In a certain well-known and populous city in one of the north-western provinces of China, there once resided a man of the name of Meng. Everyone knew about him. His fame had spread not only throughout the town, but also far away into the country beyond; for of all the merchants who carried on business in this great commercial centre he was the wealthiest and the most enterprising.
He had begun life as a poor lad; but through great strength of purpose and positive genius for business, he had steadily risen step by step, until by the time our story opens, he had become exceedingly wealthy and was the acknowledged leader in all the great undertakings for which the city was famous.
Meng had always gained the admiration and affection of every one who became acquainted with him. He was of an artless, open-hearted disposition which won men to him, and his reputation for generosity made his name fragrant throughout the entire region in which he lived.
Forty years ago he had come to the city in search of employment. His father was a farmer in one of the outlying country districts; but Meng, discontented with the dulness of the life and with the strain and trouble brought upon his home by bad seasons, started out for the great town to make his fortune.
All that he possessed he carried on his person. His stock-in-trade consisted simply of a stout bamboo pole and a good strong rope, the usual signs of a porter; but his willingness to oblige, and the hearty, pleasant way in which he performed his arduous duties, gained him the goodwill of all who employed him. Before many months had passed he was in constant demand, and was slowly saving up money that was to enable him to rise from the position of a coolie and to enter some business which would give him a more honourable place in society.
He had a shrewd and common-sense mind which enabled him to take advantage of any trade-opening that presented itself, and as he had a genial and happy disposition, everyone who had had any business relations with him was glad to do all in his power to give him a lift in the upward road along which he had made up his mind to travel. The result was that before many years had passed away he had established himself in a very lucrative line of business which brought a steady flow of wealth into his coffers.
In time he opened branches in distant cities, and his fame reached the far-off provinces in the East, where the merchant-princes who had dealings with him counted him as one of the most trustworthy of their clients, to whom they were glad to give as much credit as he might desire.
There was one delightful feature about Meng, and that was the intense sympathy he had for his fellow-creatures. He had a heart of gold that no prosperity could spoil; no one who ever applied to him for relief was sent away empty-handed. The struggling shopkeeper made his humble appeal when fate seemed determined to crush him, and the substantial loan that Meng made to him without hesitation kept him from closing his shutters and once more set him on his feet to commence the struggle again. The widow who had been left in absolute poverty had but to state her case, when with a countenance beaming with compassion and with eyes moist at her piteous story, Meng would make such arrangements for her and her children that the terror of starvation was lifted from her heart, and she left his presence with a smiling face and with heart-felt words of praise for the man who by his generosity had given her a new glimpse of life.
The character of Meng's mind may well be discovered from the manner in which he distributed a considerable portion of his riches amongst those who had been born under an unlucky star, and upon whom an unhappy fate had pressed heavily in the distribution of this world's goods and favours.
The generous men in China are not the rich. It is true that occasionally one does hear of a munificent donation having been made by some millionaire, but the public is never deceived by these unusual outbursts of generosity. There is a selfish motive at the back of nearly every one of them, for the hope of the donors is that by gaining the favour of the mandarins they may obtain some high official position which will enable them to recoup themselves most handsomely for any sums they may have expended in charity.
Meng's deeds, however, were always purely unselfish, and no idea of reward ever entered his head. He was moved solely by a sincere desire to alleviate human suffering. The look of gladness that flashed over the faces of those whom he assisted, their gleaming eyes, and the words of gratitude that burst from their lips, were to him the sweetest payment that could possibly be made to him in return for the sums he had given away.
That Meng's fame had travelled far was shown by an occurrence which was destined to have a considerable influence on the fortunes of his only son, Chin, in whom his whole soul was bound up.
One day he received a letter from the head of a most aristocratic family in a distant city, begging that he would consent to an alliance with him. This man wrote that he had a daughter, who was declared by all who saw her to be possessed of no ordinary beauty, and he wished to have her betrothed to Meng's son. Meng's reputation for goodness and for love to his fellow-men had reached his ears, and he was anxious that their families should be united by the marriage of two young people.
The rich merchant, whose heart always retained its child-like spirit, was delighted with this proposal, which had come to him spontaneously, and not through the intrigues of a middle-woman. He was also touched by the apparently generous spirit of the writer, so he at once responded to the appeal. After some little correspondence, the betrothal was drawn up in due form, and the young couple were bound to each other by legal ties which no court in the Empire would ever dream of unloosing.
