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Joining the Immortals

A MR. CHOU, of Wen-teng, had in his youth been fellow-student with a Mr. Ch'eng, and a firm friendship was the result. The latter was poor, and depended very much upon Chou, who was the elder of the two. He called Chou's wife his "sister," and had the run of the house just as if he was one of the family. Now this wife happening to die in child-bed, Chou married another named Wang; but as she was quite a young girl, Ch'eng did not seek to be introduced. One day her younger brother came to visit her, and was being entertained in the " inner " apartments when Ch'eng chanced to call. The servant announced his arrival, and Chou bade him ask Mr. Ch'eng in. But Ch'eng would not enter, and took his leave. Thereupon Chou caused the entertainment to be moved into the public part of the house, and, sending after Ch'eng, succeeded in bringing him back. They had hardly sat down before some one came in to say that a former servant of the establishment had been severely beaten at the magistrate's yamen; the facts of the case being that a cow-boy of the Huang family connected with the Board of Rites had driven his cattle across the Chou family's land, and that words had arisen between the two servants in consequence; upon which the Huang family's servant had complained to his master, who had seized the other and had sent him in to the magistrate's, where he had been bambooed. When Mr. Chou found out what the matter was, he was exceedingly angry, and said, "How dares this pig-boy fellow behave thus? Why, only a generation ago his master was my father's servant! He emerges a little from his obscurity, and immediately thinks himself I don't know what!" Swelling with rage, he rose to go in quest of Huang, but Ch'eng held him back, saying, "The age is corrupt: there is no distinction between right and wrong. Beides, the officials of the day are half of them thieves, and you will only get yourself into hot water." Chou, however, would not listen to him; and it was only when tears were added to remonstrances that he consented to let the matter drop. But his anger did not cease, and he lay tossing and turning all night. In the morning he said to his family, "I can stand the insults of Mr. Huang; but the magistrate is an officer of the Government, and not the servant of influential people. If there is a case of any kind, he should hear both plaintiff and defendant, and not act like a dog, biting anybody he is set upon. I will bring an action against the cow-boy, and see what the magistrate will do to him. As his family rather egged him on, he accordingly proceeded to the magistrate's and entered a formal plaint; but that functionary tore up his petition, and would have nothing to do with it. This roused Chou's anger, and he told the magistrate plainly what he thought of him, in return for which contempt of court he was at once seized and bound. During the forenoon Mr. Ch'eng called at his house, where he learnt that Chou had gone into the city to prosecute the cow-boy, and immediately hurried after him with a view to stop proceedings. But his friend was already in the gaol, and all he could do was to stamp his foot in anger. Now it happened that three pirates had just been caught; and the magistrate and Huang, putting their heads together, bribed these fellows to say that Chou was one of their gang, whereupon the higher authorities were petitioned to deprive him of his status as a graduate, and the magistrate then had him most unmercifully bambooed. Mr. Ch'eng gained admittance to the gaol, and, after a painful interview, proposed that a petition should be presented direct to the Throne. "Alas!" cried Chou, "here am I bound and guarded, like a bird in a cage. I have indeed a young brother, but it is as much as he can do to provide me with food." Then Ch'eng stepped forward, saying, "I will perform this service. Of what use are friends who will not assist in the hour of trouble?" So away he went, and Chou's son provided him with money to de-fray his expenses. After a long journey he arrived at the capital, where he found himself quite at a loss as to how he should get the petition presented. However, hearing that the Emperor was about to set out on a hunting tour, he concealed himself in the market-place, and when His Majesty passed by, prostrated himself on the ground with loud cries and gesticulations. The Emperor received his petition, and sent it to the Board of Punish-ments, desiring to be furnished with a report on the case. It was then more than ten months since the beginning of the affair, and Chou, who had been made to confess to this false charge, was already under sentence of death; so that the officers of the Board were very much alarmed when they received the Imperial instructions, and set to work to re-hear the case in person. Huang was also much alarmed, and devised a plan for killing Mr. Chou by bribing the gaolers to stop his food and drink; so that when his brother brought provisions he was rudely thrust back and prevented from taking them in. Mr. Ch'eng complained of this to the Viceroy of the province, who investigated the matter himself, and found that Chou was in the last stage of starvation, for which the gaolers were bambooed to death. Terrified out of his wits, Huang, by dint of bribing heavily, succeeded in absconding and escaping a just punishment for his crimes. The magistrate, however, was banished for perversion of the law, and Chou was permitted to return home, his affection for Ch'eng being now very much increased. But ever after the prosecution and his friend's captivity, Mr. Ch'eng took a dismal view of human affairs, and one day invited Chou to retire with him from the world. The latter, who was deeply attached to his young wife, threw cold water on the proposition, and Mr. Ch'eng pursued the subject no farther, though his own mind was fully made up. Not seeing him for some days afterwards, Mr. Chou sent to inquire about him at his house; but there they all thought he was at Chou's, neither family, in fact, having seen anything of him. This looked suspicious, and Chou, aware of his peculiarity, sent off people to look for him, bidding them search all the temples and monasteries in the neighbourhood. He also from time to time supplied Ch'eng's son with money and other necessaries.

