The Mirror of Kong Ho by Ernest Bramah - HTML preview

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Letter 5


Concerning the neglect of ancestors and its discreditable consequences. Two who state the matter definitely. Concerning the otherside way of looking at things and the self-contradictory bearing of the maiden Florence.

 VENERATED SIRE,--A discovery of overwhelming malignity oppresses me. In spite of much baffling ambiguity and the frequent evasion of conscious guilt, there can be no longer any reasonable doubt that these barbarians DO NOT WORSHIP THEIR ANCESTORS!

 Hitherto the matter had rested in my mind as an uneasy breath of suspicion, agitated from time to time by countless indications that such a possibility might, indeed, exist in a condensed form, but too inauspiciously profane to be contemplated in the altogether. Thus, when in the company of the young this person has walked about the streets of the city, he may at length have said, "Truly, out of your amiable condescension, you have shown me a variety of entrancing scenes. Let us now in turn visit the tombs of your ancestors, to the end that I may transmit fitting gifts to their spirits and discharge a few propitious fireworks as a greeting." Yet in no case has this well-intentioned offer been agilely received, one asserting that he did not know the resting-place of the tombs in question, a second that he had no ancestors, a third that Kensal Green was not an entrancing spot for a wet afternoon, a fourth that he would see them removed to a greater distance first, another that he drew the line at mafficking in a cemetery, and the like. These things, it may occur to your omniscience, might in themselves have been conclusive, yet the next reference to the matter would perhaps be tending to a more alluring hope.

 "To-morrow," a person has remarked in the hearing of this one, "I go to the Stratford which is upon the Avon, and without a pause I shall prostrate myself intellectually before the immortal Shakespeare's tomb and worship his unequalled memory."

 "The intention is benevolently conceived," I remarked. "Yet has he no descendants, this same Shakespeare, that the conciliation of his spirit must be left to chance?"

 When he assured me that this calamity had come about, I would have added a richly-gilded brick from my store for transmission also, in the hope that the neglected and capricious shadow would grant me an immunity from its resentful attention, but the one in question raised a barrier of dissent. If I wished to adorn a tomb, he added (evading the deeper significance of the act), there was that of Goldsmith within its Temple, upon which many impressionable maidens from across the Bitter Waters of the West make it a custom to deposit chaplets of verses, in the hope of seeing the offering chronicled in the papers; and in the Open Space called Trafalgar there were the images of a great captain who led many junks to victory and the Emperor of a former dynasty, where doubtless the matter could be arranged; but the surrounding had by this time become too involved, and this person had no alternative but to smile symmetrically and reply that his words were indeed opals falling from a topaz basin.

 Later in the day, being desirous of becoming instructed more definitely, I addressed myself to a venerable person who makes clean the passage of the way at a point not far distant.

 "If you have no sons to extend your industrious line," I said, when he had revealed this fact to me, "why do you not adopt one to that end?"

 With narrow-minded covetousness, he replied that nowadays he had enough to do to keep himself, and that it would be more reasonable to get some one to adopt HIM.

 "But," I exclaimed, ignoring this ill-timed levity, "who, when you have Passed Beyond, will worship you and transmit to your spirit the necessities of life?" "Governor," he replied, using the term of familiar dignity, "I've made shift without being worshipped for five and sixty years, and it worries me a sight more to know who will transmit to my body the necessities of life until I HAVE Passed Beyond." "The final consequences of your self-opinionated carelessness," this person continued, "will be that your neglected and unprovided shadow, finding itself no longer acceptable to the society of the better class demons, will wander forth, and allying itself in despair to the companionship of a band of outcasts like itself, will be driven to dwell in unclean habitations and to subsist on the uncertain bounty of the charitable."

 "Very likely," replied the irredeemable person before me. "I can't help its troubles. I have to do all that myself as it is."

 Doubtless this fanaticism contains the secret of the ease with which these barbarians have possessed themselves of the greater part of the earth, and have even planted their assertive emblems on one or two spots in our own Flowery Kingdom. What, O my esteemed parent, what can a brave but devout and demon-fearing nation do when opposed to a people who are quite prepared to die without first leaving an adequate posterity to tend their shrines and offer incense? Assuredly, as a neighbouring philosopher once had occasion to remark, using for his purpose a metaphor so technically-involved that I must leave the interpretation until we meet, "It may be war, but it isn't cricket."

The inevitable outcome, naturally, is that the Island must be the wandering-place of myriads of spirits possessing no recognised standing, and driven by want-having none to transmit them offerings--to the most degraded subterfuges. It is freely admitted that there is scarcely an ancient building not the abode of one or more of these abandoned demons, doubtless well-disposed in the first instance, and capable of becoming really beneficent Forces until they were driven to despair by obstinate neglect. A society of very honourable persons (to which this one has unobtrusively contributed a gift), exists for the purpose of searching out the most distressing and meritorious cases among them, and removing them, where possible, to a more congenial spot. The remarkable fact, to this person's mind, is, that with the air and every available space around absolutely packed with demons (as certainly must be the prevailing state of things), the manifestations of their malignity and vice are, if anything, rather less evident here than in our own favoured country, where we do all in our power to satisfy their wants.

