Only at one point along the straight earth-road leading from Loo-chow to Yu-ping was there any shade, a wood of stunted growth, and here Kai Lung cast himself down in refuge from the noontide sun and slept.
When he woke it was with the sound of discreet laughter trickling through his dreams. He sat up and looked around. Across the glade two maidens stood in poised expectancy within the shadow of a wild fig-tree, both their gaze and their manner denoting a fixed intention to be prepared for any emergency. Not being desirous that this should tend towards their abrupt departure, Kai Lung rose guardedly to his feet, with many gestures of polite reassurance, and having bowed several timesto indicate his pacific nature, he stood in an attitude of deferential admiration. At this display the elder and less attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight. The other remained, however, and even moved a few steps nearer to Kai Lung, as though encouraged by his appearance, so that he was able to regard her varying details more appreciably. As she advanced she plucked a red blossom from a thorny bush, and from time to time she shortened the broken stalk between her jade teeth.
"Courteous loiterer," she said, in a very pearl-like voice, when they had thus regarded one another for a few beats of time, "what is your honourable name, and who are you who tarry here, journeying neither to the east nor to the west?"
"The answer is necessarily commonplace and unworthy of your polite interest," was the diffident reply. "My unbecoming name is Kai, to which has been added that of Lung. By profession I am an incapable relater of imagined tales, and to this end I spread my mat wherever my uplifted voice can entice together a company to listen. Should my feeble efforts be deemed worthy of reward, those who stand around may perchance contribute to my scanty store, but sometimes this is judged superfluous. For this cause I now turn my expectant feet from Loo-chow towards the untried city of Yu-ping, but the undiminished li stretching relentlessly before me, I sought beneath trees a refuge from the noontide sun."
"The occupation is a dignified one, being to no great degree removed from that of the Sages who compiled The Books," remarked the maiden, with an encouraging smile. "Are there many stories known to your retentive mind?"
"In one form or another, all that exist are within my mental grasp," admitted Kai Lung modestly. "Thus equipped, there is no arising emergency for which I am unprepared."
"There are other things that I would learn of your craft. What kind of story is the most favourably received, and the one whereby your collecting bowl is the least ignored?"
"That depends upon the nature and condition of those who stand around, and therein lies much that is essential to the art," replied Kai Lung, not without an element of pride. "Should the company be chiefly formed of the illiterate and the immature of both sexes, stories depicting the embarassment of unnaturally round-bodied mandarins, the unpremeditated flight of eccentrically-garbed passers- by into vats of powdered rice, the despair of guardians of the street when assailed by showers of eggs and overripe lo-quats, or any other variety of humiliating pain inflicted upon the innocent an unwary, never fail to win approval. The prosperous and substantial find contentment in hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives. Ordinary persons require stories dealing lavishly with all the emotions, so that they may thereby have a feeling of sufficiency when contributing to the collecting bowl."
"These things being so," remarked the maiden, "what story would you consider most appropriate to a company composed of such as she who is now conversing with you?"
"Such a company could never be obtained," replied Kai Lung, with conviction in his tone. "It is not credible that throughout the Empire could be found even another possessing all the engaging attributes of the one before me. But should it be my miraculous fortune to be given the opportunity, my presumptuous choice for her dsicriminating ears alone would be the story of the peerless Princess Taik and of the noble minstrel Ch'eng, who to regain her presence chained his wrist to a passing star and was carried into the assembly of the gods."
"Is it," inquired the maiden, with an agreeable glance towards the opportune recumbence of a fallen tree, "is it a narration that would lie within the passage of the sun from one branch of this willow to another?"
"Adequately set forth, the history of the Princess Taik and of the virtuous youth occupies all the energies of an agile story-teller for seven weeks," replied Kai Lung, not entirely gladdened that she should deem him capable of offering so meagre an entertainment as that she indicated. "There is a much-flattened version which may be compressed within the narrow limits of a single day and night, but even that requires for certain of the more moving passages the accompaniment of a powerful drum or a hollow wooden fish."
