The Feast of Lanterns
IN every part of the Celestial Empire the population was busily engaged with the final preparations for the great Feast of Lanterns to be celebrated that evening as soon as the Moon shone in the heavens, dimming the stars above which were to be replaced by the shining candles in the paper lanterns below.
In the Hall of the Yellow Rose all the servants were assembled, setting out the splendid lanterns with which they would issue forth joyfully that evening.
But Li Wang Ho, Singing Nightingale, Li Ho-lu, Chu Shih Nien, Lai Pao, and the ladies—apart from Silver Lotus and Glowing Rose—were preparing to go to the Capital to take part in the celebrations there, and, perchance, see Silver Lotus, if only for a moment and from a distance.
All were beautifully dressed and very soon they entered their sedan-chairs which carried them rapidly to their destination.
The whole party made for the home of the Officer with whom Glowing Rose and her two companions were staying. They were heartily welcomed and soon were told about the previous day's Ceremony at the Palace; for their three friends had witnessed it all. Glowing Rose said that she had received a message from the Silver Lotus saying how happy she was, sending at the same time her greetings to the Sage and his disciples.
Glowing Rose was splendidly attired in a long gown of red silk, embroidered in five colours. On her skirt was depicted the design of the Hundred Flowers with golden stems and multicoloured leaves. Her girdle was fastened with a green jade clasp and on her wrists she wore golden bracelets. She had jewels upon her brow; pendants fastened in her hair and over her white cheeks, and her head was covered with a mass of pearls. Her tiny shoes, which were decorated with love-birds in beautiful silks, could be seen as she gracefully glided along.
Her Officer was very much in attendance, and four singing girls sang, and played upon their instruments for the entertainment of the guests.
Glowing Rose was as dainty and slender as the stem of a tall wind-swept flower as she greeted the Master and his pupils with a low reverence which the others quickly returned.
The Officer now invited them to inspect his garden and the outlying guest-houses therein, where he asked them all to honour him by staying there for a while.
On one side of the grounds was a long white garden wall which was covered with masses of peach-blossom, reflecting the sun as if they were so many thousands of pieces of rose-quartz on a beach of crystal.
Each Guest-House had a name. There was, for instance, the Hall of the Kingfisher, and all around it grew chrysanthemums in full bloom, though it was not their season. There were such famous blooms as "Golden Girdle," white and yellow "Fên Shih," "Scarlet Cloak," "Doctor's Red," "Purple Cloak," and so on. All were over seven feet tall and lovely to behold.
And so it was with each separate Hall; each of which had a poetical name and was surrounded by all sorts of precious flowers. A paradise of loveliness; and the guests could not find words to express their admiration.
While they were strolling round, the Officer passed behind a sculptured screen and found Glowing Rose leaning against an arbour of honeysuckle. She smiled and gathered some of the blooms to throw at him. This was not unnoticed by the others, and they looked at one another with amusement and glances full of meaning.
Tables and chairs had been set out and presently the servants brought refreshments for the visitors, and the officer and Glowing Rose rejoined the party.
Precious wine was handed round together with soft pastries and other delicacies and the Officer invited them to eat and drink amidst the flowers, who are for ever silent but know that they are beloved by Man.
A brook meandered through the gardens, babbling joyfully in its musical voice. Great trees threw welcoming shade, and the glory of Nature's beauty was such that it would have made poets exchange verses in the golden haze that lay over all.
There were verandas with vermilion railings, and clumps of willows and patches of roses. There was a Pagoda, called the Tower of the Pine Winds, and in it famous writers used to sit down sometimes and compose their masterpieces, inspired by their surroundings. There was also the "Tower for listening to the Songs of the Stars and Moon." It was made of carved wood, painted with green characters depicting great poems. There was an artificial mount with a rocky cave and in it were marble seats, whilst the walls were hung with all sorts of musical instruments.
There was to be seen a beautiful Group of the Eight Immortals, carved in green-speckled jade, standing as if in deep conversation beneath some ornamental trees.
As the guests were taking their refreshments amidst all this loveliness, several dancers came running into the garden and grouped themselves on a velvety lawn nearby. They then performed a Ballet based on the Rites of "Welcoming the Spring," and called up the Patrons of the Soil after performing a series of symbolical dances.
Then one of their number gave a single beat upon a drum; and at this signal a new group of dancers rushed in; they were dressed to represent the water-sprites. Now came two beats on the drum, and the wood-sprites joined the water-sprites. Then three beats for the spirits of the seashore; four for the field-sprites; five for the earth-sprites; six for the sprites of the sky and winds, and seven for the mountain-sprites.
