Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories HTML version

The Flute Of Chang Liang
To P. Kershaw
The village was called Moe-tung. It was on the edge of the big main road which
leads from Liao-yang to Ta-shi-chiao. It consisted of a few baked mud-houses, a
dilapidated temple, a wall, a clump of willows, and a pond. One of the houses I
knew well; in its square open yard, in which the rude furniture of toil lay strewn
about, I had halted more than once for my midday meal, when riding from Liao-
yang to the South. I had been entertained there by the owner of the house, a
brawny husbandman and his fat brown children, and they had given me eggs
and Indian corn. Now it was empty; the house was deserted; the owner, his wife
and his children, had all gone, to the city probably, to seek shelter. We occupied
the house; and the Cossacks at once made a fire with the front door and any
fragments of wood they could find. The house was converted into a stable and a
kitchen, and the officers' quarters were established in another smaller building
across the road, on the edge of a great plain, which was bright green with the
standing giant millet.
This smaller cottage had an uncultivated garden in front of it, and a kind of
natural summer-house made by the twining of a pumpkin plant which spread its
broad leaves over some stakes. We lay down to rest in this garden. About five
miles to the north of us was the town of Liao- yang; to the east in the distance
was a range of pale blue hills, and immediately in front of us to the south, and
scarcely a mile off, was the big hill of Sho-shantze. It was five o'clock in the
afternoon, and we had been on the move since two o'clock in the morning. The
Cossacks brought us tea and pancakes, and presently news came from the town
that the big battle would be fought the next day: the big battle; the real battle,
which had been expected for so long and which had been constantly put off.
There was a complete stillness everywhere. The officers unpacked their valises
and their camp-beds. Every one arranged his bed and his goods in his chosen
place, and it seemed as if we had merely begun once more to settle down for a
further period of siesta in the long picnic which had been going on for the last two
months. Nobody was convinced in spite of the authentic news which we had
received, that the Japanese would attack the next day.
The sunset faded into a twilight of delicious summer calm.
From the hills in the east came the noise of a few shots fired by the batteries
there, and a captive balloon soared slowly, like a soap- bubble, into the eastern
sky. I walked into the village; here and there fires were burning, and I was
attracted by the sight of the deserted temple in which the wooden painted gods
were grinning, bereft of their priest and of their accustomed dues. I sat down on
the mossy steps of the little wooden temple, and somewhere, either from one of
the knolls hard by or from one of the houses, came the sound of a flute, or rather
of some primitive wooden pipe, which repeated over and over again a
monotonous and piercingly sad little tune. I wondered whether it was one of the
soldiers playing, but I decided this could not be the case, as the tune was more
eastern than any Russian tune. On the other hand, it seemed strange that any