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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 03, No. 20, June, 1859 online

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Turning neither to the right nor to the left, he made his way to the
residence of Tching-whang. At the portal he paused, and sent in before
him his card, - a sheet of bright red paper, - with a list of the presents
he designed to offer the family whose acquaintance he desired to
cultivate.

As he had expected, his reception was most cordial. Though his person
was unknown, the magic of his name was not unfelt, even in the regions
of the Kung. A prince of the peacock's feather was no common visitor to
the home of a plebeian manufacturer; and when that prince was found
to be in addition the leader of the fashions and the idol of the
aristocracy, the marvel assumed a miraculous character. The guest was
ushered in with many low obeisances. How the too gay Ching-ki-pin
regretted those unlucky telegraphic kisses! What would he think of her?
She, too, had passed a most unquiet night, but had been able to relieve
her feelings to some extent at the sewing-circle, which had met at
her home, and at which she poured into the eager ears of her young
companions rapturous accounts of the beauty, elegance, dignity, and
tenderness of the enchanting stranger, and displayed before their
dazzled eyes the lustrous jewel he had presented to her. Having excited
a great deal of envy and jealousy, she was able to rest more in peace
than would otherwise have been possible. But she had never dreamed of
the real rank of her admirer. It came upon her like a lightning-flash,
and almost reduced her to a condition of temporary distraction. As for
the mother-in-law, she would infallibly have gone off into hysterics,
but for the pain in her back, which the barbers - who are also the
physicians in China - had not been able to allay. But the sight of a
peacock's feather under her roof was better than balm to her tortured
spine. Tching-whang lost his presence of mind altogether, and violated
the common decencies of life by receiving his visitor with his hat
off, and taking the proffered presents with one hand, - the other being
occupied in pulling his ear, to assure himself he was not dreaming.

Mien-yaun spoke. His voice fell like soft music on the ears of his
hosts, and went straight to the innermost core of Ching-ki-pin's heart.
He had come, he said, to give utterance to his deep grief at the mishap
of yesterday, the recollection of which had harrowed his soul. The
thought of that venerable blistered back had taken away his repose, and
seriously interfered with his appetite. At the same time he could not
forget his own great loss, occasioned by the unlucky spilling of the
precious cup. He was sure, that Madam, in the kindness of her heart,
would overlook his fault, and consent to bestow on him another cheering,
but not inebriating draught.

The Antique was overcome by so much condescension. She could not say
a word. Tching-whang, too, remained paralyzed. But the beauteous
Ching-ki-pin, who had recovered her composure, answered with the
sweetest air imaginable, and succeeded in winding another amorous chain
around the already sufficiently-enslaved heart of her lover.

Presently the ice of constraint was broken, and the Antique, having once
put her foot in it, plunged off into conversation with remarkable vigor.
She entertained Mien-yaun with a detailed account of her family trials,
so interminable, that, with all his politeness, the young noble could
not avoid gaping desperately. Tching-whang, observing his visitor's
strait, interposed.

"What the women have lost in their feet, they have added to their
tongues," said he, quoting a Chinese proverb of great popularity.

As the Antique persisted, her husband gently reminded her that excessive
talkativeness is an allowed ground for divorce in China, and, by
suggesting the idea that she might possibly become the dismembered
fragment of a shattered union, at length succeeded in shaming her into
silence.

This Tching-whang was a fine old fellow. He was not a bit fashionable,
and Mien-yaun liked him the better for it. He had been educated by the
bamboo, and not by masters in the arts of courtesy. But he was a shrewd,
cunning, jolly old Chinaman, and was evidently perfectly familiar with
the elementary principles according to Kei-ying. After an animated
discussion of some ten minutes, it would have been difficult to
determine which of the two gentlemen was most deeply imbued with a sense
of the righteousness of the elementary principles.

After a proper time had elapsed, Mien-yaun was permitted the luxury of
a private chat with his charmer. What sighs, what smiles, what pleasing
tremors, what soft murmurings, what pressings of the hand and throbbings
of the heart were there! The Antique, who watched the course of
proceedings through a contiguous keyhole, subsequently declared that she
had never in all her life witnessed so affecting a spectacle, and she
was prevented from giving way to her excessive agitation only by
the thought that the interruption might seriously endanger her
daughter-in-law's prospects. The lovers, unconscious of scrutiny, made
great progress. Some doubt appeared at one time to exist as to which
had first experienced the budding passion which had now blossomed so
profusely; but in due time it was settled that both had suffered love at
precisely the same moment, and that the first gleam of the other's eye
had kindled the flame in the bosom of each.