 That same evening I found myself seated next to a maiden of prepossessing vivacity, who was spoken of as being one of a kindred but not identical race. Filled with the incredible profanity of those around, and hoping to find among a nation so alluringly high-spirited a more congenial elevation of mind, I at length turned to her and said, "Do not regard the question as one of unworthy curiosity, for this person's inside is white and funereal with his fears; but do you, of your allied race, worship your ancestors?"

 The maiden spent a moment in conscientious thought. "No, Mr. Kong," she replied, with a most commendable sigh of unfeigned regret, "I can't say that we do. I guess it's because we're too new. Mine, now, only go back two generations, and they were mostly in lard. If they were old and baronial it might be different, but I can't imagine myself worshipping an ancestor in lard." (This doubtless refers to some barbaric method of embalming.)

 "And your wide and enlightened countrymen?" I asked, unable to restrain a passion of pure-bred despair. "Do they also so regard the obligation?" "I am afraid so," replied the maiden, with an honourable indication towards my emotion. "But of course when a girl marries into the European aristocracy, she and all her folk worship her husband's ancestors, until every one about is fairly dizzy with the subject."

 It is largely owing to the graceful and virtuous conversation of these lesser ones that this person's knowledge of the exact position which the ceremonial etiquette of the country demands on various occasions is becoming so proficiently enlarged. It is true that they of my own sex do not hesitate to inquire with penetrating assiduousness into certain of the manners and customs of our land, but these for the most part do not lead to a conversation in any way profitable to my discreeter understanding. Those of the inner chamber, on the other hand, while not scrupling to question me on the details of dress, the braiding and gumming of the hair, the style and variety of the stalls of merchants, the wearing of jade, gold, and crystal ornaments and flowers about the head, smoking, and other matters affecting our lesser ones, very magnanimously lead my contemplation back to a more custom-established topic if by any hap in my ambitious ignorance I outstep it.

 In such a manner it chanced on a former occasion that I sat side by side with a certain maiden awaiting the return of others who had withdrawn for a period. The season was that of white rains, and the fire being lavishly extended about the grate we had harmoniously arranged ourselves before it, while this person, at the repeated and explicit encouragement of the maiden, spoke openly of such details of the inner chamber as he has already indicated.

 "Is it true, Mr. Ho" (thus the maiden, being unacquainted with the actual facts, consistently addressed me), "that ladies' feet are relentlessly compressed until they finally assume the proportions and appearance of two bulbs?" and as she spoke she absent-mindedly regarded her own slippers, which were out-thrust somewhat to receive the action of the fire.

 "It is a matter which cannot reasonably be denied," I replied; "and it is doubtless owing to this effect that they are designated 'Golden Lilies.' Yet when this observance has been slowly and painfully accomplished, the extremities in question are not less small but infinitely less graceful than the select and naturally-formed pair which this person sees before him." And at the ingeniouslydevised compliment (which, not to become large-headed in self-imagination, it must be admitted was revealed to me as available for practically all occassions by the really invaluable Quang-Tsun), I bowed unremittingly.

 "O, Mr. Ho!" exclaimed the maiden, and paused abruptly at the sound of her words, as though they were inept.

 "In many other ways a comparison equally irreproachable to the exalted being at my side might be sought out," I continued, suddenly forming the ill-destined judgment that I was no less competent than the more experienced Quang-Tsun to contrive delicate offerings of speech. "Their hair is rope like in its lack of spontaneous curve, their eyes as deficient in lustre as a half-shuttered window; their hands are exceedingly inferior in colour, and both on the left side, as it may be expressed; their legs--" but at this point the maiden drew herself so hastily into herself that I had no alternative but to conclude that unless I reverted in some way the enterprise was in peril of being inharmoniously conducted. "Mr. Ho," said the maiden, after contemplating her inward thoughts for a moment, "you are a foreigner, and you cannot be expected to know by instinct what may and what may not be openly expressed in this country. Therefore, although the obligation is not alluring, I think it kinder to tell you that the matters which formed the subject of your last words are never to be referred to."

 At this rebuke I again bowed persistently, for it did not appear reasonable to me that I could in any other way declare myself without violating the imposed command.

 "Not only are they never openly referred to," continued the maiden, who in spite of the declared no allurement of the subject did not seem disposed to abandon it at once, "but among the most select they are, by unspoken agreement, regarded as 'having no actual existence,' as you yourself would say."

"Yet," protested this person, somewhat puzzled, "to one who has witnessed the highly-achieved attitudes of those within your Halls of Harmony, and in an unyielding search for knowledge has addressed himself even to the advertisement pages of the ladies' papers--"

 The maiden waved her hand magnanimously. "In your land, as you have told me, there are many things, not really existing, which for politeness you assume to be. In a like but converse manner this is to be so regarded."

 I thanked her voluminously. "The etiquette of this country is as involved as the spoken tongue," I said, "for both are composed chiefly of exceptions to a given rule. It was formerly impressed upon this person, as a guiding principle, that that which is unseen is not to be discussed; yet it is not held in disrepute to allude to so intimate and secluded an organ as the heart, for no further removed than yesterday he heard the deservedly popular sea-lieutenant in the act of declaring to you, upon his knees, that you were utterly devoid of such a possession." At this inoffensively-conveyed suggestion, the fire opposite had all the appearance of suddenly reflecting itself into the maiden's face with a most engaging concentration, while at the same time she stamped her foot in illconcealed rage.

