied Wei Chung. "What, to the adroitly-balanced mind, does such a sight reveal?" "That it is certainly a windy day," exclaimed the omnipotent triumphantly, for although admittedly divine, he yet lacked the philosopher's discrimination. "On the contrary," replied the sage coldly, "that is the natural pronouncement of the rankly superficial. To the highly-trained intellect it conveys the more subtle truth that the wind affects the trees, and not the trees affect the wind. For upwards of seventy years this one has daily stood at the door of his cave for a brief period, and regularly garnering a single detail of like brilliance, has made it the well-spring for a day's reflection. As the result he now has by heart upwards of twenty-five thousand useful facts, all serviceable for original proverbs, and an encyclopaedic mind which would enable him to take a high place in a popular competition unassisted by a single work of reference." Much impressed by the adventure the charitably-inclined emperor presented Wei Chung with an onyx crown (which the philosopher at once threw into an adjacent well), and returning to his capital published a decree that each day at sunrise every person should stand at the door of his dwelling, and after observing for a period, compare among themselves the details of their thoughts. By this means he hoped to achieve his imperial purpose, but although the literal part of the enactment is scrupulously maintained, especially by the slothful and defamatory, who may be seen standing at their doors and conversing together even to this day, from some unforeseen imperfection the intellectual capacity of the race has remained exactly as it was before.
Nevertheless it is not to be questioned that the system of the versatile Wei Chung was, in itself, grounded upon a far-seeing accuracy, and as the need of such a rational observation is deepened among the inconsistencies and fantastic customs of a barbarian race, I have made it a useful habit to accept as a guide for the day's behaviour the reflections engendered by the first noteworthy incident of the morning.
Upon the day with which this letter concerns itself I had set forth, in accordance with an ever-present desire, to explore some of the hidden places of the city. At the time a tempest of great ferocity was raging, and bending my head before it I had the distinction of coming into contact with a person of ill-endowed exterior at an angle where two reads met. This amiable wayfarer exchanged civilities with me after the politeness characteristic of the labouring classes towards those who differ from them in speech, dress, or colour: that is to say, he filled his pipe from my proffered store, and after lighting it threw the match into my face, and passed on with an appropriate remark.
Doubtless this insignificant occurrence would have faded without internal comment if the penetrating Wei Chung had never existed, but now, guided by his sublime precedent, I arranged the incident for the day's conduct under three reflective heads.
It was while I was meditating on the second of these that an exclamation caused me to turn, when I observed a prosperously-outlined person in the act of picking up a scrip which had the appearance of being lavishly distended with pieces of gold.
"If I had not seen you pass it, I should have opined that this hyer wallet belonged to you," remarked the justice-loving stranger (for the incident had irresistibly retarded my own footsteps), speaking the language of this land, but with an accent of penetrating harmony hitherto unknown to my ears. With these auspicious words he turned over the object upon his hand doubtfully.
"So entrancing a possibility is, as you gracefully suggest, of unavoidable denial," I replied. "Nevertheless, this person will not hesitate to join his acclamation with yours; for, as the Book of Verses wisely says, 'Even the blind, if truly polite, will extol the prospect from your house-top.'"
"That's so," admitted the one by my side. "But I don't know that there is any call for a special thanksgiving. As I happen to have more money of my own than I can reasonably spend I shall drop this in at a convenient police station. I dare say some poor critter is pining away for it now."
Pleasantly impressed by the resolute benevolence of the one who had a greater store of wealth than he could, by his own unaided efforts, dispose of, I arranged myself unobtrusively at his side, and maintaining an exhibition of my most polished and genial conversation, I sought to penetrate deeply into his esteem.
"Gaze in this direction, Kong," he said at length, calling me by name with auspicious familiarity; "I am a benighted stranger in this hyer city, and so are you, I rek'n. Suppose we liquor up, and then take a few of the side shows together."
