49. Old Dragon-Beard
AT the time of the last emperor of the Sui dynasty the real power was in the hands of the emperor’s uncle Yang Su. He was a proud man and a spendthrift. In his hall he kept choirs of singing and dancing girls, and maidservants were always at hand to do his bidding. When the great men of the empire Came to visit him he remains comfortably seated on his couch when receiving them.
At that time there lived a brave hero by name of Li Ching. Wearing simple clothes, he called on Yang Su to present him a plan for the pacification of the realm.
He made a deep bow which Yang Su did not return and said: ‘The empire is about to be submerged in disturbances, heroes are arising all over the place. You are the highest servant of the imperial house; it would be your duty to rally the brave around the throne. You should not turn people against you by your pride.’
When Yang Su heard these words he pulled himself together and rose from his seat and talked cordially to Li Ching.
Li Ching handed him a document and began to discuss all kinds of things with him. By their side stood a maidservant of quite exceptional beauty. In her hand was a red whisk and her eyes were riveted on Li Ching. Li Ching then took his leave and went back to his inn.
At midnight he heard a knock at his door. He looked outside and saw a figure in a hat and a purple robe, With a bundle on a stick over its shoulder.
When he asked Who it was he received the reply: ‘l am Yang su’s whisk-bearer.’ She entered his room, and took her outer clothes and her hat. He then saw that she was a beautiful girl of eighteen or nineteen.
She bowed to him and When he returned her greeting she said: ‘I’ve been in Yang Su’s household for a long time and have seen many famous people, but none who was your equal. I wish to serve you wherever you go.’ Li Ching replied: ‘The Minister is powerful. I fear we may be inviting disaster.’
‘He is a corpse with but a little breath in him,’ said the whisk girl. ‘There is no need to fear him.’
He asked her name and she replied that it Was Chiang and that she was the oldest of her sisters.
Looking at her and seeing her brave behaviour and listening to her sensible words, Li Ching realized that she was a heroic girl, and they decided to escape secretly. The girl with the whisk again put on men’s clothes, they mounted a couple of horses and rode Off. They were making for Taiyüan.
The following day they put up at a hostelry. They had the beds arranged as they wanted them and put up a cooking Stove for their meals. The girl with the whisk was standing by her bed, combing her hair. The hair was so long that it reached down to the ground, and shone So that One could see one’s reflection in it. Li Ching was outside grooming the horses. Suddenly a man appeared with a red curly beard like a dragon. He had come on a lame mule and now flung his leather satchel On the floor in front of the cooking stove, picked up a cushion and lay down on the bed watching the girl combing her hair. Li Ching caught sight of him and grew angry. But the girl instantly recognized the stranger for what he was. She
signalled Li Ching to control himself, quickly finished combing her hair and tied it in a knot.
She then welcomed the stranger and asked his name.
He said his name was Chiang. ‘My name is Chiang too,’ she replied. ‘so we must be related.’
She then bowed to him as her elder brother.
‘How many brothers have You?’ she then asked him.
‘l am the third,’ was his reply. ‘And you?’
‘l am the eldest girl.’ ‘What a wonderful thing to have found a sister today,’ the stranger said cheerfully.
Then the girl called out through the door to her husband; ‘Come inside! I want to introduce ray third brother to you.’
Li Ching came in and greeted him.
They then sat down together and the stranger asked: ‘What meat have you got?’
‘Mutton,’ was the reply.
‘l am very hungry,’ said the stranger.
Li Ching went to the market to buy bread and wine.
The stranger pulled out his dagger, cut up the meat and they all ate together. When they had finished he fed the remaining meat to his mule. Then he said: ‘My friend, Li, you seem to be a poor knight. How is it then that you are here with my sister?’
Li Ching told him What had happened.
‘And where are you making for now?’
‘Taiyüan,’ came the reply.
The stranger said: ‘Will you get another dish of wine for me? I have some spice here for the wine and you shall join me.’
With these words he opened his leather satchel and took out from it a human head and a heart and a liver.
He carved the heart up with his dagger and the liver also and put them in the wine.
Li Ching was horrified.
But the stranger said: ‘That was my worst enemy. For ten years I carried my hatred with me. Today I killed him, and I feel no regret.’
Then he continued: ‘You seem to me no ordinary fellow. Have you heard of any hero living hereabouts?’
Li Ching replied: ‘Yes, I know of one whom heaven seems to have chosen as a ruler.’
“Who is he?’ asked the other.
‘The son of the Duke Li Yuan of Tang. He is only twenty years Old.’
‘Could you present me to him?’ the stranger asked.
Upon Li Ching’s assurance he continued: ‘The sooth Sayers declare that there is a special sign in the air at Taiyüan. Perhaps it comes from that man. You may wait for me tomorrow at the Fenyang Bridge’
With these words he mounted his mule and rode Off as fast as if he were flying through the air.
