THE MIRROR OF KONG HO
By Ernest Bramah
A lively and amusing collection of letters on western living written by Kong Ho, a Chinese gentleman. These addressed to his homeland, refer to the Westerners in London as barbarians and many of the aids to life in our society give Kong Ho endless food for thought. These are things such as the motor car and the piano; unknown in China at this time.
ESTIMABLE BARBARIAN,—Your opportune suggestion that I should permit the letters, wherein I have described with undeviating fidelity the customs and manner of behaving of your accomplished race, to be set forth in the form of printed leaves for all to behold, is doubtless gracefully-intentioned, and this person will raise no barrier of dissent against it.
In this he is inspired by the benevolent hope that his immature compositions may to one extent become a model and a by-word to those who in turn visit his own land of Fragrant Purity; for with exacting care he has set down no detail that has not come under his direct observation (although it is not to be denied that here or there he may, perchance, have misunderstood an involved allusion or failed to grasp the inner significance of an act), so that Impartiality necessarily sways his brush, and Truth lurks within his inkpot.
In an entirely contrary manner some, who of recent years have gratified us with their magnanimous presence, have returned to their own countries not only with the internal fittings of many of our palaces (which, being for the most part of a replaceable nature, need be only trivially referred to, the incident, indeed, being generally regarded as a most cordial and pressing variety of foreign politeness), but also—in the lack of highly-spiced actuality—with subtly-imagined and truly objectionable instances. These calumnies they have not hesitated to commit to the form of printed books, which, falling into the hands of the ignorant and undiscriminating, may even suggest to their ill-balanced minds a doubt whether we of the Celestial Empire really are the wisest, bravest, purest, and most enlightened people in existence.
As a parting, it only remains to be said that, in order to maintain unimpaired the quaint-sounding brevity and archaic construction of your prepossessing language, I have engraved most of the remarks upon the receptive tablets of my mind as they were uttered. To one who can repeat the Five Classics without stumbling this is a contemptible achievement. Let it be an imposed obligation, therefore, that you retain these portions unchanged as a test and a proof to all who may read. Of my own deficient words, I can only in truest courtesy maintain that any alteration must of necessity make them less offensively commonplace than at present they are.
The Sign and immutable Thumb-mark of, Kong Ho
By a sure hand to the House of one Ernest Bramah.
THE MIRROR OF KONG HO
Concerning the journey. The unlawful demons invoked by certain of the barbarians; their power and the manner of their suppression. Suppression. The incredible obtuseness of those who attend within tea-houses. The harmonious attitude of a person of commerce.
VENERATED SIRE (at whose virtuous and well-established feet an unworthy son now prostrates himself in spirit repeatedly),—
Having at length reached the summit of my journey, that London of which the merchants from Canton spoke so many strange and incredible things, I now send you filial salutations three times increased, and in accordance with your explicit command I shall write all things to you with an unvarnished brush, well assured that your versatile object in committing me to so questionable an enterprise was, above all, to learn the truth of these matters in an undeviating and yet open-headed spirit of accuracy and toleration.
Of the perils incurred while travelling in the awe-inspiring devices by which I was transferred from shore to shore and yet further inland, of the utter absence of all leisurely dignity on the part of those controlling their movements, and of the almost unnatural self-opinionatedness which led them to persist in starting at a stated and prearranged time, even when this person had courteously pointed out to them by irrefutable omens that neither the day nor the hour was suitable for the venture, I have already written. It is enough to assert that a similar want of prudence was maintained on every occasion, and, as a result, when actually within sight of the walls of this city, we were involved for upwards of an hour in a very evilly-arranged yellow darkness, which, had we but delayed for a day, as I strenuously advised those in authority after consulting the Sacred Flat and Round Sticks, we should certainly have avoided.
Concerning the real nature of the devices by which the ships are propelled at sea and the carriages on land, I must still unroll a blank mind until I can secretly, and without undue hazard, examine them more closely. If, as you maintain, it is the work of captive demons hidden away among their most inside parts, it must be admitted that these usually intractable beings are admirably trained and controlled, and I am wide-headed enough to think that in this respect we might—not-withstanding our nine thousand years of civilised refinement—learn something of the methods of these barbarians. The secret, however, is jealously guarded, and they deny the existence of any supernatural forces; but their protests may be ignored, for there is undoubtedly a powerful demon used in a similar way by some of the boldest of them, although its employment is unlawful. A certain kind of chariot is used for the occupation of this demon, and those who wish to invoke it conceal their faces within masks of terrifying design, and cover their hands and bodies with specially prepared garments, without which it would be fatal to encounter these very powerful spirits. While yet among the habitations of men, and in crowded places, they are constrained to use less powerful demons, which are lawful, but when they reach the unfrequented paths they throw aside all restraint, and, calling to their aid the forbidden spirit (which they do by secret movements of the hands), they are carried forward by its agency at a speed unattainable by merely human means. By day the demon looks forth from three white eyes, which at night have a penetrating brilliance equal to the fiercest glances of the Sacred Dragon in anger. If any person incautiously stands in its way it utters a warning cry of intolerable rage, and should the presumptuous one neglect to escape to the roadside and there prostrate himself reverentially before it, it seizes him by the body part and contemptuously hurls him bruised and unrecognisable into the boundless space of the around. Frequently the demon causes the chariot to rise into the air, and it is credibly asserted by discriminating witnesses (although this person only sets down as incapable of denial that which he has actually beheld) that some have maintained an unceasing flight through the middle air for a distance of many li. Occasionally the captive demon escapes from the bondage of those who have invoked it, through some incautious gesture or heretical remark on their part, and then it never fails to use them grievously, casting them to the ground wounded, consuming the chariot with fire, and passing away in the midst of an exceedingly debased odour, by which it is always accompanied after the manner of our own earth spirits.
This being, as this person has already set forth, an unlawful demon on account of its power when once called up, and the admitted uncertainty of its movements, those in authority maintain a stern and inexorable face towards the practice. To entrap the unwary certain persons (chosen on account of their massive outlines, and further protected from evil influences by their pure and consistent habits) keep an unceasing watch. When one of them, himself lying concealed, detects the approach of such a being, he closely observes the position of the sun, and signals to the other a message of warning. Then the second one, shielded by the sanctity of his life and rendered inviolable by the nature of his garments—his sandals alone being capable of overturning any demon from his path should it encounter them—boldly steps forth into the road and holds out before him certain sacred emblems. So powerful are these that at the sight the unlawful demon confesses itself vanquished, and although its whole body trembles with ill-contained rage, and the air around is poisoned by its discreditable exhalation, it is devoid of further resistance. Those in the chariot are thereupon commanded to dismiss it, and being bound in chains they are led into the presence of certain lesser mandarins who administer justice from a raised dais.
"Behold!" exclaims the chief of the captors, when the prisoners have been placed in obsequious attitudes before the lesser mandarins, "thus the matter chanced: The honourable Wang, although disguised under the semblance of an applewoman, had discreetly concealed himself by the roadside, all but his head being underneath a stream of stagnant water, when, at the eighth hour of the morning, he beheld these repulsive outcasts approaching in their chariot, carried forward by the diabolical vigour of the unlawful demon. Although I had stationed myself several li distant from the accomplished Wang, the chariot reached me in less than a breathing space of time, those inside assuming their fiercest and most aggressive attitudes, and as they came repeatedly urging the demon to increased exertions. Their speed exceeded that of the swallow in his hymeneal flight, all shrubs and flowers by the wayside withered incapably at the demon's contaminating glance, running water ceased to flow, and the road itself was scorched at their passage, the earth emitting a dull bluish flame. These facts, and the times and the distances, this person has further inscribed in a book which thus disposes of all possible defence. Therefore, O lesser mandarins, let justice be accomplished heavily and without delay; for, as the proverb truly says, 'The fiercer the flame the more useless the struggles of the victim.'"
At this point the prisoners frequently endeavour to make themselves heard, protesting that in the distance between the concealed Wang and the one who stands accusing them they had thrice stopped to repair their innermost details, had leisurely partaken of food and wine, and had also been overtaken, struck, and delayed by a funeral procession. But so great is the execration in which these persons are held, that although murderers by stealth, outlaws, snatchers from the body, and companies of men who by strategy make a smaller sum of money appear to be larger, can all freely testify their innocence, raisers of this unlawful demon must not do so, and they are beaten on the head with chains until they desist.