Then all the performers, of whom there were now nearly two-hundred, spread all over the gardens and danced an ensemble that was truly magnificent.
Singing Nightingale, as well as all the others, stood entranced; and Li Wang Ho turned to the Officer and thanked him in his usual polished manner, saying that even he, in his long and varied experience, had never seen anything so grandiose.
The Officer replied with becoming graciousness and made light of it all, but his gratifying eloquence and accomplished voice thrilled with pleasure at the appreciation of his guests. These latter uttered their expressions of grateful satisfaction at the courtly manners and unassuming behaviour of their host; and Glowing Rose shone with delight.
The party made another promenade through the grounds and were drawn especially to the side of the water where thousands of rose-petals drifted on the bosom of the silver stream, whilst fish jumped up between them, chasing after any foolish insect which had the temerity to zoom too near the rippling surface. Dragon-flies trembled in stationary ecstasy aloft, or darted in iridescent steely blue of glittering body on rosy-tinted gauzy wings.
"This is scenery which leads to a state of spiritual perfection, so that Man at last may be totally absorbed in holy contemplation, excluding all worldly interests or recollections in the end," said the Sage. "It is the true and only way of attuning with the wonders of the creations of the Gods. The adoration of beauty leads the creature nearer to the Source of all he beholds. Then he will disregard life as it seems; for he will have merged in THAT from which all proceeds, and he will be ONE with the Essence of Divine Love—which is the highest God, and therefore IT is unknown."
From the cave sounded the sweet tinkling of a Lute, and anon the voice of Singing Nightingale was heard, chanting:
The Music of Nature
The argent, blooms of Plum in glory spread
Like snowy clouds all o'er the grass;
And crocuses like white and purple stars
Bedeck the fields with beauty.
The daisies 'joice upon their emerald bed;
And on a pedestal a golden Vase
Is filled with pure white Rose, whilst slender bars
Of silver hang in softly tinkling rows
Around that Cup and fill with argent harmony
The Balsamic Air in which the sunlight glows.
A hush of enchantment fell upon the assembly, and even the song of the birds was stilled; as if they too adored the dulcet voice of the unseen singer, who continued:
Oh, blesséd Hour, and glorious Joy,
When spirit rises up aloft and does deploy
It's Angel's wings in rapture sweet,
To rise in vast delight up to the sky, to greet
The Hosts of God who rend the Veil
Of great Illusion for that frail
Poetic Eye; so that in bliss the Seer may sail
Back to the Source,
So far beyond the mortal Mind's travail.
After a short silence which had possessed all that elegant concourse of human souls, the Master said: "Here again the Voice of Inspiration has made itself heard. The true Poet is always a true Mystic—whether he knows it or not. The poetic eye does penetrate the Veil of Hidden Mystery, and there are true poets of all the Arts; divinely inspired by the Sons of God, lit up by that internal fire within the Soul that finds expression through the mind; and so it sends a message to all those minds which lack the poetic vision until some spark from another mind lights it up within them, so that they too may find a means of loosening their earthly shackles."
"Is this, then," said the Officer, who had been listening with great interest to Li Wang Ho, "the only way in which mankind may find the Path to Heaven, extreme Benevolence?"
The inevitable had happened, for, the dancers having left, the host and his guests were all gathered around the Sage, listening to his words.
"There are," said the Master, "as many ways to Heaven as there have been, are, and will be human beings, provided they sincerely wish for this divine felicity. The best a man can do is to thank the Celestial Spirits for all good things when they come; to be patient in all adversity; to ask for forgiveness when he has erred and offended against the Laws (which are engraved on each man's heart, if he will but heed and read them); thus, when he has gone astray somehow, help will always be sent to lift him up again; for the Gods are terribly patient. By avoiding evil to the best of his ability, he will keep the mirror of his heart clean, and the ever-loving Sons of Light will do the rest; for they understand: having once been frail men themselves."
"This is an awesome thought," said the Officer, musingly.
"But very true, my Son," replied the Sage. "If mankind would only realise this truth," he continued, "they would strive with all their might and main to rise to all that is good, loving, and merciful. Then the world would at once become an earthly Paradise, and the human wolves, jackals and tigers which now abound would lay themselves down by the side of the meek and lowly, and turn their ferocious will to the purpose of helping their Brethren instead of destroying them."
"Will this ever come to pass?" asked the Officer.
"The Great Message," replied the Master, "has rung forth many times, and those who have listened have been saved. It is the newcomers, who have but lately evolved from the Shadows, who must ever be taught anew. The true Teachings should never cease; nor would they if all men were always ready to receive them, but all have to learn their lessons in the hard school of the material before they can ascend to the spiritual.
