AGREY evening had settled on the village of the Crystal Spring. There had been a soft drizzle all day and even the Crystal Spring lay deep in mud and so belied its name. There was, in fact, nothing much but mud to be seen from the narrow streets where the little pools of yellowed water stood to the walls of the houses that were plainly built of no other material than mud. And looking out into the twilight over the fields, the country, also, presented the same monotonous, muddy-brown tint.
Though the Chinese are a good deal like hens in their attitude of mind towards water in general and rain in particular, this evening the weather had failed to keep them indoors, for had not the village schoolmaster promised to tell them many wonderful things of the golden age of China when the sages walked the land and were able to converse, not only with human beings, but with the fairy folk? As every intelligent person knows, in those extraordinary days the animals talked not only with each other, but with men and women. The village necromancer claimed that they did it yet, and he told how a fox had come into a lonely house not many li away and, turning itself into a crying child, wrought much mischief until they called him in and he frightened the fox away. To the initiated, the moral of this tale is plain; it behooved one to keep on good terms with the necromancer, and to undertake nothing without his counsel.
To-night the schoolmaster looked over his little audience of men and boys, wondering which story to tell them. They waited in a respectful silence, for he had taken his degree, and the only person in the village who did not stand in awe of him was his wife. If Mr. Chang had known Greek, his sympathy would have been drawn to Socrates and his home life.
Slowly he began: "iEons ago, almost at the dawning of our golden age, there lived on the edge of a lotus stream a mussel contented and happy. One spring morning when the apricots were in bloom, tempted by the beauty of the day, he went out on the river bank to sun himself. A bittern, which was passing by, perceived the mussel, and with none of those courteous ceremonies customary in polite society, pecked at the wary shellfish. The mussel, realising that he who hesitates is lost, wasted no time but nipped the bird's beak. The bittern, surprised and frightened, exclaimed, 'If you do not let me go to-day, and if you refuse to let me go to-morrow, there will be a dead mussel/ His would-be victim rejoined, 'If I stay indoors to-day, and if I don't come out to-morrow, there surely will be a dead bittern!' "
Suddenly at this climax a wild face was thrust into the door of the schoolroom and an excited voice shouted, "There is a foreign devil arrived at the inn, and you had better all be quick, for we think he is going to undress!"
Magic surely cannot have disappeared from China; the speed with which the room was emptied of all but the schoolmaster and the necromancer was simply miraculous. The necromancer felt it incumbent on his dignity to move more slowly; the schoolmaster, who was at heart a gentelman, turned towards his home. He would call later with ceremony when the rude villagers had left. Curiosity soon got the better of the necromancer, however, and murmuring to himself, "I have heard it said that these foreigners have a hole in their chest through which a stick is run by which they are carried by coolies; I must see if it is true," he turned and hurried to the inn.
The scene at the inn was amusing enough; the doors and windows were full of heads, and those who had a few cash with which to buy tea had even entered the house itself and were drinking, while their eyes seemed glued on the unfortunate foreigner. The inn was a poor place; the only thing which could be said in its favour was that it was dry. It consisted of one long room where all the guests ate, dressed, and slept. At one end was a fire of stalks burning; there was no chimney for the smoke to escape, so the foreigner sat beside the blaze with the tears running down his face from the suffocating smoke, trying in vain to get dry. He had removed his coat, which was dripping wet, and beside him on the floor lay a bicycle covered with the all-prevailing mud.
Even the man's sense of humour had been almost washed away, but when he saw the amazement on every countenance as he started to clean his wheel, he could not repress a smile. He had been forced to walk a long distance on account of the rain, and the consequence was that none of the Chinese knew what the bicycle was for, so they kept at a safe distance from it. As he spun eacli wheel around thoughtfully, the eyes of the crowd grew as large as saucers. One of them whispered, "It's a new kind of gun!" Some of them put their fingers in their ears expecting a loud report; others withdrew to a still greater distance. Nothing happened, however, and at that moment the necromancer entered and speedily drew his own conclusions; this was evidently some foreign magic, and it was clearly to his advantage to stand in with the foreigner and divide the profits.
"You have come a long road to-day?" he said, going directly up to the foreigner. , "Yes," replied the man, "one hundred It." (About thirty miles.)
"Ha! I was right," thought the necromancer. "It is magic indeed. No man could walk or be carried by coolies a distance like that in such weather."
So he asked still another question, "Then the coolies did not carry you by means of the pole stuck through your chest?"
The foreigner was puzzled; then he remembered the ancient rumour about the foreigners and replied, "No, I rode this wheel."
The necromancer was dazed, but by this time the crowd had grown bolder and felt like asking a few questions on their own account. They drew closer in a smaller circle and a perfect volley of questions followed: "Where was he from?" "What was his name?" "How did he button his collar?" "What was his vest for?"