At this point let it be set forth deliberately that there existed no treachery in the advice, still less that this person is incapable of competently achieving the destined end of any hazard upon which he may embark when once the guiding signs have been made clear to his understanding. Whatever entanglement arose was due merely to the conflicting manners of expression used by two widely-varying races, even as our own proverb says, "What is only sauce for the cod is serious for the oyster."
At the station indicated as bearing the sign of the ruler of the country (which even a person of little discernment could have recognised by the highly-illuminated representation bearing the elusively-worded inscription, "In packets only"), I left this fire-chariot, and at once perceiving another in an attitude of departure, I entered it, as the casual barbarian had definitely instructed, and began to assure myself that I had already become expertly proficient in the art of journeying among these Beneath Regions and to foresee the time, not far distant, when others would confidently address themselves to me in their extremities. So entrancing did this contemplation grow, that this outrageous person began to compose the actual words with which he would instruct them as the occasion arose, as thus, "Undoubtedly, O virtuous and not unattractive maiden, this fire-engine will ultimately lead your refined footsteps into the street called Those who Bake Food. Do not hesitate, therefore, to occupy the vacant place by this insignificant one's side"; or, "By no means, honourable sir; the Cross of Charing is in the precisely opposite direction to that selected by this self-opinionated machine for its inopportune destination. Do not rebuke this person for his immoderate loss of mental gravity, for your mistake, though pardonable in a stranger, is really excessively diverting. Your most prudent course now will assuredly be to cast yourself from the carriage without delay and rely upon the benevolent intervention of a fire-chariot proceeding backwards."
Alas, it is truly said, "None but sword-swallowers should endeavour to swallow swords," thereby signifying the vast chasm that lies between those who are really adroit in an undertaking and those who only think that they may easily become so. Presently it began to become deeply impressed upon my discrimination that the journey was taking a more lengthy duration than I had been given to understand would be the case, while at the same time a permanent deliverance from the terrors of the Beneath Parts seemed to be insidiously lengthening out into a funereal unattainableness. The point of this person's destination, he had been assured on all hands, was a spot beyond which even the most aggressively assertive engine could not proceed, so that he had no fears of being incapably drawn into more remote places, yet when hour after hour passed and the ill-destined machine never failed in its malicious endeavours to leave each successive tarrying station, it is not to be denied that my imagination dwelt regretfully upon the true civilisation of our own enlightened country, where, by the considerate intervention of an all-wise government, the possibilities of so distressing an experience are sympathetically removed from one's path. Thus the greater part of the day had faded, and I was conjecturing that by this time we must inevitably be approaching the barren and inhospitable country which forms the northern limit of the Island, when the door suddenly opened and the barbarian stranger whom I had left many hundred li behind entered the carriage.
At this manifestation all uncertainty departed, and I now understood that to some obscure end witchcraft of a very powerful and high-caste kind was being employed around me; for in no other way was it credible to one's intelligence that a person could propel himself through the air with a speed greater than that of one of these fire-chariots, and overtake it. Doubtless it was a part of this same scheme which made it seem expedient to the stranger that he should feign a part, for he at once greeted me as though the occasion were a matter of everyday happening, exclaiming genially—
"Well, Mr. Kong, returning? And what do you think of the Palace?"
"It is fitly observed, 'To the earthworm the rice stalk is as high as the pagoda,'" I replied with adroit evasion, clearly understanding from his manner that for some reason, not yet revealed to me, a course of dissimulation was expedient in order to mislead the surrounding demons concerning my movements, and by a subtle indication of the face conveying to the stranger an assurance that I had tactfully grasped the requirement, and would endeavour to walk well upon his heels, "and therefore it would be unseemly for a person of my insignificant attainments to engage in the doubtful flattery of comparing it with the many other residences of the pure and exalted which embellish your Capital."
"Oh," said the one whom I may now suitably describe by the name of Sir Philip, "that's rather a useful proverb sometimes. Many people there?"
At this inquiry I could not disguise from myself an emotion that the person seated opposite was not diplomatically inspired in so persistently clinging to the one subject upon which he must assuredly know that I experienced an all-pervading deficiency. Nevertheless, being by this more fully convinced that the disguise was one of critical necessity, and not deeming that the essential ceremonies of one Palace would differ from those of another, no matter in what land they stood (while through all I read a clear design on Sir Philip's part that the opportunity was craftily arranged so that I might impress upon any vindictively-intentioned spirits within hearing an assumption of high protection), I replied that the gathering had been one of unparalleled splendour, both by reason of the multitude of exalted nobles present and also owing to the jewelled magnificence lavished on every detail. Furthermore, I continued, now definitely abandoning all the promptings of a wise reserve, and reflecting, as we say, that one may as well be drowned in the ocean as in a wooden bucket, not only did the sublime and unapproachable sovereign graciously permit me to kow-tow respectfully before him, but subsequently calling me to his side beneath a canopy of golden radiance, he conversed genially with me and benevolently assured me of his sympathetic favour on all occasions (this, I conjectured, would certainly overawe any Evil Force not among the very highest circles), while the no less magnanimous Prince of the Imperial Line questioned me with flattering assiduousness concerning a method of communicating with persons at a distance by means of blows or stamps upon a post (as far as the outer meaning conveyed itself to me), the houses which we build, and whether they contained an adequate provision of enclosed spaces in the walls.
Doubtless I could have continued in this praiseworthy spirit of delicate cordiality to an indefinite amount had I not chanced to observe at this point that the expression of Sir Philip's urbanity had become entangled in a variety of other emotions, not all propitious to the scheme, so that in order to retire imperceptibly within myself I smiled broad-mindedly, remarking that it was well said that the moon was only bright while the sun was hid, and that I had lately been dazzled with the sight of so much brilliance and virtuous condescension that there were occasions when I questioned inwardly how much I had really witnessed, and how much had been conveyed to me in the nature of an introspective vision.
It will already have been made plain to you, O my courtly-mannered father, that these barbarians are totally deficient in the polite art whereby two persons may carry on a flattering and highly-attuned conversation, mutually advantageous to the esteem of each, without it being necessary in any way that their statements should have more than an ornamental actuality. So wanting in this, the most concentrated form of truly well-bred entertainment, are even their high officials, that after a few more remarks, to which I made answer in a spirit of skilfully-sustained elusiveness, the utterly obtuse Sir Philip said at length, "Excuse my asking, Mr. Kong, but have you really been to the Alexandra Palace at all?"
Admittedly there are few occasions in life on which it is not possible to fail to see the inopportune or low-class by a dignified impassiveness of features, an adroitly-directed jest, or a remark of baffling inconsequence, but in the face of so distressingly straightforward a demand what can be advanced by a person of susceptible refinement when opposed to one of incomparably larger dimensions, imprisoned by his side in the recess of a fire-chariot which is leaping forward with uncurbed velocity, and surrounded by demons with whose habits and partialities he is unfamiliar?
"In a manner of expressing the circumstance," I replied, "it is not to be denied that this person's actual footsteps may have imperceptibly been drawn somewhat aside from the path of his former design. Yet inasmuch as it is truly said that the body is in all things subservient to the mind, and is led withersoever it is willed, and as your engaging directions were scrupulously observed with undeviating fidelity, it would be impertinently self-opinionated on this person's part to imply that they failed to guide him to his destination. Thus, for all ceremonial purposes, it is permissible conscientiously to assume that he HAS been there."
"I am afraid that I must not have been sufficiently clear," said Sir Philip. "Did you miss the train at King's Cross?"
"By no means," I replied firmly, pained inwardly that he should cast the shadow of such narrow incompetence upon me. "Seeing this machine on the point of setting forth on a journey, even as your overwhelming sagacity had enabled you to predict would be the case, I embarked with self-reliant confidence."
"Good lord!" murmured the person opposite, beginning to manifest an excess of emotion for which I was quite unable to account. "Then you have been in this train—your actual footsteps I mean, Mr. Kong; not your ceremonial abstract subliminal ego—ever since?"
To this I replied that his words shone like the moon at midnight with scintillating points of truth; adding, however, as the courtesies of the occasion required, that I had been so impressed with the many-sided brilliance of his conversation earlier in the day as to render the flight of time practically unnoticed by me.
"But did it never occur to you to ask at one of the stations?" he demanded, still continuing to wave his hands incapably from side to side. "Any of the porters would have told you."
"Kong Li Heng, the founder of our line, who was really great, has been dead eleven centuries, and no single fact or incident connected with his life has been preserved to influence mankind," I replied. "How much less will it matter, then, even in so limited a space of time as a hundred years, in what fashion so insignificant a person as the one before you acted on any occasion, and why, therefore, should he distress himself unnecessarily to any precise end?" In this manner I sought to place before him the dignified example of an imperturbability which can be maintained in every emergency, and at the same time to administer a plain yet scrupulously-sheathed rebuke; for the inauspicious manner in which he had first drawn me on to speak confidently of the ceremonies of the Royal Palace and then held up my inadequacy to undeserved contempt had not rejoiced my imagination, and I was still uncertain how much to claim, and whether, perchance, even yet a more subtle craft lay under all.
