The Imperial Messenger
THE next day some of his disciples were gathered together at the home of the Venerable Sage Li Wang Ho, namely: Silver Lotus, her sister Glowing Rose, the Mandarin Ying Po Ching, and Shu-Tong the Magistrate. They were engaged in animated and amiable conversation, illuminated from time to time by flashes of Wisdom from the incomparable Master.
Silver Lotus wore a magnificent costume, and her glorious hair was embellished with beautiful artificial flowers, made of the shining feathers of the Kingfisher and of softly radiant pearls. Her waist was like the graceful willow, supple, and full of the promise of delight.
Through the open windows the light breezes entered refreshingly and played with her lustrous tresses. Every time she moved there sounded the sweet tinkling of precious jade, and a delightful fragrance of orchid and musk issued from her. She looked like an Angel from the Wu Mountain. Her crimson skirt was trimmed with gold, and she wore a blue coat, embroidered with artistic figures of birds and butterflies.
It was the hour of the dragon, and Nature's fresh and invigorating scents drifted in delicious clouds of soft perfumes through all the rooms; a time of youth and gladness.
Outside the house the Time Stick, made of clay and sawdust afresh each day, burned before a porcelain Bird of Dawn, counting the happy hours.
In the distance could be seen busy labourers digging up the mounds of earth to gather the daily supply of ice, stored away in winter when it is cut out in blocks from the King-Ho river.
From afar came the sounds of melodious little bells sewn in the scarlet collars of the donkeys who were carrying men and women, perched upon wooden saddles, across the country as they were going to and fro on their errands; other folk were carried in colourful litters, swung between shaggy ponies. There was also heard the creaking of the high wooden wheels of mule carts, studded with glittering polished brass nails, the carts having each a blue cloth-covered cabin in which the travellers sit in cross-legged comfort on sheepskin rugs with which the floor is covered.
Li Wang Ho's delightful home being situated on the outskirts of the town in full view of the river and country, was thus happily placed in such a way that the comfort and protection of the town were combined with the pleasures of the fresh countryside.
Suddenly there was heard the musical sound of a Moon-Guitar, and the pure crystal voice of a young lad intoned the following Aubade:
The wind of dawn played with the violet and rose
When in the perfumed-laden breeze my 'lovèd chose
To welcome with a smile the glowing rays of rising Sun
(Who in a thousand tufts of mist a myriad fancies spun)
Whilst she was leaning from her flower-covered window.
And I, who spent the night in blissful dreams of Her
Beneath that very window; dear to me for what it hid,
Looked up at that sweet frame that framed a sweeter frame, as't were,
Than all the world of imagery could ever image if it came
A million times to the Great Well of all Imagination 'mid
Shining fields and woods and flowers:
But none so sweet as Silver Lotus . . .
As She leant from her window.
The Wind of Dawn did hold its breath as soon
As it beheld my Love—pure like the Moon—
In that sweet frame;
As She leant from her window.
And every singing bird with joy cried out, and rose
In jubilant frenzy to the sky, and chose
A lovely tune—directed to those
As She leant from her window.
"O, Lovely!" cried the two ladies; "may we invite the singer to come inside, dear Master?"
Li Wang Ho willingly gave permission, and soon there entered with many bows the young lad who had sung at the Theatre on the previous day to the accompaniment of the Lute.
Kowtowing many times he knelt before Silver Lotus and handed over to her the manuscript of his Song, which she accepted with graceful pleasure.
"Who is the author of this lovely Song, my Son?" asked Li Wang Ho.
"This unworthy person composed it early this morning in honour of the gracious lady Silver Lotus," the lad replied.
"By what name are you known?" asked the Master.
"I am known as 'Singing Nightingale," said the lad.
"You have a pretty gift of elegant sounding verse and should become an accomplished Poet soon, if you are not such a one already," replied the Sage kindly. "Where did you learn to write such nice themes, and who taught you to play the Lute and Moon-Guitar?"
"Nobody taught me, noble Master, except the floating birds on their errands in the Middle Heavens; and the Moon's soft sheen when it rides the silvery clouds; a pair of butterflies at play; the swaying sprays of Blue Wisteria, a-tremble in the wind; or the mysterious orchids, like coloured insects amid the trees. All have a message for the seeing eye of him who dreams of all that's delicate and beautiful; and these messages I humbly try to inscribe on satin paper of silken floss . . . . but ever do I fail to do justice to their inspiration: for the Gods are strong and Man is weak."