"The suggestion is one against which I will erect no ill-disposed barrier," I at once replied, so inflexibly determined not to lose sight of a person possessing such engaging attributes as to be cheerfully prepared even to consume my rice spirit in the inverted position which his words implied if the display was persisted in. "Nevertheless," I added, with a resourceful prudence, "although by no means undistinguished among the highest literary and competitive circles of his native Yuen-ping, the one before you is incapable of walking in the footsteps of a person whose accumulations are greater than he himself can appreciably diminish."
"That's all right, Kong," exclaimed the one whom my last words fittingly described, striking the recess of his lower garment with a gesture of graceful significance. "When I take a fancy to any one it isn't a matter of dollars. I usually carry a trifle of five hundred or a thousand pounds in my pocket-book, and if we can get through that—why, there's plenty more waiting at the bank. Say, though, I hope you don't keep much about you; it isn't really safe."
"The temptation to do so is one which this person has hitherto successfully evaded," I replied. "The contents of this reptile-skin case"—and not to be outshone in mutual confidence I here displayed it openly—"do not exceed nine or ten pieces of gold and a like number of printed obligations promising to pay five pieces each."
"Put it away, Kong," he said resolutely. "You won't need that so long as you're with me. Well, now, what sort of a saloon have we here?"
As far as the opinion might be superficially expressed it had every indication of being one of noteworthy antiquity, and to the innately modest mind its unassuming diffidence might have lent an added charm. Nevertheless, on most occasions this person would have maintained an unshaken dexterity in avoiding its open door, but as the choice admittedly lay in the hands of one who carried five hundred or a thousand pieces of gold we went in together and passed through to a compartment of retiring seclusion.
In our own land, O my orthodox-minded father, where the unfailing resources of innumerable bands of dragons, spirits, vampires, ghouls, shadows, omens, and thunderstorms are daily enlisted to carry into effect the pronouncements of an appointed destiny, we have many historical examples of the inexorably converging legs of coincidence, but none, I think, more impressively arranged than the one now descending this person's brush.
We had scarcely reposed ourselves, and taken from the hands of an awaiting slave the vessels of thrice-potent liquid which in this Island is regarded as the indispensable accompaniment to every movement of existence, when a third person entered the room, and seating himself at a table some slightly removed distance away, lowered his head and abandoned himself to a display of most lavish dejection.
"That poor cuss doesn't appear to be holiday-making," remarked the sincerely-compassionate person at my side, after closely observing the other for a period; and then, moved by the overpowering munificence of his inward nature, he called aloud, "Say, stranger, you seem to have got it thickly in the neck. Is it family affliction or the whisky of the establishment?"
At these affably-intentioned words the stranger raised his eyes quickly, with an indication of not having up to that time been aware of our presence.
"Sir," he exclaimed, approaching to a spot where he could converse with a more enhanced facility, "when I loosened the restraint of an overpowering if unmanly grief, I imagined that I was alone, for I would have shunned even the most flattering sympathy, but your charitably-modulated voice invites confidence. The one before you is the most contemptible, left-handed, and disqualified outcast in creation, and he is now making his way towards the river, while his widow will be left to take in washing, his infant son to vend evening printed leaves, and his graceful and hitherto highly secluded daughters to go upon the stage."
"Say, stranger," interposed this person, by no means unwilling to engrave upon his memory this newly-acquired form of greeting, "the emotion is doubtless all-pressing, but in my ornate and flower-laden tongue we have a salutation, 'Slowly, slowly; walk slowly,' which seems to be of far-seeing application."
"That's so," remarked the one by my side. "Separate it with the teeth, inch by inch."
"I will be calm, then," continued the other (who, to avoid the complication of the intermingling circumstances, may be described as the more stranger of the two), and he took of his neckcloth. "I am a merchant in tea, yellow fat, and mixed spices, in a small but hitherto satisfactory way." Thus revealing himself, he continued to set forth how at an earlier hour he had started on a journey to deposit his wealth (doubtless as a propitiation of outraged deities) upon a certain bank, and how, upon reaching the specified point, he discovered that what he carried had eluded his vigilance. "All gone: notes, gold, and pocket-book—the savings of a lifetime," concluded the ill-omened one, and at the recollection a sudden and even more highly-sustained frenzy of self-unpopularity involving him, without a pause he addressed himself by seven and twenty insulting expressions, many of which were quite new to my understanding.