"Well, in any case, when you go back you can claim the distinction of having been taken seven times round London, although you can't really have seen much of it," said Sir Philip. "This is a Circle train."
At this assertion I looked up. Though admittedly curved a little about the roof the chariot was in every essential degree what we should pronounce to be a square one; whereupon, feeling at length that the involvement had definitely passed to a point beyond my contemptible discernment, I spread out my hands acquiescently and affably remarked that the days were lengthening out pleasantly.
In such a manner I became acquainted with the one Sir Philip, and thereby, in a somewhat circuitous line, the original purpose which possessed my brush when I began this inept and commonplace letter is reached; for the person in question not only lay upon himself the obligation of leading me "by the strings of his apron-garment"—in the characteristic and fanciful turn of the barbarian language—to that same Palace on the following day, but thenceforth gracefully affecting to discern certain agreeable virtues in my conversation and custom of habit he frequently sought me out. More recently, on the double plea that they of his household had a desire to meet me, and that if I spent all my time within the Capital my impressions of the Island would necessarily be ill-balanced and deformed, he advanced a project that I should accompany him to a spot where, as far as I was competent to grasp the idiom, he was in the habit of sitting (doubtless in an abstruse reverie), in the country; and having assured myself by means of discreet innuendo that the seat referred to would be adequate for this person also, and that the occasion did not in any way involve a payment of money, I at once expressed my willingness towards the adventure.
With numerous expressions of unfeigned regret (from a filial point of view) that the voice of one of the maidens of the household, lifted in the nature of a defiance against this one to engage with her in a two-handed conflict of hong pong, obliges him to bring this immature composition to a hasty close.
Concerning the authority of this high official, Sir Philip. The side-slipperyness of barbarian etiquette. The hurl- headlong sportiveness and that achieving its end by means of curved mallets.
VENERATED SIRE,—If this person's memory is accurately poised on the detail, he was compelled to abandon his former letter (when on the point of describing the customs of these outer places), in order to take part in a philosophical discussion with some of the venerable sages of the neighbourhood.
Resuming the narration where it had reached this remote province of the Empire, it is a suitable opportunity to explain that this same Sir Philip is here greeted on every side with marks of deferential submission, and is undoubtedly an official of high button, for whenever the inclination seizes him he causes prisoners to be sought out, and then proceeds to administer justice impartially upon them. In the case of the wealthy and those who have face to lose, the matter is generally arranged, to his profit and to the satisfaction of all, by the payment of an adequate sum of money, after the invariable custom of our own mandarincy. When this incentive to leniency is absent it is usual to condemn the captive to imprisonment in a cell (it is denied officially, but there is no reason to doubt that a large earthenware vessel is occasionally used for this purpose,) for varying periods, though it is notorious that in the case of the very necessitous they are sometimes set freely at liberty, and those who took them publicly reprimanded for accusing persons from whose condition on possible profit could arise. This confinement is seldom inflicted for a longer period than seven, fourteen, or twenty-one days (these being lucky numbers,) except in the case of those who have been held guilty of ensnaring certain birds and beasts which appear to be regarded as sacred, for they have their duly appointed attendants who wear a garb and are trained in the dexterous use of arms, lurking with loaded weapons in secret places to catch the unwary, both by night and day. Upheld by the high nature of their office these persons shrink from no encounter and even suffer themselves to be killed with resolute unconcern; but when successful they are not denied an efficient triumph, for it is admitted that those whom they capture are marked men from that time (doubtless being branded upon the body with the name of their captor), and no future defence is availing. The third punishment, that of torture, is reserved for a class of solitary mendicants who travel from place to place, doubtless spreading the germs of an inflammatory doctrine of rebellion, for, owing to my own degraded obtuseness, the actual nature of their crimes could never be made clear to me. Of the tortures employed that known in their language as the "bath" (for which we have no real equivalent,) is the most dreaded, and this person has himself beheld men of gigantic proportions, whose bodies bore the stain of a voluntary endurance to every privation, abandon themselves to a most ignoble despair upon hearing the ill-destined word. Unquestionably the infliction is closely connected with our own ordeal of boiling water, but from other indications it is only reasonable to admit that there is an added ingredient, of which we probably have no knowledge, whereby the effect is enhanced in every degree, and the outer surface of the victim rendered more vulnerable. There is also another and milder form of torture, known as the "task", consisting either of sharp-edged stones being broken upon the body, or else the body broken upon sharp-edged stones, but precisely which is the official etiquette of the case this person's insatiable passion for accuracy and his short-sighted limitations among the more technical outlines of the language, prevent him from stating definitely.
Let it here be openly confessed that the intricately-arranged titles used among these islanders, and the widely-varying dignities which they convey, have never ceased to embarrass my greetings on all occasions, and even yet, when a more crystal insight into their strangely illogical manners enables me not only to understand them clearly myself, but also to expound their significance to others, a necessary reticence is blended with my most profuse cordiality, and my salutations to one whom I am for the first time encountering are now so irreproachably balanced, that I can imperceptibly develop them into an engaging effusion, or, without actual offence, draw back into a condition of unapproachable exclusiveness as the necessity may arise. With us, O my immaculate sire, a yellow silk umbrella has for three thousand years denoted a fixed and recognisable title. A mandarin of the sixth degree need not hesitate to mingle on terms of assured equality with other mandarins of the sixth degree, and without any guide beyond a seemly instinct he perceives the reasonableness of assuming a deferential obsequiousness before a mandarin of the fifth rank, and a counterbalancing arrogance when in the society of an official who has only risen to the seventh degree, thus conforming to that essential principle of harmonious intercourse, "Remember that Chang Chow's ceiling is Tong Wi's floor"; but who shall walk with even footsteps in a land where the most degraded may legally bear the same distinguished name as that of the enlightened sovereign himself, where the admittedly difficult but even more purposeless achievement of causing a gold mine to float is held to be more praiseworthy than to pass a competitive examination or to compose a poem of inimitable brilliance, and where one wearing gilt buttons and an emblem in his hat proves upon ingratiating approach not to be a powerful official but a covetous and illiterate slave of inferior rank? Thus, through their own narrow-minded inconsistencies, even the most ceremoniously-proficient may at times present an ill-balanced attitude. This, without reproach to himself, concerns the inward cause whereby the one who is placed to you in the relation of an affectionate and ever-resourceful son found unexpectedly that he had lost the benignant full face of a lady of exalted title.
At that time I had formed the acquaintance, in an obscure quarter of the city, of one who wore a uniform, and was addressed on all sides as the commander of a band, while the gold letters upon the neck part of his outer garment inevitably suggested that he had borne an honourable share in the recent campaign in a distant land. As I had frequently met many of similar rank drinking tea at the house of the engaging countess to whom I have alluded, I did not hesitate to prevail upon this Captain Miggs to accompany me there upon an occasion also, assuring him of equality and a sympathetic reception; but from the moment of our arrival the attitudes of those around pointed to the existence of some unpropitious barrier invisible to me, and when the one with whom I was associated took up an unassailable position upon the central table, and began to speak authoritatively upon the subject of The Virtues, the unenviable condition of the proud and affluent, and the myriads of fire-demons certainly laying in wait for those who partook of spiced tea and rich foods in the afternoon, and did not wear a uniform similar to his own, I began to recognise that the selection had been inauspiciously arranged. Upon taxing some around with the discrepancy (as there seemed to be no more dignified way of evading the responsibility), they were unable to contend against me that there were, indeed, two, if not more, distinct varieties of those bearing the rank of captain, and that they themselves belonged to an entirely different camp, wearing another dress, and possessing no authority to display the symbol of the letters S.A. upon their necks. With this admission I was content to leave the matter, in no way accusing them of actual duplicity, yet so withdrawing that any of unprejudiced standing could not fail to carry away the impression that I had been the victim of an unworthy artifice, and had been lured into their society by the pretext that they were other than what they really were.
With the bitter-flavoured memory of this, and other in no way dissimilar episodes, lingering in my throat, it need not be a matter of conjecture that for a time I greeted warily all who bore a title, a mark of rank, or any similar appendage; who wore a uniform, weapon, brass helmet, jewelled crown, coat of distinctive colour, or any excessive superfluity of pearl or metal buttons; who went forth surrounded by a retinue, sat publicly in a chair or allegorical chariot, spoke loudly in the highways and places in a tone of official pronouncement, displayed any feather, emblem, inscribed badge, or printed announcement upon a pole, or in any way conducted themselves in what we should esteem to be fitting to a position of high dignity. From this arose the absence of outward enthusiasm with which I at first received Sir Philip's extended favour; for although I had come to distrust all the reasonable signs of established power, I distrusted, to a much more enhanced degree, their complete absence; and when I observed that the one in question was never accompanied by a band of musicians or flower-strewers, that he mingled as though on terms of familiar intercourse with the ordinary passers-by in the streets, and never struck aside those who chanced to impede his progress, and that he actually preferred those of low condition to approach him on their feet, rather than in the more becoming attitude of unconditional prostration, I reasoned with myself whether indeed he could consistently be a person of well-established authority, or whether I was not being again led away from my self-satisfaction by another obliquity of barbarian logic. It was for this reason that I now welcomed the admitted power which he has of incriminating persons in a variety of punishable offences, and I perceived with an added satisfaction that here, where this privilege is more fully understood, few meet him without raising their hands to the upper part of their heads in token of unquestioning submission; or, as one would interpret the symbolism into actual words, meaning, "Thus, from this point to the underneath part of our sandals, all between lies in the hollow of your comprehensive hand."