Then the lesser mandarins, raising their voices in unison, exclaim, "The amiable Tsay-hi has reported the matter in a discreet and impartial spirit. Hear our pronouncement: These raisers of illegal spirits shall each contribute ten taels of gold, which shall be expended in joss-sticks, in purifying the road which they have scorched, and in alleviating the distress of the poor and virtuous of both sexes. The praiseworthy Tsay-hi, moreover, shall embroider upon his sleeve an honourable sign in remembrance of the event. Let drums now be beat, and our verdict loudly proclaimed throughout the province."
These things, O my illustrious father (although on account of my contemptible deficiencies of style much may seem improbable to your all-knowing mind), these things I write with an unbending brush; for I set down only that which I have myself seen, or read in their own printed records. Doubtless it will occur to one of your preternatural intelligence that our own system of administering justice, whereby the person who can hire the greater number of witnesses is reasonably held to be in the right, although perhaps not absolutely infallible, is in every way more convenient; but, as it is well said, "To the blind, night is as acceptable as day."
Henceforth you will have no hesitation in letting it be known throughout Yuen-ping that these foreign barbarians do possess secret demons, in spite of their denials. Doubtless I shall presently discover others no less powerful.
With honourable distinction this person has at length grasped the essential details of the spoken language here—not sufficiently well, indeed, to make himself understood on most occasions, or even to understand others, but enough to perceive clearly when he fails to become intelligible or when they experience a like difficulty with him. Upon an earlier occasion, before he had made so much progress, being one day left to his own resources, and feeling an internal lack, he entered what appeared to be a tea-shop of reputable demeanour, and, seating himself at one of the little marble tables, he freely pronounced the carefully-learned word "rice" to the attending nymph. To put aside all details of preparation (into which, indeed, this person could not enter) he waved his hand gracefully, at the same time smiling with an expression of tolerant acquiescence, as of one who would say that what was good enough to be cooked and offered by so entrancing a maiden was good enough to be eaten by him. After remaining in unruffled tranquillity for the full portion of an hour, and observing that no other person around had to wait above half that period, this one began to perceive that the enterprise was not likely to terminate in a manner satisfactory to himself; so that, leaving this place with a few well-chosen phrases of intolerable regret in his own tongue, he entered another, and conducted himself in a like fashion.... Towards evening, with an unperturbed exterior, but materially afflicted elsewhere, this person seated himself within the eleventh tea-shop, and, pointing first towards his own constituents of digestion, then at the fire, and lastly in an upward direction, thereby signified to any not of stunted intellect that he had reached such a condition of mind and body that he was ready to consume whatever the ruling deities were willing to allot, whether boiled, baked, roast, or suspended from a skewer. In this resolve nothing would move him, until—after many maidens had approached with outstretched hands and gestures of despair—there presently entered a person wearing the helmet of a warrior and the manner of a high official, who spoke strongly, yet persuasively, of the virtues of immediate movement and a quiet and reposeful bearing.
Assuredly a people who devote so little attention to the study of food, and all matters connected with it, must inevitably remain barbaric, however skilfully they may feign a superficial refinement. It is said, although I do not commit this matter to my own brush, that among them are more books composed on subjects which have no actual existence than on cooking, and, incredible as it may appear, to be exceptionally round-bodied confers no public honour upon the individual. Should a favourable occasion present itself, there are many who do not scruple to jest upon the subject of food, or, what is incalculably more depraved, upon the scarcity of it.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions of a highly distinguished radiance. Among these must be accounted one into whose presence this person was recently led by our polished and harmonious friend Quang-Tsun, the merchant in tea and spices. This versatile person, whose business-name is spoken of as Jones Bob-Jones, is worthy of all benignant respect, and in a really enlightened country would doubtless be raised to a more exalted position than that of a breaker of outsides (an occupation difficult to express adequately in the written language of a country where it is unknown), for his face is like the sun setting in the time of harvest, his waist garment excessive, and the undoubted symmetry of his middle portions honourable in the extreme. So welcome in my eyes, after witnessing an unending stream of concave and attenuated barbarian ghosts, was the sight of these perfections of Jones Bob-Jones, that instead of the formal greeting of this Island—the unmeaning "How do you do it?"—I shook hands cordially with myself, and exclaimed affectionately in our own language, "Illimitable felicities! How is your stomach?"
"Well," replied Jones Bob-Jones, after Quang-Tsun had interpreted this polite salutation to his understanding, "since you mention it, that's just the trouble; but I'm going on pretty well, thanks. I've tried most of the advertised things, and now my doctor has put me practically on a bread-and-water course—clear soup, boiled fish, plain joint, no sweets, a crumb of cheese, and a bare three glasses of Hermitage."
During this amiable remark (of which, as it is somewhat of a technical nature, I was unable to grasp the contained significance until the agreeable Quang-Tsun had subsequently repeated it several times for my retention), I maintained a consistent expression of harmonious agreement and gratified esteem (suitable, I find, for all like occasions), and then, judging from the sympathetic animation of Jones Bob-Jones's countenance, that it had not improbably been connected with food, I discreetly introduced the subject of sea-snails, preserved in the essence of crushed peaches, by courteously inquiring whether he had ever partaken of such a delicacy.
"No," replied the liberal-minded person, when—encouraged by the protruding eagerness of his eyes at the mention of the viand—I had further spoken of the refined flavour of the dish, and explained the manner of its preparation. "I can't say that I have, but it sounds uncommonly good—something like turtle, I should imagine. I'll see if they can get it for me at Pimm's."
This filial tribute goes by a trusty hand, in the person of one Ki Nihy, who is shortly committing himself to the protection of his ancestors and the voracity of the unbounded Bitter Waters; and with brightness and gold it will doubtless reach you in the course of twelve or eighteen moons. The superstitious here, this person may describe, when they wish to send messages from one to another, inscribe upon the outer cover a written representation of the one whose habitation they require, and after affixing a small paper talisman, drop it into a hole in the nearest wall, in the hope that it may be ultimately conveyed to the appointed spot, either by the services of the charitably-disposed passer-by, or by the intervention of the beneficent deities.
With a multiplicity of greetings and many abject expressions of a conscious inferiority, and attested by an unvarying thumb-mark.
KONG HO. (Effete branch of a pure and magnanimous trunk.)
To Kong Ah-Paik, reclining beneath the sign of the Lead Tortoise, in a northerly direction beyond the Lotus Beds outside the city of Yuen-ping. The Middle Flowery Kingdom.
Concerning the ill-destined manner of existence of the hound Hercules. The thoughtlessly-expressed desire of the entrancing maiden and its effect upon a person of susceptible refinement. The opportune (as it may yet be described) visit of one Herbert. The behaviour of those around. Reflections.
VENERATED SIRE (whose large right hand is continuously floating in spirit over the image of this person's dutiful submission),—
Doubtless to your all-consuming prescience, it will at once become plain that I have abandoned the place of residence from which I directed my former badly-written and offensively-constructed letter, the house of the sympathetic and resourceful Maidens Blank, where in return for an utterly inadequate sum of money, produced at stated intervals, this very much inferior person was allowed to partake of a delicately-balanced and somewhat unvarying fare in the company of the engaging of both sexes, and afterwards to associate on terms of honourable equality with them in the chief apartment. The reason and manner of this one's departure are in no degree formidable to his refined manner of conducting any enterprise, but arose partly from an insufficient grasp of the more elaborate outlines of a confessedly involved language, and still more from a too excessive impetuousness in carrying out what at the time he believed to be the ambition of one who had come to exercise a melodious influence over his most internal emotions. Well remarked the Sage, "A piece of gold may be tried between the teeth; a written promise to pay may be disposed of at a sacrifice to one more credulous; but what shall be said of the wind, the Hoang Ho, and the way of a woman?"
