SECOND PERIOD: THE TEMPLE BUILDER

part 2 of The Career of the Charitable Quen-Ki-Tong,a tale from Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung




TWO hand-counts of years passed away and Quen still remained at Lu-kwo, all desire of returning either to Peking or to the place of his birth having by this time faded into nothingness. Accepting the inevitable fact that he was not destined ever to become a person with whom taels were plentiful, and yet being unwilling to forego the charitable manner of life which he had always been accustomed to observe, it came about that he spent the greater part of his time in collecting together such sums of money as he could procure from the amiable and well-disposed, and with them building temples and engaging in other benevolent works. From this cause it arose the Quen obtained around Lu-kwo a reputation for high-minded piety, in no degree less than that which had been conferred upon him in earlier times, so that pilgrims from far distant places would purposely contrive their journey so as to pass through the town containing so unassuming and virtuous a person.

"During this entire period Quen had been accompanied by his only son, a youth of respectful personality, in whose entertaining society he took an intelligent interest. Even when deeply engaged in what he justly regarded as the crowning work of his existence--the planning and erecting of an exceptionally well-endowed marble temple, which was to be entirely covered on the outside with silver paper, and on the inside with gold-leaf--he did not fail to observe the various conditions of Liao's existence, and the changing emotions which from time to time possessed him. Therefore, when the person in question, without displaying any signs of internal sickness, and likewise persistently denying that he had lost any considerable sum of money, disclosed a continuous habit of turning aside with an unaffected expression of distaste from all manner of food, and passed the entire night in observing the course of the great sky-lantern rather than in sleep, the sage and discriminating Quen took him one day aside, and asked him, as one who might aid him in the matter, who the maiden was, and what class and position her father occupied.

"'Alas!' exclaimed Liao, with many unfeigned manifestations of an unbearable fate, 'to what degree do the class and position of her entirely unnecessary parents affect the question? or how little hope can this sacrilegious one reasonably have of ever progressing as far as earthly details of a pecuniary character in the case of so adorable and far-removed a Being? The uttermost extent of this wildly-hoping person's ambition is that when the incomparably symmetrical Ts'ain learns of the steadfast light of his devotion, she may be inspired to deposit an emblematic chrysanthemum upon his tomb in the Family Temple. For such a reward he will cheerfully devote the unswerving fidelity of a lifetime to her service, not distressing her gentle and retiring nature by the expression of what must inevitably be a hopeless passion, but patiently and uncomplainingly guarding her footsteps as from a distance.'

"Being in this manner made aware of the reason of Liao's frequent and unrestrained exclamations of intolerable despair, and of his fixed determination with regard to the maiden Ts'ain (which seemed, above all else, to indicate a resolution to shun her presence) Quen could not regard the immediately-following actions of his son with anything but an emotion of confusion. For when his eyes next rested upon the exceedingly contradictory Liao, he was seated in the open space before the house in which Ts'ain dwelt, playing upon an instrument of stringed woods, and chanting verses into which the names of the two persons in question had been skilfully introduced without restraint, his whole manner of behaving being with the evident purpose of attracting the maiden's favourable attention. After an absence of many days, spent in this graceful and complimentary manner, Liao returned suddenly to the house of his father, and, prostrating his body before him, made a specific request for his assistance.

"'As regards Ts'ain and myself,' he continued, 'all things are arranged, and but for the unfortunate coincidence of this person's poverty and of her father's cupidity, the details of the wedding ceremony would undoubtedly now be in a very advanced condition. Upon these entrancing and well-discussed plans, however, the shadow of the grasping and commonplace Ah-Ping has fallen like the inopportune opium-pipe from the mouth of a person examining substances of an explosive nature; for the one referred to demands a large and utterly unobtainable amount of taels before he will suffer his greatly-sought-after daughter to accept the gifts of irretrievable intention.'

"'Grievous indeed is your plight,' replied Quen, when he thus understood the manner of obstacle which impeded his son's hopes; 'for in the nature of taels the most diverse men are to be measured through the same mesh. As the proverb says, "'All money is evil,' exclaimed the philosopher with extreme weariness, as he gathered up the gold pieces in exchange, but presently discovering that one among them was such indeed has he had described, he rushed forth without tarrying to take up a street garment; and with an entire absence of dignity traversed all the ways of the city in the hope of finding the one who had defrauded him." Well does this person know the mercenary Ah-Ping, and the unyielding nature of his closed hand; for often, but always fruitlessly, he has entered his presence on affairs connected with the erecting of certain temples. Nevertheless, the matter is one which does not admit of any incapable faltering, to which end this one will seek out the obdurate Ah-Ping without delay, and endeavour to entrap him by some means in the course of argument.'

