In the tenth year of T'ang Tai Chung's reign, his Empress died. She was a woman of no ordinary talent and virtue. He built her a splendid mausoleum, but the next year consoled himself by collecting beautiful damsels for the imperial seraglio. Among these was a young girl of fifteen, named Wu Chow . She was of low parentage, but soon procured great favour for herself, and high official posts for her near relatives, by her exceptional beauty and wit.
An imperial censor, however, predicted calamity to the realm in connection with her name. The Emperor was alarmed, and sent away Wu Chow into a Buddhist nunnery, where her history is involved in some very serious scandals.
She did not remain long in seclusion, for T‘ang Kao Chung, in fulfilment of an early vow he had made her, removed her back to Court. The reason given for the step in the orthodox history books is, that Kao Chung's Empress considered it the only means by which the influence of a certain inmate of the palace could be nullified.
Her reinstatement at Court, if at first desired by the Empress, brought her much misery. It was like ' cutting out the flesh in one part to mend a sore in another.' Mistress Wu soon began to use every artifice to get the Empress deposed.
Plots thickened around the phoenix consort of the dragon. Wu Chow had an image made, with the never-to-be-written personal name, date of birth, etc., of the Emperor inscribed thereon. She then struck five large nails of peach wood into its body. This image she managed to secrete in the apartment of the Empress. Then coming in tears before the Emperor, she besought him to institute a search, as her own life and even his were in danger.
The image was found, and the sin of the Empress seemed certain. The whole story was reported in the conclave of suddenly summoned ministers. One of them pleaded that there must be some mistake. But the Empress' fair name was gone. To render her disgrace more complete, Wu Chow strangled an infant princess, and accused the Empress of the crime. Upon which Kao Chung imprisoned his brother-in-law, who died soon after ; banished his Empress to a secluded part of the palace, and raised Wu Chow to her vacated place.
On the morning after the celebration of this latter event with a magnificent feast, the deposed Empress, who had heard the sounds of revelry, gave birth to a son, whom she called Li Tan , which signifies dawn.
|Baby Li Tan|
On receipt of the news, Wu Chow began to fear for her own position, and secretly summoned the eunuch Teu Hwui to her presence, bidding him go that night to the ex-Empress' apartment and murder both mother and son. Teu Hwui bowed assent and took the proffered reward.
On his reaching the chamber and explaining his commission, a most pathetic scene ensued. But his heart was loyal ; and, far from taking life, he was willing to risk his own by carrying the infant to a place of safety. His plan was to flee to the King of Kiangsha, a relative of the Empress.
If he were really true, the Empress said, she could die without regret. Being at length assured of his sincerity, she bit her finger till it bled, and wrote a gory letter to the King of Kiangsha. Then embracing her babe, she sobbed out, ' Alas, my child, that you should be born in such evil days, that you and I should have to part so soon. But the good Teu Hwui will take care of you. Do not cry, will you ? And when you are grown up, you will see this blood-written letter, and think of your poor mother, won't you ? ' The infant smiled.
She gave her child to his deliverer, and as they went, her heart was pierced through as with a sword. Then she and her two faithful maids strangled themselves. Hearing of which, Wu Chow exclaimed that a thorn had been plucked from her eye. But, alas, that Li Tan had escaped !
Teu Hwui with his precious bundle arrived safely at Kiang-sha just as the ' King ' was feasting with some friends, one of whom was Ma Chow, was a brave warrior and a fearless censor. After a secret consultation it was agreed to bring up the infant in the inner apartments of his yamun, and to publicly announce that the King of Kiangsha had a grandson.
Years passed, and one evening at the capital city of Chang-ngan , the lantern festival of the first month was celebrated with unusual splendour, bringing vast crowds from the neighbouring towns and villages. The streets were crammed with sightseers, and, during the excitement, a young man of high rank named Shieh Kang, who had been drinking heavily, created a great disturbance. The Emperor Kao Chung and his favourites were sitting in a turreted loft enjoying the sights, until one of the princes went down and mixed in the crowd, to be killed by a kick from the wine-maddened man. The Emperor hearing thereof, hurried towards the stairs, and having been drinking freely, missed his footing, fell, and died.
Shieh Kang escaped in the universal panic by opening up a gory road. But a terrible retribution was meted out by the Empress Wu to the loyal and lordly family of the Shiehs. Three hundred and eighty-odd persons greybeards grown old in the Imperial warfare and service, women of virtue and beauty, and children too, who had been the hope of that ancient clan all were beheaded in one day. By such means as these did the merciless woman make good her seat upon the coveted throne, occupied long enough, to her thinking, by the Imperial weakling.
But before openly assuming the Imperial prerogatives, she first raised a son of hers to the nominal post of emperor. He was a mere puppet in the hands of his mother ; and before a month had passed, he contentedly resigned the powers of government to his mother, who relegated him to a state of virtual confinement, assuming the full attributes of supreme power, which she continued to wield for nearly twenty years, putting to death many heads of chief families, and committing, if history be true, many unspeakable crimes . Meanwhile, in the seclusion of his ' grandfather's ' yamun at Kiangsha, Li Tan grew up to boyhood, noble of feature and undoubtedly clever. He had been carefully trained in book study, in writing and drawing, in the music of the harpsichord and flute, and could play a game of chess with the ' King ' himself. Added to this he was a good archer though only a mere youth when the news came of the deposition of the puppet Emperor.
|Li Tan grew up to boyhood|
A large army was sent to withstand them, commanded by near relatives of the Empress Wu. The city was taken by stratagem of a very ignoble sort, and two of Li Tan's generals were killed. The young prince only saved himself by solitary flight ; disguised as a menial, he made his way to the city of Tungchow , where, having no resources, the heir-apparent to the throne of the eighteen provinces became a beggar on the streets, who had to be well content with an old temple as his resting-place at night.
