a tale from Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung


"The motives which inspired the actions of the devout Quen-Ki-Tong have long been ill-reported," said Kai Lung the story-teller, upon a certain occasion at Wu-whei, "and, as a consequence, his illustrious memory has suffered somewhat. Even as the insignificant earth-worm may bring the precious and many coloured jewel to the surface, so has it been permitted to this obscure and superficially educated one to discover the truth of the entire matter among the badly-arranged and frequently really illegible documents preserved at the Hall of Public Reference at Peking. Without fear of contradiction, therefore, he now sets forth the credible version.

"Quen-Ki-Tong was one who throughout his life had been compelled by the opposing force of circumstances to be content with what was offered rather than attain to that which he desired. Having been allowed to wander over the edge of an exceedingly steep crag, while still a child, by the aged and untrustworthy person who had the care of him, and yet suffering little hurt, he was carried back to the city in triumph, by the one in question, who, to cover her neglect, declared amid many chants of exultation that as he slept a majestic winged form had snatched him from her arms and traced magical figures with his body on the ground in token of the distinguished sacred existence for which he was undoubtedly set apart. In such a manner he became famed at a very early age for an unassuming mildness of character and an almost inspired piety of life, so that on every side frequent opportunity was given him for the display of these amiable qualities. Should it chance that an insufficient quantity of puppy-pie had been prepared for the family repast, the undesirable but necessary portion of cold dried rat would inevitably be allotted to the uncomplaining Quen, doubtless accompanied by the engaging but unnecessary remark that he alone had a Heaven-sent intellect which was fixed upon more sublime images than even the best constructed puppy-pie. Should the number of sedan-chairs not be sufficient to bear to the Exhibition of Kites all who were desirous of becoming entertained in such a fashion, inevitably would Quen be the one left behind, in order that he might have adequate leisure for dignified and pure-minded internal reflexion.

"In this manner it came about that when a very wealthy but unnaturally avaricious and evil-tempered person who was connected with Quen's father in matters of commerce expressed his fixed determination that the most deserving and enlightened of his friend's sons should enter into a marriage agreement with his daughter, there was no manner of hesitation among those concerned, who admitted without any questioning between themselves that Quen was undeniably the one referred to.

"Though naturally not possessing an insignificant intellect, a continuous habit, together with a most irreproachable sense of filial duty, subdued within Quen's internal organs whatever reluctance he might have otherwise displayed in the matter, so that as courteously as was necessary he presented to the undoubtedly very ordinary and slow-witted maiden in question the gifts of irretrievable intention, and honourably carried out his spoken and written words towards her.

"For a period of years the circumstances of the various persons did not in any degree change, Quen in the meantime becoming more pure-souled and inward-seeing with each moon-change, after the manner of the sublime Lien-ti, who studied to maintain an unmoved endurance in all varieties of events by placing his body to a greater extent each day in a vessel of boiling liquid. Nevertheless, the good and charitable deities to whom Quen unceasingly sacrificed were not altogether unmindful of his virtues; for a son was born, and an evil disease which arose from a most undignified display of uncontrollable emotion on her part ended in his wife being deposited with becoming ceremony in the Family Temple.

"Upon a certain evening, when Quen sat in his inner chamber deliberating upon the really beneficent yet somewhat inexplicable arrangement of the all-seeing ones to whom he was very amiably disposed in consequence of the unwonted tranquillity which he now enjoyed, yet who, it appeared to him, could have set out the entire matter in a much more satisfactory way from the beginning, he was made aware by the unexpected beating of many gongs, and by other signs of refined and deferential welcome, that a person of exalted rank was approaching his residence. While he was still hesitating in his uncertainty regarding the most courteous and delicate form of self-abasement with which to honour so important a visitor--whether to rush forth and allow the chair-carriers to pass over his prostrate form, to make a pretence of being a low-caste slave, and in that guise doing menial service, or to conceal himself beneath a massive and overhanging table until his guest should have availed himself of the opportunity to examine at his leisure whatever the room contained--the person in question stood before him. In every detail of dress and appointment he had the undoubted appearance of being one to whom no door might be safely closed.

