A dramatic story of China at war, of a guerilla chief, and a girl whose first love was for her country
YUAN WOKE to a consciousness of close, crowding darkness, of aches in his body and clinging sticky moisture that he knew was his own blood. He heard, more and more distant, the dying clatter of machine guns. That meant his bold attack on Sze-Chau had failed, that his retreating guerillas fought a lingering rear-guard action against the hateful men of Nippon.
Not even the dim light was blotted out. Yuan heard sounds of a body moving near him.
“It is I, master—Hung.”
“Hung?” The general’s feeble voice held a question.
“The wall fell, to shelter and hide us, else we had been slain. I had thought to escape from the city in the darkness, but the accursed ones guard every exit.”
Yuan, biting back pain, weak from the blood he had lost, pulled himself up till his head touched the fallen masonry that concealed them. “God was unkind,” he muttered, “that He did not let me die in the assault. But, since I must die, help me out of this so I may die becomingly—”
Hung’s answering murmur was as a mother soothing a fretful child. “As a babe my grandfather was stricken of the black sickness and near to death; yet ninety times he beheld seedtime and harvest.” Then, more prosaically, “We must lie quiet. I know a place that is not far, where my master’s wounds may be tended. The way is through the Street of ATany Flowers, into the Road of the Clear Fountain. There, when it is dark, we will go.”
“Into Sze-Chau?” challenged Yuan. “Into the city?” “Does the hunter seek the rabbit in the tiger’s lair?”
Yuan lay quiet; but already his thoughts discovered a desire for life. It might be that the God of the Christians or the Great Ones of the ancient times, whichever ruled the destinies of men, might even yet fling the dice in his favor. He hoped so, if only that he might have the chance to requite that false soothsayer, Liu Sin.
Perhaps he had been too proud. “He who is borne on a litter forgets the bumps in the road,” he mused. Indeed, till today his career as a guerilla leader had been one of swift movement from victory to victory.
Yet when the idea of capturing Sze-Chau and destroying the hateful Inouye Suzuki and his puppet governor, Ch’en T’ang, came to possess him, had he not been cautious? He had consulted his captains, who advised against it. And he had gone to the wise Liu Sin, who with bleary eyes had gazed through incense into the crystal and murmured: “The general Yuan will take Sze-Chau and a rich reward.”
Foolish, to listen to the folly of a silly old soothsayer staring through incense into a crystal and to disregard the wisdom of men who had fought beside him in a hundred successful forays! Now, as a result, he might very well die beneath this fallen wall.
“It is dark,” remarked Hung, presently. “Let us go.”
Yuan was aide, feebly, to crawl forth. Here in the outskirts of Sze-Chau the air was scented with burned powder and the smoke of smoldering buildings. Now the sound of firing was as dead as his bright hopes. How many brave men whom he loved had paid with their lives for his folly in listening to the soothsayer!
The Faithful One helped him to his feet. Supported by Hung’s strong arm, lie was able to totter, though his mind grew more and more like the mists on the Yangtze. “This friend,” he heard Hung explain to a questioner, “is too full of wine.”
The Street of Many Flowers was dark and narrow and malodorous, lined with shabby buildings; it twisted like a snake. At its end, Yuan vaguely remembered, were the lights of the Road of the Clear Fountain where Hung had promised that friends would give them shelter.
Yet though the street was not over long, Yuan doubted that he could t raverse it. He summoned all his powerful will, yet still doubted. Each dragging step became more difficult and painful; the exertion opened his wounds and he knew that now he wrote a betraying trail on stones and mire. He felt Hung stiffen.
“What is it?” gasped Yuan.
“The accursed ones,” muttered Hung. “They come this way. Quick !” He drew Yuan into a deep doorway. Then, as the sound of marching feet drew nearer, “They are few, but too many.”
He knocked, with gentle insistence, on the door. It opened. Hung laughed, a queer, low-noted laugh of reassurance. “It is only a woman.”
He drew Y uan swiftly inside. “Close the door, woman,” he commanded roughly.
SHE OBEYED without a word. Yuan grew conscious of a heavy smell of incense. He opened his eyes and saw the woman. At sight of her his eyes opened still wider. For she was young and very lovely, with a piquant face, pink cheeks and heavy-lashed eyes that held a question in their depths as they regarded him.