At the earliest mention of the details affecting the loss, the elbow of the person who had made himself responsible for the financial obligation of the day propelled itself against my middle part, and unseen by the other he indicated to me by means of his features that the entertainment was becoming one of agreeable prepossession.
"Now, touching this hyer wallet," he said presently. "How might you describe it?"
"In colour it was red, and within were two compartments, the one containing three score notes each of ten pounds, the other fifty pounds of gold. But what's the use of describing it? Some lucky demon will pick it up and pocket the lot, and I shall never see a cent of it again."
"Then you'd better consult one who reburnishes the eyes," declared the magnanimous one with a laugh, and drawing forth the article referred to he cast it towards the merchant in a small way.
At this point of the narrative my thoroughly incompetent brush confesses the proportions of the requirement to be beyond its most extended limit, and many very honourable details are necessarily left without expression.
"I've known men of all sorts, good, bad, and bothwise," exclaimed the one who had recovered his possessions; "but I never thought to meet a gent as would hand over six hundred and fifty pounds as if it was a toothpick. Sir, it overbalances me; it does, indeed."
"Say no more about it," urged the first person, and to suggest gracefully that the incident had reached its furthest extremity, he began to set out the melody of an unspoken verse.
"I will say no more, then," he replied; "but you cannot reasonably prevent my doing something to express my gratitude. If you are not too proud you will come and partake of food and wine with me beneath the sign of the Funereal Male Cow, and to show my confidence in you I shall insist upon you carrying my pocket-book."
The person whom I had first encountered suffered his face to become excessively amused. "Say, stranger, do you take me for a pack-mule?" he replied good-naturedly. "I already have about as much as I want to handle. Never mind; we'll come along with you, and Mr. Kong shall carry your bullion."
At this delicate and high-minded proposal a rapid change, in no way complimentary to my explicit habit of adequately conducting any venture upon which I may be engaged, came over the face of the second person.
"Sir," he exclaimed, "I have nothing to say against this gentleman, but I am under no obligation to him, and I don't see why I should trust him with everything I possess."
"Stranger," exclaimed the other rising to his feet (and from this point it must be understood that the various details succeeded one another with a really agile dexterity), "let me tell you that Mr. Kong is my friend, and that ought to be enough."
"It is. If you say this gentleman is your friend, and that you have known him long and intimately enough to be able to answer for him, that's good enough for me."
"Well," admitted the first person, and I could not conceal from myself that his tone was inauspiciously reluctant, "I can't exactly say that I've known him long; in fact I only met him half an hour ago. But I have the fullest confidence in his integrity."
"It's just as I expected. Well, sir, you're good-natured enough for anything, but if you'll excuse me, I must say that you're a small piece of an earthenware vessel after all"—the veiled allusion doubtlessly being that the vessel of necessity being broken, the contents inevitably escape—"and I hope you're not being had."
"I'm not, and I'll prove it before we go out together," retorted the engaging one, who had in the meantime become so actively impetuous on my account, that he did not remain content with the spoken words, but threw the various belongings about as he mentioned them in a really profuse display of inimitable vehemence. "Here, Kong, take this hyer pocket-book whatever he says. Now on the top of that take everything I've got, and you know what THAT figures up to. Now give this gentleman your little lot to keep him quiet; I don't ask for anything. Now, stranger, I'm ready. You and I will take a stroll round the block and back again, and if Mr. Kong isn't waiting here for us when we return with everything intact and O.K., I'll double your deposit and never trust a durned soul again."
Nodding genially over his shoulder with a harmonious understanding, expressive of the fact that we were embarking upon an undeniably diverting episode, the benevolent-souled person who had accumulated more riches than he was competent to melt away himself, passed out, urging the doubtful and still protesting one before him.
Thus abandoned to my own reflections, I pondered for a short time profitably on the third head of the day's meditation (Touching the match and this person's unattractively-lined face. The revealed truth: the inexperienced sheep cannot pass through the hedge without leaving portions of his wool), and then finding the philosophy of Wei Chung very good, I determined to remove the superfluous apprehensions of the vender of food-stuffs with less delay by setting out and meeting them on their return.
