The Round-Faced Beauty by L. Adams Beck
In the city of Chang-an music filled the palaces, and the festivities of the Emperor were measured by its beat. Night, and the full moon swimming like a gold-fish in the garden lakes, gave the signal for the Feather Jacket and Rainbow Skirt dances. Morning, with the rising sun, summoned the court again to the feast and wine-cup in the floating gardens.
The Emperor Chung Tsu favored this city before all others. The Yen Tower soaring heavenward, the Drum Towers, the Pearl Pagoda, were the only fit surroundings of his magnificence; and in the Pavilion of Tranquil Learning were held those discussions which enlightened the world and spread the fame of the Jade Emperor far and wide. In all respects he adorned the Dragon Throne - in all but one; for Nature, bestowing so much, withheld one gift, and the Imperial heart, as precious as jade, was also as hard, and he eschewed utterly the company of the Hidden Palace Flowers.
Yet the Inner Chambers were filled with ladies chosen from all parts of the Celestial Empire - ladies of the most exquisite and torturing beauty, moons of loveliness, moving coquettishly on little feet, with all the grace of willow branches in a light breeze. They were sprinkled with perfumes, adorned with jewels, robed in silks woven with gold and embroidered with designs of flowers and birds. Their faces were painted and their eyebrows formed into slender and perfect arches whence the soul of man might well slip to perdition, and a breath of sweet odor followed each wherever she moved. Every one might have been the Empress of some lesser kingdom; but though rumours reached the Son of Heaven from time to time of their charms, - especially when some new blossom was added to the Imperial bouquet,- he had dismissed them from his august thoughts, and they languished in a neglect so complete that the Great Cold Palaces of the Moon were not more empty than their hearts. They remained under the supervision of the Princess of Han, August Aunt of the Emperor, knowing that their Lord considered the company of sleeve-dogs and macaws more pleasant than their own. Nor had he as yet chosen an Empress, and it was evident that without some miracle, such as the intervention of the Municipal God, no heir to the throne could be hoped for.
Yet the Emperor one day remembered his imprisoned beauties, and it crossed the Imperial thoughts that even these inferior creatures might afford such interest as may be found in the gambols of trained fleas or other insects of no natural attainments.
Accordingly, he commanded that the subject last discussed in his presence should be transferred to the Inner Chambers, and it was his Order that the ladies should also discuss it, and their opinions be engraved on ivory, bound together with red silk and tassels and thus presented at the Dragon feet. The subject chosen was the following:-
Describe the Qualities of the Ideal Man
Now when this command was laid before the August Aunt, the guardian of the Inner Chambers, she was much perturbed in mind, for such a thing was unheard of in all the annals of the Empire. Recovering herself, she ventured to say that the discussion of such a question might raise very disquieting thoughts in the minds of the ladies, who could not be supposed to have any opinions at all on such a subject. Nor was it desirable that they should have. To every woman her husband and no other is and must be the Ideal Man. So it was always in the past; so it must ever be. There are certain things which it is dangerous to question or discuss, and how can ladies who have never spoken with any other man than a parent or a brother judge such matters?
"How, indeed," asked this lady of exalted merit, "can the bat form an idea of the sunlight, or the carp of the motion of wings? If his Celestial Majesty had commanded a discussion on the Superior Woman and the virtues which should adorn her, some sentiments not wholly unworthy might have been offered. But this is a calamity. They come unexpectedly, springing up like mushrooms, and this one is probably due to the lack of virtue of the inelegant and unintellectual person who is now speaking."
This she uttered in the presence of the principal beauties of the Inner Chambers. They sat or reclined about her in attitudes of perfect loveliness. Two, embroidering silver pheasants, paused with their needles suspended above the stretched silk, to hear the August Aunt. One, threading beads of jewel jade, permitted them to slip from the string and so distended the rose of her mouth in surprise that the small pearl-shells were visible within. The Lady Tortoise, caressing a scarlet and azure macaw, in her agitation so twitched the feathers that the bird, shrieking, bit her finger. The Lady Golden Bells blushed deeply at the thought of what was required of them; and the little Lady Summer Dress, youngest of all the assembled beauties, was so alarmed at the prospect that she began to sob aloud, until she met the eye of the August Aunt and abruptly ceased.