"From the time of his earliest youth Ah-Ping had unceasingly devoted himself to the object of getting together an overwhelming number of taels, using for this purpose various means which, without being really degrading or contrary to the written law, were not such as might have been cheerfully engaged in by a person of high-minded honourableness. In consequence of this, as he grew more feeble in body, and more venerable in appearance, he began to express frequent and bitter doubts as to whether his manner of life had been really well arranged; for, in spite of his great wealth, he had grown to adopt a most inexpensive habit on all occasions, having no desire to spend; and an ever-increasing apprehension began to possess him that after he had passed beyond, his sons would be very disinclined to sacrifice and burn money sufficient to keep him in an affluent condition in the Upper Air. In such a state of mind was Ah-Ping when Quen-Ki-Tong appeared before him, for it had just been revealed to him that his eldest and favourite son had, by flattery and by openly praising the dexterity with which he used his brush and ink, entrapped him into inscribing his entire name upon certain unwritten sheets of parchment, which the one in question immediately sold to such as were heavily indebted to Ah-Ping.

"'If a person can be guilty of this really unfilial behaviour during the lifetime of his father,' exclaimed Ah-Ping, in a tone of unrestrained vexation, 'can it be prudently relied upon that he will carry out his wishes after death, when they involve the remitting to him of several thousand taels each year? O estimable Quen-Ki-Tong, how immeasurably superior is the celestial outlook upon which you may safely rely as your portion! When you are enjoying every variety of sumptuous profusion, as the reward of your untiring charitable exertions here on earth, the spirit of this short-sighted person will be engaged in doing menial servitude for the inferior deities, and perhaps scarcely able, even by those means, to clothe himself according to the changing nature of the seasons.'

"'Yet,' replied Quen, 'the necessity for so laborious and unremunerative an existence may even now be averted by taking efficient precautions before you pass to the Upper Air.'

"'In what way?' demanded Ah-Ping, with an awakening hope that the matter might not be entirely destitute of cheerfulness, yet at the same time preparing to examine with even unbecoming intrusiveness any expedient which Quen might lay before him. 'Is it not explicitly stated that sacrifices and acts of a like nature, when performed at the end of one's existence by a person who to that time has professed no sort of interest in such matters, shall in no degree be entered as to his good, but rather regarded as examples of deliberate presumptuousness, and made the excuse for subjecting him to more severe tortures and acts of penance than would be his portion if he neglected the custom altogether?'

"'Undoubtedly such is the case,' replied Quen; 'and on that account it would indicate a most regrettable want of foresight for you to conduct your affairs in the manner indicated. The only undeniably safe course is for you to entrust the amount you will require to a person of exceptional piety, receiving in return his written word to repay the full sum whenever you shall claim it from him in the Upper Air. By this crafty method the amount will be placed at the disposal of the person in question as soon as he has passed beyond, and he will be held by his written word to return it to you whenever you shall demand it.'

"So amiably impressed with this ingenious scheme was Ah-Ping that he would at once have entered more fully into the detail had the thought not arisen in his mind that the person before him was the father of Liao, who urgently required a certain large sum, and that for this reason he might with prudence inquire more fully into the matter elsewhere, in case Quen himself should have been imperceptibly led aside, even though he possessed intentions of a most unswerving honourableness. To this end, therefore, he desired to converse again with Quen on the matter, pleading that at that moment a gathering of those who direct enterprises of a commercial nature required his presence. Nevertheless, he would not permit the person referred to depart until he had complimented him, in both general and specific terms, on the high character of his life and actions, and the intelligent nature of his understanding, which had enabled him with so little mental exertion to discover an efficient plan.

"Without delay Ah-Ping sought out those most skilled in all varieties of law-forms, in extorting money by devices capable of very different meanings, and in expedients for evading just debts; but all agreed that such an arrangement as the one he put before them would be unavoidably binding, provided the person who received the money alluded to spent it in the exercise of his charitable desires, and provided also that the written agreement bore the duty seal of the high ones at Peking, and was deposited in the coffin of the lender. Fully satisfied, and rejoicing greatly that he could in this way adequately provide for his future and entrap the avaricious ones of his house, Ah-Ping collected together the greater part of his possessions, and converting it into pieces of gold, entrusted them to Quen on the exact understanding that has already been described, he receiving in turn Quen's written and thumb-signed paper of repayment, and his assurance that the whole amount should be expended upon the silver-paper and gold-leaf Temple with which he was still engaged.