A few paces distant from the door, one of the ever-present watchers of the street was standing, watching the street with unremitting vigilance, while from the well-guarded expression of his face it might nevertheless be gathered that he stood as though in expectation.
"Prosperity," I said, with seasonable greeting. (For no excess of consideration is too great to be lavished upon these, who unite within themselves the courage of a high warrior, the expertness of a three-handed magician, and the courtesy of a genial mandarin.) "I seek two, apparelled thus and thus. Did you, by any chance, mark the direction of their footsteps?"
"Oh," he said, regarding this person with a most flattering application, "YOU seek them, do you? Well, they've just gone off in a hansom, and they'll want a lot of seeking for the next week or two. You let them carry your purse, perhaps?"
"Assuredly," I replied. "As a mark of confidence; this person, for his part, receiving a like token at their hands."
"That's it," said the official watcher, conveying into his voice a subtle indication that he had become excessively fatigued. "It's like a nursery tale—never too old to take with the kids. Well, come along, poor lamb, the station isn't far."
So great had become the reliance which by this time I habitually reposed in these men, that I never sought to oppose their pronouncements (such a course being not only useless but undignified), and we therefore together reached the place which the one by my side had described as a station.
From the outside the building was in no way imposing, but upon reaching an inner dungeon it at once became plain that no matter with what crime a person might be charged, even the most stubborn resistance would be unavailing. Before a fiercely-burning fire were arranged metal pincers, massive skewers, ornamental branding irons, and the usual accessories of the grill, one tool being already thrust into the heart of the flame to indicate the nature of its use, and its immediate readiness for the purpose. Pegs from which the accused could be hung by the thumbs with weights attached to the feet, covered an entire wall; chains, shackling-irons, fetters, steel rings for compressing the throat, and belts for tightening the chest, all had their appointed places, while the Chair, the Boot, the Heavy Hat, and many other appliances quite unknown to our system of administering justice were scattered about.
Without pausing to select any of these, the one who led me approached a raised desk at which was seated a less warlike official, whose sympathetic appearance inspired confidence. "Kong Ho," exclaimed to himself the person who is inscribing these words, "here is an individual into whose discriminating ear it would be well to pour the exact happening without evasion. Then even if the accusation against you be that of resembling another or trafficking with unlawful Forces, he will doubtless arrange the matter so that the expiation shall be as light and inexpensive as possible."
By this time certain other officials had drawn near. "What is it?" I heard one demand, and another replied, "Brooklyn Ben and Jimmie the Butterman again. Ah, they aren't artful, are they!" but at this moment the two into whose power I had chiefly fallen having conversed together, I was commanded to advance towards them and reveal my name.
"Kong," I replied freely; and I had formed a design to explain somewhat of the many illustrious ancestors of the House, when the one at the desk, pausing to inscribe my answer in a book, spoke out.
"Kong?" he said. "Is that the christian or surname?"
"Sir-name?" replied this person between two thoughts. "Undoubtedly the one before you is entitled by public examination to the degree 'Recognised Talent,' which may, as a meritorious distinction, be held equal to your title of a warrior clad in armour. Yet, if it is so held, that would rightly be this person's official name of Paik."
"Oh, it would, would it?" said the one seated upon the high chair. "That's quite clear. Are there any other names as well?"
"Assuredly," I explained, pained inwardly that one of official rank should so slightly esteem my appearance as to judge that I was so meagrely endowed. "The milk name of Ho; Tsin upon entering the Classes; as a Great Name Cheng; another style in Quank; the official title already expressed, and T'chun, Li, Yuen and Nung as the various emergencies of life arise."
"Thank you," said the high-chair official courteously. "Now, just the name in full, please, without any velvet trimmings."
"Kong," began this person, desirous above all things of putting the matter competently, yet secretly perturbed as to what might be considered superfluous and what deemed a perfidious suppression, "Ho Tsin Cheng Quank—"
"Hold hard," cried this same one, restraining me with an uplifted pen. "Did you say 'Quack'?"