One day he applied for alms at the shop of a wealthy man named Hu Fah, who, seeing a lad of cinnabar lips, clear features, intelligent eyes, and long-lobed ears, guessed that he was no ordinary beggar, and inquired into his history. He replied that his surname was Ma, and his own name Yin , signifies obscurity , that both his parents were dead, and that, in consequence of disturbances at the capital, he had become a refugee. Hu Fah inquired whether he had any abilities. He replied that his grandfather had caused him to be instructed in music, chess, books, and drawing. Whereat Hu Fah said that he was in need of an account-keeper and serving-man who could dust, sweep, bring in the tea and rice, and make himself generally useful. The youth agreed to do so, and his employer altered his name to one more suggestive of good fortune to the business, calling him Tsin-shing [approaching prosperity].
Hu Fah had never been noted for overmuch generosity, but his wife was a stingy shrew. She made things very unpleasant for three days, saying that the young vagabond would eat their rice to their own starvation. The sting of her gentle remonstrances lay in the fact that in the house, living on their rice, were a sister-in-law and a niece of Hu Fah's. Their own daughter had been brought up and educated with the said niece by their scholarly, but lately deceased brother-in-law ; but this was forgotten now.
One day when Tsin-shing (as Li Tan was now called) was clearing away the bowls, the scholar's widow noticed that he was very thinly clad, and, though miserably treated herself, managed to find him an old wadded garment, receiving which with all gratitude, Tsin-shing caught a glimpse of her daughter, which glimpse aroused his interest. And no wonder, for Fung-kiao was a maiden of incomparable beauty. To a wise and modest disposition, which revealed itself in her features, may be added the fact that she had attained a high degree of proficiency in study, in music, chess, and drawing. Her abilities in one of these directions was soon to be put to the proof.
The same evening, her mother suggested that Fung-kiao should play on the harpsichord. The plaintive sounds reached the ears of a ' sympathetic listener,' for Tsin-shing's dormitory was the wood-shed adjoining. He walked quietly forth, made a little hole in the tissue paper window, then standing outside until the pathetic strains overcame him, he gently knocked and entered.
His presence was greeted with due surprise ; but what with his refined looks and his apologetic explanations, Fung- kiao's mother began to feel so much at home with him that she persuaded her daughter to continue her music, while she enlarged upon the causes of its plaintiveness. The widow and fatherless were treated as mere slaves by Hu Fall's wife, who subjected them to daily insults. The story of their woes filled the heart of the young prince with tenderest sympathy, and after he had told his somewhat fictitious history, he responded to the invitation of the ill-treated lady to play a while. After doing so, he retired. There are mingled thoughts, the sum total of which may be more restful than sleep. There is a companionship in adversity which may be more heart-soothing than solitary splendour. And so the prince in the wood-shed found that night.
The night was not destined to be dreamless as far as the widow was concerned. A demigod in golden armour appeared to her, congratulating the lady and her daughter upon much approaching prosperity, uttering a poetic message for her comfort. After which a ruby sun appeared, and sounds as of thunder shook the place.
She awoke with a start, and related the dream to her daughter. As also the fact that while the serving-lad was playing the harpsichord so well, she observed that he had upon his hand a birth-mark referred to in the dream poem, a mark corresponding to one upon the hand of her daughter. Anon with early dawn came the nurse of Hu Pah's own daughter. She too had a dream, in which a demigod clad in golden armour commanded her to become matchmaker between Tsin-shing and Fung-kiao.
That evening, after the rest of the family had retired, Tsin-shing came in by appointment, and a comparison of hands ensued, the dreams being related also. Tsin-shing replied with all humility that he was unworthy of having his name coupled with that of Fung-kiao. But that maiden's mother represented to him that the match was all the more desirable, as fulfilling the suggestion of Heaven rather than his own. He was more than delighted, and saluted his prospective mother-in-law with a deep obeisance. He then produced a gem (which his Empress-mother had long ago entrusted to Teu Hwui for him), and gave it, with injunctions of secrecy, as a betrothal token to his own affianced bride, then retired for the night.
They examined the gem in the lamp-light, and were amazed to see that the device thereon consisted of the five-clawed Imperial dragon ; which set them wondering what manner of person the serving-lad could be.
It must be explained that Hu Fah's own daughter had been recently married to a certain Ma Ti, the conceited son of a military graduate. Also that Fung-kiao had another cousin, the daughter of Hu Fah's deceased sister. This cousin was named Lwan-kiao. She had a worthy husband, whose name was Ch'eng Tsin.
The day approached when Ma Ti was to come and bring his bride to see her parents, and partake of a feast which should be provided on that occasion. Previous to the intended visit, Hu Fah's wife told the elder of the two ladies that she and her daughter were to keep close, their garments not being fit to be seen. To their great disappointment, she locked them up in an outhouse, with a limited supply of cold rice to keep them alive, and a rather unlimited supply of hemp twine for them to work up into skeins.