There is a written jest among another barbarian nation that these among whom I am tarrying, being by nature a people who take their pleasures tragically, when they rise in the morning say, one to another, "Come, behold; it is raining again as usual; let us go out and kill somebody." Undoubtedly the pointed end of this adroit-witted saying may be found in the circumstance that it is, indeed, as the proverb aptly claims, raining on practically every occasion in life; while, to complete the comparison, for many dynasties past this nation has been successfully engaged in killing people (in order to promote their ultimate benefit through a momentary inconvenience,) in every part of the world. Thus the lines of parallel thought maintain a harmonious balance beyond the general analogy of their sayings; but beneath this may be found an even subtler edge, for in order to inure themselves to the requirement of a high destiny their various games and manners of disportment are, with a set purpose, so rigorously contested that in their progress most of the weak and inefficient are opportunely exterminated.
There is a favourite and well-attended display wherein two opposing bands, each clad in robes of a distinctive colour, stand in extended lines of mutual defiance, and at a signal impetuously engage. The design of each is by force or guile to draw their opponents into an unfavourable position before an arch of upright posts, and then surging irresistibly forward, to carry them beyond the limit and hurl them to the ground. Those who successfully inflict this humiliation upon their adversaries until they are incapable of further resistance are hailed victorious, and sinking into a graceful attitude receive each a golden cup from the magnanimous hands of a maiden chose to the service, either on account of her peerless outline, the dignified position of her House, or (should these incentives be obviously wanting,) because the chief ones of her family are in the habit of contributing unstintingly to the equipment of the triumphal band. There is also another kind of strife, differing in its essentials only so far that all who engage therein are provided with a curved staff, with which they may dexterously draw their antagonists beyond the limits, or, should they fail to defend themselves adequately, break the smaller bones of their ankles. But this form of encounter, despite the use of these weapons, is really less fatal than the other, for it is not a permissible act to club an antagonist resentfully about the head with the staff, nor yet even to thrust it rigidly against his middle body. From this moderation the public countenance extended to the curved-pole game is contemptibly meagre when viewed by the side of the overwhelming multitudes which pour along every channel in order to witness a more than usually desperate trial of the hurl-headlong variety (the sight, indeed, being as attractive to these pale, blood-thirsty foreigners as an unusually large execution is with us), and as a consequence the former is little reputed save among maidens, the feeble, and those of timorous instincts.
Thus positioned, regarding a knowledge of their outside amusements, it has always been one of the most prominent ambitions of this person's strategy to avoid being drawn into any encounter. At the same time, the thought that the maidens of the household here (of whom there are several, all so attractively proportioned that to compare them in a spirit of definite preference would be distastefully presumptuous to this person,) should regard me as one lacking in a sufficient display of violence was not fragrant to my sense of refinement; so that when Sir Philip, a little time after our arrival, related to me that on the following day he and a chosen band were to be engaged in the match of a cricket game against adversaries from the village, and asked whether I cared to bear a part in the strife, I grasped the muscles of the upper part of my left arm with my right hand—as I had frequently seen the hardy and virile do when the subject of their powers had been raised questioningly—and replied that I had long concealed an insatiable wish to take such a part at a point where the conflict would be the most revengefully contested.
Being thus inflexibly committed it became very necessary to arrange a well-timed intervention (whether in the nature of bodily disorder, fire, or demoniacal upheaval, a warning omen, or the death of some of our chief antagonists), but before doing so I was desirous of understanding how this contest, which had hitherto remained outside my experience, was waged.
There is here one of benevolent rotundity in whose authority lie the cavernous stores beneath the house and the vessels of gold and silver; of menial rank admittedly, yet exacting a seemly deference from all by the rich urbanity of his voice and the dignity of his massive proportions. In the affable condescension of his tone, and the discriminating encouragement of his attitude towards me on all occasions, I have read a sympathetic concern over my welfare. Him I now approached, and taking him aside, I first questioned him flatteringly about his age and the extent of his yearly recompense, and then casually inquired what in his language he would describe the nature of a cricket to be.
"A cricket?" repeated the obliging person readily; "a cricket, sir, is a hinsect. Something, I take it, after the manner of a grass-'opper."
"Truly," I agreed. "It is aptly likened. And, to continue the simile, a game cricket—?"
"A game cricket?" he replied; "well, sir, naturally a game one would be more gamier than the others, wouldn't it?"
"The inference is unflinching," I admitted, and after successfully luring away his mind from any significance in the inquiry by asking him whether the gift of a lacquered coffin or an embroidered shroud would be the more regarded on parting, I left him.
His words, esteemed, for a definite reason were as the jade-clappered melody of a silver bell. This trial of sportiveness, it became clear,—less of a massacre than most of their amusements—is really a rivalry of leapings and dexterity of the feet: a conflict of game crickets or grass-hoppers, in the somewhat wide-angled obscurity of their language, or, as we would more appropriately call it doubtless, a festive competition in the similitude of high-spirited locusts. To whatever degree the surrounding conditions might vary, there could no longer be a doubt that the power of leaping high into the air was the essential constituent of success in this barbarian match of crickets—and in such an accomplishment this person excelled from the time of his youth with a truly incredible proficiency. Can it be a reproach, then, that when I considered this, and saw in a vision the contempt of inferiority which I should certainly be able to inflict upon these native crickets before the eyes of their maidens, even the accumulated impassiveness of thirty-seven generations of Kong fore-fathers broke down for the moment, and unable to restrain every vestige of emotion I crept unperceived to the ancestral hall of Sir Philip and there shook hands affectionately with myself before each of the nine ironclad warriors about its walls before I could revert to a becoming state of trustworthy unconcern. That night in my own upper chamber I spent many hours in testing my powers and studying more remarkable attitudes of locust flight, and I even found to be within myself some new attainments of life-like agility, such as feigning the continuous note of defiance with which the insect meets his adversary, as remaining poised in the air for an appreciable moment at the summit of each leap, and of conveying to the body a sudden and disconcerting sideway movement in the course of its ascent. So immersed did I become in the achievement of a high perfection that, to my never-ending self-reproach, I failed to notice a supernatural visitation of undoubted authenticity; for the next morning it was widely admitted that a certain familiar demon of the house, which only manifests its presence on occasions of tragic omen, had been heard throughout the night in warning, not only beating its head and body against the walls and doors in despair, but raising from time to time a wailing cry of soul-benumbing bitterness.
With every assurance that the next letter, though equally distorted in style and immature in expression, will contain the record of a deteriorated but ever upward-striving son's ultimate triumph.
Concerning the game which we should call "Locusts," and the deeper significance of its acts. The solicitous warning of one passing inwards and the complication occasioned by his ill-chosen words. Concerning that victory already dimly foreshadowed.
VENERATED SIRE,—This barbarian game of agile grass-hoppers is not conducted in the best spirit of a really well-balanced display, and although the one now inscribing his emotions certainly achieved a wide popularity, and wore his fig leaves with becoming modesty, he has never since been quite free from an overhanging doubt that the compliments and genial remarks with which he was assailed owed their modulation to an unsubstantial atmosphere of two-edged significance which for a period enveloped all whom he approached; as in the faces of maidens concealed behind fans when he passed, the down-drawn lips and up-raised eyes of those of fuller maturity, the practice in most of his own kind of turning aside, pressing their hands about their middle parts, and bending forward into a swollen attitude devoid of grace, on the spur of a sudden remembrance, and in the auspicious but undeniably embarrassing manner in which all the unfledged ones of the village clustered about his retiring footsteps, saluting him continually as one "James," upon whom had been conferred the gratifying title of "Sunny." Thus may the outline of the combat be recounted.
From each opposing group eleven were chosen as a band, and we of our company putting on a robe of distinctive green (while they elected to be regarded as an assemblage of brown crickets), we presently came to a suitable spot where the trial was to be decided. So far this person had reasonably assumed that at a preconcerted signal the contest would begin, all rising into the air together, uttering cries of menace, bounding unceasingly and in every way displaying the dexterity of our proportions. Indeed, in the reasonableness of this expectation it cannot be a matter for reproach to one of the green grass-hoppers—who need not be further indicated—that he had already begun a well-simulated note of challenge to those around clad in brown, and to leap upwards in a preparatory essay, when the ever-alert Sir Philip took him affectionately by the arm, on the plea that the seclusion of a neighbouring pavilion afforded a desirable shade.
