At the lower temple on Mount Lao the camellias are twenty feet in height, and many spans in circumference. The peonies are more than ten feet high; and when the flowers are in bloom the effect is that of a gorgeous tapestry.
There was a Mr. Huang, of Chiao-chow, who built himself a house at that spot, for the purpose of study; and one day he saw from his window a young lady dressed in white wandering about amongst the flowers. Reflecting that she could not possibly belong to the monastery, he went out to meet her, but she had already disappeared. After this he frequently observed her, and once hid himself in a thick-foliaged bush, waiting for her to come.
By-and-by she appeared, bringing with her another young lady dressed in red, who, as he noticed from his distant point of observation, was an exceedingly good-looking girl. When they approached nearer, the young lady in the red dress ran back, saying, “There is a man here!” whereupon Mr. Huang jumped out upon them, and away they went in a scare, with their skirts and long sleeves fluttering in the breeze, and perfuming the air round. Huang pursued them as far as a low wall, where they suddenly vanished from his gaze. In great distress at thus losing the fair creatures, he took a pencil and wrote upon a tree the following lines: –
The pangs of love my heart enthrall
As I stand opposite this wall.
I dread some hateful tyrant’s power,
With none to save you in that hour.
Returning home he was absorbed in his own thought, when all at once the young lady walked in, and he rose up joyfully to meet her. “I thought you were a brigand,” said his visitor, smiling; “you nearly frightened me to death. I did not know you were a great scholar whose acquaintance I now hope to have the honour of making.” Mr. Huang asked the young lady her name, &c., to which she replied, “My name is Hsiang-yu, and I belong to Ping-kang-hsiang; but a magician has condemned me to remain on this hill much against my own inclination.”
“Tell me his name,” cried Huang, “and I’ll soon set you free.”
“There is no need for that,” answered the young lady; “I suffer no injury from him, and the place is not an inconvenient one for making the acquaintance of such worthy gentlemen as yourself.” Huang then inquired who was the young lady in red, and she told him that her name was Chiang-hsueh, and that they were half-sisters; “and now,” added she, “I will sing you a song; but please don’t laugh at me.” She then began as follows: –
In pleasant company the hours fly fast,
And through the window daybreak peeps at last.
Ah, would that, like the swallow and his mate,
To live together were our happy fate.
Huang here grasped her hand and said, “Beauty without and intellect within – enough to make a man love you and forget all about death, only one day’s absence being like the separation of a thousand miles. I pray you come again whenever an opportunity may present itself.”
From this time the young lady would frequently walk in to have a chat, but would never bring her sister with her in spite of all Mr. Huang’s entreaties. Huang thought they weren’t friends, but Hsiang said her sister did not care for society in the same way that she herself did, promising at the same time to try and persuade her to come at some future day. One evening Hsiang-yu arrived in a melancholy frame of mind, and told Huang that he was wanting more when he couldn’t even keep what he had got; “for to-morrow,” said she, “we part.” Huang asked what she meant; and then, wiping away her tears with her sleeve, Hsiang-yu declared it was destiny, and that she couldn’t well tell him. “Your former prophecy,” continued she, “has come too true; and now it may well be said of me –
Fallen into the tyrant’s power,
With none to save me in that hour.”
Huang again tried to question her, but she would tell him no- thing; and by-and-by she rose and took her leave. This seemed very strange; however, next day a visitor came, who, after wandering round the garden, was much taken with a white peony, which he dug up and carried away with him. Huang now awaked to the fact that Hsiang-yu was a flower nymph, and became very disconsolate in consequence of what had happened; but when he subsequently heard that the peony only lived a few days after being taken away, he wept bitterly, and composed an elegy in fifty stanzas, besides going daily to the hole from which it had been taken, and watering the ground with his tears.
One day, as he was returning thence, he espied the young lady of the red clothes also wiping away her tears alongside the hole, and immediately walked back gently towards her. She did not run away, and Huang, grasping her sleeve, joined with her in her lamentations. When these were concluded he invited her to his house, and then she burst out with a sigh, saying, “Alas! that the sister of my early years should be thus suddenly taken from me. Hearing you, Sir, mourn as you did, I have also been moved to tears. Those you shed have sunk down deep to the realms below, and may perhaps succeed in restoring her to us; but the sympathies of the dead are destroyed for ever, and how then can she laugh and talk with us again?”
“My luck is bad,” said Huang, “that I should injure those I love, neither can I have the good fortune to draw towards me another such a beauty. But tell me, when I often sent messages by Hsiang-yu to you, why did you not come?”
“I knew,” replied she, “what nine young fellows out of ten are; but I did not know what you were.” She then took leave, Huang telling her how dull he felt without Hsiang-yu, and begging her to come again.
For some days she did not appear; and Huang remained in a state of great melancholy, tossing and turning on his bed and wetting the pillow with his tears, until one night he got up, put on his clothes, and trimmed the lamp; and having called for pen and ink, he composed the following lines: –
On my cottage roof the evening rain-drops beat;
I draw the blind and near the window take my seat.
To my longing gaze no loved one appears;
Drip, drip, drip, drip: fast flow my tears.
This he read aloud; and when he had finished, a voice outside said, “You want some one to cap your verses there!” Listening attentively, he knew it was Chiang-hsueh; and opening the door he let her in. She looked at his stanza, and added impromptu –
She is no longer in the room;
A single lamp relieves the gloom;
One solitary man is there;
He and his shadow make a pair.