Lwan-kiao, who had ever been a faithful friend, made inquiries of the nurse, and heard how matters stood, including the dreams and consequent betrothal, this latter after Lwan- kiao had expressed a devout wish that her cousin might soon find a good husband, who would free her and her mother from such treatment. At the betrothal news Lwan-kiao was delightfully surprised.
Her husband, Ch'eng Tsin, on seeing the serving-lad, treated him with marked respect. He persisted, in spite of Hu Fah's remonstrances, that the lad was no ordinary youth, but was surely destined for a high position some day. At this, Hu Fah exclaimed that like could only produce like, ' the dragon bears dragons ; the phoenix, phoenixes. He is of the lower classes. Can a dog grow a horn upon its head and become a celestial unicorn ? '
Ch'eng Tsin continuing to be respectful to the young man, the guests took Hu Fah's part. The leader in such derision was the objectionable Ma Ti, who was inflated with family pride. Matters came to a crisis at the banquet, from which Ma Ti rose in high dudgeon, and went outside to show his skill in archery, hitting a certain branch of a willow tree at the other end of the garden, as he had promised he could. The guests complimented him on his achievement.
Tsin-shing, however, emboldened by the geniality of Ch'eng Tsin, asked to be allowed to hit a flying crow in the neck. Hu Fah cursed him with such epithets as ' dog-slave.' But Ch'eng Tsin carried the day. The serving-lad took the bow, waited till the looked-for bird came in sight, and shot. The crow came fluttering down with the arrow through his neck. The guests, with one exception, applauded the deed.
Ma Ti, choking down his wrath and shame, went off in a rage. When the others had dispersed, Hu Fah, with many a curse, ordered his serving-lad to lie down arid be beaten. ' I should like to kill the vagabond myself,' cried Ma Ti's bride, who was remaining with her parents. Thus urged, Hu Fah beat the lad most fiercely, and but for Lwan-kiao's entreaties, the story of Li Tan would have ended here.
' Now, get up, you son of Cerberus ! ' shouted Hu Fah ; but the prince was so battered about that he could not rise.
So a coolie of the house was told to pick him up and throw him on to his bed in the wood-shed. The orders were obeyed with unnecessary violence.
The heir-apparent could hardly move, but his sufferings at the hand of Hu Fah called forth the keenest sympathy of Fung-kiao and her mother. The latter managed to secure a little of the leavings of the feast for him, telling him, what her red eyes had already declared, how great was her grief at his woe, telling him also that her daughter was inconsolable.
He replied by regretting his forgetfulness of his position in daring to show his skill at archery ; and making light of his own aches and pains, tried to comfort her. Nor was she to stay too long for fear their kindness might involve them in fresh insults. Then he poured out his gratitude, and finally sent a message to his betrothed.
Next day Lwan-kiao greeted the widow and her daughter with all affection, bidding them to take all possible care of Tsin-shing, and urging them to try and get him away out of such a ' heaven-net earth-gauze ' house as soon as possible. At which stage Ma Ti's wife passed close by as she was leaving. She saw them, but she pretended she did not.
It was a full month before the young prince was able to get about, during which time he had repeated visits from the 'nurse' and his mother-in-law, who sometimes brought Fung-kiao with her.
Soon after his recovery, five soldiers, who had been going about the streets for some time, were driven by a heavy downpour of rain to take shelter under the eaves of Hu Fah's shop. Standing there, and looking in, they saw their prince. They were trusty followers of Ma Chow, who had been searching everywhere for Li Tan. The leader of the little band was recognised by the prince, who made signs that each should take no notice of the other. They entered, bought an article or two, then went out again. The serving-lad went out too on some pretence, and having reached a secluded spot, the five soldiers knelt down and did their prince homage, beseeching him with all earnestness to mount one of their horses and fly at once to Ma Chow's camp on a certain hill.
He replied that he had been in Hu Fah's house for seven months, during which time he had received great kindness from his employer's sister-in-law ; that he, moreover, was betrothed to her daughter, and could not leave without bidding them farewell. He asked them, therefore, to come again at night, and wait for him outside the back door. They reluctantly assented to the delay, praying him not to divulge his identity. Having assured them that he would not, he returned to his drudgery.
' When the golden wheel had dropped behind the hills,' and Hu Fah and his household were asleep, the prince went into the kitchen, and told his friends that an uncle of his had sought him out and sent for him. Fung-kiao's mother heard the news with mingled feelings. Her daughter looked at him with a searching glance, then hung her head and wept.
The widow asked who this uncle really was. He replied that he could only say that he was a rich man who had just come into office, but that he himself would come or send for them at the earliest opportunity. She exhorted him, now that he had come to great honour, not to forget his poor friends, and take some rich beauty to wife. He responded by an appeal to the all-recording Heaven. The faithful matchmaker reminded him of the mark on his hand. Which called forth the prayer that he might be visited with the heaviest retribution if he forgot his much-loved benefactors.
The five men were then called in, and the two ladies introduced. When lo, they knelt down before them ! Which called forth fresh inquiries from the widow. Li Tan explained that such was the custom of the camp.
The prince could not leave without bidding farewell to Ch'eng-Tsin. The bodyguard of five protested that the affairs of the camp were urgent, but seeing that his heart was set upon the visit, went with him. The doors were bolted. But at length Ch'eng Tsin appeared, and let them into his study. Nor was the kind-hearted Lwan-kiao far off. She was listen- ing behind a screen. The prince explained the state of affairs, and implored them to take care of his future wife and her mother. Lwan-kiao could remain in hiding no longer, but advanced to add her own to the already received exhortations to fidelity.