Beyond that point it is difficult to convey an accurately grouped and fully spread-out design of the encounter. In itself the scheme and intention of counterfeiting the domestic life and rivalries of two opposing bands of insects was pleasantly conceived, and might have been carried out with harmonious precision, but, after the manner of these remote tribes, the original project had been overshadowed and the purity of the imagination lost beneath a mass of inconsistent detail. To this imperfection must it be laid that when at length this person was recalled from the obscurity of the pagoda and the alluring society of a maiden of the village, to whom he was endeavouring to expound the strategy of the game, and called upon to engage actively in it, he courteously admitted to those who led him forth that he had not the most shadowy-outlined idea of what was required of him.
Nevertheless they bound about his legs a frilled armour, ingeniously fashioned to represent the ribbed leanness of the insect's shank, encased his hands and feet in covers to a like purpose, and pressing upon him a wooden club indicated that the time had come for him to prove his merit by venturing alone into the midst of the eleven brown adversaries who stood at a distance in poised and expectant attitudes.
Assuredly, benignant one, this sport of contending locusts began, as one approached nearer to it, to wear no more pacific a face than if it had been a carnage of the hurl-headlong or the curved-hook varieties. In such a competition, it occurred to him, how little deference would be paid to this one's title of "Established Genius," or how inadequately would he be protected by his undoubted capacity of leaping upwards, and even in a sideway direction, for no matter how vigorously he might propel himself, or how successfully he might endeavour to remain self-sustained in the air, the ill-destined moment could not be long deferred when he must come down again into the midst of the eleven—all doubtless concealing weapons as massive and fatally-destructive as his own. This prospect, to a person of quiescent taste, whose chief delight lay in contemplating the philosophical subtleties of the higher Classics, was in itself devoid of glamour, but with what funereal pigments shall he describe his sinking emotions when one of his own band, approaching him as he went, whispered in his ear, "Look out at this end; they kick up like the very devil. And their man behind the wicket is really smart; if you give him half a chance he'll have your stumps down before you can say 'knife.'" Shorn of its uncouth familiarity, this was a charitable warning that they into whose stronghold I was turning my footsteps—perhaps first deceiving my alertness with a proffered friendship—would kick with the ferocity of untamed demons, and that one in particular, whose description, to my added despair, I was unable to retain, was known to possess a formidable knife, with which it was his intention to cut off this person's legs at the first opportunity, before he could be accused of the act. Truly, "To one whom he would utterly destroy Buddha sends a lucky dream."
Behind lay the pagoda (though the fact that this one did admittedly turn round for a period need not be too critically dwelt upon), with three tiers of maidens, some already waving their hands as an encouraging token; on each side a barrier of prickly growth inopportunely presented itself, while in front the eleven kicking crickets stood waiting, and among them lurked the one grasping a doubly-edged blade of a highly proficient keenness.
There are occasional moments in the life of a person when he as the inward perception of retiring for a few paces and looking back in order to consider his general appearance and to judge how he is situated with regard to himself, to review his past life in a spirit of judicial severity, to arrange definitely upon a future composed entirely of acts of benevolence, and to examine the working of destiny at large. In such a scrutiny I now began to understand that it would perhaps have been more harmonious to my love of contemplative repose if I had considered the disadvantages closer before venturing into this barbarian region, or, at least, if I had used the occasion profitably to advance an argument tending towards a somewhat fuller allowance of taels from your benevolent sleeve. Our own virtuous and flower-strewn land, it is true, does not possess an immunity from every trifling drawback. The Hoang Ho—to concede specifically the existence of some of these—frequently bursts through its restraining barriers and indiscriminately sweeps away all those who are so ill-advised as to dwell within reach of its malignant influence. From time to time wars and insurrections are found to be necessary, and no matter how morally-intentioned and humanely conducted, they necessarily result in the violation, dismemberment or extirpation of many thousand polite and dispassionate persons who have no concern with either side. Towns are repeatedly consumed by fire, districts scourged by leprosy, and provinces swept by famine. The storms are admittedly more fatal than elsewhere, the thunderbolts larger, more numerous, and all unerringly directed, while the extremities of heat and cold render life really uncongenial for the greater part of each year. The poor, having no money to secure justice, are evilly used, whereas the wealthy, having too much, are assailed legally by the gross and powerful for the purpose of extorting their riches. Robbers and assassins lurk in every cave; vast hoards of pirates blacken the surface of every river; and mandarins of the nine degrees must make a livelihood by some means or other. By day, therefore, it is inadvisable to go forth and encounter human beings, while none but the shallow-headed would risk a meeting with the countless demons and vampires which move by night. To one who has spent many moons among these foreign apparitions the absence of drains, roads, illustrated message-parchments, maidens whose voices may be heard protesting upon ringing a wire, loaves of conflicting dimensions, persons who strive to put their faces upon every advertisement, pens which emit fountains when carried in the pocket, a profusion of make-strong foods, and an Encyclopaedia Mongolia, may undoubtedly be mentioned as constituting a material deficiency. Affairs are not being altogether reputably conducted during the crisis; it can never be quite definitely asserted what the next action of the versatile and high-spirited Dowager Empress will be; and here it is freely contended that the Pure and Immortal Empire is incapable of remaining in one piece for much longer. These, and other inconveniences of a like nature, which the fastidious might distort into actual hardships, have never been denied, yet at no period of the nine thousand years of our civilisation has it been the custom to lure out the unwary, on the plea of an agreeable entertainment, and then to abandon him into the society of eleven club-bearing adversaries, one of whom may be depicted as in the act of imparting an unnecessary polish to the edge of his already preternaturally acute weapon, while those of his own band offer no protection, and three tiers of very richly-dressed maidens encourage him to his fate by refined gestures of approval.
Doubtless this person had unconsciously allowed his inner meditations to carry him away, as it may be expressed, for when he emerged from this strain of reverie it was to discover himself in the chariot-road and—so incongruously may be the actions when the controlling intelligence is withdrawn—even proceeding at a somewhat undignified pace in a direction immediately opposed to an encounter with the brown locusts. From this mortifying position he was happily saved by emerging from these thought-dreams before it was too late to return, and, also, if the detail is not too insignificant to be related, by the fact that certain chosen runners from his own company had reached a point in the road before him, and now stood joining their outstretched arms across the passage and raising gravity-dispelling cries. Smiling acquiescently, therefore, this person returned in their midst, and receiving a new weapon, his own club having been absent-mindedly mislaid, he again set forth warily to the encounter.
Yet in this he did not altogether neglect a discreet prudence. The sympathetic person to whom he was indebted for the pointed allusion had specifically declared that they who used their feet with the desperate savagery of baffled spectres guarded the nearer limits of their position, the intention of his timely hint assuredly being that I should seek to approach from the opposite end, where, doubtless, the more humane and conciliatory grass-hoppers were assembled. Thus guided I now set forth in a widely-circuitous direction, having the point where I meant to open an attack clearly before my eyes, yet seeking to deliver a more effective onslaught by reaching it to some extent unperceived and to this end creeping forward in the protecting shadow of the long grass and untrimmed herbage.
Whether the one already referred to had incapably failed to express his real meaning, or whether he was tremulous by nature and inordinately self-deficient, concerns the narration less than the fact that he had admittedly produced a state of things largely in excess of the actual. There is no longer any serviceable pretext for maintaining that those guarding any point of their position were other than mild and benevolent, while the only edged weapon displayed was one courteously produced to aid this person's ineffectual struggles to extricate himself when, by some obscure movement, he had most ignobly entangled his pigtail about the claws of his sandal.
Ignorant of this, the true state of things, I was still advancing subtly when one wearing the emblems of our band appeared from among the brown insects and came towards me. "Courage!" I exclaimed in a guarded tone, raising my head cautiously and rejoiced to find that I should not be alone. "Here is one clad in green bearing succour, who will, moreover, obstinately defend his stumps to the last extremity."
"That's right," replied the opportune person agreeably; "we need a few like that. But do get up on your hind legs and come along, there's a good fellow. You can play at bears in the nursery when we get back, if you want."
Certainly one can simulate the movements of wild animals in a market-garden if the impersonation is thought to be desirable, yet the reasonable analogy of the saying is elusive in the extreme, and I followed the ally who had thus betrayed my presence with a deep-set misgiving although in the absence of a more trustworthy guide, and in the suspicion that some point of my every ordinary strategy had been inept, I was compelled to mould myself identically into his advice.
Scarcely had he left me, and I was endeavouring to dispel any idea of treachery towards those about by actions of graceful courtesy, when one—unworthy of burial—standing a score of paces distant, (to whom, indeed, this person was at the moment bowing with almost passionate vehemence, inspired by the conviction that he, for his part, was engaged in a like attention,) suddenly cast a missile—which, somewhat double-facedly, he had hitherto held concealed in his closed hand—with undeviating force and accuracy. So unexpected was the movement, so painfully-impressed the vindictive contact, that I should have instinctively seized the offensively-directed object and contemptuously hurled it back again, if the consequence of the blow had not deprived my mind of all retaliatory ambitions. In this emergency was manifested a magnanimous act worthy of the incense of a poem, for a person standing immediately by, seeing how this one was balanced in his emotions, picked up the missile, and although one of the foremost of the opposing band, very obligingly flung it back at the assailant. Even an outcast would not have passed this without a suitable tribute, and turning to him, I was remarking appreciatively that men were not divided by seas and wooden barriers, but by the unchecked and conflicting lusts of the mind, when the unclean and weed-nurtured traitor twenty paces distant, taking a degraded advantage from this person's attitude, again propelled his weapon with an even more concentrated perfidy than before. At this new outrage every brown cricket shrank from the attitude of alert vigour which hitherto he had maintained, and as though to disassociate themselves from the stain of complicity all crossed over and took up new positions.