"Alas!" exclaimed the maiden, "though the time should pass like a flash of lightning beneath the allurement of your art, it is questionable if those who await this one's returning footsteps would experience a like illusion. Even now --" With a magnanimous wave of her well-formed hand she indicated the other maiden, who, finding that the danger of pursuit was not sustained, had returned to claim her part.
"One advances along the westward road," reported the second maiden. "Let us fly elsewhere, O allurer of mankind! It may be --"
"Doubtless in Yu-ping the sound of your uplifted voice --" But at this point a noise upon the earth-road, near at hand, impelled them both to sudden flight into the deeper recesses of the wood.
Thus deprived, Kai Lung moved from the shadow of the trees and sought the track, to see if by chance he from whom they fled might turn to his advantage. On the road he found one who staggered behind a laborious wheel-barrow in the direction of Loo-chow. At that moment he had stopped to take down the sail, as th breeze was bereft of power among the obstruction of the trees, and also because he was weary.
"Greeting," called down Kai Lung, saluting him. "There is here protection from the fierceness of the sun and a stream wherein to wash your feet."
"Haply," replied the other; "and a greatly over-burdened one would gladly leave this ill-nurtured earth-road even for the fields of hell, were it not that all his goods are contained upon an utterly intractable wheel-barrow."
"Although you are evidently a man of some wealth, we are for the time brought to a common level by the forces that control us," remarked Kai Lung. "I have here two onions, a gourd, and a sufficiency of millet paste. Partake equally with me, therefore, before you resume your way. In the meanwhile I will procure water from the stream near by, and to this end my collecting bowl will serve."
When Kai Lung returned he found that the other had added to their store a double handful of dates, some snuff, and a little jar of oil. As they ate together the stranger thus disclosed his mind.
"The times are doubtful and it behoves each to guard himself. In the north the banners of the `Spreading Lotus' and the `Avenging Knife' are already raised, while the signs and passwords are so widely flung that every man speaks slowly with a double tongue. Lately there have been slicings and other forms of vigorous justice no further distant than Loo-chow, and now the Mandarin Shan Tien comes to Yu-ping to flatten any signs of discontent. The occupation of this person is that of a maker of sandals and coverings for the head, but very soon there will be more wooden feet required than leather sandals in Yu-ping, and artificial ears will be greater in demand than hats. For this reason he has got together all his goods, sold the more burdensome, and now ventures on an untried way."
"Prosperity attend your goings. Yet, as one who has set his face towards Yu-ping, is it not possible for an ordinary person of simple life and unassuming aims to escape persecution under this same Shan Tien?"
"Of the Mandarin himself those who know speak with vague lips. What is done by the pressing hand of one Ming-shu, who takes down his spoken word; of whom it is truly said that he has little resemblance to a man and still less to an angel."
"Yet," protested the story-teller hopefully, "it is wisely written, `He who never opens his mouth in strife can always close his eyes in peace'."
"Doubtless," assented the other. "He can close his eyes assuredly. Whether he will ever again open them is another matter."
With this timely warning the sandal-maker rose and prepared to resume his journey. Nor did he again take up the burden of his task until he had satisfied himself that the westward road was destitute of traffic."
"A tranquil life and painless death," was his farewell parting. "Jung, of the line of Hai, wills you well." Then, with many imprecations on the relentless sun above, the inexorable road beneath, and on every detail of the evilly-balanced load before him, he passed out on his way.
It would have been well for Kai Lung had he also forced his feet to raise the dust, but his body clung to the moist umbrage of his couch, and his mind made reassurance that perchance the maiden would return. Thus it fell that when two others, who looked from side to side as they hastened on the road, turned as at a venture to the wood they found him still there.
"Restrain your greetings," said the leader of the two harshly, in the midst of Kai Lung's courteous obeisance; "and do not presume to disprage yourself as if in equality with the one who stands before you. Have two of the inner chamber, attired thus and thus, passed this way? Speak, and that to a narrow edge."