' The affairs of the camp are urgent,' again protested the leader of the band. That parting over, a longer and more lingering farewell was taken of his yet dearer friends.
' The affairs of the camp are urgent.' again pleaded the soldier, and soon they were safely outside the city gates, which closed at midnight.
Meanwhile Ma Chow, in his hill-top camp, was in great distress. A party of seekers had returned after a long absence to say that they could find no trace of the prince. At this the brave old veteran was unable to hold back his choking sobs. His brother general exhorted him not to lose heart, or the army could not be kept together. So he endeavoured to maintain a forced cheerfulness, hoping for, yet dreading, the return of the remaining party still away on search. It was hard work as day after day went by.
But one day a messenger galloped up to the camp, gasping out, ' The prince is found ! The prince is found ! He is at the foot of the hill.'
Ma Chow's tears burst forth unrestrained now. As for his army, the men leaped and shouted till the earth shook. Then all doubled down the hill, fell into line, and knelt before their rightful monarch. The customary salute for an emperor is ' Myriad years [may you live] ' ; that for a prince is ' Thousand years ! ' And now was the prince saluted with cries of ' Thousand years ! Thousand years ! Thousand thousand years !' Then came confessions of failure on the one hand, and grateful commendations on the other. After which, with the whole army for bodyguard, the prince was escorted up the hill in triumph. Cattle were slaughtered, and a great feast prepared.
In a few days consultations were held as to the desirability of taking a city where the prince could live in such style as his position warranted. The choice fell upon Han-yang, as being an important place, with rich revenues, and near Kiangsha. A portion of the army was sent thither, but the ruler of the city, a man of great courage and powers, being persuaded at length of Li Tan's claims and Ma Chow's loyalty, received the commander hospitably, and sent him back with injunctions to bring the prince without delay. The news being carried back, Ma Chow congratulated his imperial protégé on such a good omen at the initial stage of his career a city taken without blood- shed. And with all the glories of a triumphal march, the prince entered the gates, and assumed the rulership of the city.
But the news soon reached the capital, and an army of 100,000 strong was sent to dispossess and capture Li Tan. Previous to the battle, as indeed before all old-time battles, the champions from either side stood forth and stated their cause, then indulged in a wordy battle of boastful recrimination. Two of the boasters, brothers of Empress Wu's commander-in-chief, were killed at the first onset, and the over-confident army repulsed. They were rallying for a second attack, when a despatch arrived to say that trouble had broken out on the frontier from the inroads of the barbarian tribes, and that the troops were to march there at once.
Hanyang had thus a breathing space. Would it last, or would the revenge-fiercened hosts return ?
Meanwhile, how went it with Fung-kiao and her mother ? On Tsin-shing's disappearance, they suffered fresh indignities, being accused of facilitating his flight. Nor had they a scrap of news from him.
One day, when Hu Fah and his wife were out, they went to the shop-door to try and get a change of thought, when Ma Ti came along and caught sight of them. It was his first sight of Fung-kiao. She retreated in haste, but her mother, proceeding rather slowly, was caught up by the objectionable man, who gave her an ounce of silver to buy a new garment or two. With part of it she procured some refreshments for the donor, as Hu Fah did not come back till evening. Ma Ti greeted him with apparent heartiness, and, in a by-the-way style, informed him that ' the young scoundrel Tsin-shing ' had been convicted of robbery with violence, and was awaiting sentence of death in prison.
Fung-kiao's mother was greatly alarmed. Not so the damsel herself. She was highly indignant at such a lie from ' the evil-faced Ma Ti.' Her mother protested that he was a generous man, and had given her an ounce of silver.
'Yes, for some evil purpose,' exclaimed the discreet maiden.
That purpose caused him to ask if he might be allowed to remain and study in Hu Fah's house. His own was so noisy. Hu Fah was only too glad to regain the good graces of his son-in-law, and, having no scholarship himself, longed that he might add the lustre of a degree to the family. The ladies keeping themselves closely concealed for some days, Ma Ti's next move was to feign illness. His mother accordingly sent him an old crony as nurse. He divulged the cause of his indisposition to her, and a preliminary fee of five ounces of silver made her a very ' sympathetic listener ' indeed. She promised to get him Fung-kiao for his second wife.
Worn out by long-continued slavery, Fung-kiao's mother replied to the old dame's overtures with evident reluctance. Her daughter was already engaged, though she did not at all like the recent news. Fung-kiao, however, hearing of the old woman's mission, delivered her soul in somewhat forcible style, bidding the go-between make good her exit, or she would accelerate it with what muscular force she possessed.
Her overtures having failed, the old woman suggested as a palliative that Ma Ti should secrete himself in the kitchen, where mother and daughter went every evening to wash up. He caught at the suggestion with such avidity that he would ' fain have pushed the sun down the hill.' Evening came at last, and he managed with some difficulty to secrete himself within a large hencoop, ' crawling in sideways like the old tortoise that he was.'
As the two entered to do their work, Fung-Kiao's sharp eyes caught sight of the enemy in ambush, but she said nothing. Instead, she began busying herself shovelling up the hot ashes under the stove, and threw the contents of dustpan after dustpan upon the hencoop. She then scoured the oily cooking-pan with silk-melon fibre, and wishing it had been oilier, threw the greasy water over the hencoop also.