Up to this point, majestic head, in order to represent the adventure in its proper sequence, it has been advisable to present the details as they arose before the eyes of a reliable and dispassionate gazer. Now, however, it is no less seemly to declare that this barbarian sport of leaping insects is not so discreditably shallow as it had at first appeared, while in every action there may be found an apt but hidden symbol. Thus the presence of the two green locusts in the midst of others of a dissimilar nature represents the unending strife by which even the most pacific are ever surrounded. The fragile erection of sticks (behind which this person at first sought to defend himself until led into a more exposed position by one garbed in white,) may be regarded as the home and altar, and adequately depicts the hollowness of the protection it affords and the necessity of reliantly emerging to defy an invader rather than lurking discreditably among its recesses. The missile is the equivalent of a precise and immediate danger, the wooden club the natural instinct for defence with which all living creatures are endowed, so that when the peril is for the time driven away the opportunity is at hand for the display of virtuous amusements, the exchanging of hospitality, and the beating of professional drums as we would say. Thus, at the next attack the one sharing the enterprise with me struck the missile so proficiently that its recovery engaged the attention of all our adversaries, and then began to exhibit his powers by running and leaping towards me. Recognising that the actual moment of the display had arrived, this person at once emitted a penetrating cry of concentrated challenge, and also began to leap upwards and about, and with so much energy that the highly achieved limits of his flight surprised even himself.
As for the bystanders, esteemed, those who opposed us, and the members of our own band, although this leaping sportiveness is a competition more regarded and practised among all orders than the pursuit of commercial eminence, or even than the allurements of the sublimest Classics, it may be truly imagined that never before had they witnessed so remarkable a game cricket. From the pagoda a loud cry of wonder acclaimed the dexterity of this person's efforts; the three tiers of maidens climbed one upon another in their anxiety to lose no detail of the adventure, and outstanders from distant points began to assemble. The brown enemy at once abandoned themselves to a panic, and for the most part cast themselves incapably to the ground, rolling from side to side in an access of emotion; the two arbiters clad in white conferred together, doubtless on the uselessness of further contest, while the ally who had summoned me to take a part instead of being encouraged to display his agility in a like manner continued to run slavishly from point to point, while I overcame the distances in a series of inspired bounds.
In the meanwhile the sounds of encouragement from the ever-increasing multitude grew like the falling of a sudden coast storm among the ripe leaves of a tea-plantation, and with them the voices of many calling upon my name and inciting me to further and even higher achievements reached my ears. Not to grow small in the eyes of these estimable persons I continued in my flight, and abandoning all set movements and limits, I began to traverse the field in every direction, becoming more proficient with each effort, imparting to myself a sideway and even backward motion while yet in the upper spaces, remaining poised for an appreciable period, and lightly, yet with graceful ease, avoiding the embraces of those who would have detained me. Undoubtedly I could have maintained this supremacy until our band might justly have claimed the reward, had not the flattering cries of approval caused an indiscreet mistake, for the alarm being spread in the village that a conflagration of imposing ferocity was raging, an ornamental chariot conveying a band of warriors clad in brass armour presently entered into the strife, and discovering no fire to occupy their charitable energies they misguidedly honoured this offensive person by propelling a solid column of the purest and most refreshing water against his ignoble body when at the point of his highest flight. This introduction of a thunderbolt into the everyday life of an insect must be of questionable authenticity, yet not feeling sufficiently instructed in the lesser details of the sportiveness to challenge the device, I suffered myself to be led towards the pavilion with no more struggling than enough to remove the ignominy of an unresisting surrender, pleasantly remarking to those who bore me along that to a person of philosophical poise the written destiny was as apparent in the falling leaf as in the rising sun, pointing the saying thus: "Although the Desert of Shan-tz is boundless, and mankind number a million million, yet in it Li-hing encountered his mother-in-law." Changing to meet another of our company setting forth with a club to make the venture, I was permitted for a moment to engage him; whereupon thrusting into his hand a leather charm against ill-directed efforts, and instructing him to bind it about his head, I encouraged him with the imperishable watch-word of the Emperor Tsin Su, "The stars are indeed small, but their light carries as far as that of the full moon."
At the steps of the pagoda so great was the throng of those who would have overwhelmed me with their gracious attention, that had not this person's neck become practically automatic by ceaseless use of late, he would have been utterly unequal to the emergency. As it was, he could only bestow a superficial hand-wave upon a company of gold-embroidered musicians who greeted his return with appropriate melody, and a glance of well-indicated regret that he had no fuller means of conveying his complicated emotions, in the direction of the uppermost tier of maidens. Then the awaiting Sir Philip took him firmly towards the inner part of the pavilion, and announced, so adroitly and with such high-spirited vigour had this one maintained the conflict, that it had been resolutely agreed on all sides not to make a test of his competence any further.
Thereupon a band of very sumptuously arrayed nymphs drew near with offerings of liquid fat and a variety of crimson fruit, which it is customary to grind together on the platter—unapproachable in the result, certainly, yet incredibly elusive to the unwary in the manner of bruising, and practically ineradicable upon the more delicate shades of silk garment. In such a situation the one who is now relating the various incidents of the day may be imagined by a broad-minded and affectionate sire: partaking of this native fruit and oil, and from time to time expressing his insatiable anguish that he continually fails to become more proficient in controlling the oblique movements of the viands, while the less successful crickets are constrained to persevere in the combat, and the ever-present note of evasive purport is raised by a voice from behind a screen exclaiming, "Out afore? That he may have been, but do he think we was a-going to give he out afore? No, maaster, us doant a-have a circus every day hereabouts."
Thus may this imagination of competitive locusts be set forth to the end. If a fuller proof of what an unostentatious self-effacement hesitates to enlarge upon were required, it might be found in the barbarian printed leaf, for the next day this person saw a public record of the strife, in which his own name was followed by a numerical emblem signifying that he had not stumbled or proved incompetent in any one particular. Sir Philip, I beheld with pained surprise, had obtusely suffered himself to be caught out in the committal of fifty-nine set offences.
With a not unnatural anticipation that, as a result of this painstaking description, this person will find two well-equipped camps of contending locusts in Yuen-ping on his return.
Concerning the obvious misunderstanding which has entwined itself about a revered parent's faculties of passionless discrimination. The all-water disportment and the two, of different sexes, who after regarding me conflictingly from the beginning, ended in a like but inverted manner.
VENERATED SIRE,—Your gem-adorned letter containing a thousand burnished words of profuse reproach has entered my diminished soul in the form of an equal number of rusty barbs. Can it be that the incapable person whom, as you truly say, you sent, "to observe the philosophical subtleties of the barbarians, to study their dynastical records and to associate liberally with the venerable and dignified," has, in your own unapproachable felicity of ceremonial expression, "according to a discreet whisper from many sources, chiefly affected the society of tea-house maidens, the immature of both sexes, doubtful characters of all classes, and criminals awaiting trial; has evinced an unswerving affinity towards light amusement and entertainments of a no-class kind; and in place of a wise aloofness, befitting a wearer of the third Gold Button and the Horn Belt-clasp, in situations of critical perplexity, seems by his own ingenuous showing to have maintained an unparalleled aptitude for behaving either with the crystalline simplicity of a Kan-su earth-tiller, or the misplaced buffoonery of a seventh-grade body-writher taking the least significant part in an ill-equipped Swatow one-cash Hall of Varied Melodies." Assuredly, if your striking and well-chosen metaphors were not more unbalanced than the ungainly attitude of a one-legged hunchback crossing a raging torrent by means of a slippery plank on a stormy night, they would cause the very acutest bitterness to the throat of a dutiful and always high-stepping son. There is an apt saying, however, "A quarrel between two soldiers in the market-place becomes a rebellion in the outskirts," and when this person remembers that many thousand li of mixed elements flow between him and his usually correct and dispassionate sire, he is impelled to take a mild and tolerant attitude towards the momentary injustice brought about by the weakness of approaching old age, the vile-intentioned mendacity of outcasts envious of the House of Kong, and, perchance, the irritation brought on by a too lavish indulgence in your favourite dish of stewed mouse.
Having thus re-established himself in the clear-sighted affection of an ever mild and perfect father, and cleansed the ground of all possible misunderstandings in the future, this person will concede the fact that, not to stand beneath the faintest shadow of an implied blemish in your sympathetic eyes, he had no sooner understood the attitude in which he had been presented than he at once plunged into the virtuous society of a band of the sombre and benevolent.