Towards evening, the Antique came in with a cup of tea worthy to excite
a poet's inspiration, - and poets in China have sung the delights of tea,
and written odes to teacups, too, before now. Mien-yaun sipped it with
an air of high-breeding that neither Ching-ki-pin nor her respectable
mother-in-law had ever seen before. Soon after, the enamored couple
parted, with many fond protestations of faith, avowed and betrothed
lovers.

Mien-yaun went home in an amatory ecstasy, and immediately exploded four
bunches of crackers and blazed a Bengal light, as a slight token of his
infinite happiness.


IV.


All Pekin was in an uproar. That is to say, the three thousand eminent
individuals who composed the aristocracy had nearly lost their wits.
The million and a half of common people were, of course, of no account.
Mien-yaun had given out that he was about to be married; but to whom,
or to how many, remained a mystery. No further intelligence passed his
lips. Consequently, in less than twenty-four hours there were four
hundred and fifty persons who knew the lady's name, as many more who had
conversed with her upon the subject, twice as many who knew the day on
which the ceremony was to take place, at least one thousand who had been
invited to assist, and an infinitely greater number who simply shook
their heads. In two days the names of some hundreds of young and comely
damsels were popularly accepted as the chosen future partner of the
glass of fashion and the mould of form. Fifty different days and hours
were fixed as the appointed time. All the most noted bonzes in Pekin
were in turn declared to be the fortunate sacred instrument by which
the union was to be effected. In the course of a week, public feeling
reached such a height that business was neglected and property declined
in value. A panic was feared. Mien-yaun shut himself up, and did not
stir abroad for a month, lest he should be tracked, and his secret
discovered. He contrived, however, to maintain a constant correspondence
with the light of his soul.

He was a little disturbed to find that his much revered father, the
ex-censor of the highest board, took no notice of what was going on, and
never alluded to the subject in any manner. Mien-yaun was too deeply
impressed with a sense of filial obligation to intrude his humble
affairs upon the old gentleman's

[Transcriber's note: Page missing in original.]

There were lanterns - without number, and of the largest size; there were
the richest and most luxurious couches disposed about for the general
comfort; there were consultations of cooks, headed by a professor from
Ning-po, a city famed throughout China for its culinary perfection, with
a view to producing an unrivalled gastronomic sensation; there were
tailors who tortured their inventive brains to realize the ideal raiment
which Mien-yaun desired to appear in. The panic ceased as suddenly as it
had arisen. A little while ago, and there was a surplus of supply and no
demand; now, the demand far exceeded the supply. Artists in apparel were
driven frantic. In three days the entire fashionable world of Pekin had
to be new clad, and well clad, for the great occasion. One tailor,
in despair at his inability to execute more than the tenth of his
commissions, went and drowned himself in the Peiho River, a proceeding
which did not at all diminish the public distress. The loss of the
tailor was nothing, to be sure, but his death was a fatal blow to the
hopes of at least a hundred of the first families. As for the women,
they were beside themselves, and knew not which way to turn. It was
evident that nothing had occurred within a half-century to create
anything like the excitement that existed. Mien-yaun's prospects of
eternal potency never seemed so cheering.

All this time, our hero's father, the ex-censor of the highest board,
preserved a profound silence.


VI.


The three days passed so rapidly, that even Mien-yaun's anxiety, great
as it was, could hardly keep pace with the swift hours. The morning
of the New Year came. For the first time in his life, the dictator of
fashion lost his mind. His head whirled like a tee-to-tum, and his
pulses beat sharp and irregular as the detonations of a bundle of
crackers. He was obliged to resign himself to fate and his valet, and
felt compelled to have recourse to many cups of tea to calm his fevered
senses. At length it became necessary for him to descend to the gardens.
Nerving himself by a powerful effort, he advanced among his guests.