To contrive a pitfall for this short-sighted person's immature feet, certain malicious spirits had so willed it that the chief and more autumnal of the Maidens Blank (who, nevertheless, wore an excessively flower-like name), had long lavished herself upon the possession of an obtuse and self-assertive hound, which was in the habit of gratifying this inconsiderable person and those who sat around by continually depositing upon their unworthy garments details of its outer surface, and when the weather was more than usually cold, by stretching its graceful and refined body before the fire in such a way as to ensure that no one should suffer from a too acute exposure to the heat. From these causes, and because it was by nature a hound which even on the darkest night could be detected at a more than reasonable distance away, while at all times it did not hesitate to shake itself freely into the various prepared viands, this person (and doubtless others also) regarded it with an emotion very unfavourable towards its prolonged existence; but observing from the first that those who permitted themselves to be deposited upon, and their hands and even their faces to be hound-tongue-defiled with the most externally cheerful spirit of word suppression, invariably received the most desirable of the allotted portions of food, he judged it prudent and conducive to a settled digestion to greet it with favourable terms and actions, and to refer frequently to its well-displayed proportions, and to the agile dexterity which it certainly maintained in breathing into the contents of every dish. Thus the matter may be regarded as being positioned for a space of time.
One evening I returned at the appointed gong-stroke of dinner, and was beginning, according to my custom, to greet the hound with ingratiating politeness, when the one of chief authority held up a reproving hand, at the same time exclaiming:
"No, Mr. Kong, you must not encourage Hercules with your amiable condescension, for just now he is in very bad odour with us all."
"Undoubtedly," replied this person, somewhat puzzled, nevertheless, that the imperfection should thus be referred to openly by one who hitherto had not hesitated to caress the hound with most intimate details, "undoubtedly the surrounding has a highly concentrated acuteness to-night, but the ever-present characteristic of the hound Hercules is by no means new, for whenever he is in the room—"
At this point it is necessary to explain that the ceremonial etiquette of these barbarian outcasts is both conflicting and involved. Upon most of the ordinary occasions of life to obtrude oneself within the conversation of another is a thing not to be done, yet repeatedly when this unpretentious person has been relating his experience or inquiring into the nature and meaning of certain matters which he has witnessed, he has become aware that his words have been obliterated, as it were, and his remarks diverted from their original intention by the sudden and unanticipated desire of those present to express themselves loudly on some topic of not really engrossing interest. Not infrequently on such occasions every one present has spoken at once with concentrated anxiety upon the condition of the weather, the atmosphere of the room, the hour of the day, or some like detail of contemptible inferiority. At other times maidens of unquestionable politeness have sounded instruments of brass or stringed woods with unceasing vigour, have cast down ornaments of china, or even stood upon each other's—or this person's—feet with assumed inelegance. When, therefore, in the midst of my agreeable remark on the asserted no fragrance of the hound Hercules, a gentleman of habitual refinement struck me somewhat heavily on the back of the head with a reclining seat which he was conveying across the room for the acceptance of a lady, and immediately overwhelmed me with apologies of almost unnecessary profusion, my mind at once leapt to an inspired conclusion, and smiling acquiescently I bowed several times to each person to convey to them an admission of the undoubted fact that to the wise a timely omen before the storm is as effective as a thunderbolt afterwards.
It chanced that there was present the exceptionally prepossessing maiden to whom this person has already referred. So varied and ornate were her attractions that it would be incompetent in one of my less than average ability to attempt an adequate portrayal. She had a light-coloured name with the letters so harmoniously convoluted as to be quite beyond my inferior power of pronunciation, so that if I wished to refer to her in her absence I had to indicate the one I meant by likening her to a full-blown chrysanthemum, a piece of rare jade, an ivory pagoda of unapproachable antiquity, or some other object of admitted grace. Even this description may scarcely convey to you the real extent of her elegant personality; but in her presence my internal organs never failed to vibrate with a most entrancing uncertainty, and even now, at the recollection of her virtuous demeanour, I am by no means settled within myself.
"Well," exclaimed this melodious vision, with sympathetic tact, "if every one is going to disown poor Hercules because he has eaten all our dinners, I shall be quite willing to have him, for he is a dzear ole loveykins, wasn't ums?" (This, O my immaculate and dignified sire, which I transcribe with faithful undeviation, appears to be the dialect of a remote province, spoken only by maidens—both young and of autumnal solitude—under occasional mental stress; as of a native of Shan-si relapsing without consciousness into his uncouth tongue after passing a lifetime in the Capital.) "Don't you think so too, Mr. Kong?"
"When the sun shines the shadow falls, for truly it is said, 'To the faithful one even the voice of the corncrake at evening speaks of his absent love,'" replied this person, so engagingly disconcerted at being thus openly addressed by the maiden that he retained no delicate impression of what she said, or even of what he was replying, beyond an unassuming hope that the nature of his feelings might perchance be inoffensively revealed to her in the semblance of a discreet allegory.
"Perhaps," interposed a person of neglected refinement, turning towards the maiden, "you would like to have a corncrake also, to remind you of Mr. Kong?"
"I do not know what a corncrake is like," replied the maiden with commendable dignity. "I do not think so, however, for I once had a pair of canaries, and I found them very unsatisfying, insipid creatures. But I should love to have a little dog I am sure, only Miss Blank won't hear of it."
"Kong Ho," thought this person inwardly, "not in vain have you burnt joss sticks unceasingly, for the enchanting one has said into your eyes that she would love to partake of a little dog. Assuredly we have recently consumed the cold portion of sheep on more occasions than a strict honourableness could require of those who pay a stated sum at regular intervals, and the change would be a welcome one. As she truly says, the flavour even of canaries is trivial and insignificant by comparison." During the period of dinner—which consisted of eggs and green herbs of the field—this person allowed the contemplation to grow within him, and inspired by a most pleasant and disinterested ambition to carry out the expressed wishes of the one who had spoken, he determined that the matter should be unobtrusively arranged despite the mercenary opposition of the Maidens Blank.
This person had already learned by experience that dogs are rarely if ever exposed for sale in the stalls of the meat venders, the reason doubtless being that they are articles of excessive luxury and reserved by law for the rich and powerful. Those kept by private persons are generally closely guarded when they approach a desirable condition of body, and the hound Hercules would not prove an attractive dish to those who had known him in life. Nevertheless, it is well said, "The Great Wall is unsurmountable, but there are many gaps through," and that same evening I was able to carry the first part of my well-intentioned surprise into effect.
The matter now involves one named Herbert, who having exchanged gifts of betrothal with a maiden staying at the house, was in the habit of presenting himself openly, when he was permitted to see her, after the manner of these barbarians. (Yet even of them the more discriminating acknowledge that our customs are immeasurably superior; for when I explained to the aged father of the Maidens Blank that among us the marriage rites are irrevocably performed before the bride is seen unveiled by man, he sighed heavily and exclaimed that the parents of this country had much to learn.)
The genial-minded Herbert had already acquired for himself the reputation of being one who ceaselessly removes the gravity of others, both by word and action, and from the first he selected this obscure person for his charitable purpose to a most flattering extent. Not only did he—on the pretext that his memory was rebellious—invariably greet me as "Mr. Hong Kong," but on more than one occasion he insisted, with mirth-provoking reference to certain details of my unbecoming garments, that I must surely have become confused and sent a Mrs. Hong Kong instead of myself, and frequently he undermined the gravity of all most successfully by pulling me backwards suddenly by the pigtail, with the plea that he imagined he was picking up his riding-whip. This attractive person was always accompanied by a formidable dog—of convex limbs, shrunken lip, and suspicious demeanour—which he called Influenza, to the excessive amusement of those to whom he related its characteristics. For some inexplicable reason from the first it regarded my lower apparel as being unsuitable for the ordinary occasions of life, and in spite of the low hissing call by which its master endeavoured to attract its attention to himself, it devoted its energies unceasingly to the self-imposed task of removing them fragment by fragment. Nevertheless it was a dog of favourable size and condition, and it need not therefore be a matter for surprise that when the intellectual person Herbert took his departure on the day in question it had to be assumed that it had already preceded him. Having accomplished so much, this person found little difficulty in preparing it tastefully in his own apartment, and making the substitution on the following day.
Although his mind was confessedly enlarged at the success of his venture, and his hopes most ornamentally coloured at the thought of the adorable one's gratified esteem when she discovered how expertly her wishes had been carried out, this person could not fail to notice that the Maiden Blank was also materially agitated when she distributed the contents of the dish before her.