These, so far as his intelligence enables him to grasp the position, may be reasonably accepted as the barbarian equivalent of those very high-minded persons who in our land devote their whole lives secretly to killing others whom they consider the chief deities do not really approve of; for although they are not permitted here, either by written law or by accepted custom, to perform these meritorious actions, they are so intimately initiated into the minds and councils of the Upper Ones that they are able to pronounce very severe judgments of torture—a much heavier penalty than merely being assassinated—upon all who remain outside their league. As some of the most objurgatory of these alliances do not number more than a score of persons, it is inevitable that the ultimate condition of the whole barbarian people must be hazardous in the extreme.
Having associated myself with this class sufficiently to escape their vindictive pronouncements, and freely professed an unswerving adherence to their rites, I next sought out the priests of other altars, intending by a seemly avowal to each in turn to safeguard my future existence effectually. This I soon discovered to be beyond the capacity of an ordinary lifetime, for whereas we, with four hundred million subjects find three religions to be sufficient to meet every emergency, these irresolute island children, although numbering us only as one to ten, vacillate among three hundred; and even amid this profusion it is asserted that most of the barbarians are unable to find any temple exactly conforming to their requirements, and after writing to the paper to announce the fact, abandon the search in despair.
It was while I was becoming proficient in the inner subtleties of one of these orders—they who drink water on all occasions and wear a badge—that a maiden of some authority among them besought my aid for the purpose of amusing a band which she was desirous of propitiating into the adoption of this badge. It is possible that in the immature confidence of former letters this person may already have alluded to certain maidens with words of courteous esteem, but it is now necessary to admit finally that in the presence of this same Helena they would all appear as an uninviting growth of stunted and deformed poppies surrounding a luxuriant chrysanthemum. At the presumptuous thought of describing her illimitable excellences my fingers become claw-like in their confessed inadequacy to hold a sufficiently upright brush; yet without undue confidence it may be set down that her hands resembled the two wings of a mandarin drake in their symmetrical and changing motion, her hair as light and radiant-pointed as the translucent incense cloud floating before the golden Buddha of Shan-Si, thin white satin stretched tightly upon polished agate only faintly comparable to her jade cheeks, while her eyes were more unfathomable than the crystal waters of the Keng-kiang, and within their depths her pure and magnanimous thoughts could be dimly seen to glide like the gold and silver carp beneath the sacred river.
When this insurpassable being approached me with the flattering petition already alluded to, my gratified emotions clashed together uncontrollably with the internal feeling of many volcanoes in movement, and my organs of expression became so entangled at the condescension of her melodious voice being directly addressed to one so degraded, that for several minutes I was incapable of further acquiescence than that conveyed by an adoring silence and an unchanging smile. No formality appeared worthy to greet her by, no expression of self-contempt sufficiently offensive to convey to her enlightenment my own sense of a manifold inferiority, and doubtless I should have remained in a transfixed attitude until she had at length turned aside, had not your seasonable reference to a Swatow limb-contorter struck me heavily and abruptly turned off the source of my agreement. Might not this all-water entertainment, it occurred to this one, consist in enticing him to drink a potion made unsuspectedly hot, in projecting him backwards into a vat of the same liquid, or some similar device for the pleasurable amusement of those around, which would come within the boundaries of your refined disapproval? As one by himself there was no indignity that this person would not cheerfully have submitted to, but the inexorable cords of an ingrained filial regard suddenly pulled him sideways and into another direction.
"But, Mr. Kong," exclaimed the bee-lipped maiden, when I had explained (as being less involved to her imagination,) that I was under a vow, "we have been relying upon you. Could you not"—and here she dropped her eyes and picked them up again with a fluttering motion which our lesser ones are, to an all-wise end, quite unacquainted with—"could you not unvow yourself for one night, just to please ME?"
At these words, the illuminated proficiency of her glance, and her honourable resolution to implicate me in the display by head or feet, the ever-revered image of a just and obedience-loving father ceased to have any further tangible influence. Let it be remembered that there is a deep saying, "A virtuous woman will cause more evil than ten river pirates." As for the person who is recording his incompetence, the room and all those about began to engulf him in an ever-increasing circular motion, his knees vibrated together with unrestrained pliancy, and concentrating his voice to indicate by the allegory some faint measure of his emotion, he replied passionately, "Let the amusement referred to take the form of sitting in a boiling cauldron exposed to the derision of all beholders, this one will now enter it wearing yellow silk trousers."
It is characteristic of these illogical out-countries that the all-water diversion did not, as a matter to record, concern itself with that liquid in any detail, beyond the contents of a glass vessel from which a venerable person, who occupied a raised chair, continually partook. This discriminating individual spoke so confidently of the beneficial action of the fluid, and so unswervingly described my own feelings at the moment—as of head giddiness, an inexactitude of speech, and no clear definition of where the next step would be arrived at—as the common lot of all who did not consume regularly, that when that same Helena had passed on to speak to another, I left the hall unobserved and drank successive portions, in each case, as the night was cold, prudently adding a measure of the native rice spirit. His advice had been well-directed, for with the fourth portion I suddenly found all doubtful and oppressive visions withdrawn, and a new and exhilarating self-confidence raised in their place. In this agreeable temper I returned to the place of meeting to find a priest of one of the lesser orders relating a circumstance whereby he had encountered a wild maiden in the woods, who had steadfastly persisted that she was one of a band of seven (this being the luckiest protective number among the superstitious). Though unable to cause their appearance, she had gone through a most precise examination at his hands without deviating in the slightest particular, whereupon distrusting the outcome of the strife, the person who was relating the adventure had withdrawn breathless.
When this versatile lesser priest had finished the narration, and the applause, which clearly showed that those present approved of the solitary maiden's discreet stratagem, had ceased, the one who occupied the central platform, rising, exclaimed loudly, "Mr. Kong will next favour us with a contribution, which will consist, I am informed, of a Chinese tale."
Now there chanced to be present a certain one who had already become offensive to me by the systematic dexterity with which he had planted his inopportune shadow between the sublime-souled Helena and any other who made a movement to approach her heaven-dowered outline. When this presumptuous and ill-nurtured outcast, who was, indeed, then seated by the side of the enchanting maiden last referred to, heard the announcement he said in a voice feigned to reach her peach-skin ear alone, yet intentionally so modulated as to penetrate the furthest limit of the room, "A Chinese tale! Why, assuredly, that must be a pig-tail." At this unseemly shaft many of those present allowed themselves to become immoderately amused, and even the goat-like sage who had called upon my name concealed his face behind an open hand, but the amiably-disposed Helena, after looking at the undiscriminating youth coldly for a moment, deliberately rose and moved to a vacant spot at a distance. Encouraged by this fragrant act of sympathy I replied with a polite bow to indicate the position, "On the contrary, the story which it is now my presumptuous intention to relate will contain no reference whatever to the carefully-got-up one occupying two empty seats in the front row," and without further introduction began the history of Kao and his three brothers, to which I had added the title, "The Three Gifts."
At the conclusion of this classical example of the snares ever lying around the footsteps of the impious, I perceived that the jocular stripling, whom I had so delicately reproved, was no longer present. Doubtless he had been unable to remain in the same room with the commanding Helena's high-spirited indignation, and anticipating that in consequence there would now be no obstacle to her full-faced benignity, I drew near with an appropriate smile.
It is somewhere officially recorded, "There is only one man who knew with accurate certainty what a maiden's next attitude would be, and he died young of surprise." As I approached I had the sensation of passing into so severe an atmosphere of rigid disfavour, that the ingratiating lines upon my face became frozen in its intensity, despite the ineptness of their expression. Unable to penetrate the cause of my offence, I made a variety of agreeable remarks, until finding that nothing tended towards a becoming reconciliation, I gradually withdrew in despair, and again turned my face in the direction of that same accommodation which I had already found beneath the sign of an Encompassed Goat. Here, by the sarcasm of destiny, I encountered the person who had drawn the slighting analogy between this one's pig-tail and his ability as a story-teller. For a brief space of time the ultimate development of the venture was doubtfully poised, but recognising in each other's features the overhanging cloud of an allied pang, the one before me expressed a becoming contrition for the jest, together with a proffered cup. Not to appear out-classed I replied in a suitable vein, involving the supply of more vessels; whereupon there succeeded many more vessels, called for both singly and in harmonious unison, and the reappearance of numerous bright images, accompanied by a universal scintillation of meteor-like iridescence. In this genial and greatly-enlarged spirit we returned affably together to the hall, and entered unperceived at the moment when the one who made the announcements was crying aloud, "According to the programme the next item should have been a Chinese poem, but as Mr. Kong Ho appears to have left the building, we shall pass him over—"
"What Ho?" exclaimed the somewhat impetuous one by my side, stepping forward indignantly and mounting the platform in his affectionate zeal. "No one shall pass over my old and valued friend—this Ho—while I have a paw to raise. Step forward, Mandarin, and let them behold the inventor and sole user of the justly far-famed G. R. Ko-Ho hair restorer—sent in five guinea bottles to any address on receipt of four penny stamps—as he appeared in his celebrated impersonation of the human-faced Swan at Doll and Edgar's. Come on, oh, Ho!"