"After each period of darkness appears a Torch-Bearer who is willing to sacrifice himself in order to bring to Man the Holy Illumination of Truth; and those who are sufficiently evolved will hear and follow."
It seemed as if the time had sped on velvet wings, unheard, unseen, and the shadows began to lengthen. The Officer noticing this with a start of surprise, now invited his guests to follow him indoors where a marvellous repast was spread in utmost luxury.
After the meal the guests went to their various rooms and attired themselves for a tour through the Capital, in order to see the festivities. After their chairs had carried them to the heart of the City, they all expressed the wish to proceed on foot for awhile so that they might have a clearer view of all that was happening.
The Moon had risen, and they saw the hosts of people crowding around the booths which had been erected in many places, illuminated in green like willows or red as roses. Hundreds of arches had been set up with numerous lanterns in all shapes and sizes suspended from them. Many of the high Officials, in carriages drawn by fiery horses, drove through the crowds. The thunder of hoofs and wheels, added to by the joyous cries of the spectators created a sensation of hilarity and gladness.
There were to be seen gossamer-like lanterns of light and dainty shapes; lanterns in the form of golden and silver lotuses, some like beautiful pagodas, gigantic in size; others like mimosas, sunflowers, wife-lanterns, student-lanterns, many in the shapes of monks, demons, camels, tigers, crabs, fishes, moths, butterflies, toads or dragons; some with the figure of Liu Hai with his golden frog devouring great treasures; others in the shape of K'ung Fu-tze, Yuéh Ming, Liu Ts'ui, Chang K'uei, or the five Ancients with their sacred scrolls, the eight Immortals, the Nine Barbarians and the eight uncivilized ones, and thousands of others; serious, comical, holy, demoniacal.
Drums beat loudly, bells were ringing, gongs boomed forth, rattles made a noise sufficient to split the ears, melt the brain and pulverize the blood.
Maidens in rows, going hand in hand, showed off their beauty and pretty or coquettish airs; palmists were doing a busy trade; wandering monks struck cymbals and recited the sacred stories of the Saints; pastry cooks shouted their wares in loud voices, candy makers plied their trade and deftly made figures of men, animals, spirits, toys, or anything else you wished to order, and all for only a few cash.
The wine-shops, tea-establishments and other places of amusement were full to overflowing; candles ablaze in silver sconces, the merry laughter of the guests never ceasing for a single moment. Musicians and singers played and sang with unexampled endurance; fireworks were going off everywhere, setting the heavens alight with their splendid brilliance in the shape of flowers, fishes, gods, fierce mystical beasts, suns, moons, stars, and what not. Crackers exploded with loud bangs amid the screams of surprised maidens, rockets flew up in the air as if to pierce the very sky itself; and the noises increased as time went on.
Sedan Chairs, in the form of large lanterns on which were painted glorious scenes of gardens, mountains, sea views, red clouds riding in blue skies, wood-scenes or religious scenes passed to and fro, lit up by many candles inside, throwing their radiance through the transparent panels, so that everyone could admire the beauty of their decorations.
There was so much to see that the eyes were dazzled and the senses reeled.
The Officer now led his guests to an elegant tea-house, so that they might rest and take some refreshments after their unwonted excursion.
Hardly were they seated when a rather unmelodious voice hailed the Sage and his friends, and the one who approached with many bows was none other than our old friend Lu-shun.
"Greetings, sublime Master and friends," he croaked, "this is an auspicious moment, and this one is overwhelmed with the most elevated happiness at meeting you all so unexpectedly."
Li Wang Ho returned his greetings and introduced him to his host as a new disciple, but lately joined.
The rest were slightly apprehensive, for one never knew how the elegant and worthy Lu-shun might act or re-act under unforeseen circumstances. But Lu-shun was on his best behaviour this time, and anxious to show that he was determined to profit by the Master's lessons and example in an honourable manner.
He could not refrain, however, from asking if any more had been seen of the "Master" of the Yin Yang. When he was told that it was not likely that that one would ever dare to visit the house of the Sage again he was full of virtuous satisfaction and exclaimed: "That is very good indeed! Is it not said that the wise frog retires to his habitation beneath the lotus-leaf when he sees the threatening beak of the famishing stork? That very inelegant 'Master' of the Poltroons, who does not know how to converse in a polite and polished manner, had better not force again his unwelcome presence upon the refined company of the engaging and wise Master Li Wang Ho and his highly accomplished and charming disciples who are all persons of the most elevated erudition and rank. This lowly one who now speaks has already learnt how to adapt himself to his new Master and friends, and he feels like a pure spring in a field full of flowers; for is it not said that there is nothing more adaptable than water—which takes the shape of anything in which it is contained?"