"Will you, of your enlightened courtesy, accept, and overlook the deficiencies of, a portion of rabbit-pie, O high-souled Mr. Kong?" she inquired gracefully when this insignificant person was reached, and, concealing my many-hued emotion beneath an impassive face, I bowed agreeably as I replied, "To the beggar, black bread is a royal course."
"WHAT pie did you say, dear?" whispered another autumnal maiden, when all had partaken somewhat, and at her words a most consistently acute silence involved the table.
"I—I don't quite know," replied the one of the upper end, becoming excessively devoid of complexion; and restraining her voice she forthwith sent down an attending slave to inquire closely.
At this point a person of degraded ancestry endeavoured to remove the undoubted cloud of depression by feigning the nocturnal cry of the domestic cat; but in this he was not successful, and a maiden opposite, after fixedly regarding a bone on her plate, withdrew suddenly, embracing herself as she went. A moment later the slave returned, proclaiming aloud that the dish which had been prepared for the occasion had now been accidentally discovered by the round-bodied cook beneath the cushions of an arm-chair (a spot by no means satisfactory to this person's imagination had the opportunities at his disposal been more diffuse).
"What, then, is this of which we have freely partaken?" cried they around, and, in the really impressive silence which followed, an inopportune person discovered a small silver tablet among the fragments upon his plate, and, taking it up, read aloud the single word, "Influenza."
During the day, and even far into the uncounted gong-strokes of the time of darkness, this person had frequently remained in a fascinated contemplation of the moment when he should reveal himself and stand up to receive the benevolently-expressed congratulations of all who paid an agreed sum at fixed intervals, and, particularly, the dazzling though confessedly unsettling glance-thanks of the celestially-formed maiden who had explicitly stated that she was desirous of having a little dog. Now, however, when this part of the enterprise ought to have taken place, I found myself unable to evade the conclusion that some important detail of the entire scheme had failed to agree harmoniously with the rest, and, had it been possible, I would have retired with unobtrusive tact and permitted another to wear my honourable acquirements. But, for some reason, as I looked around I perceived that every eye was fixed upon me with what at another time would have been a most engaging unanimity, and, although I bowed with undeterred profusion, and endeavoured to walk out behind an expression of all-comprehensive urbanity that had never hitherto failed me, a person of unsympathetic outline placed himself before the door, and two others, standing one on each side of me, gave me to understand that a recital of the full happening was required before I left the room.
It is hopeless to expect a display of refined intelligence at the hands of a people sunk in barbarism and unacquainted with the requirements of true dignity and the essentials of food preparation. On the manner of behaving of the male portion of those present this person has no inducement whatever to linger. Even the maiden for whom he had accomplished so much, after the nature of the misunderstanding had been made plain to her, uttered only a single word of approval, which, on subsequently consulting a book of interpretations, this person found to indicate: "A person of weak intellect; one without an adequate sense of the proportion and fitness of things; a buffoon; a jester; a compound of gooseberries scalded and crushed with cream"; but although each of these definitions may in a way be regarded as applicable, he is still unable to decide which was the precise one intended.
With salutations of filial regard, and in a spirit seven times refined by affliction and purified by vain regrets.
KONG HO. (Upon whose tablet posterity will perchance inscribe the titles, "Ill-destined but Misjudged.")
Concerning the virtuous amusements of both old and young. The sit-round games. The masterpiece of the divine Li Tang, and its reception by all, including that same Herbert.
VENERATED SIRE (whose breadth of mind is so well developed as to take for granted boundless filial professions, which, indeed, become vapid by a too frequent reiteration),—
Your amiable inquiry as to how the barbarians pass their time, when not employed in affairs of commerce or in worshipping their ancestors, has inspired me to examine the matter more fully. At the same time your pleasantly-composed aphorism that the interior nature of persons does not vary with the colour of their eyes, and that if I searched I should find the old flying kites and the younger kicking feather balls or working embroidery, according to their sex, does not appear to be accurately sustained.
The lesser ones, it is true, engage in a variety of sumptuous handicrafts, such as the scorching of wooden tablets with the semblance of a pattern, and gouging others with sharpened implements into a crude relief; depicting birds and flowers upon the surface of plates, rending leather into shreds, and entwining beaten iron, brass, and copper into a diversity of most ingenious complications; but when I asked a maiden of affectionate and domesticated appearance whether she had yet worked her age-stricken father's coffin-cloth, she said that the subject was one upon which she declined to jest, and rapidly involving herself in a profuse display of emotion, she withdrew, leaving this one aghast.
To enable my mind to retranquillise, I approached a youth of highly-gilded appearance, and, with many predictions of self-inferiority, I suggested that we should engage in the stimulating rivalry of feather ball. When he learned, however, that the diversion consisted in propelling upwards a feather-trimmed chip by striking it against the side of the foot, he candidly replied that he was afraid he had grown out of shuttle-cock, but did not mind, if I was vigorously inclined, "taking me on for a set of yang-pong."
Old men here, it is said, do not fly kites, and they affect to despise catching flies for amusement, although they frequently go fishing. Struck by this peculiarity, I put it in the form of an inquiry to one of venerable appearance, why, when at least five score flies were undeniably before his eyes, he preferred to recline for lengthy periods by the side of a stream endeavouring to snare creatures of whose existence he himself had never as yet received any adequate proof. Doubtless in my contemptible ignorance, however, I used some word inaccurately, for those who stood around suffered themselves to become amused, and the one in question replied with no pretence of amiable condescension that the jest had already been better expressed a hundred times, and that I would find the behind parts of a printed leaf called "Punch" in the bookcase. Not being desirous of carrying on a conversation of which I felt that I had misplaced the most highly rectified ingredient, I bowed repeatedly, and replied affably that wisdom ruled his left side and truth his right.
It was upon this same occasion that a young man of unprejudiced wide-mindedness, taking me aside, asserted that the matter had not been properly set forth when I was inquiring about kites. Both old and young men, he continued, frequently endeavoured to fly kites, even in the involved heart of the city. He had tried once or twice himself, but never with encouraging success, chiefly, he was told, because his paper was not good enough. Many people, he added, would not scruple to mislead me with evasive ambiguity on this one subject owing to an ill-balanced conception of what constituted true dignity, but he was unwilling that his countrymen should be thought by mine to be sunk into a deeper barbarism than actually existed.
His warning was not inopportune. Seated next to this person at a later period was a maiden from whose agreeably-poised lips had hitherto proceeded nothing but sincerity and fact. Watching her closely I asked her, as one who only had a languid interest either one way or the other, whether her revered father or her talented and richly-apparelled brothers ever spent their time flying kites about the city. In spite of a most efficient self-control her colour changed at my words, and her features trembled for a moment, but quickly reverting to herself she replied that she thought not; then—as though to subdue my suspicions more completely—that she was sure they did not, as the kites would certainly frighten the horses and the appointed watchmen of the street would not allow it. She confessed, however, with unassumed candour, that the immediate descendants of her sister were gracefully proficient in the art.
From this, great and enlightened one, you will readily perceive how misleading an impression might be carried away by a person scrupulously-intentioned but not continually looking both ways, when placed among a people endowed with the uneasy suspicion of the barbarian and struggling to assert a doubtful refinement. Apart from this, there has to be taken into consideration their involved process of reasoning, and the unexpectedly different standards which they apply to every subject.
At the house of the Maidens Blank, when the evening was not spent in listening to melodious voices and the harmony of stringed woods, it was usual to take part in sit-round games of various kinds. (And while it is on his brush this person would say with commendable pride that a well-trained musician among us can extort more sound from a hollow wooden pig, costing only a few cash, than the most skilful here ever attain on their largest instrument—a highly-lacquered coffin on legs, filled with bells and hidden springs, and frequently sold for a thousand taels.)
Upon a certain evening, at the conclusion of one sit-round game which involved abrupt music, a barrier of chairs, and the exhilarating possibility of being sat upon by the young and vivacious in their zeal, a person of the company turned suddenly to the one who is communicating with you and said enticingly, "Why did Birdcage Walk?"
Not judging from his expression that this was other than a polite inquiry on a matter which disturbed his repose, I was replying that the manifestation was undoubtedly the work of a vexatious demon which had taken up its abode in the article referred to, when another, by my side, cried aloud, "Because it envied Queen Anne's Gate"; and without a pause cast back the question, "Who carved The Poultry?"
