“By no means,” interrupted the other, with unswerving firmness. “How thus is the journey to be defrayed? In advance, assuredly.”
“The requirement is unusual. Yet upon satisfactory oaths being offered—”
“This person will pledge the repose of the spirits of his venerated ancestors practically back to prehistoric times,” agreed Lao Ting readily. “From the third to the ninth day he will be absent from the city and will take no part in anything therein. Should he eat his words, may his body be suffocated beneath five cart-loads of books and his weary ghost chained to that of a leprous mule. It is spoken.”
“Truly. But it may as well be written also.” With this expression of narrow-minded suspicion Sheng-yin would have taken up one from a considerable mass of papers lying near at hand, had not Lao Ting suddenly restrained him.
“It shall be written with clarified ink on paper of a special excellence,” declared the student. “Take the brush, Seng-yin, and write. It almost repays this person for the loss of a degree to behold the formation of signs so unapproachable as yours.”
“Lao Ting,” replied the visitor, pausing in his task, “you are occasionally inspired, but the weakness of your character results in a lack of caution. In this matter, therefore, be warned: ’The crocodile opens his jaws; the rat-trap closes his; keep yours shut.’”
When Lao Ting returned after a scrupulously observed six days of absence he could not fail to become aware that the city was in an uproar, and the evidence of this increased as he approached the cheap and lightly esteemed quarter in which those of literary ambitions found it convenient to reside. Remembering Sheng-yin’s parting, he forbore to draw attention to himself by questioning any, but when he reached the door of his own dwelling he discovered the one of whom he was thinking, standing, as it were, between the posts.
“Lao Ting,” exclaimed Sheng-yin, without waiting to make any polite reference to the former person’s food or condition, “in spite of this calamity you are doubtless prepared to carry out the spirit of your oath?”
“Doubtless,” replied Lao Ting affably. “Yet what is the nature of the calamity referred to, and how does it affect the burden of my vow?”
“Has not the tiding reached your ear? The examinations, alas! have been withheld for seven full days. Your journey has been in vain!”
“By no means!” declared the youth. “Debarred by your enticement from a literary career this person turned his mind to other aims, and has now gained a deep insight into the habits and behaviour of water-buffaloes.”
“They who control the competitions from the Capital,” continued Sheng-yin, without even hearing the other’s words, “when all had been arranged, learned from the Chief Astrologer (may subterranean fires singe his venerable moustaches!) that a forgotten obscuration of the sun would take place on the opening day of the test. In the face of so formidable a portent they acted thus and thus.”