"The road lies beyond the perception of my incapable vision, chiefest," replied Kai Lung submissively. "Furthermore, I have slept."
"Unless you would sleep more deeply, shape your stubborn tongue to a specific point," commanded the other, touching a meaning sword. "Who are you who loiter here, and for what purpose do you lurk? Speak fully, and be assured that your word will be put to a corroding test."
Thus encouraged, Kai Lung freely disclosed his name and ancestry, the means whereby he earned a frugal sustenance, and the nature of his journey. In addition, he professed a willingness to relate his most recently-acquired story, that entitled "Wu-yong; or, The Politely Inquiring Stranger," but the offer was thrust ungracefully aside.
"Everything you say deepens the suspicion which your criminal-looking face naturally provokes," said the questioner, putting away his tablets on which he had recorded th replies. "At Yu-ping the matter will be probed with a very definite result. You, Li-loe, remain about this spot in case she whom we speak should pass. I return to speak of our unceasing effort."
"I obey," replied the dog-like Li-loe. "What men can do we have done. We are no demons to see through solid matter."
When they were alone, Li-loe drew nearer to Kai Lung and, allowing his face to assume a more pacific bend, he cast himself down by the story-teller's side.
"The account which you gave of yourself was ill contrived," he said. "Being put to the test, its falsity cannot fail to be discovered."
"Yet," protested Kai Lung earnestly, "in no single detail did it deviate from the iron line of truth."
"Then your case is even more desperate than before," exclaimed Li-loe. "Know now that the repulsive-featured despot who has just left us is Ming-shu, he who takes down the Mandarin Shan Tien's spoken word. By admitting that you are from Loo-chow, where disaffection reigns, you have noosed a rope about your neck, and by proclaiming yourself as one whose habit it is to call a together a company to listen to your word you have drawn it tight."
"Every rope has two ends," remarked Kai Lung philosophically, "and to-morrow is yet to come. Tell me rather, since that is our present errand, who is she whom you pursue, and to what intent?"
"That is not so simple as to be contained within the hollow of an acorn sheath. Let it suffice that she has the left ear of Shan Tien, even as Ming-shu has the right, but on which side his hearing is the better it might be hazardous to guess."
"And her meritorious name?"
"She is of the house of K'ang, her name being Hwa-mei, though from the nature of her charm she is ofttime called the Golden Mouse. But touching this affair of your own immediate danger: we being both but common men of the idler sort, it is only fitting that when high ones threaten I should stand by you."
"Speak definitely," assented Kai Lung, "yet with the understanding that the full extent of my store does not exceed four or five strings of cash."
"The soil is somewhat shallow for the growth of deep friendship, but what we have we will share equally between us." With these auspicious words Li-loe possessed himself of three of the strings of cash and displayed an empty sleeve. "I, alas, have nothing. The benefits I have in mind are of a subtler and more priceless kind. At Yu-ping my office will be that of the keeper of the doors of the yamen, including that of the prison-house. Thus I shall doubtless be able to render you frequent service of an inconspicuous kind. Do not forget the name of Li-loe."
By this time the approaching sound of heavy traffic, heralded by the beating of drums, the blowing of horns, and the discharge of an occasional firework indicated the passage of some dignified official. This, declared Li-loe, could be none other than the Mandarin Shan Tien, resuming his march towards Yu-ping, and the doorkeeper prepared to join the procession at his appointed place. Kai Lung, however, remained unseen among the trees, not being desirous of obtruding himself upon Ming-shu unnecessarily. When the noise had almost died away in the distance he came forth, believing that all would by this time have passed, and approached the road. As he reached it a single chair was hurried by, its carriers striving by increased exertion to regain their fellows. It was too late for Kai Lung to retreat, whoever might be within. As it passed a curtain moved somewhat, a symmetrical hand came discretely forth, and that which it held fell at his feet. Without varying his attitude he watched the chair until it was out of sight, then stooped and picked something up -- a red blossom on a thorny stalk, the flower already parched but the stem moist and softened to his touch.
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