What a gorgeous array of rank and beauty was there! The customary calls
of the New Year had been forgotten. Curiosity had alike infected all,
and the traditionary commemoration of two thousand years was for the
first time neglected. Why this tremor at our hero's heart? Was he not
lord of all that he surveyed? Reigned he not yet with undisputed sway?
Or was it that, an undefined presentiment of dire misfortune had settled
upon him? He strove to banish his melancholy, but with slight success.

His troubled air did not escape the scrutinizing eyes of the company.
The women whispered; the men shook their heads. But all greeted him with
enthusiasm, and asked after his bride with eagerness.

A crash of gongs was heard. The gates of a pavilion flew open, and the
beauteous Ching-ki-pin stepped forth, glowing with loveliness and hope.
As she stood an instant timidly on the portal, she seemed almost a
divinity, - at least, Mien-yaun thought so. Her sweet face was surmounted
by a heavy coronet of black hair, plaited to perfection, and glistening
with gum. Her little eyes beamed lovingly on her betrothed, and a flush
of expectancy overspread her countenance. Her costume was in the best
Chinese taste. An embroidered tunic of silk fell from her neck almost to
her ankles, and just temptingly revealed the spangled trowsers and the
richly jewelled slippers. A murmur of admiration diffused itself around.
Then followed many anxious inquiries. Who was she? Whence came she? To
whom belonged she? Her face was strange to all that high-born throng. In
a minute, however, her father appeared, bearing on his arm the Antique,
who looked more hideous than ever. A flash of intelligence quivered
through the multitude. Many of the nobility purchased their porcelain
and tobacco of Tching-whang, and recognized him immediately. It is
astonishing how like lightning unpleasant facts do fly. In less than two
minutes, every soul in the gardens knew that Mien-yaun, the noble, the
princely, the loftily-descended, the genteel, was going to marry a
tradesman's daughter.

Now that the great secret was out, everybody had thought so. Some had
been sure of it. Others had told you so. It was the most natural thing
in the world. Where there was so much mystery, there must, of necessity,
be some peculiar reason for it. A great many had always thought him a
little crazy. In fact, the whole tide of public sentiment instantly
turned. Mien-yaun, without knowing it, was dethroned. Upstarts, who
that morning had trembled at his frown, and had very properly deemed
themselves unworthy to braid his tail, now swept by him with swaggering
insolence, as if to compensate in their new-found freedom for the years
of social enslavement they had been subjected to. Leers and shrugs and
spiteful whispers circulated extensively. But the enraptured Mien-yaun,
blind to everything except his own overwhelming happiness, saw and heard
them not.

Little time was afforded for these private expressions of amiable
feeling. The grand repast was declared ready, and the importance of this
announcement overweighed, for a short period, the claims of scandal and
ill-nature. The company quickly found their way to the tables, which, as
the "Pekin Gazette" of the next morning said, in describing the _fête_,
"literally groaned beneath the weight of the delicacies with which they
were loaded." The consultations of the Ning-po cook and his confederates
had produced great results. The guests seated themselves, and delicately
tasted the slices of goose and shell-fish, and the pickled berries, and
prawns, and preserves, which always compose the prefatory course of a
Chinese dinner of high degree. Then porcelain plates and spoons of the
finest quality, and ivory chopsticks tipped with pearl, were distributed
about, and the birds'-nest soup was brought on. After a sufficient
indulgence in this luxury, came sea-slugs, and shark stews, and crab
salad, all served with rich and gelatinous sauces, and cooked to a
charm. Ducks' tongues and deers' tendons, from Tartary, succeeded, with
stewed fruits and mucilaginous gravy. Every known and some unknown
luxuries were lavishly provided. The Ning-po cook had invented a
new dish expressly for the occasion, - "Baked ice _à la_
Ching-ki-pin," - which was highly esteemed. The ice was enveloped in a
crust of fine pastry, and introduced into the oven; the paste being
baked before the ice - thus protected from the heat - had melted, the
astonished visitors had the satisfaction of biting through a burning
crust, and instantly cooling their palates with the grateful contents.
The Chinese never cook except on substantial principles; and it was the
principle of contrast which regulated this sublime _chef-d'oeuvre_ of
the Ning-po artist.