The girl said: ‘He is not a man Who should be crossed. I saw that his intentions were not good. That was why I made an ally of him by claiming relationship.’
Thereupon they left together for Taiyüan and at the appointed place they met the Dragonbeard. Li Ching had an old friend by name of Liu Wen-tsing who was a tent- fellow of the Prince of Tang. He introduced the stranger to Liu Wen-tsing, saying: ‘This stranger can tell the future from the lines in a man’s face and would like to see the prince.’
Liu Wen-Ging thereupon took him to the prince. The prince wore quite simple domestic clothes but there was something impressive about his manner which distinguished
him from all other men. As the stranger caught sight of him he fell silent and his face turned ashen grey.
When he had drunk a few cups of wine he took his leave.
That is the true ruler,’ he said to Li Ching. ‘I am almost certain, but my friend must see him too.’
Then he named another day and a certain inn Where they would meet again. ‘If at the door of that inn you see this mule and a very emaciated ass then you will know that I am there with my friend.’
On the appointed day Li Ching went there and true enough outside the door he saw the mule and the ass. He gathered up his clothes and climbed to the upper floor. There Dragonbeard and a Taoist monk were drinking wine. When he saw Li Ching he was delighted and invited him to sit down and drink with them. When they had drunk enough all three of them set out again to See Liu Wen-tsing. He was just then playing chess with the prince. The prince rose courteously and invited them to sit down.
As soon as the Taoist Saw his radiant and heroic nature he Was overcome and saluted him with a deep bow, saying: ‘The game is over!’
As they took their leave Dragonbeard said to Li Ching: ‘Carry on to Sian, and when the time is come ask for me at this or that place.’
With these words he left, puffing. Li Ching and the girl again packed their things, left Taiyüan and continued their westward journey. At that time Yang Su died and great disturbances broke out in the kingdom.
After a few days Li Ching and his wife arrived at the spot appointed by Dragonbeard. They knocked at a small wooden door and a servant came out who conducted them down long corridors. Magnificent buildings arose before them, with crowds of girl slaves standing in front of them. They stepped into a hall in which the most precious dowry had been set out—mirrors, robes and jewellery were all of a magnificence unparalleled On earth. Beautiful slave girls led them to a bath, and When they had changed their clothes their friend was announced. He entered, clad in silks and fox furs, and in his appearance almost suggested a dragon or a tiger. He was delighted to see them and also called in his wife Who was of exceptional beauty. A feast was served and the four Sat down at table. The table was covered with the choicest dishes of which they did not even know the names. Beakers and plates are all implements were of gold and jasper, adorned with pearls and precious stones. Two choruses of girl musicians in turn played flutes and shawms. They sang and danced and the visitors felt as though they were transported to the palace of the moon fairy. The rainbow garments fluttered and the girl dancers were of a beauty which surpassed anything on earth.
When they had drunk a few rounds their host commanded the servants to bring in beds upon which embroidered silken blankets were spread. When they had feasted their eyes on everything Dragonbeard presented them with a book and a key. Then he said: ‘In this book are listed the treasures and riches which I possess. I give them to both of you as a wedding present. Without possessions no man can undertake great deeds, and it is my duty to give my sister an appropriate dowry. I had originally intended to take over the Middle Kingdom and put matters to rights. But now that a ruler has arisen already, What else is there for me to do here? The Prince Tang in Taiyüan is a real hero.
He Will have put matters to rights in a few years. You two must support him and you Will assuredly rise to high honours. You, sister, are not only beautiful but have also good sense. No one but you would have recognized Li Ching’s true value and no one but Li Ching would have had the good luck of meeting you. You Will share this man’s honours and your name shall go down in history. This is all predestined. As for the treasures I have given you, you are to use them to help true lord. This you must be sure to do! In ten years a glow Will arise far away in the south-east, and that shall be my signal to you that I have attained my aim. When you See that glow you may pour a wine offering towards the south-east to wish me luck.’
He thereupon ordered the maidservants and the other servants to salute Li Ching and the girl one after another and said to them: ‘These are your master and mistress.’ With these words he took his wife by her hand, they mounted the horses which were being held for them, and rode off.
Li Ching and his Wife then moved into the house and were immeasurably rich. They became followers of the Prince Tang, who created order in the empire, and they supported him with their money. Thus the great work was achieved and when the empire was at peace again Li Ching was appointed Duke of Wei and the girl Who had held Yang Su’s whisk became his duchess.
Ten years later news was brought to the Duke that in the far-away empire across the sea a thousand ships had landed with a hundred thousand soldiers in armour. They had captured the land, killed the ruler and set up their leader as king. The empire was now pacified, and the Duke knew that Dragonbeard had accomplished his work. He
told his wife. They put on festive garments and made a wine offering to express their good wishes. Then they saw a red glow shine brightly in the south-eastern sky. Undoubtedly this was the signal sent by Dragonbeard in reply. The two were exceedingly happy.