"It is owing to this circumstance that Quen-Ki-Tong's irreproachable name has come to be lightly regarded by many who may be fitly likened to the latter person in the subtle and experienced proverb, 'The wise man's eyes fell before the gaze of the fool, fearing that if he looked he must cry aloud, "Thou hopeless one!" "There," said the fool to himself, "behold this person's power!"' These badly educated and undiscriminating persons, being entirely unable to explain the ensuing train of events, unhesitatingly declare that Quen-Ki-Tong applied a portion of the money which he had received from Ah-Ping in the manner described to the object of acquiring Ts'ain for his son Liao. In this feeble and incapable fashion they endeavour to stigmatize the pure-minded Quen as one who acted directly contrary to his deliberately spoken word, whereas the desired result was brought about in a much more artful manner; they describe the commercially successful Ah-Ping as a person of very inferior prudence, and one easily imposed upon; while they entirely pass over, as a detail outside the true facts, the written paper reserved among the sacred relics in the Temple, which announces, among other gifts of a small and uninviting character, 'Thirty thousand taels from an elderly ginseng merchant of Lu-kwo, who desires to remain nameless, through the hand of Quen-Ki-Tong.' The full happening in its real and harmless face is now set forth for the first time.

"Some weeks after the recorded arrangement had been arrived at by Ah-Ping and Quen, when the taels in question had been expended upon the Temple and were, therefore, infallibly beyond recall, the former person chanced to be passing through the public garden in Lu-kwo when he heard a voice lifted up in the expression of every unendurable feeling of dejection to which one can give utterance. Stepping aside to learn the cause of so unprepossessing a display of unrestrained agitation, and in the hope that perhaps he might be able to use the incident in a remunerative manner, Ah-Ping quickly discovered the unhappy being who, entirely regardless of the embroidered silk robe which he wore, reclined upon a raised bank of uninviting earth, and waved his hands from side to side as his internal emotions urged him.

"'Quen-Ki-Tong!' exclaimed Ah-Ping, not fully convinced that the fact was as he stated it in spite of the image clearly impressed upon his imagination; 'to what unpropitious occurrence is so unlooked-for an exhibition due? Are those who traffic in gold-leaf demanding a high and prohibitive price for that commodity, or has some evil and vindicative spirit taken up its abode within the completed portion of the Temple, and by its offensive but nevertheless diverting remarks and actions removed all semblance of gravity from the countenances of those who daily come to admire the construction?'

"'O thrice unfortunate Ah-Ping,' replied Quen when he observed the distinguishing marks of the person before him, 'scarcely can this greatly overwhelmed one raise his eyes to your open and intelligent countenance; for through him you are on the point of experiencing a very severe financial blow, and it is, indeed, on your account more than on his own that he is now indulging in these outward signs of a grief too far down to be expressed in spoken words.' And at the memory of his former occupation, Quen again waved his arms from side to side with untiring assiduousness.

"'Strange indeed to this person's ears are your words,' said Ah-Ping, outwardly unmoved, but with an apprehensive internal pain that he would have regarded Quen's display of emotion with an easier stomach if his own taels were safely concealed under the floor of his inner chamber. 'The sum which this one entrusted to you has, without any pretence been expended upon the Temple, while the written paper concerning the repayment bears the duty seal of the high ones at Peking. How, then, can Ah-Ping suffer a loss at the hands of Quen-Ki-Tong?'

"'Ah-Ping,' said Quen, with every appearance of desiring that both persons should regard the matter in a conciliatory spirit, 'do not permit the awaiting demons, which are ever on the alert to enter into a person's mind when he becomes distressed out of the common order of events, to take possession of your usually discriminating faculties until you have fully understood how this affair has come about. It is no unknown thing for a person of even exceptional intelligence to reverse his entire manner of living towards the end of a long and consistent existence; the far-seeing and not lightly-moved Ah-Ping himself has already done so. In a similar, but entirely contrary manner, the person who is now before you finds himself impelled towards that which will certainly bear a very unpresentable face when the circumstances become known; yet by no other means is he capable of attaining his greatly-desired object.'

"'And to what end does that trend?' demanded Ah-Ping, in no degree understanding how the matter affected him.

"'While occupied with enterprises which those of an engaging and complimentary nature are accustomed to refer to as charitable, this person has almost entirely neglected a duty of scarcely less importance--that of establishing an unending line, through which his name and actions shall be kept alive to all time,' replied Quen. 'Having now inquired into the matter, he finds that his only son, through whom alone the desired result can be obtained, has become unbearably attached to a maiden for whom a very large sum is demanded in exchange. The thought of obtaining no advantage from an entire life of self-denial is certainly unprepossessing in the extreme, but so, even to a more advanced degree, is the certainty that otherwise the family monuments will be untended, and the temple of domestic virtues become an early ruin. This person has submitted the dilemma to the test of omens, and after considering well the reply, he has decided to obtain the price of the maiden in a not very honourable manner, which now presents itself, so that Liao may send out his silk-bound gifts without delay.'