Of course, the rarest beverages were not wanting. A good dinner without
good wine is nought. Useless each without the other. Those whose fancy
rested upon medicated _liqueurs_ found them in every variety. Those who
placed a higher value upon plain light wines had no reason to complain
of the supply set before them. Those whose unconquerable instinct
impelled them to the more invigorating sam-shu had only to make known
their natural desires. As the feast progressed, and the spirits of
the company rose, the charms of music were added to the delights of
appetite. A band of singsong girls gently beat their tom-toms, and
carolled in soft and soothing strains. As they finished, a general
desire to hear Mien-yaun was expressed. Willing, indeed, he was, and,
after seven protestations that he could not think upon it, each fainter
than the other, he suffered himself to be prevailed over, and, casting
a fond look upon his betrothed, he rose, and sang the following verses
from the Shee-king, - a collection of odes four thousand years old, and,
consequently, of indisputable beauty: -

"The peach-tree, how graceful! how fair!
How blooming, how pleasant its leaves!
Such is a bride when she enters to share
The home of her bridegroom, and every care
Her family from her receives."[A]

[Footnote A: The following is Sir William Jones's less literal and more
poetic paraphrase of the same selection: -

"Gay child of Spring, the garden's queen,
Yon peach-tree charms the roving sight;
Its fragrant leaves how richly green!
Its blossoms how divinely bright!

"So softly smiles the blooming bride
By love and conscious virtue led
O'er her new mansion to preside,
And placid joys around her spread."]


VII.


The festivities were at their height, the sam-shu was spreading its
benign influences over the guests, the deep delight of satiated appetite
possessed their bosoms, when the entrance of a stern and fat old
gentleman arrested universal attention. It was the respected father of
Mien-yaun, the ex-censor of the highest board, and Councillor of the
Empire. The company rose to greet him; but he, with gracious suavity,
begged them not to discompose themselves. Approaching that part of the
table occupied by the bridal party, he laid his hand upon his heart, and
assured Tching-whang that he was unable to express the joy he felt at
seeing him and his family.

Mien-yaun's father was a perfect master of the elementary principles.

Turning then to his son, he pleasantly requested him to excuse himself
to the assemblage, and follow him for a few minutes to a private
apartment.

As soon as they were alone, the adipose ex-censor of the highest board
said: - "My son, have you thought of wedding this maiden?"

"Nothing shall divert me from that purpose, O my father," confidently
answered Mien-yaun.

"Nothing but my displeasure," said the ex-censor of the highest board.
"You will not marry her."

Mien-yaun was thunderstruck. When he had said that nothing should
awe him from the career of his humor, he had never contemplated the
appalling contingency of the interposition of paternal authority. He
wept, he prayed, he raved, he gnashed his teeth, he tore out as much of
his hair as was consistent with appearances. He went through all the
various manifestations of despair, but without producing the slightest
effect upon the inexorable ex-censor of the highest board. That worthy
official briefly explained his objections to a union between his son,
the pride and joy of the Tse, and a daughter of one of the Kung, and
then, taking the grief-stricken lover by the hand, he led him back to
the gardens.

"Good friends," said he, "my son has just conveyed to me his lively
appreciation of the folly he was about to commit. He renounces all
connection with the black-haired daughter of the Kung, whom he now
wishes a very good evening."

And the ex-censor of the highest board gravely and gracefully bowed the
family of Tching-whang out of the premises. The moment they crossed the
threshold, Mien-yaun and Ching-ki-pin went into a simultaneous fit.


VIII.


Mien-yaun now abandoned himself to grief. He laid away the peacock's
feather on a lofty shelf, and took to cotton breeches. Mien-yaun in
cotton breeches! What stronger confirmation could be needed of his utter
desolation? As he kept himself strictly secluded, he knew nothing of
the storm of ridicule that was sweeping his once illustrious name
disgracefully through the city. He knew not that a popular but
unscrupulous novelist had caught up the sad story and wrought it into
three thrilling volumes, - nor that an enterprising dramatist had
constructed a closely-written play in five acts, founded on the event,
and called "The Judgment of Taoli, or Vanity Rebuked," which had been
prepared, rehearsed, and put upon the stage by the second night after
the occurrence. He would gladly have abdicated the throne of fashion;
he cared nothing for that; - but it was well that he was spared the
humiliation of seeing his Ching-ki-pin's name held up to public scorn;
that would have destroyed the feeble remains of intellect which yet
inhabited his bewildered brain.