Outside, the feet of the passing Japanese soldiers made a clicking noise on the stones. The sound died away. Yuan wondered how a woman so lovely could have escaped them all these months that General Suzuki had ruled in Sze-Chau.
Hung laid his master on the couch, then turned to the woman. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I am called Constant Moon.”
Her voice was like the flute played softly.
She brought water and bandages, and tended Yuan’s wounds with a touch not so much skilled as gentle. Hung, keenly watching, sighed. “He cannot be moved further,” Hung commented. “He must remain here. None must see him. Who is there here might talk?”
Yuan, stirring, saw the black snout of the automatic thrust from Hung’s beggar garb. Constant Moon regarded it calmly.
“Here dwells only Ming the Philosopher, my venerable grandfather, who has learned all things but now sees nothing.”
Hung, knowing Ming Feng’s repute, bowed very low. “None,” he observed, “will seek the tiger in the rabbit’s warren.” Then, in quick suspicion, “You ask no questions, girl?”
Her very faint smile made the wounded Yuan think of the sunrise. “There is a saying of the wise Ming, ‘What is not asked and answered can never be retold.’ ”
“You burned incense?” persisted the suspicious Hung.
“It is indeed so,” Constant Moon answered, with a curtsy. “I burned incense before the gods, that the wicked bandit, Yuan
Chang, might be defeated. The price, it seems, was not too great. It has been told me the wicked one was slain even as he broke through the city walls..”
Hung leaned close to whisper:
“She is an enemy. I must kill her.”
Yuan’s feeble fingers restrained the automatic. “No. She does not suspect us. We are safe. Let her live.”
Hung presently ventured forth, leaving Yuan on the couch. Yuan pretended to sleep, and the girl went into another room, doubtless her grandfather’s. But she returned presently and, finding Yuan with eyes open, asked if there were anything he needed. He shook his head wordlessly and her look grew tenderly commiserating.
Just as well, he mused, to let her believe him a wounded soldier of the Governor Ch’en who had helped hold the breach against Yuan.
“I sit beside my venerable grandfather,” she murmured. “He prepares himself to be a guest in heaven.”
So this, mused Yuan, was the end to which peaceful philosophers and warring soldiers alike came! Yuan had heard much of Ming Feng. Reputed wise, he seemed wisest in knowing when to depart from earth. For M ing’s once vast heritage of land and slaves had dwindled to this one shabby court; and Ming himself belonged to another age when the words of ancient sages were preferred to those of fighting men, and when the hated men of Nippon merely nibbled at the far fringes of a sedately pleasant land where now they gnawed cruelly at its heart.
Hung returned presently, with eyes troubled for his master.
“It is told that the bandit, Y^uan Chang, is indeed dead. But the governor Ch’en has offered a price of a thousand silver taels for his head in proof.”
At the rustle of silk he fell silent. “It is that woman,” he whispered, snarling. “She heard me. She is of evil omen— anyway I had best kill her.”
But Yuan restrained him. Hung dropped on his knees beside the couch, the better to whisper.
“Master, you cannot stay. It is not safe here. The girl is dangerous.”
“She is kind,” muttered Yuan, with weak obstinacy.
“Her kindness,” whispered Hung tensely, “is like the loveliness of the lotus that grows on the bosom of the marsh. For does not the marsh grip the hapless one who steps on it to pluck the blos-
som?” Then, as Yuan burst into stronger protest: “Two men have eyes on her. This Suzuki, the general of the accursed ones, and the governor, Ch’en.”
Yuan wondered dimly what made him once more regret that he had not died in the assault. Hung’s tense whispering went on, explaining. While the wise Ming Feng still lived, awe of his repute kept even these powerful ones respectful. And Ch’en, who desired Constant Moon, dared not take her by force lest she appeal to General Suzuki; and Suzuki wore a respectful mask toward her because the shrewd men at Tokyo still had uses for Ch’en T’ang.
“Master,” he finished, “I will take you to the place I spoke of, where there are true friends, though poor. It is not safe to stay here.”