"'Alas!' exclaimed Quen, 'how inferior and ill-contrived is the mind of a person of my feeble intellectual attainments. Even at this moment, when the near approach of one who obviously commands every engaging accomplishment might reasonably be expected to call up within it an adequate amount of commonplace resource, its ill-destined possessor finds himself entirely incapable of conducting himself with the fitting outward marks of his great internal respect. This residence is certainly unprepossessing in the extreme, yet it contains many objects of some value and of great rarity; illiterate as this person is, he would not be so presumptuous as to offer any for your acceptance, but if you will confer upon him the favour of selecting that which appears to be the most priceless and unreplaceable, he will immediately, and with every manifestation of extreme delight, break it irredeemably in your honour, to prove the unaffected depth of his gratified emotions.'

"'Quen-Ki-Tong,' replied the person before him, speaking with an evident sincerity of purpose, 'pleasant to this one's ears are your words, breathing as they do an obvious hospitality and a due regard for the forms of etiquette. But if, indeed, you are desirous of gaining this person's explicit regard, break no articles of fine porcelain or rare inlaid wood in proof of it, but immediately dismiss to a very distant spot the three-score gong-beaters who have enclosed him within two solid rings, and who are now carrying out their duties in so diligent a manner that he greatly doubts if the unimpaired faculties of hearing will ever be fully restored. Furthermore, if your exceedingly amiable intentions desire fuller expression, cause an unstinted number of vessels of some uninflammable liquid to be conveyed into your chrysanthemum garden and there poured over the numerous fireworks and coloured lights which still appear to be in progress. Doubtless they are well-intentioned marks of respect, but they caused this person considerable apprehension as he passed among them, and, indeed, give to this unusually pleasant and unassuming spot the by no means inviting atmosphere of a low-class tea-house garden during the festivities attending the birthday of the sacred Emperor.'

"'This person is overwhelmed with a most unendurable confusion that the matters referred to should have been regarded in such a light,' replied Quen humbly. 'Although he himself had no knowledge of them until this moment, he is confident that they in no wise differ from the usual honourable manifestations with which it is customary in this Province to welcome strangers of exceptional rank and titles.'

"'The welcome was of a most dignified and impressive nature,' replied the stranger, with every appearance of not desiring to cause Quen any uneasy internal doubts; 'yet the fact is none the less true that at the moment this person's head seems to contain an exceedingly powerful and well-equipped band; and also, that as he passed through the courtyard an ingeniously constructed but somewhat unmanageable figure of gigantic size, composed entirely of jets of many-coloured flame, leaped out suddenly from behind a dark wall and made an almost successful attempt to embrace him in its ever-revolving arms. Lo Yuen greatly fears that the time when he would have rejoiced in the necessary display of agility to which the incident gave rise has for ever passed away.'

"'Lo Yuen!' exclaimed Quen, with an unaffected mingling of the emotions of reverential awe and pleasureable anticipation. 'Can it indeed be an uncontroversial fact that so learned and ornamental a person as the renowned Controller of Unsolicited Degrees stands beneath this inelegant person's utterly unpresentable roof! Now, indeed, he plainly understands why this ill-conditioned chamber has the appearance of being filled with a Heaven-sent brilliance, and why at the first spoken words of the one before him a melodious sound, like the rushing waters of the sacred Tien-Kiang, seemed to fill his ears.'

"'Undoubtedly the chamber is pervaded by a very exceptional splendour,' replied Lo Yuen, who, in spite of his high position, regarded graceful talk and well-imagined compliments in a spirit of no-satisfaction; 'yet this commonplace-minded one has a fixed conviction that it is caused by the crimson-eyed and pink-fire-breathing dragon which, despite your slave's most assiduous efforts, is now endeavouring to climb through the aperture behind you. The noise which still fills his ears, also, resembles rather the despairing cries of the Ten Thousand Lost Ones at the first sight of the Pit of Liquid and Red-hot Malachite, yet without question both proceed from the same cause. Laying aside further ceremony, therefore, permit this greatly over-estimated person to disclose the object of his inopportune visit. Long have your amiable virtues been observed and appreciated by the high ones at Peking, O Quen-Ki-Tong. Too long have they been unrewarded and passed over in silence. Nevertheless, the moment of acknowledgement and advancement has at length arrived; for, as the Book of Verses clearly says, "Even the three-legged mule may contrive to reach the agreed spot in advance of the others, provided a circular running space has been selected and the number of rounds be sufficiently ample." It is this otherwise uninteresting and obtrusive person's graceful duty to convey to you the agreeable intelligence that the honourable and not ill-rewarded office of Guarder of the Imperial Silkworms has been conferred upon you, and to require you to proceed without delay to Peking, so that fitting ceremonies of admittance may be performed before the fifteenth day of the month of Feathered Insects.'