Eight or nine years had passed away when suddenly Ch'eng re-appeared, clad in a yellow cap and stole, and wearing the expression of a Taoist priest. Chou was delighted, and seized his arm, saying, "Where have you been? Letting me search for you all over the place." "The solitary cloud and the wild crane," replied Ch'eng, laughing, "have no fixed place of abode. Since we last met my equanimity has happily been restored." Chou then ordered wine, and they chatted together on what had taken place in the interval. He also tried to persuade Ch'eng to detach himself from the Taoist persuasion, but the latter only smiled and answered nothing. "It is absurd!" argued Chou. "Why cast aside your wife and child as you would an old pair of shoes?" "Not so," answered Ch'eng; "a man may wish to cast aside his son, but how can he do so?" Chou asked where he lived, to which he replied, "In the Great Pure Mansion on Mount Lao." They then retired to sleep on the same bed; and by-and-by Chou dreamt that Ch'eng was lying on his chest so that he could not breathe. In a fright he asked him what he was doing, but got no answer; and then he waked up with a start. Calling to Ch'eng and receiving no reply, he sat up and stretched out his hand to touch him. The latter, however, had vanished, he knew not whither. When he got calm, he found he was lying at Ch'eng' s end of the bed, which rather startled him. "I was not tipsy last night," reflected he; "how could I have got over here?" He next called his servants, and when they came and struck a light, lo! he was Ch'eng. Now Chou had had a beard, so he put up his hand to feel for it, but found only a few straggling hairs. He then seized a mirror to look at himself, and cried out in alarm: "If this is Mr. Ch'eng, where on earth am I?" By this time he was wide awake, and knew that Ch'eng had employed magic to induce him to retire from the world. He was on the point of entering the ladies' apartments; but his brother, not recognising who he was, stopped him, and would not let him go in; and as he himself was unable to prove his own identity, he ordered his horse that he might go in search of Ch'eng. After some days' journey he arrived at Mount Lao; and, as his horse went along at a good rate, the servant could not keep up with him. By-and-by he rested awhile under a tree, and saw a great number of Taoist priests going backwards and forwards, and among them was one who stared fixedly at him. So he inquired of him where he should find Ch'eng; whereat the priest laughed and said, "I know the name. He is probably in the Great Pure Mansion." When he had given this answer he went on his way, Chou following him with his eyes about a stone's throw, until he saw him speak with some one else, and, after saying a few words, proceed onwards as before. The person whom he had spoken with came on to where Chou was, and turned out to be a fellow-townsman of his. He was much surprised at meeting Chou, and said, "I haven't seen you for some years. They told me you had gone to Mount Lao to be a Taoist priest. How is it you are still amusing yourself among mortals?" Chou told him who he really was; upon which the other replied, "Why, I thought the gentleman I just met was you! He has only just left me, and can't have got very far." "Is it possible," cried Chou, "that I didn't know my own face?" Just then the servant came up, and away they went full speed, but could not discover the object of their search. All around them was a vast desert, and they were at a loss whether to go on or to return. But Chou reflected that he had no longer any home to receive him, and determined to carry out his design to the bitter end; but as the road was dangerous for riding, he gave his horse to the servant, and bade him go back. On he went cautiously by himself, until he spied a boy sitting by the wayside alone. He hurried up to him and asked the boy to direct him where he could find Mr. Ch'eng " I am one of his disciples," replied the lad; and, shouldering Chou's bundle, started off to shew the way. They journeyed on together, taking their food by the light of the stars, and sleeping in the open air, until, after many miles of road, they arrived in three days at their destination. But this Great Pure locality was not like that generally spoken of in the world. Though as late as the middle of the tenth moon, there was a great profusion of flowers along the road, quite unlike the beginning of winter. The lad went in and announced the arrival of a stranger, whereupon Mr. Ch'eng came out, and Chou recognised his own features. Ch'eng grasped his hand and led him inside, where he prepared wine and food, and they began to converse together. Chou noticed many birds of strange plumage, so tame that they were not afraid of him; and these from time to time would alight on the table and sing with voices like Pan-pipes. He was very much astonished at all this, but a love of mundane pleasures had eaten into his soul, and he had no intention of stopping. On the ground were two rush-mats, upon which Ch'eng invited his friend to sit down with him. Then about midnight a serene calm stole over him; and while he was dozing off for a moment, he seemed to change places with Ch'eng. Suspecting what