All were enchanted with the young lad, who had the dark and lustrous eyes of him who sees great visions of glory in Nature's wonderful creations and dwells apart amongst the coarser kinds of men; the tender soul whose fragrance fills the air with happiness: but who is seldom understood.
"Would you like to visit me sometimes and talk to me of this and that, so that we both may learn to understand the glorious lessons of Nature's Wisdom?" asked Li Wang Ho.
The lad knelt before him and would not rise till with a loving gesture the Master drew him to his bosom.
The eyes of all shone with emotion, and Glowing Rose remarked:
"How shall the world appreciate such delicacy of feeling as shown by this dear boy? I fear he will be hurt beyond redemption when once he has to tread the human path of non-comprehension in this uncouth realm of being."
"He will be famous," said the Master; "and the famous man liveth for ever. He is humble in spirit, like all great artists, and thus he will be crowned: for Humility is the Crown of Virtue. This lad is possessed of preternatural wisdom and intelligence, and his versatile mind is filled with beauty. He is one of those who worship the stars at midnight, and they, as the all-seeing eyes of the Upper-Lords, will cause the Gods to settle with him in full at the end; and lead him into the Palace of the Jade Spirits and the Hall of the Immortals."
Silver Lotus took from her dress a golden ornament, inset with jewels, and gave it to the lad, saying: "This is a gift from our holy Emperor himself, the Ever Shining Son of Heaven; I should like you to accept this token of my gratitude; may it bring you everlasting happiness, and may it ever inspire you to stay on the Path of Glory that leads straight to the Celestial Realms; that Path upon which you have already placed your by no means faltering steps. And always listen to the wise words of our Master and follow his kind advice." And with a delicate caress she accepted him into the inner Circle of favourite disciples.
Utterly overcome, the lad kowtowed before the sweet Silver Maiden and her companions, and made reverences to the great and noble Sage.
The Mandarin Ying Po Ching and Magistrate Shu Tong had been silent but interested spectators during the foregoing little scene, and Ying Po Ching now remarked: "If this lad is going to be a famous Poet, as no doubt he will be, since the Master says so, he should always remember that the greatest honour lies in honest endeavour, no matter what our undertakings be."
"Yes," added Shu Tong, "and those who are famous gain a lease for all future lives, provided that their fame is founded on probity."
"The true poet," said Silver Lotus, "bases his poetry on love, whatever the subject of his Art may be; for if he has no love for his theme himself, the ears and eyes of his audience or readers will be like closed gates or shuttered windows, and the way to the heart and mind be barred by impassable obstacles; for only that which is inspired by love can find its way to man's inner being. The heart ever echoes the melody of love, and without that boon of the Gods, no rhetoric can stir the pulse of true Life in the highest sense."
"Some wise barbarian once said," added Li Wang Ho, "that a wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart is at his left."
"What did he mean by that?" asked Ling Po Ching.
"He referred," replied the Sage, "in a concealed manner to the higher and lower principles of Man, the higher of which is the Right Use of the divine heritage which Man derives from on high, while the lower is that foolish animal part of his being, which rises up from the Deeps (where it resides at the left hand of the Evil One), as soon as a child is quickened within the womb, and clings to him tenaciously for as long as he lives on earth; ever trying to capture his higher part and drag it down to Hell in the end."
And now was heard a tumult without of many men and the clip-clop of horses' hoofs, and Silver Lotus, running towards one of the Moonlattices that opened upon the street beheld a glorious throng of courtiers, soldiers, and hundreds of attendants, carrying Chairs of State and coming to rest before the house of Li Wang Ho.
"Oh, Master," cried Silver Lotus, "it is the Imperial Messenger and his retinue of diligent attendants; they are preparing to enter!"
Li Wang Ho hastily donned his Ceremonial Robes, in order to receive the important visitor, and went to the outer Gate to welcome him; in the meantime sending out his own servants in order to engage bands of musicians, actors, and other performers to entertain the Imperial Messenger and his most important officers.
When Li Wang Ho arrived at the Gate, there was a large procession halting outside. Numerous decorative sedan-chairs, soldiers with pennants fluttering in the wind, men with huge and magnificent umbrellas, military officers, both horse and foot, and other soldiers who had taken up their posts at the corners of the street—isolating the road completely.
Li Wang Ho, who wore his black robes, held together by his ceremonial girdle, went forward to meet the unexpected guests.