"Alas! how frequently does the purchaser of seemingly vigorous and exceptionally low-priced flower-seeds discover, when too late, that they are, in reality, fashioned from the root of the prolific and valueless tzu-ka, skilfully covered with a disguising varnish! Instead of presenting himself at the place of commerce frequented by those who entrust money to others on the promise of an increased repayment when certain very probable events have come to pass (so that if all else failed he would still possess a serviceable number of taels), Quen-Ki-Tong entirely neglected the demands of a most ordinary prudence, nor could he be induced to set out on his journey until he had passed seven days in public feasting to mark his good fortune, and then devoted fourteen more days to fasting and various acts of penance, in order to make known the regret with which he acknowledged his entire unworthiness for the honour before him. Owing to this very conscientious, but nevertheless somewhat short-sighted manner of behaving, Quen found himself unable to reach Peking before the day preceding that to which Lo Yuen had made special reference. From this cause it came about that only sufficient time remained to perform the various ceremonies of admission, without in any degree counselling Quen as to his duties and procedure in the fulfilment of his really important office.

"Among the many necessary and venerable ceremonies observed during the changing periods of the year, none occupy a more important place than those for which the fifteenth day of the month of Feathered Insects is reserved, conveying as they do a respectful and delicately-fashioned petition that the various affairs upon which persons in every condition of life are engaged may arrive at a pleasant and remunerative conclusion. At the earliest stroke of the gong the versatile Emperor, accompanied by many persons of irreproachable ancestry and certain others, very elaborately attired, proceeds to an open space set apart for the occasion. With unassuming dexterity the benevolent Emperor for a brief span of time engages in the menial occupation of a person of low class, and with his own hands ploughs an assigned portion of land in order that the enlightened spirits under whose direct guardianship the earth is placed may not become lax in their disinterested efforts to promote its fruitfulness. In this charitable exertion he is followed by various other persons of recognized position, the first being, by custom, the Guarder of the Imperial Silkworms, while at the same time the amiably-disposed Empress plants an allotted number of mulberry trees, and deposits upon their leaves the carefully reared insects which she receives from the hands of their Guarder. In the case of the accomplished Emperor an ingenious contrivance is resorted to by which the soil is drawn aside by means of hidden strings as the plough passes by, the implement in question being itself constructed from paper of the highest quality, while the oxen which draw it are, in reality, ordinary persons cunningly concealed within masks of cardboard. In this thoughtful manner the actual labours of the sublime Emperor are greatly lessened, while no chance is afforded for an inauspicious omen to be created by the rebellious behaviour of a maliciously-inclined ox, or by any other event of an unforeseen nature. All the other persons, however, are required to make themselves proficient in the art of ploughing, before the ceremony, so that the chances of the attendant spirits discovering the deception which has been practised upon them in the case of the Emperor may not be increased by its needless repetition. It was chiefly for this reason that Lo Yuen had urged Quen to journey to Peking as speedily as possible, but owing to the very short time which remained between his arrival and the ceremony of ploughing, not only had the person in question neglected to profit by instruction, but he was not even aware of the obligation which awaited him. When, therefore, in spite of every respectful protest on his part, he was led up to a massively-constructed implement drawn by two powerful and undeniably evilly-intentioned-looking animals, it was with every sign of great internal misgivings, and an entire absence of enthusiasm in the entertainment, that he commenced his not too well understood task. In this matter he was by no means mistaken, for it soon became plain to all observers--of whom an immense concourse was assembled--that the usually self-possessed Guarder of the Imperial Silkworms was conducting himself in a most undignified manner; for though he still clung to the plough-handles with an inspired tenacity, his body assumed every variety of base and uninviting attitude. Encouraged by this inelegant state of affairs, the evil spirits which are ever on the watch to turn into derision the charitable intentions of the pure-minded entered into the bodies of the oxen and provoked within their minds a sudden and malignant confidence that the time had arrived when they might with safety break into revolt and throw off the outward signs of their dependent condition. From these various causes it came about that Quen was, without warning, borne with irresistible certainty against the majestic person of the sacred Emperor, the inlaid box of Imperial silkworms, which up to that time had remained safely among the folds of his silk garment, alone serving to avert an even more violent and ill-destined blow.