In spite of the apparent simplicity of the demand it was received by all in an attitude of complicated doubt, and this person was considering whether he might not acquire distinction by replying that such an office fell by custom to the lot of the more austere Maiden Blank, when the very inadequate reply, "Mark Lane with St. Mary's Axe," was received with applause and some observations in a half-tone regarding the identity of the fowl.
By the laws of the sit-round games the one who had last spoken now proclaimed himself, demanding to know, "Why did Battersea Rise?" but the involvement was evidently superficial, for the maiden at whose memory this one's organs still vibrate ignobly at once replied, "Because it thought Clapham Common," in turn inquiring, "What made the Marble Arch?"
Although I would have willingly sacrificed to an indefinite extent to be furnished with the preconcerted watchword, so that I might have enlarged myself in the eyes of this consecrated being's unapproachable esteem, I had already decided that the competition was too intangible for one whose thoughts lay in well-defined parallel lines, and it fell to another to reply, "To hear Salisbury Court."
This, O my broad-minded ancestor of the first degree—an aimless challenge coupled with the name of one recognisable spot, replied to by the haphazard retort of another place, frequently in no way joined to it, was regarded as an exceptionally fascinating sit-round game by a company of elderly barbarians!
"What couldn't Walbrook?" it might be, and "Such Cheapside," would be deemed a praiseworthy solution. "When did King's Bench Walk?" would be asked, and to reply, "When Gray's Inn Road," covered the one with overpowering acclamation. "Bevis Marks only an Inner Circle at The Butts; why?" was a demand of such elaborate complexity that (although this person was lured out of his self-imposed restraint by the silence of all round, and submerging his intelligence to an acquired level, unobtrusively suggested, "Because Aylesbury ducks, perchance") it fell to the one propounding to announce, "Because St. John's Wood Shoot-up Hill."
Admittedly it is written, "When the shutter is fastened the girdle is loosened," but it is as truly said, "Not in the head, nor yet in the feet, but in the organs of digestion does wisdom reside," and even in jesting the middle course of neither an excessive pride nor an absolute weak-mindedness is to be observed. With what concrete pangs of acute mental distress would this person ever behold his immaculate progenitor taking part in a similar sit-round game with an assembly of worthy mandarins, the one asking questions of meaningless import, as "Why did they Hangkow?" and another replying in an equal strain of no consecutiveness, "In order to T'in Tung!"
At length a person who is spoken of as having formerly been the captain of a band of warriors turned to me with an unsuspected absence of ferocity and said, "Your countrymen are very proficient in the art of epigram, are they not, Mr. Kong? Will you not, in turn, therefore, favour us with an example?" Whereupon several maidens exclaimed with engaging high temper, "Oh yes; do ask us some funny Chinese riddles, Mr. Kong!"
"Assuredly there are among us many classical instances of the light sayings which require matching," I replied, gratified that I should have the opportunity of showing their superiority. "One, harmonious beyond the blend of challenge and retort, is as follows—'The Phoenix embroidered upon the side of the shoe: When the shoe advances the Phoenix leaps forward.'"
"Oh!" cried several of the maidens, and from the nature of their glances it might reasonably be gathered that already they began to recognise the inferiority of their own sayings.
"Is that the question, or the answer, or both?" asked a youth of unfledged maturity, and to hide their conscious humiliation several persons allowed their faces to melt away.
"That which has been expressed," replied this person with an ungrudging toleration, "is the first or question portion of the contrast. The answer is that which will be supplied by your honourable condescension."
"But," interposed one of the maidens, "it isn't really a question, you know, Mr. Kong."
"In a way of regarding it, it may be said to be question, inasmuch as it requires an answer to establish the comparison. The most pleasing answer is that which shall be dissimilar in idea, and yet at the same time maintain the most perfect harmony of parallel thought," I replied. "Now permit your exceptional minds to wander in a forest of similitudes: 'The Phoenix embroidered upon the side of the shoe: When the shoe advances the Phoenix leaps forward.'"
"Oh, if that's all you want," said the one Herbert, who by an ill destiny chanced to be present, "'The red-hot poker held before the Cat's nose: When the poker advances the Cat leaps backwards.'"
"Oh, very good!" cried several of those around, "of course it naturally would. Is that right, Mr. Kong?"
"If the high-souled company is satisfied, then it must be, for there is no conclusive right or wrong—only an unending search for that which is most gem-set and resourceful," replied this person, with an ever-deepening conviction of no enthusiasm towards the sit-round game. "But," he added, resolved to raise for a moment the canopy of a mind swan-like in its crystal many-sidedness, and then leave them to their own ineptitude, "for five centuries nothing has been judged equal to the solution offered by Li Tang. At the time he was presented with a three-sided banner of silk with the names of his eleven immediate ancestors embroidered upon it in seven colours, and his own name is still handed down in imperishable memory."
"Oh, do tell us what it was," cried many. "It must have been clever."
"'The Dragon painted upon the face of the fan: When the fan is shaken the Dragon flies upwards,'" replied this person.
It cannot be denied that this was received with an attitude of respectful melancholy strikingly complimentary to the wisdom of the gifted Li Tang. But whether it may be that the time was too short to assimilate the more subtle delicacies of the saying, or whether the barbarian mind is inherently devoid of true balance, this person was panged most internally to hear one say to another as he went out, "Do you know, I really think that Herbert's was much the better answer of the two—more realistic, and what you might expect at the pantomime." *
A like inability to grasp with a clear and uninvolved vision, permeates not only the triviality of a sit-round game but even the most important transactions of existence.
Shortly after his arrival in the Island, this person was initiated by the widely-esteemed Quang-Tsun into the private life of one whose occupation was that of a Law-giver, where he frequently drank tea on terms of mutual cordiality. Upon such an occasion he was one day present, conversing with the lesser ones of the household—the head thereof being absent, setting forth the Law in the Temple—when one of the maidens cried out with amiable vivacity, "Why, Mr. Kong, you say such consistently graceful things of the ladies you have met over here, that we shall expect you to take back an English wife with you. But perhaps you are already married in China?"
"The conclusion is undeviating in its accuracy," replied this person, unable to evade the allusion. "To Ning, Hia-Fa and T'ain Yen, as the matter stands."
"Ning Hia-Fa An T'ain Yen!" exclaimed the wife of the Law-giver pleasantly. "What an important name. Can you pardon our curiosity and tell us what she is like?"
"Ning, Hia-Fa AND T'ain Yen," repeated this person, not submitting to be deprived of the consequence of two wives without due protest. "Three names, three wives. Three very widely separated likes."
At this in no way boastfully uttered statement the agreeably outlined surface of the faces around variated suddenly, the effect being one which I have frequently observed in the midst of my politest expressions of felicity. For a moment, indeed, I could not disguise from myself that the one who had made the inquiry stretched forth her lotus-like hand towards the secret spring by which it is customary to summon the attending slaves from the underneath parts, but restraining herself with the manner of one who would desire to make less of a thing that it otherwise might seem, she turned to me again.
"How nice!" she murmured. "What a pity you did not bring them all with you, Mr. Kong. They would have been a great acquisition."
"Yet it must be well weighed," I replied, not to be out-complimented touching one another, "that here they would have met so many fine and superior gentlemen that they might have become dissatisfied with my less than average prepossessions."
"I wonder if they did not think of that in your case, and refuse to let you come," said one of the maidens.
"The various persons must not be regarded as being on their all fours," I replied, anxious that there should be no misunderstanding on this point. "They, of course, reside within one inner chamber, but there would be no duplicity in this one adding indefinitely to the number."
"Of course not; how silly of me!" exclaimed the maiden. "What splendid musical evenings you can have. But tell me, Mr. Kong (ought it not to be Messrs. Kong, mamma?), if a girl married you here would she be legally married to you in China?"
"Oh yes," replied this person positively.
"But could you not, by your own laws, have the marriage set aside whenever you wished?"
"Assuredly," I admitted. "It is so appointed."
"Then how could she be legally married?" she persisted, with really unbecoming suspicion.
