“Let the bitterness of this one’s message be that which is first spoken, so that the later and more enduring words of our remembrance may be devoid of sting. A star has shone across my mediocre path which now an envious cloud has conspired to obscure. This meeting will doubtless be our last.”
Then replied Kai Lung from the darkness of the space above, his voice unhurried as its wont:
“If this is indeed the end, then to the spirits of the destinies I prostrate myself in thanks for those golden hours that have gone before, and had there been no others to recall then would I equally account myself repaid in life and death by this.”
“My words ascend with yours in a pale spiral to the bosom of the universal mother,” Hwa-mei made response. “I likewise am content, having tasted this felicity.”
“There is yet one other thing, esteemed, if such a presumption is to be endured,” Kai Lung ventured to request. “Each day a stone has been displaced from off the wall and these now lie about your gentle feet. If you should inconvenience yourself to the extent of standing upon the mound thus raised, and would stretch up your hand, I, leaning forth, could touch it with my finger-tips.”
“This also will I dare to do and feel it no reproach,” replied Hwa-mei; thus for the first time their fingers met.
“Let me now continue the ignoble message that my unworthy lips must bear,” resumed the maiden, with a gesture of refined despair. “Ming-shu and Shan Tien, recognizing a mutual need in each, have agreed to forego their wordy strife and have entered upon a common cause. To mark this reconciliation the Mandarin to-morrow night will make a feast of wine and song in honour of Ming-shu and into this assembly you will be led, bound and wearing the wooden cang, to contribute to their offensive mirth. To this end you will not be arraigned to-morrow, but on the following morning at a special court swift sentence will be passed and carried out, neither will Shan Tien suffer any interruption nor raise an arresting hand.”
The darkness by this time encompassed them so that neither could see the other’s face, but across the scent-laden air Hwa-mei was conscious of a subtle change, as of a poise or the tightening of a responsive cord.
“This is the end?” she whispered up, unable to sustain. “Ah, is it not the end?”
“In the high wall of destiny that bounds our lives there is ever a hidden gap to which the Pure Ones may guide our unconscious steps perchance, if they see fit to intervene. . . . So that to-morrow, being the eleventh of the Moon of Gathering-in, is to be celebrated by the noble Mandarin with song and wine? Truly the nimble-witted Ming-shu must have slumbered by the way!”
“Assuredly he has but now returned from a long journey.”
“Haply he may start upon a longer. Have the musicians been commanded yet?”
“Even now one goes to inform the leader of their voices and to bid him hold his band in readiness.”