"It is not, however, to be supposed," said the August Aunt, opening her snuff-bottle of painted crystal, "that the minds of our deplorable and unattractive sex are wholly incapable of forming opinions. But speech is a grave matter for women, naturally slow-witted and feeble-minded as they are. This unenlightened person recalls the Odes as saying:-
`A flaw in a piece of white jade May be ground away, But when a woman has spoken foolishly Nothing can be done-'
a consideration which should make every lady here and throughout the world think anxiously before speech." So anxiously did the assembled beauties think, that all remained mute as fish in a pool, and the August Aunt continued:-
"Let Tsu-ssu be summoned. It is my intention to suggest to the Dragon Emperor that the virtues of women be the subject of our discourse, and I will myself open and conclude the discussion."
Tsu-ssu was not long in kotowing before the August Aunt, who despatched her message with the proper ceremonial due to its Imperial destination; and meanwhile, in much agitation, the beauties could but twitter and whisper in each other's ears, and await the response like condemned prisoners who yet hope for reprieve.
Scarce an hour had dripped away on the water-clock when an Imperial Missive bound with yellow silk arrived, and the August Aunt, rising, kotowed nine times before she received it in her jewelled hand with its delicate and lengthy nails ensheathed in pure gold and set with gems of the first water. She then read it aloud, the ladies prostrating themselves.
To the Princess of Han, the August Aunt, the Lady of the Nine Superior Virtues:-
"Having deeply reflected on the wisdom submitted, We thus reply. Women should not be the judges of their own virtues, since these exist only in relation to men. Let Our Command therefore be executed, and tablets presented before us seven days hence, with the name of each lady appended to her tablet."
It was indeed pitiable to see the anxiety of the ladies! A sacrifice to Kwan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, of a jewel from each, with intercession for aid, was proposed by the Lustrous Lady; but the majority shook their heads sadly. The August Aunt, tossing her head, declared that, as the Son of Heaven had made no comment on her proposal of opening and closing the discussion, she should take no part other than safeguarding the interests of propriety. This much increased the alarm, and, kneeling at her feet, the swan-like beauties, Deep-Snow and Winter Moon implored her aid and compassion. But, rising indignantly, the August Aunt sought her own apartments, and for the first time the inmates of the Pepper Chamber saw with regret the golden dragons embroidered on her back.
It was then that the Round-Faced Beauty ventured a remark. This maiden, having been born in the far-off province of Ssuch-uan, was considered a rustic by the distinguished elegance of the Palace and, therefore, had never spoken unless decorum required. Still, even her detractors were compelled to admit the charms that had gained her her name. Her face had the flawless outline of the pearl, and like the blossom of the plum was the purity of her complexion, upon which the darkness of her eyebrows resembled two silk-moths alighted to flutter above the brilliance of her eyes - eyes which even the August Aunt had commended after a banquet of unsurpassed variety. Her hair had been compared to the crow's plumage; her waist was like a roll of silk, and her discretion in habiting herself was such that even the Lustrous Lady and the Lady Tortoise drew instruction from the splendours of her robes. It created, however, a general astonishment when she spoke.
"Paragons of beauty, what is this dull and opaque. witted person that she should speak?"
"What, indeed!" said the Celestial Sister. "This entirely undistinguished person cannot even imagine."
A distressing pause followed, during which many whispered anxiously. The Lustrous Lady broke it.
"It is true that the highly ornamental Round-Faced Beauty is but lately come, yet even the intelligent Ant may assist the Dragon; and in the presence of alarm, what is decorum? With a tiger behind one, who can recall the Book of Rites and act with befitting elegance?"
"The high-born will at all times remember the Rites!" retorted the Celestial Sister. "Have we not heard the August Aunt observe: `Those who understand do not speak. Those who speak do not understand'?"
The Round-Faced Beauty collected her courage.
"Doubtless this is wisdom; yet if the wise do not speak, who should instruct us? The August Aunt herself would be silent."
All were confounded by this dilemma, and the little Lady Summer-Dress, still weeping, entreated that the Round-Faced Beauty might be heard. The Heavenly Blossoms then prepared to listen and assumed attitudes of attention, which so disconcerted the Round-Faced Beauty that she blushed like a spring tulip in speaking.
"Beautiful ladies, our Lord, who is unknown to us all, has issued an august command. It cannot be disputed, for the whisper of disobedience is heard as thunder in the Imperial Presence. Should we not aid each other? If any lady has formed a dream in her soul of the Ideal Man, might not such a picture aid us all? Let us not be `say-nothing-do-nothing,' but act!"
They hung their heads and smiled, but none would allow that she had formed such an image. The little Lady Tortoise, laughing behind her fan of sandalwood, said roguishly: "The Ideal Man should be handsome, liberal in giving, and assuredly he should appreciate the beauty of his wives. But this we cannot say to the Divine Emperor."