Their other occupations over, they retired. But Hu Fah, who had seen them leave the kitchen, felt sure that he heard strange noises there. ' It must be burglars,' he thought to himself. There was the sound again ! ' Burglars ! ' he cried. ' Burglars ! ' he roared, until the whole household took up the cry, and came in armed with stout cudgels, coolie poles, door bars, and the like. Fung-kiao's mother snatched up a long-handled grass broom; Mrs. Hu a roll of matting. The burglar was hid in the hencoop ; and, strong in numbers, the well-armed force belaboured the flimsy structure with might and main, until the burglar moaned for mercy, then emerged with difficulty, to display the bedraggled person of Hu Fah's son-in-law. All but two laughed in their sleeves. But Hu Fah cried, ' He must be mad ! And such a promising-student ! Such a good man ! Alas, he is certainly mad ! '
As Ma Ti was so bad as all this, his wife must be sent for to nurse him. But being now ' a thorn in his eye,' her presence did not minister to his happiness. He behaved all the more strangely when she came, staring wildly at her as though he had never seen her before (and, when her back was turned, glaring at her as though he had both seen and heard her once or twice too often). He was therefore sent home to be nursed by motherly hands, his wife and the old go-between electing to stay behind.
After a few days, Ma Ti thought fit to recover. His first work was now to secure five men, whom he feed considerably to scatter evil reports about the city, until a story of Tsin-shing's having killed the keeper of the jail was in everybody's mouth.
At Fung-kiao's request, the ' nurse ' besought Ch'eng Tsin to inquire at all the yamuns as to whether there was any truth in the current reports. Of course there was none. It was, however, suggested that she should pay a visit to a famous temple to the goddess of mercy, some distance from the city, to learn his actual fate. Her mother well-nigh persecuted her on the subject, until she agreed to go the very next day.
Hearing which, the old crony counsellor of Ma Ti went and told him. The news disarmed his pent-up anger. He immediately sent for the two Buddhist nuns who had charge of the temple, and gave them a preliminary sum of a hundred taels. He then arranged to secrete himself in an apartment of the lonely place, and force Fung-kiao into a marriage.
Mother and daughter went and laid the matter before the Bodhisattva Guan Yin, then drew a lot, which the nun who was at home said she could not interpret, but the other ' sister ' would be back very soon, and she was a wondrous scholar. Fung-kiao, however, having her own interpretation of the very ambiguous message, wanted to return at once, but her mother insisted on her staying. So the two occupied themselves in reading the numerous testimonial tablets which adorned the walls, ' Asking brings certain response,' ' Motherly heart granted a son,' ' Great in efficacy,' and the like being the chief mottoes.
The other ' sister ' came at length, panting as though from a long outing. She apologised profusely ; then, without asking any particulars concerning Fung-kiao's betrothed, displayed a really wonderful knowledge of his history and his awful but deserved doom. The latter Fung-kiao vigorously disputed, and insisted on going back at once. But, lo and behold, their sedan chairs had disappeared ! The temple servant being sent for fresh ones, did not return. It was sundown, and the temple doors were shut by the nuns. Then Ma Ti came forth and showed himself.
They were in sore straits. But Fung-kiao required him to fulfil three conditions. ' A myriad,' was the reply. The first was that the marriage should be celebrated in due form, with red candles, lamps, and all the customary rites ; that she should live apart from her cousin ; and that Ma Ti would care for her mother. He gave an eager assent. They then retired into a side chamber to wash, and arrange their garments. The old go-between proffered her assistance, but was indignantly refused. The door having been shut, they gave vent to their feelings in tearful lamentations, and resolved to commit suicide.
The crows outside were cawing. ' Alas, my betrothed, the crows are happy, and we are moaning here.
The birds have each a roosting- place, but what resting-place is there for us this side the yellow springs ? Art thou indeed there, as the depraved nun declared ? If so, we join thee.' And they wept on each other's necks, then untied their girdles to strangle themselves when a ' star of rescue ' appeared.
After displaying more patience than his mother would have thought possible in a lifetime, Ma Ti went to the door and peered through a crack. He could see no one there ! He called gently, then loudly, but no response. The doors were then opened by being lifted out of the lower hinge sockets. The room was empty ! What could have happened ? They seemed to have dissolved into thin air ! Perhaps they had ascended the skies !
The red temple lamps, which were to have shed a ruby light over a marriage ceremony, were now taken down and carried all over the temple, then out into the enclosure.
They searched up and down, the disappointed man, his five men-servants, the old hag, and the two devotees of the motherly-hearted goddess, but could find no trace of them. ' But look ! There, on the wall, the moss has been crushed a little, and the chamber lattice is open.' With fresh energy, the party went outside the wall, but could not even find a footprint.
' To think,' growled Ma Ti, ' that such a fine piece of mutton should be lost as it was nearing the mouth.' With not even a scent of ' mutton,' the disappointed villain and his servants slouched home, to find Ma Ti's wife returned, and fully prepared to make a few remarks.
Where had the ladies gone ? It happened that a serving-man of their former household, having gone to the city of Tungchow with a present of grain for them, heard that they had not returned, and learning the bent of Ma Ti's mind, left the present in the house, and hurried off in his little boat, rowing might and main to the bank hard by the temple. Then going on shore, he found the doors closed, but an unusually brilliant light in the main building. Following the wall, he discerned a ray of light from a side lattice, thought he heard sounds of wailing, climbed up a willow tree, called to his late mistress, got her to open the window, pulled them one after the other over the moss-grown wall, took them to his boat, and rowed down with the stream.