“Yet will I stay.” Then, as Hung would have argued, “Let the girl, Constant Moon, answer.” Hung summoned her roughly. She gazed long at Yuan, curtsied, spoke shyly: “If my lord be but
willing to so honor our poor home-—”
IN THE long days that the wise Ming Feng slowly released, and the wounded Yuan Chang slowly regained, a hold on life, Constant Moon asked no question, but tended Yuan with sedulous and painstaking care. Often the soldier’s eyes followed her graceful movements while his mind asked questions.
Like the wise Ming Feng himself, this, his daughter’s daughter, belonged to another age when women were sheltered and protected. She had nothing in common with the eager, awakened Chinese women who drove trucks and toiled in factories and fought beside their men against the hated Japanese. But her face was lovely and her touch tender and her voice like music to beguile his senses.
In time Yuan, his strength recovered, sat in the sunshine of the inner court where the oleander bloomed. These last few days he had been uncomfortably conscious of Constant Moon’s shy scrutiny. Now, as she passed, he beckoned her.
She curtsied. “What is my lord’s will?” she asked submissively.
He felt impatient, with her, with himself. Impatient with himself that he thought of such a useless creature at all; impatient with her that she insisted on being as a servant to him, not as an equal like the women of this new age.
“Sit down,” he ordered, brusquely. “Tell me what is in your thoughts.”
Her look held surprise. “What can my poor thoughts be to one who has the masterful look of ancient kings?”
“Your thoughts?” he insisted. For grim, cruel war taught directness such as the philosopher Ming Feng had never known.
“My thoughts were of you, my lord.” She hesitated. “My lord will not be angry?” Then, as he nodded, “My lord is a soldier. He is tall and strong. He has the look of one born to rule. Might it not be that such a one, even you, my lord”she glanced at him timidly •—“may be chosen by the Ancient Ones to bring peace to this troubled land?”
“How so?” he encouraged gently, wondering how this weak, lovely woman of another age came to see in him the salvation of their people.
“The war is long and cruel,” she argued. “Cruel to us, but cruel to those of Nippon, likewise. My thought is” — she hesitated — “would they not be eager to bargain with a strong man to rule for them? You, my lord.”
Yuan’s burning eyes scorched her.
“Rather would I die,” he burst forth. “Y'es, rather would I see
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you dead.” He saw the color flame into her face. “What peace can there be”—his voice was like the rattle of machine guns—“till our people are free to come and go, to sow the seed and till the soil and reap the rice, to love and be loved, to see their sons grow to manhood and their daughters given in honorable marriage?”
Strange talk, this, to the daughter’s daughter of Ming the Philosopher, who had said of China and her invaders: “The tree that today
bends before the storm will stand up unbroken tomorrow.” Constant Moon bowed submissively; but when at last she looked up, her eyes shone.
Yuan mused' that he had said too much; for now he wished to live for two things. A great thing, to see China free of the last hated invader. A small thing, to punish for his lies Liu Sin, the soothsayer, who had gazed into the crystal and predicted that General Y'uan Chang would take Sze-Chau and win a rich reward.
“Think you to betray me, girl?” he challenged, harshly.
She curtsied. He hated that cringing gesture. It symbolized the weakness that had destroyed his land. But her words made him incongruously happy:
“Why should I? Am I not like one who looks on a new day? Did not my lord’s words but now wake in my breast a sleeping tiger of love for our people? I would serve my lord, and my people, no matter what the price.”
Y'uan smiled wryly. “There is a price of a thousand silver taels on the head of the bandit, Yuan Chang,” he muttered. “Has it brought his head?”
“Nay, my lord.” Her face was innocent; even now, Y'uan realized, she did not guess who he was.
A thin, querulous voice called; and Constant Moon hurried to her grandfather.
HUNG CAME, days later, and knocked with gentle insistence. In his beggar’s garb, and of downcast, doglike mien, he came and went safely. Much of the success of Yuan’s guerillas had come of such insidious infiltration.
But once Hung was inside with the door closed, his eyes gleamed with his great news.
“The fighting men who followed Y'uan Chang lie hid in the Yellow Mountains where the forests are thick. They have arms in their hands and they hunger for the food they love, yet lack one to lead them to the banquet. Is it fitting that Yuan be late?”
The soldier answered grimly: “Y'uan will not be late.”