Just at this juncture, when the tide in Meng's affairs seemed at its highest, there appeared at his doors one day a venerable-looking bonze, who asked to be received as a guest for a few days, as he was on a pilgrimage to a famous shrine and was tired out with the long journey that he had already made.
Meng, who was a very devout and religious man, gave the old priest a most hearty welcome. He placed one of the best rooms in the house at his disposal, and treated him with all the generous hospitality which he was accustomed to bestow upon men of his profession, who in travelling from one monastery to another had very often stayed with him for a night or two before proceeding further on their way.
Now, this priest had such pleasing manners, and was so refined and cultivated, that he completely captured the hearts of all the household, so much so that Meng insisted upon his prolonging his stay. The result was that months went by and the bonze still remained with him as his guest.
Everyone in the house seemed to be attracted by this stranger, so winning were his ways, and so full of quiet power were his whole bearing and character. He was affable and pleasant with all, but he seemed to take most pleasure in the company of Chin, over whom he soon came to exercise a very powerful influence.
Their habit was to wander about on the hillside, when the priest would entertain his young friend with stories of the wonderful things he had seen and the striking adventures he had met with. His whole aim, however, seemed to be not so much to amuse Chin as to elevate his mind with lofty and noble sentiments, which were instilled into him on every possible occasion.
It was also their custom to retire every morning to some outhouses at the extremity of the large garden attached to the dwelling-house, where undisturbed they could converse together upon the many questions upon which the bonze was ready to discourse. One thing, however, struck Chin as very singular, and this was that the bonze made him collect certain curiously-shaped tiles, and bury them in the earthen floors of these little-used buildings. Chin would have rebelled against what he considered a child-like proceeding, but he was restrained by the profound love and veneration he felt for his companion.
At length the day came when the bonze announced that he must proceed upon his journey. He had already, he declared, stayed much longer than he had originally intended, and now the imperative call of duty made it necessary that he should not linger in the house where he had been so royally treated.
Seeing that he was determined in his purpose, Meng wanted to press upon him a considerable sum of money to provide for any expenses to which he might be put in the future. This, however, the bonze absolutely refused to accept, declaring that his wants were few, and that he would have no difficulty in meeting them by the donations he would receive from the different temples he might pass on his way to his destination.
Little did Meng dream that the guest from whom he was parting with so heavy a heart was a fairy in disguise. Yet such was the case. The rulers of the far-off Western Heaven, who had been greatly moved by Meng's noble and generous life in succouring the distressed and the forlorn, had sent the bonze to make arrangements to meet a certain calamitous crisis which was soon to take place in the home of the wealthy merchant.
A few months after the good bonze had left them, a series of disasters fell with crushing effect upon the house of Meng. Several firms which owed him very large sums of money suddenly failed, and he found himself in such financial difficulties that it was utterly impossible for him to pay his debts.
In consequence, Meng was utterly ruined, and after paying out all that he possessed, even to the uttermost cash, found himself absolutely penniless. This so wrought upon his mind that he became seriously ill, and after a few days of intense agony, his spirit vanished into the Land of Shadows, and his wife and son were left desolate and bereaved.
After a time Chin bethought himself of the wealthy and distinguished man who had been so anxious to recognize him as a son-in-law, and after consultation with his mother, who was completely broken-hearted, he set off for the distant city in which his proposed father-in-law lived. Chin hoped that the latter's heart would be moved by the disasters which had befallen his father, and that he would be willing to extend him a helping hand in his hour of dire sorrow, when even Heaven itself seemed to have abandoned him and to have heaped upon his head calamities such as do not often occur to the vilest of men.
Weary and worn with the long journey, which he had been compelled to make on foot, he arrived one day about noon at the gates which led into the spacious courtyard of the palatial mansion in which his father-in-law lived. The doors, however, were shut and barred, as though some enemy was expected to storm them and carry off the property within.
Chin called loudly to the porter to open them for him, but to his amazement he was told that orders had been received from the master of the house that he was not to be admitted on any terms whatsoever.