The ladies having a rich relative in Lingchow, the boat-man took them thither. It was morning when they arrived. The boatman went ashore, found the mansion where they lived, but the lady of the house, being afraid of lowering the family, would not consent to receive them. While the boat-man was delivering his message, a heavy shower began. There was no cover to the boat, and its passengers were soon very wet. Seeing which, an old nun, standing in a temple porch on the river bank, asked them in, and hearing of their recent repulse, told them that the son of the lady who had treated them so shabbily, a young man of virtuous and generous disposition, had passed by that way, and would probably return by the same road shortly. Meanwhile they must dry their outer garments, and partake of some frugal refreshments.
Before long, Wen-teh [literary virtue], the young man referred to, being caught in the rain, came in. He was much grieved at his mother's conduct, went home and expostulated with her. She excused herself by saying she was afraid her son would not like such folks to come into the house. This being the only alleged reason, he soon disposed of her scruples, and entreated her to send a couple of chairs and two changes of garments to the temple. When the guests arrived, she received them with many apologies, and the recital of their misfortunes moved her to tears. But here matters were destined to be complicated by the fact that Wen-teh, from his first sight of Fung-kiao, longed much for her.
Meanwhile a second army sent against Hanyang had been guilty of such enormities on the way thither, that the citizens of the cities which lay between the capital and Li Tan's district had fled into the country. One of these cities was Tungchow. Its houses and shops were bolted and barred, and the streets emptied, for fear of their own army !
Wen-teh's longing having reached the point of supplication, Fung-kiao's mother thought it a stroke of policy to send him to Tungchow, to ask permission of Hu Fah, whom she knew to have fled with the rest. She did not like to give her benefactor the direct no ; and the argument that such a weighty matter should not be settled by an old woman, seemed orthodox enough. Off he went in his eagerness, to find, however, what Fung-kiao's mother had not bargained for that Hu Fah had just returned. The middleman's present being a very heavy one, Hu Fah felt that here was Heaven's compensation for his generosity to the ladies, about whose welfare he had made numerous inquiries. The ' eight characters ' of Fung-kiao's year, month, day and hour of birth being made out, Wen-teh returned with great exultation, for the betrothal was now legally complete.
When Fung-kiao heard of it, a scene ensued which brought out her faithfulness to her Tsin-shing, and also Wen-teh's true heartedness. Then the maiden retired to her chamber, and refused to eat or drink day after day. She pined away, until one day she ceased to breathe. Her spirit ascended the skies, but the attendants of the Supreme were ordered to return it to her body, as her life-destiny was not yet fulfilled. As consciousness returned, Wen-teh, with all generosity, gave into her hands the dearly-bought document, after which her recovery became rapid, and cheerfulness returned with the glow of health.
Nothing more being said about the engagement, she thought the matter had been dropped ; they thought her friendliness with Wen-teh was a sign of willingness to marry him, and so made preparations for that event. The guests were invited, and the red cloth upon which the young couple were to kneel was spread. Only then did Fung-kiao realise her position. She was brought forth, but stood erect. They remonstrated with her, and at length, seeing no way of escape, no ' star of hope,' but only the kindness of her benefactors, she obeyed the promptings of the attendant women, and went silently through the ceremony. Then saying she was ill, she went to her room, and became once more a voluntary prisoner. Wen-teh could only inquire about her health ; she would not look at him.
Some days passed thus, when she said she had had a dream, in which the spirit of her deceased Tsin-shing appeared to her, asking that a sacrifice should be offered to his memory in mid-river some distance away, after which she might own Wen-teh as her husband. She then wrote a letter, and put it into a box, which she left unlocked.
They went off in a large house-boat, wherein a feast was spread. Her mother and Wen-teh, wishing, to humour her, yielded to her persuasions, and partook freely of the good cheer provided, she herself more sparingly. They then retired to rest, the sacrifice being fixed for the morrow.
When all was silent, Fung-kiao crept forth, sprang lightly on shore, then walked on in the moonlight until she came to a high-arched bridge over a creek, and taking her farewell of heaven, earth, and her mother, thanking her creators and preservers for unnumbered kindnesses, she bemoaned her lot thus early to die on that lovely, emotion-waking, moonlight night. Then she jumped off the boat into the flowing water.
The consternation upon Wen-teh's boat some hours after may be imagined. They traced her footprints to the bridge, and wept in anguish. The sacrifice prepared for Tsin-shing was offered for the benefit of her own spirit. This over, they returned, to find a note in her chamber explaining all. It called forth some noble words from Wen-teh. 'My cousin, he cried, ' why did you do this ? Why did you not tell me ? I would have given you up after marriage, as I did for a while after betrothal. I would have done anything, or suffered anything, to have saved you from any pain ; how much more from this ! ' Then he broke down completely.
Fung-kiao was not drowned. Just as she fell into the water, a mandarin's boat was descending the stream, and she was picked up by the boat-hooks of the crew. She was just alive. Restoratives being given her, she slowly came back to the upper world, to find herself upon a boat belonging to a certain official named T'ao, chief mandarin of the prefecture of Shangchow. She was glad to change her name, and became an attendant of the mandarin's daughter. We will leave her in that position.
The prince had by no means forgotten his promise to his betrothed. But affairs all along had been unsettled ; and whenever he broached the matter, his generals urged the plea that State matters must be put first, especially at a time when his loyal soldiers had long been separated from their wives and families. At length, however, he sent a party of trusty men to Tungchow, which he knew to be in the direct line of the enemy's march. The band arrived at Tungchow, to find the city depopulated at the approach of the Emperor's dis- orderly troops. Hu Fah's house was deserted, but a blind man, who had served them in years past, had been left behind in the general panic. Him they seized and brought before the prince.