 "You've been listening at the door!" she cried impetuously, "and I shall never forgive you."

 "To no extent," I declared hastily (for although I had indeed been listening at the door, it appeared, after the weight which she set upon the incident, more honourable that I should deny it in order to conciliate her mind). "It so chanced that for the moment this person had forgotten whether the handle he was grasping was of the push-out or turn-in variety, and in the involvement a few words of no particular or enduring significance settled lightly upon his perception. "In that case," she replied in high-souled liberality, while her eyes scintillated towards me with a really all-overpowering radiance, "I will forgive you." "We have an old but very appropriate saying, 'To every man the voice of one maiden carries further than the rolling of thunder,'" I remarked in a significantly restrained tone; for, although conscious that the circumstance was becoming more menace-laden than I had any previous intention, I found myself to be incapable of extrication. "Florence--"

 "Oh," she exclaimed quickly, raising her polished hand with an undeniable gesture of reproof, "you must not call me by my christian name, Mr. Ho." "Yet," replied this person, with a confessedly stubborn inelegance, "you call me by the name of Ho."

 Her eyes became ox-like in an utter absence of almond outline. "Yes," she said gazing, "but that--that is not your christian name, is it?"

 "In a position of speaking--this one being as a matter of fact a discreditable follower of the sublime Confucius--it may be so regarded," I answered, "inasmuch as it is the milk-name of childhood."

 "But you always put it last," she urged.

 "Assuredly," I replied. "Being irrevocably born with the family name of Kong, it is thought more reasonable that that should stand first. After that, others are attached as the various contingencies demand it, as Ho upon participating in the month-age feast, the book-name of Tsin at a later period, Paik upon taking a degree, and so forth."

 "I am very sorry, Mr. Kong," said the maiden, adding, with what at the time certainly struck this person as shallow-witted prejudice. "Of course it is really quite your own fault for being so tospy-turvily arranged in every way. But, to return to the subject, why should not one speak of one's heart?"

 "Because," replied this person, colouring deeply, and scarcely able to control his unbearable offence that so irreproachably-moulded a creature should openly refer to the detail, "because it is a gross and unrefined particular, much more internal and much less pleasantly-outlined than those extremities whose spoken equivalent shall henceforth be an abandoned word from my lips."

 "But, in any case, it is not the actual organ that one infers," protested the maiden. "As the seat of the affections, passions, virtues, and will, it is the conventional emblem of every thought and emotion."

 "By no means," I cried, forgetting in the face of so heterodox an assertion that it would be well to walk warily at every point. "That is the stomach."

 "Ah!" exclaimed the maiden, burying her face in a gracefully-perfumed remnant of lace, to so overwhelming a degree that for the moment I feared she might become involved in the dizzy falling. "Never, by any mischance, use that word again the society of the presentable, Mr. Kong."

 "The ceremonial usage of my own land of the Heavenly Dynasty is proverbially elaborate," I said, with a gesture of self-abasement, "but in comparison with yours it may be regarded as an undeviating walk when opposed to a stately and many-figured dance. Among the company of the really excessively select (in which must ever be included the one whom I am now addressing), it becomes difficult for an outcast of my illimitable obtuseness to move to one side or the other without putting his foot into that."

 "Oh no," exclaimed the maiden, in fragrant encouragement, "I think you are getting on very nicely, Mr. Kong, and one does not look for absolute conformance from a foreigner--especially one who is so extremely foreign. If I can help you with anything--of course I could not even speak as I have done to an ordinary stranger, but with one of a distant race it seems different--if I can tell you anything that will save you--"

 "You are all-exalted," I replied, with seemly humility, "and virtue and wisdom press out your temples on either side. Certainly, since I have learned that the heart is so poetically regarded, I have been assailed by a fear lest other organs which I have hitherto despised might be used in a similar way. Now, as regards liver--"

 "It is only used with bacon," replied the maiden, rising abruptly.

 "Kidneys?" suggested this person diffidently, really anxious to detain her footsteps, although from her expression it did not rest assured that the incident was taking an actually auspicious movement.

 "I don't think you need speak of those except at breakfast," she said; "but I hear the others returning, and I must really go to dress for dinner."

 Among the barbarians many keep books wherein to inscribe their deep and beautiful thoughts. This person had therefore provided himself with one also, and, drawing it forth, he now added to a page of many other interesting compositions: "Maidens of immaculate refinement do not hesitate to admit before a person of a different sex that they are on the point of changing their robes. The liver is in some intricate way an emblem representing bacon, or together with it the two stand for a widely differing analogy. Among those of the highest exclusiveness kidneys are never alluded to after the tenth gong-stroke of the morning."

 With a sincerely ingrained trust that the scenes of dignity, opulence, and wisdom, set forth in these superficial letters, are not unsettling your intellect and causing you to yearn for a fuller existence.