"Quack?" repeated this person, beginning to become involved within himself, and not grasping the detail in the right position. "In a manner of setting the expression forth—"
"Put him down, 'Quack Duck,' sir," exclaimed one of dog-like dejection who stood by. "Most of these Lascars haven't got any real names—they just go by what any one happens to call them at the time, like 'Burmese Ike' down at the Mint," and this person unfortunately chancing to smile and bow acquiescently at that moment (not with any set intention, but as a general principle of courteous urbanity), in place of his really distinguished titles he will henceforth appear among the historical records of this dynasty under what he cannot disguise from his inner misgivings to be the low-caste appellation of Quack Duck.
"Now the address, please," continued the high one, again preparing to inscribe the word, and being determined that by no mischance should this particular be offensively reported, I unhesitatingly replied, "Beneath the Sign of the Lead Tortoise, on the northern course from the Lotus Pools outside the walls of Yuen-ping."
This answer the one with the book did not immediately record. "I don't say it isn't all right when you know the parts," he remarked broad-mindedly, "but it does sound a trifle irregular. Can't you give it a number and a street?"
"I fancy it must be a pub, sir," observed another. "He said that it had a sign—the Red Tortoise."
"Well, haven't you got a London address?" said the high one, and this person being able to supply a street and a number as desired, this part of the undertaking was disposed of, to his cordial satisfaction.
"Now let me see the articles which these men left with you," commanded the chieftain of the band, and without any misleading discrepancies I at once drew forth from an inner sleeve the two scrips, of which adequate mention has already been made, another hitherto undescribed, two instruments for measuring the passing hours of the day, together with a chain of fine gold ingeniously wrought into the semblance of a cable, an ornament for the breast, set about with a jewel, two neck-cloths of a kind usually carried in the pocket, a book for recording happenings of any moment, pieces of money to the value of about eleven taels, a silver flagon, a sheathed weapon and a few lesser objects of insignificant value. These various details I laid obsequiously before the one who had commanded it, while the others stood around either in explicit silence or speaking softly beneath their breath.
"Do I understand that the two persons left all these things with you, while they took your purse in exchange?" said the high official, after examining certain obscure signs upon the metals, the contents of the third scrip, and the like.
"It cannot reasonably be denied," I replied; "inasmuch as they departed without them."
"Spontaneously?" he demanded, and in spite of the unevadible severity of his voice the expression of his nearer eye deviated somewhat.
"The spoken and conclusive word of the first was that it was his intention to commit to this one's keeping everything which he had; the assertion of the second being that with this scrip I received all that he possessed."
"While of yours, what did they get, Mr. Quack?" and the tone of the one who spoke had a much more gratifying modulation than before, while the attitudes of those who stood around had favourably changed, until they now conveyed a message of deliberate esteem.
"A serpent-skin case of two enclosures," I replied. "On the one side was a handcount of the small copper-pieces of this Island, which I had caused to be burnished and gilt for the purpose of taking back to amuse those of Yuen-ping. On the other side were two or three pages from a gravity-removing printed leaf entitled 'Bits of Tits,' with which this person weekly instructs himself in the simpler rudiments of the language. For the rest the case was controlled by a hidden spring, and inscribed about with a charm against loss, consumption by fire, or being secretly acquired by the unworthy."
"I don't think you stand in much need of that charm, Mr. Quack," remarked another of more than ordinary rank, who was also present. "Then they really got practically no money from you?"
"By no means," I admitted. "It was never literally stipulated, and whatever of wealth he possesses this person carries in a concealed spot beneath his waistbelt." (For even to these, virtuous sire, I did not deem it expedient to reveal the fact that in reality it is hidden within the sole of my left sandal.)
"I congratulate you," he said with lavish refinement. "Ben and the Butterman can be very bland and persuasive. Could you tell me, as a matter of professional curiosity, what first put you on your guard?"
