i. UNDER THE DRAGON’S WING
Among the lagoons of the Upper Seng river a cormorant fisher, Ten-teh by name, daily followed his occupation. In seasons of good harvest, when they of the villages had grain in abundance and money with which to procure a more varied diet, Ten-teh was able to regard the ever-changeful success of his venture without anxiety, and even to add perchance somewhat to his store; but when affliction lay upon the land the carefully gathered hoard melted away and he did not cease to upbraid himself for adopting so uncertain a means of livelihood. At these times the earth-tillers, having neither money to spend nor crops to harvest, caught such fish as they could for themselves. Others in their extremity did not scruple to drown themselves and their dependents in Ten-teh’s waters, so that while none contributed to his prosperity the latter ones even greatly added to the embarrassment of his craft. When, therefore, his own harvest failed him in addition, or tempests drove him back to a dwelling which was destitute of food either for himself, his household, or his cormorants, his self-reproach did not appear to be ill-reasoned. Yet in spite of all Ten-teh was of a genial disposition, benevolent, respectful and incapable of guile. He sacrificed adequately at all festivals, and his only regret was that he had no son of his own and very scanty chances of ever becoming rich enough to procure one by adoption.
The sun was setting one day when Ten-teh reluctantly took up his propelling staff and began to urge his raft towards the shore. It was a season of parched crops and destitution in the villages, when disease could fondle the bones of even the most rotund and leprosy was the insidious condiment in every dish; yet never had the Imperial dues been higher, and each succeeding official had larger hands and a more inexorable face than the one before him. Ten-teh’s hoarded resources had already followed the snows of the previous winter, his shelf was like the heart of a despot to whom the oppressed cry for pity, and the contents of the creel at his feet were too insignificant to tempt the curiosity even of his hungry cormorants. But the mists of the evening were by this time lapping the surface of the waters and he had no alternative but to abandon his fishing for the day.
“Truly they who go forth to fish, even in shallow waters, experience strange things when none are by to credit them,” suddenly exclaimed his assistant—a mentally deficient youth of the villages whom Ten-teh charitably employed because all others rejected him. “Behold, master, a spectre bird approaches.”
“Peace, witless,” replied Ten-teh, not turning from his occupation, for it was no uncommon incident for the deficient youth to mistake widely-differing objects for one another or to claim a demoniacal insight into the most trivial happenings. “Visions do not materialize for such as thou and I.”
“Nevertheless,” continued the weakling, “if you will but slacken your agile proficiency with the pole, chieftain, our supper to-night may yet consist of something more substantial than the fish which it is our intention to catch to-morrow.”