The musicians, who had arrived in great haste, began to play and the sedan-chairs containing the principal visitors moved forward so that their occupants might descend at the main Gate.
The Imperial Messenger and his officers wore scarlet embroidered clothes, ceremonial hats and boots and red girdles. They were followed by bearers.
Li Wang Ho's attendants now rolled up the bamboo lattices and placed screens, decorated with good-fortune-bringing designs, within the Hall of the Yellow Rose. Tables were quickly prepared carrying sweetmeats and all sorts of delicacies in splendid and palate-engaging varieties.
The officers bowed to each other and to the Imperial Messenger and made reverence before Li Wang Ho, who replied and stepped forward again in order to pay his respects to the principal guest, who graciously accepted the greetings. The servants were then called in and they presented Li Wang Ho in the name of the Imperial Messenger with various gifts, such as large cases of important literature setting forth the splendours of the Son of Heaven; heavy rolls of shimmering silks; parcels of specially selected tea-tips of golden colour; precious ink-slabs, such as were used at the Court of the Emperor only; and a variety of other delectable things.
The Imperial Messenger then presented to Li Wang Ho a red visiting card on which was written a graceful message to the Sage.
"We have known for a long time the fragrance of your precious name," said the Messenger, "and I am very ashamed to bring you such lowly gifts, which you will distribute perhaps among the poor ones of this town. I have yearned long to have the pleasure of meeting you personally, and am entirely distressed that it was not possible to inform you in good time of the honour I would soon have in making your renowned acquaintance. But the Illustrious Son of Heaven sent me upon this very agreeable errand without previous warning, and he was determined to have me present a Golden Message from His Delectable Person to the eternally delightful and perfect Lady, the Silver Lotus, whom He knew I should find at your magnificent Residence."
Again both made the prescribed number of reverences and salutations, and then Li Wang Ho remarked: "This one is completely shattered by this great and unforeseen—and therefore all the more happy—Honour. But your elegant and marvellous presents, which this altogether vulgar and lowly person does not deserve in the least, place him under an insurmountable obligation."
"Please do not mention them any further," said the Imperial Messenger. "This person is only too well aware of their insignificance."
"And now," he continued, "may I have the inestimable honour to place the Golden Decree of our Sublime Emperor in the hands of the sweet Lady Silver Lotus?"
Silver Lotus, who had modestly remained hidden behind one of the screens, now came forward when requested to do so by the Sage, and made the graceful bow called 'Sapling swayed by the wind.'
The Imperial Messenger made due acknowledgments and handed over to her a present of a thousand taels worth of gold-leaf, and then the Emperor's Message.
Trembling with excitement she carefully unrolled the Golden Scroll and found painted within:
The Song of the Son of Heaven
Amidst the flowers upon the lea
On top of cliff I gazed
At distant rim of azure sea
Where sky and main
In splendour reign
And, clinging, kissed and blazed:
WITHIN THE LIGHT OF SUN.
The pearly cloudlets drifted high
And their reflections from the sky
Shone in the mirror of the Deep
O'er which the sea-mews sailed,
And dipped, and soared, and wailed,
And cried, and wheeled in widening sweep
And dizzy curve in circling ring:
ON SPREADING WING.
Like Royal Swan my Silver Maid
Did float within the ken
Of inner Bliss; and then
I dreamt of Love's delight
In starry shine of dulcet Night,
When on her breast my head she laid:
HER LORD AND KING.
Amidst the flowers upon the lea
Which grace the cliff-top by the sea
Swished soft frou-frou of silken dress;
And, like a Heavenly Caress
Of Angels Wings, our eyes did meet
In glance of Happiness—so sweet
LIKE FLOWERS OF SPRING.
And so my Silver Lotus came
With gliding steps, so daintily;
Her hair a flame, a coronet
To crown her graceful, slender frame,
And, like the sky and azure sea,
In clinging kiss we met:
AND ALL THE HEAVENS SHONE!
"Oh," cried Silver Lotus, "this is too much of beauty in one day. What has this humble maiden ever done to be honoured with words so utterly sweet?"
The Imperial Messenger now handed over to her a letter, sealed with the Imperial Seal of Shi Hwang-ti, Son of Heaven.
After asking permission, she opened it and read:
"Sweet Silver Maiden,
Come to me in the Garden of Delight on the third day from now, before the day of the Feast of Lanterns.