Constant Moon’s faint gasp told Yuan that, standing in the shadows,
she had heard. Now she knew that the man she had nursed back to life and whose words had wakened the sleeping tiger in her was indeed that Yuan Chang against whose coming she had burned much incense; Y'uan, whose god was his fellow man and whose incense was gunpowder.
At the faint sound Hung’s hand thrust into his beggar’s garb. “No,” Yruan told him, “the maiden understands.” It was as though he drew her close and in the same moment thrust her from him.
Hung gazed at Yuan with the eyes of a faithful dog. “My lord, as Hung the Beggar I come and go freely. But who can mistake the proud look of Yuan Chang? The general Suzuki and the governor Ch’en have guards everywhere, and the governor Ch’en has offered a thousand silver taels—”
“Perhaps,” said Yuan, with a dangerous smoothness, “we can make steel as eloquent as silver.”
Hung smiled. “Your slave has found guards who would rather divide a thousand silver taels for Y'uan living than for Y'uan dead.” He whirled on Constant Moon. “The venerable Ming is rich. Get me a thousand silver taels. Fear nothing —you shall be many times repaid.”
Constant Moon’s face was white. She curtsied deeply. “This slave of Yuan, if she possessed a thousand silver taels, would be repaid by the giving. But in this poor court are merely enough cash for a few grains of rice.”
Hung’s answering tone was harsh. “I will talk with Ming.”
But when he returned from the room where the philosopher lay, his look was almost gentle. “It is too late. The wise Ming Feng communes with his honorable ancestors.”
Yuan spoke words of consolation to Constant Moon. She did not seem to hear.
“Many will come.” She pondered. “There is a secret room where my lord must hide till the funeral is over. Then we will settle this matter of the money. You,” she turned to Hung, “will be my father and help me in all things.”
So while in the hidden chamber Yuan fretted to be gone to join his comrades in the Yellow Mountains, to strike once more at his foes, Constant Moon talked often in whispers with Hung, and came and went with him. Regarding their talk, and what they did, Hung told his master nothing.
But he urged patience upon Yuan, who was all impatient. “A man can not live his life in a day, nor can he be given a proper funeral in a day. Besides, since the coming of the accursed ones, it is hard in this land to find a thousand silver taels; and Yuan cannot pass the guards without them, for has not Yuan the very look of a king?”
But when the mourners in white were gone, and the priests in their yellow robes, once more Constant Moon and Hung whispered. This time Yuan, venturing forth from his hiding, caught some words. For Hung argued:
“My mistress, would it not be well
If Your Maclean’s Is Late •
Every effort is made to have your copy arrive on time — but wartime brings transportation difficulties which occasionally may cause your copy to be late. If so, we ask your indulgence.
to first ask my lord Yuan regarding
Constant Moon spoke calmly: “If I spoke first to my lord, he might say, T will not have you do this thing,’ and he would remain a trapped tiger to be slain. Or he might say, ‘It is well—surely my life is worth the price,’ and then would my heart die. But by not asking, I can feel he would have said no, which will make my heart glad; and he will save his life, which will also make my heart glad.”
Yuan snatched aside the hangings. “What is all this?” he demanded.
The faithful Hung gazed down at the worn matting, but Constant Moon regarded Yuan calmly:
“It is done, my lord. Now this court belongs to the moneylenders, and I must go elsewhere. My father” —she turned to Hung—“will take me to a place of safety that we know.” Her face was as a placid pool.
“1,” protested Yuan, “will take you with me.”
She shook her head and spoke words fitting the daughter’s daughter of Ming Feng. “A time is given for work and a time for pleasure, and each of us goes swiftly to his appointed task. If we never meet again, let my memory be to my lord as the perfume of the oleander in that hour when my lord’s words awakened the sleeping tiger in my soul.”
Yuan bowed his head. His mind surrendered to the inescapable truth, that when a people’s life is at stake, love must wait. “I go, but will come again,” he said, feeling that he had read the truth, that Constant Moon had sold all that had been her grandfather’s for the thousand silver taels that would get him past the guards.
“It is I who go, my lord,” she reminded him; and as she passed with Hung into the Street of Many Flowers, Yuan watched with eyes that would have held her.
WHEN the black leopard of the night crouched low over SzeChau, the beggar Hung dropped a bag of silver at the feet of an officer of the guards. “Only two worthless beggars,” scoffed the officer. “Drive them beyond the walls.”