"But are you aware who I am?" he asked. "Do you not know that the man who owns this building is my father-in-law, and that his daughter is my promised wife? It ill becomes you therefore to keep me standing here, when I should be received with all the honours that a son-in-law can claim."
"But I have been specially warned against you," replied the surly gatekeeper. "You talk of being a son-in-law, but you are greatly mistaken if you imagine that any such kinship is going to be recognized in this house. News has reached my master of the utter failure of your father's business, and of his death, and he declares that he does not wish to be mixed up in any way with doubtful characters or with men who have become bankrupt."
Chin, who was imbued with the fine and generous spirit of his father, was so horrified at these words that he fled from the gate, determined to suffer any indignity rather than accept a favour from a man of such an ignoble disposition as his father-in-law apparently possessed.
He was crossing the road with his heart completely cast down, and in absolute despair as to how he was ever to get back to his home again, when a woman in one of the low cottages by the roadside, beckoned him to come in and sit down.
"You seem to be in distress, sir," she said, "and to be worn out with fatigue, as though you had just finished a long journey. My children and I are just about to sit down to our midday meal, and we shall be so pleased if you will come and partake of it with us. I have just been watching you as you stood at the gate of that wealthy man's house, and I saw how roughly you were treated. Never mind," she continued, "Heaven knows how you have been wronged, and in time you will be avenged for all the injury you have suffered."
Comforted and gladdened by these kindly words and by the motherly reception given him by this poor woman, Chin started out on his return journey, and after much suffering finally reached his home. Here he found his mother in the direst poverty, and with a heart still full of the deepest woe because of the death of her noble-minded husband.
Almost immediately after Chin had been refused admission to the house of his father-in-law, the latter's daughter, Water-Lily, became aware of the insulting way in which he had been treated. She was grieved beyond measure, and with tears in her eyes and her voice full of sorrow, she besought her mother to appeal to her father on her behalf, and to induce him to give up his purpose of arranging a marriage for her with a wealthy man in the neighbourhood.
"My father may plan another husband for me," she said, "but I shall never consent to be married to anyone but Chin. All the rites and ceremonies have been gone through which bind me to him as long as I live, and to cast him off now because calamity has fallen upon his home is but to invite the vengeance of the Gods, who will surely visit us with some great sorrow if we endeavour to act in a way contrary to their laws."
The piteous appeals of Water-Lily had no effect upon her father, who hurried on the arrangements for his daughter's wedding to the new suitor, anxious to marry her off in order to prevent the unfortunate Chin from appearing again to claim her as his wife.
She, however, was just as determined as her father, and when she realized that all her entreaties and prayers had produced not the slightest effect upon him, and that in the course of a few days the crimson bridal chair would appear at the door to carry her away to the home of her new husband, she determined to adopt heroic methods to prevent the accomplishment of such a tragedy.
Next morning, as dawn began to break, the side-gate of the rich man's house was stealthily opened, and a degraded-looking beggar-woman stepped out into the dull grey streets, and proceeded rapidly towards the open country beyond.
She was as miserable a specimen of the whining, cringing beggar as could have been met with in any of the beggar-camps where these unhappy outcasts of society live. She was dressed in rags which seemed to be held together only by some invisible force. Her hair was tied up in disjointed knots, and looked as if no comb had ever tried to bring it into order. Her face was black with grime, and a large, dirty patch was plastered over one of her ears in such a way that its shape was completely hidden from the gaze of those who took the trouble to cast a passing glance upon her.
Altogether she was a most unattractive object; and yet she was the most lovely woman in all that region, for she was none other than Water-Lily, the acknowledged beauty of the town, who had adopted this disguise in order to escape from the fate which her father had planned for her.
For several weary months she travelled on, suffering the greatest hardships, and passing through adventures, which, if some gifted writer had collected them into a volume, would have thrilled many a reader with admiration for this brave young maiden. Though reared and nurtured in a home where every luxury was supplied her, yet she endured the degradation and privations of a beggar's life rather than be forced to be untrue to the man whom she believed Heaven had given her as a mate.
One evening, as the shadows were falling thickly on the outer courtyard of the desolate house where Chin lived, a pitiful-looking beggar-woman stood timidly at the front door, gazing with wistful looks into the room which faced the street. Not a sound did she utter, not a single word escaped her lips to indicate that she had come there to obtain charity.