Your Lover waits impatiently for you. The stars shed benedictions; the Heavens smile; the Gates of Happiness stand open . . . . the shining God does beckon from within; enter then with Me.
Come, and fail not, Belovèd.
Entwined like lovers do the vines within the arbour cling their slender tendrils in delight. A happy Omen!
Silver Lotus folded up the precious document and hid it in her dress. With downcast eyes she stood before the Master, who said:
"The Imperial Summons must be obeyed, my child. Go and give happiness."
And now the guests took their appointed places; and as course followed course the Singers and the Actors and Musicians sang and acted and played and added lustre to that assembly of fortunate beings.
Forgotten by all the Singing Nightingale was left alone behind a screen, and with his blazing eyes beheld the Silver Lotus in her happiness and splendour. Never before had he seen such a display of wealth and festivity. The Musicians had their appointed posts close to the tables. Silver Lotus and Glowing Rose had the task of serving wine to the guests. At various intervals the Actors came forward and performed different short scenes based on the Classic Festivals; such as the Spring Festival of Chêng, when youths and girls gathered flowers at the junction of the Chên and Wei Rivers, and challenged each other in antiphonal Songs, after which they crossed the Wei. As soon as the loving pairs met, they gave each other love-tokens in the form of beautiful flowers—the symbol of betrothal. This was accompanied by quaint groupings signifying the awakening of Spring in Nature, and Love in the human breast. Then came the ceremony of driving away evil influences, ill fortune and sickness, and the invitation to the superior ghosts to join the inferior.
There was also a representation of the Festival of the Silkworms, and the Actors wore magnificent silk dresses, which each had a name embroidered upon it in red characters. There were such names as 'Sheen of the Bird of Heaven'; 'Red Sunset over the Green Ocean'; 'Summer-morning Glory'; 'Dust of the Butterfly'; 'The Tiger Fairy'; 'Dragon's Fiery Breath'; 'The copper-coloured design underneath the leaves when the evening-sun's rays strike upward'; and so on.
Then followed dances in which the performers executed intricate steps and seemed to be as light as thistledown floating on a waft of air.
Delicious dishes circulated all the time in unending varieties, relieved by plates of different kinds of soups in order to aid the digestion in an honourable manner.
The cooks also brought in small slices of roast goose and five different courses of meat. Costly wines, such as Chin Hua, Ma Ku, and Rose wine gave added pleasure and heightened the colour of the guests' faces with rosy, joyous tints.
Hot towels were handed round from time to time, so that the guests might wipe their faces and hands.
The dresses they wore were magnificent. The Imperial Messenger had a scarlet robe, embroidered with a gorgeous peacock; and he wore a girdle with a buckle of pure gold. Others wore scarlet robes embroidered with gold cloud designs, and the tiger and dragon design appeared on some silk robes, held together with costly girdles inset with precious stones.
Each guest had been given flowers and most of the dishes were garnished with flowers too. Precious incense was burned and its clouds drifted about in vision-inviting sublimity.
After the banquet the guests took off their ceremonial robes and rested at ease when they had rewarded the cooks and servants with handsome donations of silver taels.
Singing Nightingale took it all in as if he were dreaming of a Celestial Feast of the Lords of Light and Life in the Upper Heavens, and his heart was filled with astonishment.
Our friends Ying Po Ching and Shu Tong were in animated conversation with two of the officers, and the latter said to his own companion: "I often wish that I could live in the Capital, which really is the only place for people of high standing; there are so many beautiful and interesting things to be seen there, and so many wonderful people one can meet."
"Yes," replied the officer, "since our Sublime Emperor has taken command and made of our Empire the most glorious State of all climes, the life in the Capital is wonderful and full of breath-taking interest. His Golden Palace is the greatest wonder in the whole world, and none could have created its equal before. He directs everything and is the greatest Ruler ever known. He is also a great warrior, and his conquest of the Hsuing-nu tribes* alone will make him immortal."
All this was said with extreme affability, and his dignified accomplishments and graceful manners would have betrayed him as one of the Imperial Palace, even if one had not known his rank.
"May I invite you to my very inconsiderable home next time you visit the Capital? I should be so happy," he added.
"This is too much of a distinction," replied Shu Tong; "but I shall be eternally in your debt, and accept your kind invitation with the greatest pleasure."
"Then let it be when the Lady Silver Lotus comes to the Capital in three days time; perhaps you and your friend over there could be part of her escort?"