"Assuredly," I replied, striving to follow him, "yet with the wary greeting, 'Slowly, slowly; walk slowly,' engraved upon my mind, for the barrier of these convoluted stairs—" but at this word a band of maidens passed out hastily, and in the tumult I reached the dais and began Weng Chi's immortal verses, entitled "The Meandering Flight," which had occupied me three complete days and nights in the detail of rendering the allusions into well-balanced similitudes and at the same time preserving the skilful evasion of all conventional rules which raises the original to so sublime a height.
The voice of one singing at the dawn; The seven harmonious colours in the sky; The meeting by the fountain; The exchange of gifts, and the sound of the processional drum; The emotion of satisfaction in each created being; This is the all-prominent indication of the Spring.
The general disinclination to engage in laborious tasks; The general readiness to consume voluminous potions on any pretext. The deserted appearance of the city and the absence of the come-in motion at every door; The sportiveness of maidens, and even those of maturer age, ethereally clad, upon the shore. The avowed willingness of merchants to dispose of their wares for half the original sum. This undoubtedly is the Summer.
The yellow tea leaf circling as it falls; The futile wheeling of the storm-tossed swan; The note of the marble lute at evening by the pool; The immobile cypress seen against the sun. The unnecessarily difficult examination paper. All these things are suggestive of the Autumn.
The growing attraction of a well-lined couch. The obsequious demeanour of message-bearers, charioteers, and the club-armed keepers of peace. The explosion of innumerable fire-crackers round the convivial shines, The gathering together of relations who at all other times shun each other markedly. The obtrusive recollection of a great many things contrary to a spoken vow, and the inflexible purpose to be more resolute in future. These in turn invariably attend each Winter.
It certainly had not presented itself to me before that the words "invariably attend" are ill-chosen, but as I would have uttered them their inelegance became plain, and this person made eight conscientious attempts to soften down their harsh modulation by various interchanges. He was still persevering hopefully when he of chief authority approached and requested that the one who was thus employed and that same other would leave the hall tranquilly, as the all-water entertainment was at an end, and an attending slave was in readiness to extinguish the lanterns.
"Yet," I protested unassumingly, "that which has so far been expressed is only in the semblance of an introductory ode. There follow—"
"You must not argue with the Chair," exclaimed another interposing his voice. "Whatever the Chair rules must be accepted."
"The innuendo is flat-witted," I replied with imperturbable dignity, but still retaining my hold upon the rail. "When this person so far loses his sense of proportion as to contend with an irrational object, devoid of faculties, let the barb be cast. After that introduction dealing with the four seasons, the twelve gong-strokes of the day are reviewed in a like fashion. These in turn give place to the days of the month, then the moons of the year, and finally the years of the cycle."
"That's fair," exclaimed the perverse though well-meaning youth, whom I was beginning to recognise as the cause of some misunderstanding among us. "If you don't want any more of his poem—and I don't blame you—my pal Ho, who is one of the popular Flip-Flap Troupe, offers to do some trick cycle-riding on his ears. What more can you expect?"
"We expect a policeman very soon," replied another severely. "He has already been sent for."
"In that case," said the one who had so persistently claimed me as an ally, "perhaps I can do you a service by directing him here"; and leaving this person to extricate himself by means of a reassuring silence and some of the larger silver pieces of the Island, he vanished hastily.
With some doubt whether or not this deviation into the society of the professedly virtuous, ending as it admittedly does in an involvement, may not be deemed ill-starred; yet hopeful.
THE THREE GIFTS
Related by Kong Ho on the occasion of the all-water disportment, under the circumstances previously set forth.
BEYOND the limits of the township of Yang-chow there dwelt a rich astrologer named Wei. Reading by his skilful interpretation of the planets that he would shortly Pass Above, he called his sons Chu, Shan, and Hing to his side and distributed his wealth impartially among them. To Chu he gave his house containing a gold couch; to Shan a river with a boat; to Hing a field in which grew a prolific orange-tree. "Thus provided for," he continued, "you will be able to live together in comfort, the resources of each supplying the wants of the others in addition to his own requirements. Therefore when I have departed let it be your first care to sacrifice everything else I leave, so that I also, in the Upper Air, may not be left destitute."
Now in addition to these three sons Wei also had another, the youngest, but one of so docile, respectful, and self-effacing a disposition that he was frequently overlooked to the advantage of his subtle, ambitious, and ingratiating brothers. This youth, Kao, thinking that the occasion certainly called for a momentary relaxation of his usual diffidence, now approached his father modestly, and begged that he also might be included to some trivial degree in his bounty.
This reasonable petition involved Wei in an embarrassing perplexity. Although he had forgotten Kao completely in the division, he had now definitely concluded the arrangement; nor, to his failing powers, did it appear possible to make a just allotment on any other lines. "How can a person profitably cut up an orange-tree, a boat, an inlaid couch, or a house?" he demanded. "Who can divide a flowing river, or what but unending strife can arise from regarding an open field in anything but its entirety? Assuredly six cohesive objects cannot be apportioned between four persons." Yet he could not evade the justice of Kao's implied rebuke, so drawing to his side a jade cabinet he opened it, and from among the contents he selected an ebony staff, a paper umbrella, and a fan inscribed with a mystical sentence. These three objects he placed in Kao's hands, and with his last breath signified that he should use them discreetly as the necessity arose.
When the funeral ceremonies were over, Chu, Shan, and Hing came together, and soon moulded their covetous thoughts into an agreed conspiracy. "Of what avail would be a boat or a river if this person sacrificed the nets and appliances by which the fish are ensnared?" asked Shan. "How little profit would lie in an orange-tree and a field without cattle and the implements of husbandry!" cried Hing. "One cannot occupy a gold couch in an empty house both by day and night," remarked Chu stubbornly. "How inadequate, therefore, would such a provision be for three."
When Kao understood that his three brothers had resolved to act in this outrageous manner he did not hesitate to reproach them; but not being able to contend against him honourably, they met him with ridicule. "Do not attempt to rule us with your wooden staff," they cried contemptuously. "Sacrifice IT if your inside is really sincere. And, in the meanwhile, go and sit under your paper umbrella and wield your inscribed fan, while we attend to our couch, our boat, and our orange-tree."
"Truly," thought Kao to himself when they had departed, "their words were irrationally offensive, but among them there may stand out a pointed edge. Our magnanimous father is now bereft of both comforts and necessities, and although an ebony rod is certainly not much in the circumstances, if this person is really humanely-intentioned he will not withhold it." With this charitable design Kao build a fire before the couch (being desirous, out of his forgiving nature, to associate his eldest brother in the offering), and without hesitation sacrificed the most substantial of his three possessions.
It here becomes necessary to explain that in addition to being an expert astrologer, Wei was a far-seeing magician. The rod of unimpressionable solidity was in reality a charm against decay, and its hidden virtues being thus destroyed, a contrary state of things naturally arose, so that the next morning it was found that during the night the gold couch had crumbled away into a worthless dust.
Even this manifestation did not move the three brothers, although the geniality of Shan and Hing's countenances froze somewhat towards Chu. Nevertheless Chu still possessed a house, and by pointing out that they could live as luxuriantly as before on the resources of the river and the field and the tree, he succeeded in maintaining his position among them.
After seven days Kao reflected again. "This avaricious person still has two objects, both of which he owes to his revered father's imperishable influence," he admitted conscience-stricken, "while the being in question has only one." Without delay he took the paper umbrella and ceremoniously burned it, scattering the ashes this time upon Shan's river. Like the rod the umbrella also possessed secret virtues, its particular excellence being a curse against clouds, wind demons, thunderbolts and the like, so that during the night a great storm raged, and by the morning Shan's boat had been washed away.
This new calamity found the three brothers more obstinately perverse than ever. It cannot be denied that Hing would have withdrawn from the guilty confederacy, but they were as two to one, and prevailed, pointing out that the house still afforded shelter, the river yielded some of the simpler and inferior fish which could be captured from the banks, and the fruitfulness of the orange-tree was undiminished.
At the end of seven more days Kao became afflicted with doubt. "There is no such thing as a fixed proportion or a set reckoning between a dutiful son and an embarrassed sire," he confessed penitently. "How incredibly profane has been this person's behaviour in not seeing the obligation in its unswerving necessity before." With this scrupulous resolve Kao took his last possession, and carrying it into the field he consumed it with fire beneath Hing's orange-tree. The fan, in turn, also had hidden properties, its written sentence being a spell against drought, hot winds, and the demons which suck the nourishment from all crops. In consequence of the act these forces were called into action, and before another day Hing's tree had withered away.
It is said with reason, "During the earthquake men speak the truth." At this last disaster the impious fortitude of the three brothers suddenly gave way, and cheerfully admitting their mistake, each committed suicide, Chu disembowelling himself among the ashes of his couch, Shan sinking beneath the waters of his river, and Hing hanging by a rope among the branches of his own effete orange-tree.
When they had thus fittingly atoned for their faults the imprecation was lifted from off their possessions. The couch was restored by magic art to its former condition, the boat was returned by a justice-loving person into whose hands it had fallen lower down the river, and the orange-tree put out new branches. Kao therefore passed into an undiminished inheritance. He married three wives, to commemorate the number of his brothers, and had three sons, whom he called Chu, Shan, and Hing, for a like purpose. These three all attained to high office in the State, and by their enlightened morals succeeded in wiping all the discreditable references to others bearing the same names from off the domestic tablets.