"In this person's country," I replied, "there is an apt saying, 'The sagacious bird does not build his nest twice in the empty soup-toureen,' and by observing closely what has gone before one may accurately conjecture much that will follow after." It may be, that out of my insufferable shortcomings of style and expression, this answer did not convey to his mind the logical sequence of the warning; yet it would have been more difficult to show him how everything arose from the faultlessly-balanced system of the heroic Wei Chung, or the exact parallel lying between the ill-clad outcast who demanded a portion of tobacco and the cheerfully unassuming stranger who had in his possession a larger accumulation of money than he could conveniently disperse.
In such a manner I took leave of the station and those connected with it, after directing that the share of the spoil which fell by the law of this Island to my lot should be sold and the money of exchange faithfully divided among the virtuous and necessitous of both sexes. The higher officials each waved me pleasantly by the hand, according to the striking and picturesque custom of the land, while the lesser ones stood around and spoke flattering words as I departed, as "honourable," "a small piece of all-right," "astute ancient male fowl," "ah!" and the like.
With repeated assurances that however ineptly the adventure may at the time appear to be tending, as regards the essentials of true dignity and an undeviating grasp upon articles of negotiable value, nothing of a regrettable incident need be feared.
Concerning the proverb of the highly-accomplished horse. The various perils to be encountered in the Beneath Parts. The inexplicable journey performed by this one, and concerning the obscurity of the witchcraft employed.
VENERATED SIRE,—Among these islanders there is a proverb, "Do not place the carte" (or card, the two words having an identical purport, and both signifying the inscribed tablet of viands prepared for a banquet,) "before the horse." Doubtless the saying first arose as a timely rebuke to a certain barbarian emperor who announced his contempt for the intelligence of his subjects by conferring high mandarin rank upon a favourite steed and ceremoniously appointing it to be his chancellor; but from the narrower moral that an unreasoning animal is out of place, and even unseemly, in the entertaining hall or council chamber, the expression has in the course of time taken a wider application and is now freely used as an insidious thrust at one who may be suspected of contrariness of character, of confusing issues, or of acting in a vain or illogical manner. I had already preserved the saying among other instances of foreign thought and expression which I am collecting for your dignified amusement, as it is very characteristic of the wisdom and humour of these Outer Lands. The imagination is essentially barbaric. A horse—doubtless well-groomed, richly-caparisoned, and as intellectual as the circumstances will permit, but inevitably an animal of degraded attributes and untraceable ancestry—a horse reclining before a lavishly set-out table and considering well of what dish it shall next partake! Could anything, it appears, be more diverting! Truly to our more refined outlook the analogy is lacking both in delicacy of wit and in exactitude of balance, but to the grosser barbarian conception of what is gravity-removing it is irresistible.
I am, however, reminded of the saying by perceiving that I was on the point of recording certain details of recent occurrence without first unrolling to your mind the incidents from which it has arisen that the person who is now communicating with you is no longer reposing in the Capital, but spending a period profitably in observing the habits of those who dwell in the more secluded recesses on the outskirts of the Island. This reversal of the proper sequence of affairs would doubtless strike those around as an instance of setting the banquet before the horse. Without delay, then, to pursue the allusion to its appropriate end, I will return, as it may be said, to my nosebag.
At various points about the streets of the Capital there are certain caverns artificially let into the bowels of the earth, to which any person may betake himself upon purchasing a printed sign which he must display to the guardian of the gate. Once within the underneathmost parts he is free to be carried from place to place by means of the trains of carriages which I have already described to you, until he would return to the outer surface, when he must again display his talisman before he is permitted to pass forth. Nor is this an empty form, for upon an occasion this person himself witnessed a very bitter contention between a keeper of the barrier and one whose token had through some cause lost its potency.