had happened, he put his hand up to his chin, and found it covered with a beard as before. At dawn he was anxious to return home, but Ch'eng pressed him to stay; and when three days had gone by Ch'eng said to him, "I pray you take a little rest now: to-morrow I will set you on your way." Chou had barely closed his eyelids before he heard Ch'eng call out, "Everything is ready for starting!" So he got up and followed him along a road other than that by which he had come, and in a very short time he saw his home in the distance. In spite of Chou's entreaties, Ch'eng would not accompany him so far, but made Chou go, waiting himself by the roadside. So the latter went alone, and when he reached his house, knocked at the door. Receiving no answer, he determined to get over the wall, when he found that his body was as light as a leaf, and with one spring he was over. In the same manner he passed several inner walls, until he reached the ladies' apartments, where he saw by the still burning lamp that the inmates had not yet retired for the night. Hearing people talking within, he licked a hole in the paper window and peeped through, and saw his wife sitting drinking with a most disreputable-looking fellow. Bursting with rage, his first impulse was to surprise them in the act; but seeing there were two against one, he stole away and let himself out by the entrance-gate, hurrying off to Ch'eng, to whom he related what he had seen, and finally begged his assistance. Ch'eng willingly went along with him; and when they reached the room, Chou seized a big stone and hammered loudly at the door. All was then confusion inside, so Chou hammered again, upon which the door was barricaded more strongly than before. Here Ch'eng came forward with his sword, and burst the door open with a crash. Chou rushed in, and the man inside rushed out; but Ch'eng was there, and with his sword cut his arm right off. Chou rudely seized his wife, and asked what it all meant; to which she replied that the man was a friend who sometimes came to take a cup of wine with them. Thereupon Chou borrowed Ch'eng's sword and cut off her head, hanging up the trunk on a tree in the court-yard. He then went back with Ch'eng. By-and-by he awaked and found himself on the bed, at which he was somewhat disturbed, and said, "I have had a strangely-confused dream, which has given me a fright." "My brother," replied Ch'eng, smiling, "you look upon dreams as realities: you mistake realities for dreams." Chou asked what he meant by these words; and then Ch'eng shewed him his sword besmeared with blood. Chou was terrified, and sought to destroy himself; but all at once it occurred to him that Ch'eng might be deceiving him again. Ch'eng divined his suspicions, and made haste at once to see him home. In a little while they arrived at the village-gate, and then Ch'eng said, "Was it not here that, sword in hand, I awaited you that night? I cannot look upon the unclean spot. I pray you go on, and let me stay here. If you do not return by the afternoon, I will depart alone." Chou then approached his house, which he found all shut up as if no one was living there; so he went into his brother's.

The latter, when he beheld Chou, began to weep bitterly, saying, "After your departure, thieves broke into the house and killed my sister-in-law, hanging her body upon a tree. Alas! alas! The murderers have not yet been caught." Chou then told him the whole story of his dream, and begged him to stop further proceedings; at all of which his brother was perfectly lost in astonishment. Chou then asked after his son, and his brother told the nurse to bring him in; whereupon the former said, "Upon this infant are centered the hopes of our race. Tend him well; for I am going to bid adieu to the world." He then took his leave, his brother following him all the time with tears in his eyes to induce him to remain. But he heeded him not; and when they reached the village-gate his brother saw him go away with Ch'eng. From afar he looked back and said, "Forbear, and be happy!" His brother would have replied; but here Ch'eng whisked his sleeve, and they disappeared. The brother remained there for some time, and then went back overwhelmed with grief. He was an unpractical man, and before many years were over all the property was gone and the family reduced to poverty. Chou's son, who was growing up, was thus unable to secure the services of a tutor, and had no one but his uncle to teach him. One morning, on going into the school-room, the uncle found a letter lying on his desk addressed to himself in his brother's hand-writing. There was, however, nothing in it but a finger-nail about four inches in length. Surprised at this, he laid the nail down on the ink-slab while he went out to ask whence the letter had come. This no one knew; but when he went back he found that the ink-stone had been changed into a piece of shining yellow gold. More than ever astonished, he tried the nail on copper and iron things, all of which were likewise turned to gold. He thus became very rich, sharing his wealth with Chou's son; and it was bruited about that the two families possessed the secret of transmutation.




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