A sigh rustled through the Pepper Chamber. The Celestial Sister looked angrily at the speaker.
"This is the talk of children," she said. "Does no one remember Kung-fu-tse's [Confucius] description of the Superior Man?"
Unfortunately none did - not even the Celestial Sister herself.
"Is it not probable," said the Round-Faced Beauty, "that the Divine Emperor remembers it him- self and wishes-"
But the Celestial Sister, yawning audibly, summoned the attendants to bring rose-leaves in honey, and would hear no more.
The Round-Faced Beauty therefore wandered forth among the mossy rocks and drooping willows of the Imperial Garden, deeply considering the matter. She ascended the bow-curved bridge of marble which crossed the Pool of Clear Weather, and from the top idly observed the reflection of her rose-and-gold coat in the water while, with her taper fingers, she crumbled cake for the fortunate gold-fish that dwelt in it. And, so doing, she remarked one fish, four-tailed among the six-tailed, and in no way distinguished by elegance, which secured by far the largest share of the crumbs dropped into the pool. Bending lower, she observed this singular fish and its methods.
The others crowded about the spot where the crumbs fell, all herded together. In their eagerness and stupidity they remained like a cloud of gold in one spot, slowly waving their tails. But this fish, concealing itself behind a miniature rock, waited, looking upward, until the crumbs were falling, and then, rushing forth with the speed of an arrow, scattered the stupid mass of fish, and bore off the crumbs to its shelter, where it instantly devoured them.
"This is notable," said the Round-Faced Beauty. "Observation enlightens the mind. To be apart - to be distinguished - secures notice!" And she plunged into thought again, wandering, herself a flower, among the gorgeous tree peonies.
On the following day the August Aunt commanded that a writer among the palace attendants should, with brush and ink, be summoned to transcribe the wisdom of the ladies. She requested that each would give three days to thought, relating the following anecdote. "There was a man who, taking a piece of ivory, carved it into a mulberry leaf, spending three years on the task. When finished it could not be told from the original, and was a gift suitable for the Brother of the Sun and Moon. Do likewise!"
"But yet, O Augustness!" said the Celestial Sister, "if the Lord of Heaven took as long with each leaf, there would be few leaves on the trees, and if-"
The August Aunt immediately commanded silence and retired. On the third day she seated herself in her chair of carved ebony, while the attendant placed himself by her feet and prepared to record her words.
"This insignificant person has decided," began her Augustness, looking round and unscrewing the amber top of her snuff-bottle, "to take an unintelligent part in these proceedings. An example should be set. Attendant, write!"
She then dictated as follows: "The Ideal Man is he who now decorates the Imperial Throne, or he who in all humility ventures to resemble the incomparable Emperor. Though he may not hope to attain, his endeavor is his merit. No further description it needed."
With complacence she inhaled the perfumed snuff, as the writer appended the elegant characters of her Imperial name.
If it is permissible to say that the faces of the beauties lengthened visibly, it should now be said. For it had been the intention of every lady to make an illusion to the Celestial Emperor and depict him as the Ideal Man. Nor had they expected that the August Aunt would take any part in the matter.
"Oh, but it was the intention of this commonplace and undignified person to say this very thing!" cried the Lustrous Lady, with tears in the jewels of her eyes. "I thought no other high-minded and distinguished lady would for a moment think of it"
"And it was my intention also!" fluttered the little Lady Tortoise, wringing her hands! "What now shall this most unlucky and unendurable person do? For three nights has sleep forsaken my unattractive eyelids, and, tossing and turning on a couch deprived of all comfort, I could only repeat, `The Ideal Man is the Divine Dragon Emperor!'"
"May one of entirely contemptible attainments make a suggestion in this assemblage of scintillating wit and beauty?" inquired the Celestial Sister. "My superficial opinion is that it would be well to prepare a single paper to which all names should be appended, stating that His Majesty in his Dragon Divinity comprises all ideals in his sacred Person."
"Let those words be recorded," said the August Aunt. "What else should any lady of discretion and propriety say? In this Palace of Virtuous Peace, where all is consecrated to the Son of Heaven, though he deigns not to enter it, what other thought dare be breathed? Has any lady ventured to step outside such a limit? If so, let her declare herself!"
All shook their heads, and the August Aunt proceeded: "Let the writer record this as the opinion of every lady of the Imperial Household, and let each name be separately appended."
Had any desired to object, none dared to confront the August Aunt; but apparently no beauty so desired, for after three nights' sleepless meditation, no other thought than this had occurred to any.