Not knowing whom he was addressing, the blind man told part of the tale already given, adding many a reproach on the faithless young rascal who had been the cause of the misery and disappearance of Fung-kiao and her mother. The attendants drew their swords to silence the slander of their prince, but he restrained them, and gave vent to his woe.
' Oh, you have a scrap of conscience left, then. I will tell you something more. They are alive, being rescued by a boatman and taken to Lingchow. He had more gratitude than you with your robber bands.' At which the attendants removed the old man, who almost died with terror when he found that he had been reproaching the Imperial son of Kao Chung.
The young prince was all eagerness to send to Lingchow, but was effectually hindered therefrom, owing to the fact that the general of the opposing forces had enlisted the services of a Taoist magician, who possessed a wondrous talisman by which the city was held under a spell, which, at the decree of Heaven, just stopped short at the lives of the besieged. A consultation was held as to what should be done. Matters were indeed desperate. But one of the prince's officers said there was a counter talisman possessed by a mandarin of Shangchow, who, however, was a staunch adherent of the Empress, and whose son held office near the capital. This did not seem very hopeful ; but another general, with much diffidence, put forth a certain plan. He had a recently-deceased nephew, engaged to the daughter of the mandarin of Shang-chow. The family had never seen him, nor did they know that he was dead. Now, it happened that the prince was about his age. To remain in Hanyang would be dangerous ; to do as he was about to suggest could hardly be more so. Would the prince personate him, gain the confidence of the family, and secure the talisman ? The prince was grateful for the suggestion, and fell in with it at once. He managed to escape through the enemy's lines that night, and was soon fairly on his way.
Arrived at Shangchow, the ' son-in-law ' created a favourable impression. The day was fixed for the marriage, and the ceremony had to be gone through, when the bridegroom fell judiciously ill. He had nothing to say to T'ao's daughter, but had plenty of material for meditation, when a glance at her attendant revealed a wonderful likeness to Fung-kiao. Their eyes met for a moment. It was she ! But there was no lustre in that look ; for was he not married in spite of all his promises to another ? After some days of continued ' poorliness ' he managed to whisper in her ear that she must trust him in spite of all seeming, also that he would not leave without her this time.
He was not too ill to be much in conversation with the mandarin T'ao himself, and having felt his way to the subject, asked whether there was not an old talisman in the family. T'ao called his daughter, and told her to bring it out of the treasury. It was exhibited, and its uses explained, and the mandarin's daughter in a fit of anger told her ' invalid husband ' to take it back himself. This he did, carefully leaving all the doors unlocked except that in the outer wall. That night the talisman was secured, and one of Li Tan's followers sent off post-haste to Hanyang. ' Now, my lord, fly with us,' the other two said.
He would not leave his betrothed, however, and so remained a month or so, still ' poorly.' One day he managed, by pleading illness at a feast, to retire and have an interview with the maiden he loved. They both related their adventures, and as he drew near to the close, she asked him wonderingly what manner of man he really was.
' I am no other than Li Tan, son of the true Empress of Kao Chung,' was the reply. Could it be possible, she won- dered, that she was the only beloved of the heir to the Dragon Throne ? Her betrothed soon made that clear, and, with pro- mises of undying affection, not unaccompanied with kisses, the two poured out their pent-up emotion.
A knock at the door ! T'ao's daughter was calling.
Fung-kiao emerged, all blushes, to receive the curses and blows of her mistress. The prince could remain within no longer, and interposed to receive the blows instead.
Hearing the hubbub, the whole household collected. In the thick of the excitement, Fung-kiao dropped her precious gem.
It was picked up. The device thereon was seen to be the Imperial dragon, the significance of which was not lost upon the mandarin's wife, who went and showed it to her husband. In order to make sure, she hit upon the plan of getting the mandarin to tell his ' son-in-law ' that they knew of his fondness for Fung-kiao, and that although he himself would have had no objection to bestow her upon him as a second wife, it was out of the question, for she was already betrothed to Li Tan, son of the Emperor Kao Chung.
With a smiling face it was just after the feast and the blandest tones of voice, the mandarin Tao interviewed his ' son-in-law ' in the study. ' My noble son-in-law,' he said, ' you are in love with Fung-kiao, and it would not be difficult for me to bestow her upon you but for a certain reason,' which he gave, adding that he had been looking for an opportunity of sending her, with an adequate bodyguard, to Hanyang to greet her lord.
Being overcome with such an unexpected speech, what could the prince do but bow his thanks, and say, ' I will not deceive you ; I am no other than Li Tan, and will abundantly recompense your kindness some day.'
Outside the study ' walls have cracks and partitions have ears ' was one of the two remaining attendants, who, hearing the words, glided out in great trepidation, saddled his horse, and flew towards Hanyang.
Having extorted the confession from the prince, T'ao bowed his apologies for neglect of suitable entertainment, multiplied his expressions of abject contrition, and fixed an auspicious day on which to escort them both. For which Li Tan devoutly thanked him. He then retired, commanded his underlings to secure all the outer doors, and hastened to his wife, saying, ' It is so. He is Li Tan. I could send a messenger to the Empress, who would have him taken alive. But then our daughter will object. If I send him to Hanyang, the lives of the family may be endangered. What do you advise in this dilemma ? '
T'ao's right-hand man and near relative, named Shü-yin, knelt, and urged that the Empress Wu was a usurper, and that the true heir to the throne was his daughter's husband. As Shü-yin was himself in love with Fung-kiao, this plea was not without a touch of loyal self-forgetfulness. But T'ao's daughter interrupted him in somewhat violent language. Shü-yin's mother replied by representing that the mandarin's daughter was now the rightful Empress ; would she not on that account decide for the life of the prince ?