"'It is an unalluring alternative,' said Ah-Ping, whose only inside thought was one of gratification that the exchange money for Ts'ain would so soon be in his possession, 'yet this person fails to perceive how you could act otherwise after the decision of the omens. He now understands, moreover, that the loss you referred to on his part was in the nature of a figure of speech, as one makes use of thunderbolts and delicately-scented flowers to convey ideas of harsh and amiable passions, and alluded in reality to the forthcoming departure of his daughter, who is, as you so versatilely suggested, the comfort and riches of his old age.'

"'O venerable, but at this moment somewhat obtuse, Ah-Ping,' cried Quen, with a recurrence to his former method of expressing his unfeigned agitation, 'is your evenly-balanced mind unable to grasp the essential fact of how this person's contemplated action will affect your own celestial condition? It is a distressing but entirely unavoidable fact, that if this person acts in the manner which he has determined upon, he will be condemned to the lowest place of torment reserved for those who fail at the end of an otherwise pure existence, and in this he will never have an opportunity of meeting the very much higher placed Ah-Ping, and of restoring to him the thirty-thousand taels as agreed upon.'

"At these ill-destined words, all power of rigidness departed from Ah-Ping's limbs, and he sank down upon the forbidding earth by Quen's side.

"'O most unfortunate one who is now speaking,' he exclaimed, when at length his guarding spirit deemed it prudent to restore his power of expressing himself in words, 'happy indeed would have been your lot had you been content to traffic in ginseng and other commodities of which you have actual knowledge. O amiable Quen, this matter must be in some way arranged without causing you to deviate from the entrancing paths of your habitual virtue. Could not the very reasonable Liao be induced to look favourably upon the attractions of some low-priced maiden, in which case this not really hard-stomached person would be willing to advance the necessary amount, until such time as it could be restored, at a very low and unremunerative rate of interest?'

"'This person has observed every variety of practical humility in the course of his life,' replied Quen with commendable dignity, 'yet he now finds himself totally unable to overcome an inward repugnance to the thought of perpetuating his honoured name and race through the medium of any low-priced maiden. To this end has he decided.'

"Those who were well acquainted with Ah-Ping in matters of commerce did not hesitate to declare that his great wealth had been acquired by his consistent habit of forming an opinion quickly while others hesitated. On the occasion in question he only engaged his mind with the opposing circumstances for a few moments before he definitely fixed upon the course which he should pursue.

"'Quen-Ki-Tong,' he said, with an evident intermingling of many very conflicting emotions, 'retain to the end this well-merited reputation for unaffected honourableness which you have so fittingly earned. Few in the entire Empire, with powers so versatilely pointing to an eminent position in any chosen direction, would have been content to pass their lives in an unremunerative existence devoted to actions of charity. Had you selected an entirely different manner of living, this person has every confidence that he, and many others in Lu-kwo, would by this time be experiencing a very ignoble poverty. For this reason he will make it his most prominent ambition to hasten the realization of the amiable hopes expressed both by Liao and by Ts'ain, concerning their future relationship. In this, indeed, he himself will be more than exceptionally fortunate should the former one prove to possess even a portion of the clear-sighted sagaciousness exhibited by his engaging father.'


"VERSES COMPOSED BY A MUSICIAN OF LU-KWO, ON THE
OCCASION OF THE WEDDING CEREMONY OF
LIAO AND TS'AIN

"Bright hued is the morning, the dark clouds have fallen;
At the mere waving of Quen's virtuous hands they melted away.
Happy is Liao in the possession of so accomplished a parent,
Happy also is Quen to have so discriminating a son.

"The two persons in question sit, side by side,
upon an embroidered couch,
Listening to the well-expressed compliments
of those who pass to and fro.
From time to time their eyes meet,
and glances of a very significant amusement pass between them;
Can it be that on so ceremonious an occasion
they are recalling events of a gravity-removing nature?

"The gentle and rainbow-like Ts'ain has already arrived,
With the graceful motion of a silver carp gliding through a
screen of rushes, she moves among those who are assembled.
On the brow of her somewhat contentious father there rests the
shadow of an ill-repressed sorrow;

Doubtless the frequently-misjudged Ah-Ping is thinking of his
lonely hearth, now that he is for ever parted from that
which he holds most precious.

"In the most commodious chamber of the house the elegant
wedding-gifts are conspicuously displayed; let us stand
beside the one which we have contributed, and point out
its excellence to those who pass by.
Surely the time cannot be far distant when the sound of many
gongs will announce that the very desirable repast is at
length to be partaken of.




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