Accordingly, the writer moved from lady to lady and, under the supervision of the August Aunt, transcribed the following: "The Ideal Man is the earthly likeness of the Divine Emperor. How should it be otherwise?" And under this sentence wrote the name of each lovely one in succession. The papers were then placed in the hanging sleeves of the August Aunt for safety.
By the decree of Fate, the father of the Round-Faced Beauty had, before he became an ancestral spirit, been a scholar of distinction, having graduated at the age of seventy-two with a composition commended by the Grand Examiner. Having no gold and silver to give his daughter, he had formed her mind, and had presented her with the sole jewel of his family-a pearl as large as a bean. Such was her sole dower, but the accomplished Aunt may excel the indolent Prince.
Yet, before the thought in her mind, she hesitated and trembled, recalling the lesson of the gold-fish; and it was with anxiety that paled her roseate lips that, on a certain day, she had sought the Willow Bridge Pavilion. There had awaited her a palace attendant skilled with the brush, and there in secrecy and dire affright, hearing the footsteps of the August Aunt in every rustle of leafage, and her voice in the call of every crow, did the Round-Faced Beauty dictate the following composition:-
"Though the sky rain pearls, it cannot equal the beneficence of the Son of Heaven. Though the sky rain jade it cannot equal his magnificence. He has commanded his slave to describe the qualities of the Ideal Man. How should I, a mere woman, do this? I, who have not seen the Divine Emperor, how should I know what is virtue? I, who have not seen the glory of his countenance, how should I know what is beauty? Report speaks of his excellencies, but I who live in the dark know not. But to the Ideal Woman, the very vices of her husband are virtues. Should he exalt another, this is a mark of his superior taste. Should he dismiss his slave, this is justice. To the Ideal Woman there is but one Ideal Man - and that is her lord. From the day she crosses his threshold, to the day when they clothe her in the garments of Immortality, this is her sole opinion. Yet would that she might receive instruction of what only are beauty and virtue in his adorable presence."
This being written, she presented her one pearl to the attendant and fled, not looking behind her, as quickly as her delicate feet would permit.
On the seventh day the compositions, engraved on ivory and bound with red silk and tassels, were presented to the Emperor, and for seven days more he forgot their existence. On the eighth the High Chamberlain ventured to recall them to the Imperial memory, and the Emperor glancing slightly at one after another, threw them aside, yawning as he did so. Finally, one arrested his eyes, and reading it more than once he laid it before him and meditated. An hour passed in this way while the forgotten Lord Chamberlain continued to kneel. The Son of Heaven, then raising his head, pronounced these words: "In the society of the Ideal Woman, she to whom jealousy is unknown, tranquillity might possibly be obtained. Let prayer be made before the Ancestors with the customary offerings, for this is a matter deserving attention."
A few days passed, and an Imperial attendant, escorted by two mandarins of the peacock- feather and crystal-button rank, desired an audience of the August Aunt, and, speaking before the curtain, informed her that his Imperial Majesty would pay a visit that evening to the Hall of Tranquil Longevity. Such was her agitation at this honour that she immediately swooned; but, reviving, summoned all the attendants and gave orders for a banquet and musicians.
Lanterns painted with pheasants and exquisite landscapes were hung on all the pavilions. Tap- estries of rose, decorated with the Five-Clawed Dragons, adorned the chambers; and upon the High Seat was placed a robe of yellow satin embroidered with pearls. All was hurry and excitement. The Blossoms of the Palace were so exquisitely decked that one grain more of powder would have made them too lily-like, and one touch more of rouge, too rosecheeked. It was indeed perfection, and, like lotuses upon a lake, or Asian birds, gorgeous of plumage, they stood ranged in the outer chamber while the Celestial Emperor took his seat.
The Round-Faced Beauty wore no jewels, having bartered her pearl for her opportunity; but her long coat of jade-green, embroidered with golden willows, and her trousers of palest rose left nothing to be desired. In her hair two golden peonies were fastened with pins of kingfisher work. The Son of Heaven was seated upon the throne as the ladies approached, marshaled by the August Aunt. He was attired in the Yellow Robe with the Flying Dragons, and upon the Imperial Head was the Cap, ornamented with one hundred and forty-four priceless gems. From it hung the twelve pendants of strings of pearls, partly concealing the august eyes of the Jade Emperor. No greater splendour can strike awe into the soul of man.