"Legally married, legally unmarried," replied this person, quite distressed within himself at not being able to understand the difficulty besetting her. "All perfectly legal and honourably observed."
"I think, Gwendoline—" said the one of authority, and although the matter was no further expressed, by an instinct which he was powerless to avert, this person at once found himself rising with ceremonious partings.
Not desiring that the obstacle should remain so inadequately swept away, I have turned my presumptuous footsteps in the direction of the Law-giver's house on several later occasions, but each time the word of the slave guarding the door has been that they of the household, down even to those of the most insignificant degree of kinship, have withdrawn to a distant and secluded spot.
With renewed assurances that the enterprise is being gracefully conducted, however ill-digested and misleading these immature compositions may appear.
Concerning a desire to expatiate upon subjects of philosophical importance and its no accomplishment. Three examples of the mental concavity sunk into by these barbarians. An involved episode which had the outward appearance of being otherwise than what it was.
VENERATED SIRE (whose genial liberality on all necessary occasions is well remembered by this person in his sacrifices, with the titles "Benevolent" and "Open-sleeved"),—
I had it in my head at one time to tell you somewhat of the Classics most reverenced in this country, of the philosophical opinions which prevail, and to enlighten you generally upon certain other subjects of distinguished eminence. As the deities arranged, however, it chanced that upon my way to a reputable quarter of the city where the actuality of these matters can be learnt with the least evasion, my footsteps were drawn aside by an incident which now permeates my truth-laden brush to the exclusion of all else.
But in the first place, if it be permitted for a thoroughly untrustworthy son to take so presumptuous a liberty with an unvaryingly sagacious father, let this one entreat you to regard everything he writes in a very wide-headed spirit of looking at the matter from all round. My former letters will have readily convinced you that much that takes place here, even among those who can afford long finger-nails, would not be tolerated in Yuen-ping, and in order to avoid the suspicion that I am suffering from a serious injury to the head, or have become a prey to a conflicting demon, it will be necessary to continue an even more highly-sustained tolerant alertness. This person himself has frequently suffered the ill effects of rashly assuming that because he is conducting the adventure in a prepossessing spirit his efforts will be honourably received, as when he courteously inquired the ages of a company of maidens into whose presence he was led, and complimented the one whom he was desirous of especially gratifying by assuring her that she had every appearance of being at least twice the nine-and-twenty years to which she modestly laid claim.
Upon another occasion I entered a barber's stall, and finding it oppressively hot within, I commanded the attendant to carry a reclining stool into the street and there shave my lower limbs and anoint my head. As he hesitated to obey—doubtless on account of the trivial labour involved—I repeated my words in a tone of fuller authority, holding out the inducement of a just payment when he complied, and assuring him that he would certainly be dragged before the nearest mandarin and tortured if he held his joints stiffly. At this he evidently understood his danger, for obsequiously protesting that he was only a barber of very mean attainments, and that his deformed utensils were quite inadequate for the case, he very courteously directed me in inquire for a public chariot bound for a quarter called Colney Hatch (the place of commerce, it is reasonable to infer, of the higher class barbers), and, seating myself in it, instruct the attendant to put me down at the large gates, where they possessed every requisite appliance, and also would, if desirable, shave my head also. Here the incident assumes a more doubtful guise, for, notwithstanding the admitted politeness of the one who spoke, each of those to whom I subsequently addressed myself on the subject, presented to me a face quite devoid of encouragement. While none actually pointed out the vehicle I sought, many passed on in a state of inward contemplation without replying, and some—chiefly the attendants of other chariots of a similar kind—replied in what I deemed to be a spirit of elusive metaphor, as he who asserted that such a conveyance must be sought for at a point known intimately as the Aldgate Pump, whence it started daily at half-past the thirteenth gong-stroke; and another, who maintained that I had no prospect of reaching the desired spot until I secured the services of one of a class of female attendants who wear flowing blue robes in order to indicate that they are prepared to encounter and vanquish any emergency in life. To make no elaborate pretence in the matter this person may definitely admit that he never did reach the place in question, nor—in spite of a diligent search in which he has encountered much obloquy—has he yet found any barber sufficiently well equipped to undertake the detail.
Even more recently I suffered the unmerited rebuke of the superficial through performing an act of deferential politeness. Learning that the enlightened and magnanimous sovereign of this country was setting out on a journey I stationed myself in the forefront of those who stood before his palace, intending to watch such parts of the procession as might be fitly witnessed by one of my condition. When these had passed, and the chariot of the greatest approached, I respectfully turned my back to the road with a propitiatory gesture, as of one who did not deem himself worthy even to look upon a being of such majestic rank and acknowledged excellence. This delicate action, by some incredible process of mental obliquity, was held by those around to be a deliberate insult, if not even a preconcerted signal, of open treachery, and had not a heaven-sent breeze at that moment carried the hat of a very dignified bystander into the upper branches of an opportune tree, and successfully turned aside the attention of the assembly into a most immoderate exhibition of utter loss of gravity, I should undoubtedly have been publicly tortured, if not actually torn to pieces.
But the incident first alluded to was of an even more elaborately-contrived density than these, and some of the details are still unrolled before the keenest edge of this one's inner perception. Nevertheless, all is now set down in unbroken exactness for your impartial judgment.
At the time of this exploit I had only ventured out on a few occasions, and then, save those recorded, to no considerable extent; for it had already become obvious that the enterprises in which I persistently became involved never contributed to my material prosperity, and the disappointment of finding that even when I could remember nine words of a sentence in their language none of the barbarians could understand even so much as a tenth of my own, further cast down my enthusiasm.
On the day which has been the object of this person's narration from the first, he set out to become more fully instructed in the subjects already indicated, and proceeding in a direction of which he had no actual knowledge, he soon found himself in a populous and degraded quarter of the city. Presently, to his reasonable astonishment, he saw before him at a point where two ill-constructed thoroughfares met, a spacious and important building, many-storied in height, ornamented with a profusion of gold and crystal, marble and precious stones, and displaying from a tall pole the three-hued emblem of undeniable authority. A never-ending stream of people passed in and out by the numerous doors; the strains of expertly wielded instruments could be distinctly heard inside, and the warm odour of a most prepossessing spiced incense permeated the surroundings. "Assuredly," thought the person who is now recording the incident, "this is one of the Temples of barbarian worship"; and to set all further doubt at rest he saw in letters of gilt splendour a variety of praiseworthy and appropriate inscriptions, among which he read and understood, "Excellent," "Fine Old," "Well Matured," "Spirits only of the choicest quality within," together with many other invocations from which he could not wrest the hidden significance, as "Old Vatted," "Barclay's Entire," "An Ordinary at One," and the like.
By this time an impressive gathering had drawn around, and from its manner of behaving conveyed the suspicion that an entertainment or manifestation of some kind was confidently awaited. To disperse so outrageous a misconception this person was on the point of withdrawing himself when he chanced to see, over the principal door of the Temple, a solid gold figure of colossal magnitude, represented as crowned with leaves and tendrils, and holding in his outstretched hands a gigantic, and doubtless symbolic, bunch of grapes. "This," I said to myself, "is evidently the tutelary deity of the place, so displayed to receive the worship of the passer-by." With the discovery a thought of the most irreproachable benevolence possessed me. "Why should not this person," I reflected, "gain the unstinted approbation of those barbarians" (who by this time completely encircled me in) "by doing obeisance towards their deity, and by the same act delicately and inoffensively rebuke them for their own too-frequent intolerable attitude towards the susceptibilities of others? As an unprejudiced follower, in his own land, of the systems of Confucius, Lao-tse, and Buddha, this person already recognises the claims of seventeen thousand nine hundred and thirty-three deities of various grades, so that the addition of one more to that number can be a heresy of very trivial expiation." Inspired by these honourable sentiments, therefore, I at once prostrated myself on the ground, and, amid a silence of really illimitable expectation, I began to kow-tow repeatedly with ceremonious precision.
At this display of charitable broadmindedness an approving shout went up on all sides. Thus encouraged I proceeded to kow-tow with even more unceasing assiduousness, and presently words of definite encouragement mingled with the shout. "Do not flag in your amiable disinterestedness, Kong Ho," I whispered in my ear, "and out of your well-sustained endurance may perchance arise a cordial understanding, and ultimately a remunerative alliance between two distinguished nations." Filled with this patriotic hope I did not suffer my neck to stiffen, and doubtless I would have continued the undertaking as long as the sympathetic persons who hemmed me in signified their refined approval, when suddenly the cry was raised, "Look out, here comes the coppers!"