' What demon haunts you ? ' screamed T'ao's daughter. ' He has not made the country his, nor does he care for me. The Empress Wu has the land. Li Tan has just one city and very few soldiers. You would destroy the whole family. Seize him ! Deliver him up to the Empress, and get her high reward. Thus say I.'
' Is that your final decision ? ' asked her father.
' What is it to do with me ? If you want to annihilate the whole family, let him go.'
Thus persuaded, T'ao gave orders that the prince should be seized. Hearing which, Li Tan hurried forth to plead for his life. But as he knelt, T'ao's daughter pushed him violently over, crying, 'Don't talk to me! Go to your Fung-kiao.' The underlings rushed forward immediately, ' fierce as wolves and tigers,' and bound the prostrate prince. But someone else rushed forward, and held him fast, crying, 'My husband, I have brought all this upon you !'
The underlings tried to separate them, but the maiden clung to her lord with superhuman strength. Sh-üyin pleaded that if Fung-kiao would not let him go, they need not try and separate the pair. The mandarin T'ao ordered, therefore, that both should be secured in the same wooden cage, and put into the inner prison. He then wrote a despatch to the capital, sending it by two couriers, and when these had gone, ordered all the city gates to be closed.
With the aid of the counter charm, the troops at Han-yang had utterly routed the enemy, and began to make preparations to bring the prince and his bride back. But just as the bodyguard was starting, a horseman appeared on a jaded steed, gasping out, ' The prince has confessed who he is ! '
Ma Chow was greatly alarmed. ' He is doubtless seized,' he cried; 'perhaps on his way to the capital. Call three hundred more picked men.' And with the speed of wildfire, they galloped on for three days, until they came to a certain fork in the road. ' That leads to the capital. The messengers will pass here.'
He had hardly spoken when two men galloped up. ' Stop ! ' cried Ma Chow ; ' who are you ? '
' Imperial couriers.'
' Give up your despatches.'
' You bold slave, the Imperial despatches are not for you.'
' The vile usurper ! Imperial indeed ! Seize them ! '
' It was done, the despatches secured, read, and torn to fragments.'
' Now choose, you two, death or life ! '
' Pardon us ! ' cried both men, bowing to the ground. '
The gates of Shangchow were opened to the Imperial couriers, and the whole company rushed in, made their way to the prison, burst it open, and secured the cage.
It was now the turn of T'ao and his family to plead for their lives. T'ao's daughter alone was deemed beyond pardon and full acquittance, and the prince and his bride were con- ducted in triumph to the now peaceful city of Hanyang, where, amid general festivities and rejoicings, their marriage was consummated.
Several cities fell to the prince, his army being augmented by various contingents. The populace around were exceedingly friendly to his rule, and the Empress thought best to acknowledge Li Tan as a prince of the realm. So the time seemed ripe for his going off to Tungchow to seek out his former friends. He was disguised as a scholar, and his bodyguard as household servants. They were seen by Ma Ti, who treated them very badly, binding and imprisoning them in a garden pavilion, where they were visited by the nurse of Hu Fah's household, whose patience was somewhat tried, for they were purposely dumb. She, however, went and told Ch'eng Tsin and his wife (Fung-kiao's genial cousin). Ch'eng Tsin bought off Tsin-shing for fifty taels, then accompanied him and his attendants to Lingchow, where Fung-kiao's mother was living in sorrow ; well cared for, however, by Wen-teh.
That generous young man, on seeing ' Tsin-shing,' was so affected at the latter's bereavement, and his own unintentional part therein, that he proposed another match an eligible one for him. The offer was not accepted.
The prince's generals, fearing for his safety, sent a strong body of soldiers to Tungchow, and thence to Lingchow. Wen-teh, hearing that Tsin-shing was no other than the prince who ruled over a section of the Empire, prepared for execution, as having been guilty of causing Fung-kiao's death. His mother was first to meet the prince, and begged that in her death the rest of the family might find pardon. Kindly hands raised her from the ground, and kindly lips thanked her. But Wen-teh, knowing nothing of this, rushed forward, bound himself, and, prostrate in the dust, confessed the wrongs he had done, beseeching that, after his death-sentence had been pronounced, his mother might be spared.
Full of emotion, the prince stooped down, untied his bonds, lifted him up, and told him that Fung-kiao lived as his wedded consort, called him his benefactor, and there and then raised him with the prince's other friends to high office. On Wen-teh's wife for he was now married a special title was conferred also. Nor was Lwan-kiao forgotten.
Hu Fah, his wife and daughter, for whom Fung-kiao had pleaded, were permitted to live, but were fined heavily. The fines were bestowed upon Shü-yin of T'ao's household. Ma Ti and the two nuns were executed, as they richly deserved.
After some years, the Empress Wu having died, Prince Li Tan removed to the capital city of Perpetual Peace, and ascended the dragon throne.
He was succeeded by his second son, who, under the title of the Lustrous Emperor, reigned for forty-four years, and is one of the most celebrated sovereigns in Chinese history.