At his command the August Aunt took her seat upon a lesser chair at the Celestial Feet. Her mien was majestic, and struck awe into the assembled beauties, whose names she spoke aloud as each approached and prostrated herself. She then pronounced these words:
"Beautiful ones, the Emperor, having considered the opinions submitted by you on the subject of the Superior Man, is pleased to express his august commendation. Dismiss, therefore, anxiety from your minds, and prepare to assist at the humble concert of music we have prepared for his Divine pleasure."
Slightly raising himself in his chair, the Son of Heaven looked down upon that Garden of Beauty, holding in his hand an ivory tablet bound with red silk.
"Lovely ladies," he began, in a voice that assuaged fear, "who among you was it that laid before our feet a composition beginning thus - 'Though the sky rain pearls'?"
The August Aunt immediately rose.
"Imperial Majesty, none! These eyes supervised every composition. No impropriety was permitted."
The Son of Heaven resumed: "Let that lady stand forth."
The words were few, but sufficient. Trembling in every limb, the Round-Faced Beauty separated herself from her companions and prostrated herself, amid the breathless amazement of the Blossoms of the Palace. He looked down upon her as she knelt, pale as a lady carved in ivory, but lovely as the lotus of Chang-Su. He turned to the August Aunt. "Princess of Han, my Imperial Aunt, I would speak with this lady alone."
Decorum itself and the custom of Palaces could not conceal the indignation of the August Aunt as she rose and retired, driving the ladies before her as a shepherd drives his sheep.
The Hall of Tranquil Longevity being now empty, the Jade Emperor extended his hand and beckoned the Round-Faced Beauty to approach. This she did, hanging her head like a flower surcharged with dew and swaying gracefully as a wind-bell, and knelt on the lowest step of the Seat of State.
"Loveliest One," said the Emperor, "I have read your composition. I would know the truth. Did any aid you as you spoke it? Was it the thought of your own heart?"
"None aided, Divine," said she, almost fainting with fear. "It was indeed the thought of this illiterate slave, consumed with an unwarranted but uncontrollable passion."
"And have you in truth desired to see your Lord?"
"As a prisoner in a dungeon desires the light, so was it with this low person."
"And having seen?"
"Augustness, the dull eyes of this slave are blinded with beauty."
She laid her head before his feet.
"Yet you have depicted, not the Ideal Man, but the Ideal Woman. This was not the Celestial command. How was this?"
"Because, O versatile and auspicious Emperor, the blind cannot behold the sunlight, and it is only the Ideal Woman who is worthy to comprehend and worship the Ideal Man. For this alone is she created."
A smile began to illuminate the Imperial Countenance. "And how, 0 Round-Faced Beauty, did you evade the vigilance of the August Aunt?"
She hung her head lower, speaking almost in a whisper. "With her one pearl did this person buy the secrecy of the writer; and when the August Aunt slept, did I conceal the paper in her sleeve with the rest, and her own Imperial hand gave it to the engraver of ivory."
She veiled her face with two jade-white hands that trembled excessively. On hearing this statement the Celestial Emperor broke at once into a very great laughter, and he laughed loud and long as a tiller of wheat. The Round-Faced Beauty heard it demurely until, catching the Imperial eye, decorum was forgotten and she too laughed uncontrollably. So they continued, and finally the Emperor leaned back, drying the tears in his eyes with his august sleeve, and the lady, resuming her gravity, hid her face in her hands, yet regarded him through her fingers.
When the August Aunt returned at the end of an hour with the ladies, surrounded by the attendants with their instruments of music, the Round-Faced Beauty was seated in the chair that she herself had occupied, and on the whiteness of her brow was hung the chain of pearls, which had formed the frontal of the Cap of the Emperor.
It is recorded that, advancing from honour to honour, the Round-Faced Beauty was eventually chosen Empress and became the mother of the Imperial Prince. The celestial purity of her mind and the absence of all flaws of jealousy and anger warranted this distinction. But it is also recorded that, after her elevation, no other lady was ever exalted in the Imperial favour or received the slightest notice from the Emperor. For the Empress, now well acquainted with the Ideal Man, judged it better that his experiences of the Ideal Woman should be drawn from herself alone. And as she decreed, so it was done. Doubtless Her Majesty did well.
It is known that the Emperor departed to the Ancestral Spirits at an early age, seeking, as the August Aunt observed, that repose which on earth could never more be his. But no one has asserted that this lady's disposition was free from the ordinary blemishes of humanity.
As for the Celestial Empress (who survives in history as one of the most astute rulers who ever adorned the Dragon Throne), she continued to rule her son and the Empire, surrounded by the respectful admiration of all.