Ying Po Ching turned to Doctor Chu Shih-Nien and whispered: "When the thief repents he demands that all other thieves shall be arrested!"
"That is true," replied the other, "but it is good to see that our new friend is trying his honest best, at any rate."
"I agree," said Ying Po Ching, "when we remember that among the lower ones every word is either a curse or one of evil scandal, then we may be glad that one who was prone to give vent to biting sarcasm in every word is now trying to rid himself of that unnecessary habit. Perhaps his joss-stick of comprehension of the finer grades of life and manners will now be changed into a great light of compassion and kindly understanding."
"What," asked the Sage of Lu-shun, "are your present intentions? Are you staying with us in Ping-Liang Fu for the time being?"
"No, revered Teacher," was the answer, "I am returning to my own town, to sell everything I have, shake benevolent hands with myself when I meet my old enemy, and give him a blessing. After that is all done I wish to open a silk business in your town, and profit from your instructions if I may."
"This is extremely well spoken," said Li Wang Ho, "and when you open your new shop I am sure that you will do well and that your fellow-disciples will give you their patronage."
The ladies all heartily agreed to this and the gentlemen said that they would introduce Lu-shun and his wares to their households.
Lu-shun thanked them all and was quite overcome with gratitude.
He said: "I am beginning to see that Happiness can slip quickly away and out of our reach if we do not hold fast lo it by right conduct, and that affliction will walk beside us in such a case. Once upon a time, it was my ambition to find that kind of wisdom which would give me power to destroy my enemy—who is now forgiven—but I realise that that sort of wisdom is foolishness, as it must inevitably destroy me instead, whilst my enemy may go free and prosper! (Although now I should not mind even that). It is better to feast on a crust of real Wisdom—which is Love than to choke at a gala-dinner of ignorant hatred."
All the rest applauded Lu-shun, for this was the best thing he had said yet, and the eyes of the Sage twinkled kindly.
And now their host sent for the sedan-chairs, saying that if they wished he would take them along a road leading past the Palace. Perhaps the Emperor and Silver Lotus might be watching the distant fire-works, and in this way there was a chance of catching a glimpse of them.
They all agreed, and, after saying goodbye to Lu-shun, they passed once more through the multitudes of merry makers, until the City was left behind and the quiet of the countryside descended upon them like a velvet curtain of peace.
In a comparatively short time they saw the Golden Palace glittering in the light of the Moon, and on approaching nearer the whole procession slowed down and stopped altogether when, on the veranda of the first floor, they noticed two happy mortals, side by side, absorbed in the glory of the night.
When the two noticed the sedan-chairs halting beneath them they leant forward to see who the visitors were, and, when all descended and knelt in respectful silence, Silver Lotus recognised the figure of Li Wang Ho, and then those of the others.
With a glad little cry she turned to her Royal Spouse, and soon the exceptionally virtuous Emperor and his lovely Lady came down to meet the travellers, who would not rise from their kneeling positions until commanded to do so.
Silver Lotus looked more glorious than ever. Her face was as beautiful as the full Moon and her figure looked as if it were made of precious jade. Her head was covered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and great pearls, and a wonderful opal, as large as an egg, was glittering in harlequin tints upon her breast. Golden phoenix pins were thrust obliquely through her hair, and in her happiness she seemed like the Empress of Heaven herself, or even more divine. With a few rapid but gracious words, she and her husband enquired about the well-being of all, and they expressed their satisfaction at seeing; them in such an unforeseen and fortunate manner. The visitors replied respectfully, and after a little while they said farewell to the wonderful pair, and, when the emperor and Silver Lotus had re-entered the Palace, the rest rose up from their kneeling positions which they had resumed after the goodbyes had been said and sat down once more in their sedan-chairs to be taken home to the house of the Officer.
But Singing Nightingale was missing and could be found nowhere.
There was great consternation at this but Li Wang Ho seemed to understand what had happened and told them not to worry. And so they went on their way.
When everything was quiet again, there rang within the Palace Grounds the lovely melody of a Serenade. It was the lad's voice, sounding like the singing of an Angel before the Throne of the Lord of the highest Heaven.
"Hark," said the Imperial Husband and Lover of Silver Lotus, and he whispered to his Belovéd:
"There sounds the Nightingale's entrancing Song,
And luscious notes of liquid gold in sweetest tune
Ride on the argent rays of silv'ry Moon,
Or drift upon the murmur of the dreaming trees
And flow'ring shrubs, whose blossoms scent the balmful breeze,
Which softly takes the Soul of Love on ardent Wings along."
BACK TO THE BEGINNING— Translator's Note & Introduction
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