"Only too delighted," replied Shu Tong for both. "It will be an auspicious event."
"I will inform His Highness, the Imperial Messenger," said the officer. "Will that beautiful Lady, the Glowing Rose, travel with her sister?"
"I am sure she will," replied the other.
"Then I should be still further honoured if she would be my guest also," said the officer.
"I will inform her of your wishes, and thank you now for your hospitality on behalf of us all," said Shu Tong.
Ying Po Ching was equally profitably engaged in conversation with the other officer, who occupied a most distinguished position at Court and was utterly competent in all he did. He had spent a considerable time in the service of his Master, and employed many years of honourable toil and assiduous obedience to the rules of courtesy and etiquette in order to fit himself for his great position. He was high-minded, distinguished and disinterested in all things.
"The Sublime Emperor, Son of Heaven and Brother of the Sun and Moon, He who upholds the Four Corners of the World," he said, "has made many improvements in his Realm, such as no-one in his position has ever been able to achieve before. All the millions of our new huge Country have benefited materially by his efforts and found greater happiness than they ever dared dream of; but he himself is a lonely man. His House is empty of the Divine completion of himself in the form of a gracious Lady with whom to share his many burdens of State in the secret intimacy of a Royal Spouse, and we hope—being well aware of the intellectual fame, purity and beauty of the accomplished Lady Silver Lotus—that his House may be blest now that he has sent the Imperial Summons."
"I hope so too," replied Ying Po Ching; "in fact we all do, especially the benevolent Master Li Wang Ho, without whose consent she would not act, as she has been his spiritual daughter ever since she was a small baby, when her parents left for the Upper Regions. She is the apple of his eye, the fortune-bringing phoenix-bird, she who is attended by the Blessings of all the Lords of Heaven wherever she goes. And she has all the necessary qualifications and will bring greater Glory to whomsoever may be her future Lord."
"When the Master Li Wang Ho was last at the Capital, accompanied by the Silver Maiden, the holy Emperor saw her several times and made diligent enquiries about her," said the officer.
"The Golden Decree he sent to her, including the Summons, can have only one meaning. I hope she will consent."
"I know she will," replied Ying Po Ching; "the Master has already spoken, as you may have heard."
"We have all heard, and rejoice," answered the officer; "but, knowing that the final word rests with her, we still felt a little anxious; you have put my mind at rest."
The Imperial Messenger had been in deep conversation with the Sage for some time, and now he rose and said: "I am happy that we are in full concord, venerable Sir; I will give the Holy Emperor your benevolent message. I must now thank you for your most wonderful hospitality and the marvellous entertainment; I will make full report of our auspicious meeting to my Imperial Master."
The rest of the guests had also risen and knew that this was the moment of return to the Capital. Ceremonious thanks and farewells followed, and the Sage and his friends accompanied the visitors to the Gate, in order to see them enter their Chairs.
The soldiers and attendants, who had all been lavishly provided for by order of Li Wang Ho, now set in motion and the whole procession commenced on its journey back.
The Hall of the Yellow Rose was again restored to its accustomed air of serenity and peace, whilst Ying Po Ching and Shu Tong also took leave and returned to their respective homes.
Only the Master, Silver Lotus, and Glowing Rose—who had been informed of the officer's invitation—remained.
Behind the screen Singing Nightingale still abode in solitude, expecting to be called forth. It was Glowing Rose who discovered him, patiently waiting, and she took him at once to the Master and Silver Lotus.
"Oh, you poor boy," cried the latter, "I thought that you had left long ago." Turning to the Sage she added: "Can I order a meal for him, revered?"
"Certainly," replied Li Wang Ho, "I too thought you had left, or else I should have asked you to perform before the guests; you would have outshone all the other artists. If you like you may stay here for good; if your parents and other relatives do not object."
"I am quite alone in the world, dear Master," replied the waif. "I have neither parents nor relatives, and dwell wherever the Heavenly Spirits lead me."
"That is settled, then," said the Sage; and he gave orders at once to install Singing Nightingale in one of the guest rooms.
Thus the talented lad had found a haven of protection at last; and in later years, when the fame of his genius had spread from the Imperial Court to every corner of the Empire and beyond (for Silver Lotus soon found an appointment for him when once she was installed as the First Lady of the Land), he often thought with tears of gratitude of the auspicious moment when he had been inspired to compose his first Song in honour of the Silver Maiden.
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