In a few minutes Chin's mother came out from a room beyond. When she saw this ragged, forlorn creature standing silently as though she were afraid that some word of scorn and reproach would be hurled at her, she was filled with a great and overmastering pity, and stepping up to her she began to comfort her in loving, gentle language.
To her astonishment this draggled, uncleanly object became violently affected by the tender, motherly way in which she was addressed. Great tear-drops trickled down her grimy face, leaving a narrow, snow-like line in their wake. Presently she was convulsed with sobs that shook her whole body, whilst she wrung her hands as though some great sorrow was gripping her heart.
Mrs. Meng was deeply affected by the sight of this unhappy woman, and whilst she was gazing at her with a look of profound sympathy, the broad patch which had concealed and at the same time disfigured the beggar's countenance, suddenly dropped to the ground.
The effect of this was most startling, for a pair of as beautiful black eyes as ever danced in a woman's head were now revealed to Mrs. Meng's astonished gaze. Looking at the stranger more intently, she saw that her features were exquisitely perfect, and had the grace and the poetry which the great painters of China have attributed to the celebrated beauties of the Empire.
"Tell me who you are," she cried, as she laid her hand tenderly and affectionately on her shoulder, "for that you are a common beggar-woman I can never believe. You must be the daughter of some great house, and have come here in this disguise in order to escape some great evil.
"Confide in me," she continued, "and everything that one woman can do for another, I am willing to do for you. But come in, dear child, and let us talk together and devise some plan by which I can really help you, for I feel my heart drawn towards you in a way I have never felt for any stranger before."
Mrs. Meng then led her into her bedroom, where Water-Lily threw off the outer garments in which she had appeared to the public as a beggar, and telling her wonderful story to Chin's mother, she revealed herself as her daughter-in-law.
But though her romantic arrival into this gloomy and distressed home brought with it a sudden gleam of happiness, the great question as to how they were to live had still to be solved. They were absolutely without means, and they could only hope to meet their meagre expenses by the sale of the house in which they were living.
At last this plan was discussed, and it was decided that the unused buildings, in which Chin and the Buddhist priest had been accustomed to spend a part of every day together, should be first of all disposed of.
In order to have some idea as to how much these outhouses were worth, Chin went to see what condition they were in, so that he might fix a price for them. As they had not been used for some time, the grass had grown rank about them, and they had a dilapidated and forlorn air which made Chin fear that their market value would not be very great.
Entering in by an open door, which a creeping vine, with the luxuriance of nature, was trying to block up, Chin looked round with a feeling of disappointment sending a chill into his very heart.
The air of the place was damp and musty. The white mould could be seen gleaming on the walls, as if it wished to give a little colour to the sombre surroundings. Great cobwebs flung their streaming banners from the beams and rafters overhead, whilst smaller ones, with delicate lace-like tracery, tried to beautify the corners of the windows, through which the light from the outside world struggled to enter the gloomy room.
Throwing the windows wide open to let in as much sunshine as was possible, Chin soon became convinced that the market value of this particular part of his property would be very small, and that unless he carried out extensive repairs, it would be impossible to induce any one to entertain the idea of buying it.
While he was musing over the problem that lay before him, his eye caught a silvery gleam from a part of the earthen floor, where the surface had evidently been scratched away by some animal that had wandered in.
Looking down intently at the white, shining thing which had caught his attention, Chin perceived that it was one of the tiles that the bonze had made him bury in the earth, and when he picked it up, he discovered to his amazement that in some mysterious manner it had been transformed into silver! Digging further into the earth, he found that the same process had taken place with every tile that had been hidden away beneath the floor of this old and apparently useless building.
After some days occupied in transporting his treasure to a safe place in his dwelling-house, Chin realized by a rough calculation that he was now the possessor of several millions' worth of dollars, and that from being one of the poorest men in the town he had become a millionaire with enormous wealth at his command.
Thus did the Gods show their appreciation of the noble life of Mr. Meng, and of his loving sympathy for the poor and the distressed, by raising his fallen house to a higher pinnacle of prosperity than it had ever attained even during his lifetime.
Notes: Features 11 Chinese folktales
Author: Rev. J. Macgowan, D.D.
Editor: Andrew Lang
Publisher: Macmillan And Co., Limited, London