Occasionally he would address the most piteous entreaties to his
cruel parent, but always unavailingly. He had not the spirit to show
resentment, even if the elementary principles would have permitted
it. The reaction of his life had come. This first great sorrow had
completely overwhelmed him, and, like most young persons in the agony of
a primal disappointment, he believed that the world had now no charms
for him, and that in future his existence would be little better than
a long sad bore. He looked back upon his career of gaudy magnificence
without regret, and felt like a _blasé_ butterfly, who would gladly
return to the sober obscurity of the chrysalis. He found that wealth and
station, though they might command the admiration of the world, could
not insure him happiness; and he thought how readily he would resign all
the gifts and glories which Fortune had showered on him for the joyous
hope, could he dare to indulge it, of a cottage on the banks of the
Grand Canal, with his darling Ching-ki-pin at his side.

Thus passed away some months. At last, one day, he ventured forth, in
hope of meeting some former friend, in whose confiding ear he might
whisper his many sorrows. He had not proceeded twenty paces before a
group of young gallants, who in earlier days had been the humblest
of his satellites, brushed rudely by him, without acknowledging his
courteous salutation. Thinking that anguish might have changed his
features beyond recognition, he walked on, and soon met one with whom
his intimacy had been unlimited. He paused, and accosted him.

The other stared coldly upon him, said he had a faint remembrance of
Mien-yaun, but Mien-yaun was _passé_ now, since that affair with old
Tching-whang's daughter, and he must really be excused from entering
into conversation with any one so excessively behind the fashionable
times.

Mien-yaun seized the offender by the tail, whirled him violently to the
ground, and strode haughtily back to his home, whence he could not be
persuaded to stir, until after the occurrence of a very remarkable
event.


IX.


When Mien-yaun had pined nearly half away, and was considering within
himself whether it was expedient to commence upon the other half, word
was brought to him, one day, that his father, whom he had not seen for
some weeks, had met with an accident. Further inquiry revealed the fact,
that the worthy ex-censor of the highest board had so far forgotten
himself as to sneeze in the presence of the Emperor; and as nothing in
the elementary principles could be found to justify so gross a breach
of etiquette, the ex-censor's head had been struck off by the public
executioner, and his property, which was immense, had been confiscated
to the state. Some of Mien-yaun's friends, who had sedulously shunned
him for six months, lost no time in hastening to him with the agreeable
intelligence that he was an orphan and a pauper. After kicking them out
of doors, he sat down and pondered upon the matter.

On the whole, he saw no great cause for grief. The Chinese law, which
is strict in the enforcement of all duties of a son to a living parent,
does not compel excessive lamentation for the dead. Mien-yaun could not
but perceive that the only obstacle to his union with Ching-ki-pin was
now removed. The sudden flood of joy which this thought gave rise
to came very near upsetting him again, and he had to resort to an
opium-pipe to quiet his nerves. He attended personally to the ceremonies
of interring the decollated deceased, and then shut himself up for a
week, to settle his mind.

At the expiration of this time, he started out, one early morning, alone
and in humble garb, to seek his lost love. He threaded the familiar
streets, and, with heart beating high in delightful expectation, he
stood before the door of Tching-whang's mansion. He entered, and found
the Antique alone.

Then followed a woful scene. The Antique began by informing him that
Mien-yaun rich and famous, and Mien-yaun poor and in disgrace, were two
very different persons. She went on to show that things were not now as
they used to be, - that, though her daughter-in-law had permitted his
addresses when he was in prosperity, she could not think of listening to
them under the present circumstances. _Pei_ was one thing, and _pin_ was
another. She concluded by recommending him, as he seemed in distress, to
take a dose of gin-seng and go to bed. After which she opened the door,
and gently eliminated him.


X.


Deeper than ever plummet sounded was Mien-yaun's wretchedness now.
Desperation took possession of him. Nothing prevented him from severing
his carotid artery but the recollection that only the vulgar thus
disposed of themselves. He thought of poison, whose sale was present
death in Pekin, according to established law. Suicide by poison being a


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 03, No. 20, June, 1859 → online text (page 4 of 20)