"Well said the wise and deep-thinking Ye-te, in his book entitled 'Proverbs of Everyday Happenings', 'Should a person on returning from the city discover his house to be in flames, let him examine well the change which he has received from the chair-carrier before it is too late; for evil never travels alone.' Scarcely had the unfortunate Quen recovered his natural attributes from the effect of the disgraceful occurrence which has been recorded (which, indeed, furnished the matter of a song and many unpresentable jests among the low-class persons of the city), than the magnanimous Empress reached that detail of the tree-planting ceremony when it was requisite that she should deposit the living emblems of the desired increase and prosperity upon the leaves. Stretching forth her delicately-proportioned hand to Quen for this purpose, she received from the still greatly confused person in question the Imperial silkworms in so unseemly a condition that her eyes had scarcely rested upon them before she was seized with the rigid sickness, and in that state fell to the ground. At this new and entirely unforeseen calamity a very disagreeable certainty of approaching evil began to take possession of all those who stood around, many crying aloud that every omen of good was wanting, and declaring that unless something of a markedly propitiatory nature was quickly accomplished, the agriculture of the entire Empire would cease to flourish, and the various departments of the commerce in silk would undoubtedly be thrown into a state of most inextricable confusion. Indeed, in spite of all things designed to have a contrary effect, the matter came about in the way predicted, for the Hoang-Ho seven times overcame its restraining barriers, and poured its waters over the surrounding country, thereby gaining for the first time its well-deserved title of 'The Sorrow of China', by which dishonourable but exceedingly appropriate designation it is known to this day.

"The manner of greeting which would have been accorded to Quen had he returned to the official quarter of the city, or the nature of his treatment by the baser class of the ordinary people if they succeeded in enticing him to come among them, formed a topic of such uninviting conjecture that the humane-minded Lo Yuen, who had observed the entire course of events from an elevated spot, determined to make a well-directed effort towards his safety. To this end he quickly purchased the esteem of several of those who make a profession of their strength, holding out the hope of still further reward if they conducted the venture to a successful termination. Uttering loud cries of an impending vengeance, as Lo Yuen had instructed them in the matter, and displaying their exceptional proportions to the astonishment and misgivings of all beholders, these persons tore open the opium-tent in which Quen had concealed himself, and, thrusting aside all opposition, quickly dragged him forth. Holding him high upon their shoulders, in spite of his frequent and ill-advised endeavours to cast himself to the ground, some surrounded those who bore him--after the manner of disposing his troops affected by a skilful leader when the enemy begin to waver--and crying aloud that it was their unchanging purpose to submit him to the test of burning splinters and afterwards to torture him, they succeeded by this stratagem in bringing him through the crowd; and hurling back or outstripping those who endeavoured to follow, conveyed him secretly and unperceived to a deserted and appointed spot. Here Quen was obliged to remain until other events caused the recollection of the many to become clouded and unconcerned towards him, suffering frequent inconveniences in spite of the powerful protection of Lo Yuen, and not at all times being able to regard the most necessary repast as an appointment of undoubted certainty. At length, in the guise of a wandering conjurer who was unable to display his accomplishments owing to an entire loss of the power of movement in his arms, Quen passed undetected from the city, and safely reaching the distant and unimportant town of Lu-Kwo, gave himself up to a protracted period of lamentation and self-reproach at the unprepossessing manner in which he had conducted his otherwise very inviting affairs.

Table of contents...second part

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