This, O my venerable-headed father, I at once guessed to be the announcement heralding the collecting-bowl which some over-zealous bystander was preparing to pass round on my behalf, doubtless under the impression—so obtuse in grasping the true relationship of events are many of the barbarians—that I was a wandering monk, displaying my reverence for the purpose of mendicancy. Not wishing to profit by this offensive misapprehension, I was preparing to rise, when a hand was unceremoniously laid upon my shoulder, and turning round I saw behind me one of the official watch—a class of men so powerful that at a gesture from their uplifted hands even the fiercest untamed horse will not infrequently stand upon its hind legs in mute submission.
"Early morning salutations," I said pleasantly, though somewhat involved in speech by my exertion (for these persons are ever to be treated with discriminating courtesy). "Prosperity to your house, O energetic street-watcher, and a thousand grandsons to worship their illustrious ancestor."
"Thanks," he replied concisely. "I'm a single man. As yet. Now then, will you make a way there? Can you stand?"
"Stand?" repeated this person, at once recognising one of the important words of inner meaning concerning which he had been initiated by the versatile Quang-Tsun. "Certainly this person will not hesitate to establish his footing if the exaction is thought to be desirable. Let us, therefore, bend our steps in the direction of a tea-house of unquestionable propriety."
"You've bent your steps into quite enough tea-houses, as you call them, for one day," replied the official with evasive meaning, at the same time assisting me to rise (for it need not be denied that the restrained position had made me for the moment incapable of a self-sustaining effort). "Look what you've done."
At the direction of his glance I cast my eyes along the street, east and west, and for the first time I became aware that what I had last seen as a reasonable gathering had now taken the proportions of an innumerable multitude which filled the entire space of the thoroughfare, while others covered the roofs above and protruded themselves from every available window. In our own land the interspersal of umbrellas, musical instruments, and banners, with an occasional firework, would have given a greater animation to the scene; but with this exception I have never taken part in a more impressive and well-extended procession. Even while I looked, the helmets of other official watchers appeared in the distance, as immature junks upon the storm-tossed Whang-Hai, apparently striving fruitlessly to reach us.
As I was by no means sure what attitude was expected of me, I smiled with an all-embracing approval, and signified to the one at my side, by way of passing the time pleasurably together, that the likelihood of his nimble-witted friends reaching us with unruffled garments was remote in the extreme.
"Don't you let that worry you, Li Hung Chang," he said, in a tone that had the appearance of being outside itself around a deeper and more bitter significance; "if we get out again with any garments at all it won't be your fault. Why, you—well, YOU ought to have been put on the Black List long ago, by rights."
This, exalted one, although I have not yet been able to learn the exact dignity of it from any of the books of civil honours, is undoubtedly a mark of signal attainment, conferred upon the few for distinguishing themselves by some particular capacity; as our Double Dragon, for instance. Anxious to learn something of the privileges of the rank from one who evidently was not without influence in the bestowal, and not unwilling to show him that I was by no means of low-caste descent, I said to the official, "In his own country one of this person's ancestors wore the Decoration of the Yellow Scabbard, which entitled him to be carried in his chair up to the gate of the Forbidden Palace before descending to touch the ground. Is this Order of the Black List of a like purport?"
"You're right," he said, "it is. In this country it entitles you to be carried right inside the door at Bow Street without ever touching the ground. Look out! Now we shall not—"
At that moment what this person at first assumed to be a floral tribute, until he saw that not only the entire plant, but the earthenware jar also were attached, struck the official upon the helmet, whereupon, drawing a concealed club, he ceased speaking.
How the entertainment was conducted to such a development this person is totally inadequate to express; but in an incredibly short space of time the scene became one of most entrancing variety. From every visible point around the air became filled with commodities which—though doubtless without set intention—fittingly represented the arts, manufactures, and natural history of this resourceful country, all cast in prolific abundance at the feet of the official and myself, although the greater part inevitably struck our heads and bodies before reaching them. Beyond our immediate circle, as it may be expressed, the crowd never ceased to press forward with resistless activity, and among it could be seen occasionally the official watchmen advancing self-reliantly, though frequently without helmets, and, not less often, the helmets advancing without the official watchmen. To add to the acknowledged interest, every person present was proclaiming his views freely on a diversity of subjects, and above all could be heard the clear notes of the musical instruments by which the officials sought to encourage one another in their extremity, and to deaden the cries of those whom they outclubbed.
Despite this person's repeated protests that the distinction was too excessive, he was plucked from hand to hand irresistibly among those around, losing a portion of his ill-made attire at each step, so agreeably anxious were all to detain him. Just when the exploit seemed likely to have a disagreeable ending, however, he was thrust heavily against a door which yielded, and at once barring it behind him, he passed across the open space into which it led, along a passage between two walls, and thence through an involved labyrinth and beneath the waters of a canal into a wood of attractive seclusion. Here this person remained, spending the time in a profitable meditation, until the light withdrew and the great sky lantern had ascended. Then he cautiously crept forth, and after some further trivial episodes which chiefly concern the obstinate-headed slave guarding the outer door of a tea-house, an unintelligent maiden in the employment of one vending silk-embroidered raiment, the mercenary controller of a two-wheeled chariot and the sympathetic and opportune arrival of a person seated upon a funeral car, he succeeded in reaching the place of his abode.
With unalterable affection and a material request that an unstinted adequacy of new garments may be sent by a sure and speedy hand.
Concerning the neglect of ancestors and its discreditable consequences. Two who state the matter definitely. Concerning the otherside way of looking at things and the self-contradictory bearing of the maiden Florence.
VENERATED SIRE,—A discovery of overwhelming malignity oppresses me. In spite of much baffling ambiguity and the frequent evasion of conscious guilt, there can be no longer any reasonable doubt that these barbarians DO NOT WORSHIP THEIR ANCESTORS!
Hitherto the matter had rested in my mind as an uneasy breath of suspicion, agitated from time to time by countless indications that such a possibility might, indeed, exist in a condensed form, but too inauspiciously profane to be contemplated in the altogether. Thus, when in the company of the young this person has walked about the streets of the city, he may at length have said, "Truly, out of your amiable condescension, you have shown me a variety of entrancing scenes. Let us now in turn visit the tombs of your ancestors, to the end that I may transmit fitting gifts to their spirits and discharge a few propitious fireworks as a greeting." Yet in no case has this well-intentioned offer been agilely received, one asserting that he did not know the resting-place of the tombs in question, a second that he had no ancestors, a third that Kensal Green was not an entrancing spot for a wet afternoon, a fourth that he would see them removed to a greater distance first, another that he drew the line at mafficking in a cemetery, and the like. These things, it may occur to your omniscience, might in themselves have been conclusive, yet the next reference to the matter would perhaps be tending to a more alluring hope.
"To-morrow," a person has remarked in the hearing of this one, "I go to the Stratford which is upon the Avon, and without a pause I shall prostrate myself intellectually before the immortal Shakespeare's tomb and worship his unequalled memory."
"The intention is benevolently conceived," I remarked. "Yet has he no descendants, this same Shakespeare, that the conciliation of his spirit must be left to chance?"
When he assured me that this calamity had come about, I would have added a richly-gilded brick from my store for transmission also, in the hope that the neglected and capricious shadow would grant me an immunity from its resentful attention, but the one in question raised a barrier of dissent. If I wished to adorn a tomb, he added (evading the deeper significance of the act), there was that of Goldsmith within its Temple, upon which many impressionable maidens from across the Bitter Waters of the West make it a custom to deposit chaplets of verses, in the hope of seeing the offering chronicled in the papers; and in the Open Space called Trafalgar there were the images of a great captain who led many junks to victory and the Emperor of a former dynasty, where doubtless the matter could be arranged; but the surrounding had by this time become too involved, and this person had no alternative but to smile symmetrically and reply that his words were indeed opals falling from a topaz basin.
Later in the day, being desirous of becoming instructed more definitely, I addressed myself to a venerable person who makes clean the passage of the way at a point not far distant.