From this story it will be seen that by acting virtuously, yet with an observing discretion, on all occasions, it is generally possible not only to rise to an assured position, but at the same time unsuspectedly to involve those who stand in our way in a just destruction.
Concerning a state of necessity; the arisings engendered thereby, and the turned-away face of those ruling the literary quarter of the city towards one possessing a style. This foreign manner of feigning representations, and concerning my dignified portrayal of two.
VENERATED SIRE,—It is now more than three thousand years ago that the sublime moralist Tcheng How, on being condemned by a resentful official to a lengthy imprisonment in a very inadequate oil jar, imperturbably replied, "As the snail fits his impliant shell, so can the wise adapt themselves to any necessity," and at once coiled himself up in the restricted space with unsuspected agility. In times of adversity this incomparable reply has often shone as a steadfast lantern before my feet, but recently it struck my senses with a heavier force, for upon presenting myself on the last occasion at the place of exchange frequented by those who hitherto have carried out your spoken promise with obliging exactitude, and at certain stated intervals freely granted to this person a sufficiency of pieces of gold, merely requiring in return an inscribed and signet-bearing record of the fact, I was received with no diminution of sympathetic urbanity, indeed, but with hands quite devoid of outstretched fulness.
In a small inner chamber, to which I was led upon uttering courteous protests, one of solitary authority explained how the deficiency had arisen, but owing to the skill with which he entwined the most intricate terms in unbroken fluency, the only impression left upon my superficial mind was, that the person before me was imputing the scheme for my despoilment less to any mercenary instinct on the part of his confederates, than to a want of timely precision maintained by one who seemed to bear an agreeable-sounding name somewhat similar to your own, and who, from the difficulty of reaching his immediate ear, might be regarded as dwelling in a distant land. Encouraged by this conciliatory profession (and seeing no likelihood of gaining my end otherwise), I thereupon declared my willingness that the difference lying between us should be submitted to the pronouncement of dispassionate omens, either passing birds, flat and round sticks, the seeds of two oranges, wood and fire, water poured out upon the ground or any equally reliable sign as he himself might decide. However, in spite of his honourable assurances, he was doubtless more deeply implicated in the adventure than he would admit, for at this scrupulous proposal the benignant mask of his expression receded abruptly, and, striking a hidden bell, he waved his hands and stood up to signify that further justice was denied me.
In this manner a state of destitution calling for the fullest acceptance of Tcheng How's impassive philosophy was created, nor had many hours faded before the first insidious temptation to depart from his uncompromising acquiescence presented itself.
At that time there was no one in whom I reposed a larger-sized piece of confidence (in no way involving sums of money,) than one officially styled William Beveledge Greyson, although, profiting by our own custom, it is unusual for those really intimate with his society to address him fully, unless the occasion should be one of marked ceremony. Forming a resolution, I now approached this obliging person, and revealing to him the cause of the emergency, I prayed that he would advise me, as one abandoned on a strange Island, by what handicraft or exercise of skill I might the readiest secure for the time a frugal competence.
"Why, look here, aged man," at once replied the lavish William Greyson, "don't worry yourself about that. I can easily let you have a few pounds to tide you over. You will probably hear from the bank in the course of a few days or weeks, and it's hardly worth while doing anything eccentric in the meantime."
At this delicately-worded proposal I was about to shake hands with myself in agreement, when the memory of Tcheng How's resolute submission again possessed me, and seeing that this would be an unworthy betrayal of destiny I turned aside the action, and replying evasively that the world was too small to hold himself and another equally magnanimous, I again sought his advice.
"Now what silly upside-down idea is it that you've got into that Chinese puzzle you call your head, Kong?" he replied; for this same William was one who habitually gilded unpalatable truths into the semblance of a flattering jest. "Whenever you turn off what you are saying into a willow-pattern compliment and bow seventeen times like an animated mandarin, I know that you are keeping something back. Be a man and a brother, and out with it," and he struck me heavily upon the left shoulder, which among the barbarians is a proof of cordiality to be esteemed much above the mere wagging of each other's hands.
"In the matter of guidance," I replied, "this person is ready to sit unreservedly on your well-polished feet. But touching the borrowing of money, obligations to restore with an added sum after a certain period, initial-bearing papers of doubtful import, and the like, I have read too deeply the pointed records of your own printed sheets not to prefer an existence devoted to the scraping together of dust at the street corners, rather than a momentary affluence which in the end would betray me into the tiger-like voracity of a native money-lender."
"Well, you do me proud, Kong," said William Beveledge, after regarding me fixedly for a moment. "If I didn't remember that you are a flat-faced, slant-eyed, top-side-under, pig-tailed old heathen, I should be really annoyed at your unwarrantable personalities. Do you take ME for what you call a 'native money-lender'?"
"The pronouncements of destiny are written in iron," I replied inoffensively, "and it is as truly said that one fated to end his life in a cave cannot live for ever on the top of a pagoda. Undoubtedly as one born and residing here you are native, and as inexorably it succeeds that if you lend me pieces of gold you become a money-lender. Therefore, though honourably inspired at the first, you would equally be drawn into the entanglement of circumstance, and the unevadible end must inevitably be that against which your printed papers consistently warn one."
"And what is that?" asked Beveledge Greyson, still regarding me closely, as though I were a creature of another part.
"At first," I replied, "there would be an alluring snare of graceful words, tea, and the consuming of paper-rolled herbs, and the matter would be lightly spoken of as capable of an easy adjustment; which, indeed, it cannot be denied, is how the detail stands at present. The next position would be that this person, finding himself unable to gather together the equivalent of return within the stated time, would greet you with a very supple neck and pray for a further extension, which would be permitted on the understanding that in the event of failure his garments and personal charms should be held in bondage. To escape so humiliating a necessity, as the time drew near I would address myself to another, one calling himself William, perchance, and dwelling in a northern province, to whom I would be compelled to assign my peach-orchard at Yuen-ping. Then by varying degrees of infamy I would in turn be driven to visit a certain Bevel of the Middle Lands, a person Edge carrying on his insatiable traffic on the southern coast, one Grey elsewhere, and a Mr. Son, of the west, who might make an honourable profession of lending money without any security whatever, but who in the end would possess himself of my ancestral tablets, wives, and inlaid coffin, and probably also obtain a lien upon my services and prosperity in the Upper Air. Then, when I had parted from all comfort in this life, and every hope of affluence in the Beyond, it would presently be disclosed that all these were in reality as one person who had unceasingly plotted to my destruction, and William Beveledge Greyson would stand revealed in the guise of a malevolent vampire. Truly that development has at this moment an appearance of unreality, and worthy even of pooh-pooh, but thus is the warning spread by your own printed papers and the records of your Halls of Justice, and it would be an unseemly presumption for one of my immature experience to ignore the outstretched and warning finger of authority."
"Well, Kong," he said at length, after considering my words attentively, "I always thought that your mental outlook was a hash of Black Art, paper lanterns, blank verse, twilight, and delirium tremens, but hang me if you aren't sound on finance, and I only wish that you'd get some of my friends to look at the matter of borrowing in your own reasonable, broad-minded light. The question is, what next?"
I replied that I leaned heavily against his sagacious insight, adding, however, that even among a nation of barbarians one who could repeat the three hundred and eleven poems comprising the Book of Odes from beginning to end, and claim the degree "Assured Genius" would ever be certain of a place.
"Yes," replied William Greyson,—"in the workhouse. Put your degree in your inside pocket, Kong, and don't mention it. You'll have far more chance as a distressed mariner. The casual wards are full of B.A.'s, but the navy can't get enough A.B.'s at any price. What do you say to an organ, by the way? Mysterious musicians generally go down well, and I dare say there's room for a change from veiled ladies, persecuted captains and indigent earls. You ought to make a sensation."
"Is it in the nature of melodious sounds upon winding a handle?" I asked, not at the moment grasping with certainty to what organ he referred.
"Well, some call them that," he admitted, "others don't. I suppose, now, you wouldn't care to walk to Brighton with your feet tied together, or your hair in curl papers, and then get on at a music hall? Or would there be any chance of your Legation kidnapping you if it was properly worked? 'Kong Ho, the great Chinese Reformer, tells the Story of his Life,'—there ought to be money in it. Are you a reformer or the leader of a secret society, Kong?"
"On the contrary," I replied, "we of our Line have ever been unflinching in our loyalty to the dynasty of Tsing."
"You ought to have known better, then. It's a poor business being that in your country nowadays. Pity there are no bye-elections on the African Labour Question, or you'd be snapped up for a procession."
To this I replied that although the idea of moving in a processional triumph would readily ensnare the minds of the light and fantastic, I should prefer some more literary occupation, submissively adding that in such a case I would not stiffen my joints against the most menial lot, even that of blending my voice in a laudatory chorus, or of carrying official pronouncements about the walls of the city, for it is said with justice, "The starving man does not peel his melon, nor do the parched first wipe round the edges of the proffered cup."