So they took the trail to the Yellow Mountains. A week later a poor beggar whispered to an officer who whispered to General Inouye Suzuki that the dreaded Yuan Chang and his bandits could be caught in a trap if he but closed the door. He marched forth hopefully with a great force.
When the fighting was over, Yuan gazed thoughtfully at the face of the dead general. “Let all who came with him continue to escort him, wherever he has gone,” he commanded; and it was done with a saving of ammunition, which was precious. So none of those men of Nippon ever came out of the Yellow Mountains.
Then Yuan turned to the faithful Hung, who had much helped the stratagem. “Where,” he demanded, “is the maiden?”
Hung gazed at the ground, all the triumph gone out of him.
“She is in the city?” Yuan’s voice was as the machine guns which that day had poured death into the accursed ones. Then, as Hung murmured a submissive assent, Yuan’s
mind went back to the soothsayer, Liu Sin, gazing through incense into the crystal, telling with such certainty that Yuan Chang would take Sze-Chau and win a rich reward.
Now Sze-Chau lay almost denuded of defenders. “We march at once,” Yuan said.
The fight was soon over, for even the soldiers of the governor Ch’en T’ang turned on the men of Nippon and helped to slay them. But before the slaughter was done, Yuan Chang hurried to the palace of Ch’en T’ang, who had betrayed his people.
Hung would have stayed Yuan. “My master,” he urged, “have I not served you faithfully?”
“You have, indeed.” War had robbed Yuan of circumlocutions.
“Am I not entitled to a reward?” Hung pleaded, desperately; for what, Yuan could not imagine.
“Indeed, yes,” said Yuan, impatiently. “And when we have slain the traitor Ch’en T’ang, you shall have whatever reward you ask. Let us hasten.”
But Hung protested. “That, master, is the reward—to go first, alone, and slay this Ch’en with my own hand.”
“We shall go together,” said Yuan, in the tone that ended argument.
Together they burst into the palace. The guards had fled. The two found Ch’en T’ang, fat as a wallowing hog, among the silken cushions of a couch. In a far corner, pale but calm, stood a woman.
It was Constant Moon.
At sight of her, it was for Yuan as though all his blood drained from many wounds, and his heart ceased to beat and his arm grew powerless.
Cornered, Ch’en T’ang pleaded, babbled promises, then snarled.
“My lord!” shrilled Constant Moon. “The knife!”
Even as she shrilled and Ch’en T’ang leapt at Yuan, Hung’s automatic spoke, and the governor toppled, his blood swiftly drenching the cushions.
Yuan came out of the mists to tragic hard understanding. He gazed accusingly at Constant Moon. Hung made as though to speak, but Yuan interrupted harshly:
“As for this, his woman—take her out and have her shot.” He turned his back on Constant Moon, and bowed his head.
But Hung, instead of obeying, grovelled at Yuan’s feet. “My master, listen to the words of a dog and the son of a dog. There was a day when a thousand silver taels were needed, that Yuan might pass the guards and strike a blow once more for his people. And there was no money in the mortgaged courts of Ming Feng. But the maiden said, “Ch’en will buy me. Father, sell me to Ch’en T’ang for a thousand silver taels. So, my lord will save himself alive and be free to serve our people.”
Yuan’s pondering mind went back to those words of Constant Moon that he had overheard, and that had puzzled him. This girl was indeed all that Ming Feng had left; and all that Ming Feng had left she had sold to raise the bribe money. He had been foolish not to understand, foolish never to question.
It was long moments before he lifted dull eyes to her.
“Is this true?” he demanded, hoarsely.
Constant Moon regarded him, not submissively as once had been her wont, but with a high pride. “It is even as he says, my lord. And I am happy in it. For do I not love the lord of my life, and is not everything well with him, and is not his arm unshackled and powerful to destroy his enemies?”
Yuan said no word.
Constant Moon spoke again, ! calmly. “I have died a thousand deaths, so what is one more so long as my lord lives?” She turned to j Hung. “Have you not heard your lord’s command?”
Hung moved toward her.
But Yuan spoke.
“Go—and let her stay.”
He drew’ nearer Constant Moon and held his hands toward her.