"If you have no sons to extend your industrious line," I said, when he had revealed this fact to me, "why do you not adopt one to that end?"
With narrow-minded covetousness, he replied that nowadays he had enough to do to keep himself, and that it would be more reasonable to get some one to adopt HIM.
"But," I exclaimed, ignoring this ill-timed levity, "who, when you have Passed Beyond, will worship you and transmit to your spirit the necessities of life?"
"Governor," he replied, using the term of familiar dignity, "I've made shift without being worshipped for five and sixty years, and it worries me a sight more to know who will transmit to my body the necessities of life until I HAVE Passed Beyond."
"The final consequences of your self-opinionated carelessness," this person continued, "will be that your neglected and unprovided shadow, finding itself no longer acceptable to the society of the better class demons, will wander forth, and allying itself in despair to the companionship of a band of outcasts like itself, will be driven to dwell in unclean habitations and to subsist on the uncertain bounty of the charitable."
"Very likely," replied the irredeemable person before me. "I can't help its troubles. I have to do all that myself as it is."
Doubtless this fanaticism contains the secret of the ease with which these barbarians have possessed themselves of the greater part of the earth, and have even planted their assertive emblems on one or two spots in our own Flowery Kingdom. What, O my esteemed parent, what can a brave but devout and demon-fearing nation do when opposed to a people who are quite prepared to die without first leaving an adequate posterity to tend their shrines and offer incense? Assuredly, as a neighbouring philosopher once had occasion to remark, using for his purpose a metaphor so technically-involved that I must leave the interpretation until we meet, "It may be war, but it isn't cricket."
The inevitable outcome, naturally, is that the Island must be the wandering-place of myriads of spirits possessing no recognised standing, and driven by want—having none to transmit them offerings—to the most degraded subterfuges. It is freely admitted that there is scarcely an ancient building not the abode of one or more of these abandoned demons, doubtless well-disposed in the first instance, and capable of becoming really beneficent Forces until they were driven to despair by obstinate neglect. A society of very honourable persons (to which this one has unobtrusively contributed a gift), exists for the purpose of searching out the most distressing and meritorious cases among them, and removing them, where possible, to a more congenial spot. The remarkable fact, to this person's mind, is, that with the air and every available space around absolutely packed with demons (as certainly must be the prevailing state of things), the manifestations of their malignity and vice are, if anything, rather less evident here than in our own favoured country, where we do all in our power to satisfy their wants.
That same evening I found myself seated next to a maiden of prepossessing vivacity, who was spoken of as being one of a kindred but not identical race. Filled with the incredible profanity of those around, and hoping to find among a nation so alluringly high-spirited a more congenial elevation of mind, I at length turned to her and said, "Do not regard the question as one of unworthy curiosity, for this person's inside is white and funereal with his fears; but do you, of your allied race, worship your ancestors?"
The maiden spent a moment in conscientious thought. "No, Mr. Kong," she replied, with a most commendable sigh of unfeigned regret, "I can't say that we do. I guess it's because we're too new. Mine, now, only go back two generations, and they were mostly in lard. If they were old and baronial it might be different, but I can't imagine myself worshipping an ancestor in lard." (This doubtless refers to some barbaric method of embalming.)
"And your wide and enlightened countrymen?" I asked, unable to restrain a passion of pure-bred despair. "Do they also so regard the obligation?"
"I am afraid so," replied the maiden, with an honourable indication towards my emotion. "But of course when a girl marries into the European aristocracy, she and all her folk worship her husband's ancestors, until every one about is fairly dizzy with the subject."
It is largely owing to the graceful and virtuous conversation of these lesser ones that this person's knowledge of the exact position which the ceremonial etiquette of the country demands on various occasions is becoming so proficiently enlarged. It is true that they of my own sex do not hesitate to inquire with penetrating assiduousness into certain of the manners and customs of our land, but these for the most part do not lead to a conversation in any way profitable to my discreeter understanding. Those of the inner chamber, on the other hand, while not scrupling to question me on the details of dress, the braiding and gumming of the hair, the style and variety of the stalls of merchants, the wearing of jade, gold, and crystal ornaments and flowers about the head, smoking, and other matters affecting our lesser ones, very magnanimously lead my contemplation back to a more custom-established topic if by any hap in my ambitious ignorance I outstep it.
In such a manner it chanced on a former occasion that I sat side by side with a certain maiden awaiting the return of others who had withdrawn for a period. The season was that of white rains, and the fire being lavishly extended about the grate we had harmoniously arranged ourselves before it, while this person, at the repeated and explicit encouragement of the maiden, spoke openly of such details of the inner chamber as he has already indicated.
"Is it true, Mr. Ho" (thus the maiden, being unacquainted with the actual facts, consistently addressed me), "that ladies' feet are relentlessly compressed until they finally assume the proportions and appearance of two bulbs?" and as she spoke she absent-mindedly regarded her own slippers, which were out-thrust somewhat to receive the action of the fire.
"It is a matter which cannot reasonably be denied," I replied; "and it is doubtless owing to this effect that they are designated 'Golden Lilies.' Yet when this observance has been slowly and painfully accomplished, the extremities in question are not less small but infinitely less graceful than the select and naturally-formed pair which this person sees before him." And at the ingeniously-devised compliment (which, not to become large-headed in self-imagination, it must be admitted was revealed to me as available for practically all occasions by the really invaluable Quang-Tsun), I bowed unremittingly.
"O, Mr. Ho!" exclaimed the maiden, and paused abruptly at the sound of her words, as though they were inept.
"In many other ways a comparison equally irreproachable to the exalted being at my side might be sought out," I continued, suddenly forming the ill-destined judgment that I was no less competent than the more experienced Quang-Tsun to contrive delicate offerings of speech. "Their hair is rope like in its lack of spontaneous curve, their eyes as deficient in lustre as a half-shuttered window; their hands are exceedingly inferior in colour, and both on the left side, as it may be expressed; their legs—" but at this point the maiden drew herself so hastily into herself that I had no alternative but to conclude that unless I reverted in some way the enterprise was in peril of being inharmoniously conducted.
"Mr. Ho," said the maiden, after contemplating her inward thoughts for a moment, "you are a foreigner, and you cannot be expected to know by instinct what may and what may not be openly expressed in this country. Therefore, although the obligation is not alluring, I think it kinder to tell you that the matters which formed the subject of your last words are never to be referred to."
At this rebuke I again bowed persistently, for it did not appear reasonable to me that I could in any other way declare myself without violating the imposed command.
"Not only are they never openly referred to," continued the maiden, who in spite of the declared no allurement of the subject did not seem disposed to abandon it at once, "but among the most select they are, by unspoken agreement, regarded as 'having no actual existence,' as you yourself would say."
"Yet," protested this person, somewhat puzzled, "to one who has witnessed the highly-achieved attitudes of those within your Halls of Harmony, and in an unyielding search for knowledge has addressed himself even to the advertisement pages of the ladies' papers—"
The maiden waved her hand magnanimously. "In your land, as you have told me, there are many things, not really existing, which for politeness you assume to be. In a like but converse manner this is to be so regarded."
I thanked her voluminously. "The etiquette of this country is as involved as the spoken tongue," I said, "for both are composed chiefly of exceptions to a given rule. It was formerly impressed upon this person, as a guiding principle, that that which is unseen is not to be discussed; yet it is not held in disrepute to allude to so intimate and secluded an organ as the heart, for no further removed than yesterday he heard the deservedly popular sea-lieutenant in the act of declaring to you, upon his knees, that you were utterly devoid of such a possession."
At this inoffensively-conveyed suggestion, the fire opposite had all the appearance of suddenly reflecting itself into the maiden's face with a most engaging concentration, while at the same time she stamped her foot in ill-concealed rage.
"You've been listening at the door!" she cried impetuously, "and I shall never forgive you."
"To no extent," I declared hastily (for although I had indeed been listening at the door, it appeared, after the weight which she set upon the incident, more honourable that I should deny it in order to conciliate her mind). "It so chanced that for the moment this person had forgotten whether the handle he was grasping was of the push-out or turn-in variety, and in the involvement a few words of no particular or enduring significance settled lightly upon his perception.