In the company of the experienced I had previously gone through the trial without mischance, so that recently when I expressed a wish to visit a certain Palace, and was informed that the most convenient manner would be to descend into the nearest cavern, I had no reasonable device for avoiding the encounter. Nevertheless, enlightened sire, I will not attempt to conceal from your omniscience that I was by no means impetuous towards the adventure. Owing to the pugnacious and unworthy suspicions of those who direct their destinies, I have not yet been able to penetrate the exact connection between the movements of these hot-smoke chariots and the Unseen Forces. To a person whose chief object in life is to avoid giving offence to any of the innumerable demons which are ever on the watch to revenge themselves upon our slightest indiscretion, this uncertainty opens an unending vista of intolerable possibilities. As if to emphasise the perils of this overhanging doubt the surroundings are ingeniously arranged so as to represent as nearly as practicable the terrors of the Beneath World. Both by day and night a funereal gloom envelops the caverns, the pathways and resting-places are meagre and so constructed as to be devoid of attraction or repose, and by a skilful contrivance the natural atmosphere is secretly withdrawn and a very acrimonious sulphurous haze driven in to replace it. In sudden and unforeseen places eyes of fire open and close with disconcerting rapidity, and even change colour in vindictive significance; wooden hands are outstretched as in unrelenting rigidity against supplication, or, divining the unexpressed thoughts, inexorably point, as one gazes, still deeper into the recesses of the earth; while the air is never free from the sounds of groans, shrieks, the rattling of chains, dull, hopeless noises beneath one's feet or overhead, and the hoarse wordless cries of despair with which the attending slaves of the caverns greet the distant clamour of every approaching fire-chariot. Admittedly the intention of the device is benevolently conceived, and it is strenuously asserted that many persons of corrupt habits and ill-balanced lives, upon waking unexpectedly while passing through these Beneath Parts, have abandoned the remainder of their journey, and, escaping hastily to the outer air, have from that time onwards led a pure and consistent existence; but, on the other foot, those who are compelled to use the caverns daily, freely confess that the surroundings to not in any material degree purify their lives of tranquillise the nature of their inner thoughts.
In this emergency I did not neglect to write out a diversity of charms against every possible variety of evil influence, and concealing them lavishly about my head and body, I presented myself with the outer confidence of a person who is inured to the exploit. Doubtless thereby being mistaken for one of themselves in the obscurity, I received the inscribed safeguard without opposition, and even an added sum in copper pieces, which I discreetly returned to the one behind the shutter, with the request that he would honourably burn a few joss sticks or sacrifice to a trivial amount, to the success of my journey. In such a manner I reached an awaiting train, and, taking up within it a position of retiring modesty, I definitely committed myself to the undertaking.
At the next tarrying place there entered a barbarian of high-class appearance, and being by this time less assured of my competence in the matter unaided, both on account of the multiplicity of evil omens on every side, and the perverse impulses of the guiding demon, whereby at sudden angles certain of my organs had the emotion of being left irrevocably behind and others of being snatched relentlessly forward, I approached him courteously.
"Behold," I said, "many thousand li of water, both fresh and bitter, flow between the one who is addressing you and his native town of Yuen-ping, where the tablets at the street corners are as familiar to him as the lines of his own unshapely hands; for, as it is truly said, 'Does the starling know the lotus roots, or the pomfret read its way by the signs among the upper branches of the pines?' Out of the necessities of his ignorance and your own overwhelming condescension enlighten him, therefore, whether the destination of this fire-chariot by any chance corresponds with the inscribed name upon his talisman?"
Thus adjured, the stranger benevolently turned himself to the detail, and upon consulting a book of symbols he expressed himself to this wise: that after a sufficient interval I should come into a certain station, called in part after the title of the enlightened ruler of this Island, and there abandoning the train which was carrying us, I should enter another which would bring me out of the Beneath Parts and presently into the midst of that Palace which I sought. This advice seemed good, for a reasonable connection might be supposed to exist between a station so auspiciously called and a Palace bearing the harmonious name of the gracious and universally-revered sovereign-consort. Accordingly I thanked him ceremoniously, not only on my own part, but also on behalf of eleven generations of immediate ancestors, and in the name of seven generations who should come after, and he on his side agreeably replied that he was sure his grandmother would have done as much for mine, and he sincerely hoped that none of his great-great-grandchildren would prove less obliging. In this intellectual manner, varied with the entertainment of profuse bows, the time passed cordially between us until the barbarian reached his own alighting stage, when he again repeated the various details of the strategy for my observance.