As Huang read these words his tears fell fast; and then, turning to Chiang-hsueh, he upbraided her for not having been to see him. “I can’t come so often as Hsiang-yu did,” replied she, “but only now and then when you are very dull.”
After this she used to drop in occasionally, and Huang said Hsiang-yu was his beloved wife, and she his dear friend, always trying to find out every time she came which flower in the garden she was, that he might bring her home with him, and save her from the fate of Hsiang-yu. “The old earth should not be disturbed,” said she, “and it would not do any good to tell you. If you couldn’t keep your wife always with you, how will you be sure of keeping a friend?” Huang, however, paid no heed to this, and seizing her arm, led her out into the garden, where he stopped at every peony and asked if this was the one; to which Chiang-hsueh made no reply, but only put her hand to her mouth and laughed merrily.
At New Year’s time Huang went home, and a couple of months afterwards he dreamt that Chiang-hsueh came to tell him she was in great trouble, begging him to hurry off as soon as possible to her rescue. When he woke up, he thought his dream a very strange one; and ordering his servant and horses to be ready, started at once for the hills. There he found that the priests were about to build a new room; and finding a camellia in the way, the con- tractor had given orders that it should be cut down. Huang now understood his dream, and immediately took steps to prevent the destruction of the flower.
That night, Chiang-hsueh came to thank him, and Huang laughed and said, “It serves you right for not telling me which you were. Now I know you, and if you don’t come and see me, I’ll get a firebrand and make it hot for you.”
“That’s just why I didn’t tell you before,” replied she.
“The presence of my dear friend,” said Huang, after a pause, “makes me think more of my lost wife. It is long since I have mourned for her. Shall we go and bemoan her loss together?” So they went off and shed many a tear on the spot where formerly Hsiang-yu had stood, until at last Chiang-hsueh wiped her eyes and said it was time to go.
A few evenings later Huang was sitting alone, when suddenly Chiang-hsueh entered, her face radiant with smiles. “Good news!” cried she, “the Flower-God, moved by your tears, has granted Hsiang-yu a return to life. Huang was overjoyed, and asked when she would come; to which Chiang-hsueh replied, that she could not say for certain, but that it would not be long.
“I came here on your account,” said Huang; “don’t let me be duller than you can help.”
“All right,” answered she, and then went away, not returning for the next two evenings.
Huang then went into the garden and threw his arms around her plant, entreating her to come and see him, though without eliciting any response. He accordingly went back, and began twisting up a torch, when all at once in she came, and snatching the torch out of his hand, threw it away, saying, “You’re a bad fellow, and I don’t like you, and I shan’t have any more to do with you.” However, Huang soon succeeded in pacifying her, and by-and-by in walked Hsiang-yu herself. Huang now wept tears of joy as he seized her hand, and drawing Chiang-hsueh towards them, the three friends mingled their tears together.
They then sat down and talked over the miseries of separation, Huang meanwhile noticing that Hsiang-yu seemed to be unsubstantial, and that when he grasped her hand his fingers seemed to close only on themselves, and not as in the days gone by. This Hsiang-yu explained, saying, “When I was a flower-nymph I had a body; but now I am only the disembodied spirit of that flower. Do not regard me as a reality, but rather as an apparition seen in a dream.”
“You have come at the nick of time,” cried Chiang-hsueh; “your husband there was just getting troublesome.” Hsiang-yu now instructed Huang to take a little powdered white-berry, and mixing it with some sulphur, to pour out a libation to her, adding, “This day next year I will return your kindness.”
The young ladies then went away, and next day Huang observed the shoots of a young peony growing up where Hsiang-yu had once stood. So he made the libation as she had told him, and had the plant very carefully tended, even building a fence all round to protect it. Hsiang-yu came to thank him for this, and he proposed that the plant should be removed to his own home; but to this she would not agree, “for,” said she, “I am not very strong, and could not stand being transplanted. Besides, all things have their appointed place; and as I was not originally intended for your home, it might shorten my life to be sent there. We can love each other very well here.” Huang then asked why Chiang-hsueh did not come; to which Hsiang-yu replied that they must make her, and proceeded with him into the garden, where, after picking a blade of grass, she measured upwards from the roots of Chiang-hsueh’s plant to a distance of four feet six inches, at which point she stopped, and Huang began to scratch a mark on the place with his nails.
At that moment Chiang-hsueh came from behind the plant, and in mock anger cried out, “You hussy you! what do you aid that wretch for ?”
“Don’t be angry, my dear,” said Hsiang-yu; “help me to amuse him for a year only, and then you shan’t be bothered any more.” So they went on, Huang watching the plant thrive, until by the spring it was over two feet in height. He then went home, giving the priests a handsome present, and bidding them take great care of it.
Next year, in the fourth moon, he returned and found upon the plant a bud just ready to break; and as he was walking round, the stem shook violently as if it would snap, and suddenly the bud opened into a flower as large as a plate, disclosing a beautiful maiden within, sitting upon one of the pistils, and only a few inches in height. In the twinkling of an eye she had jumped out, and lo! it was Hsiang-yu. “Through the wind and the rain I have waited for you,” cried she; “why have you come so late?” They then went into the house, where they found Chiang-hsueh already arrived, and sat down to enjoy themselves as they had done in former times.
Shortly afterwards Huang’s wife died, and he took up his abode at Mount Lao for good and all. The peonies were at that time as large as one’s arm; and whenever Huang went to look at them, he always said, “Some day my spirit will be there by your side;” to which the two girls used to reply with a laugh, and say, “Mind you don’t forget.”
Ten years after these events, Huang became dangerously ill, and his son, who had come to see him, was very much distressed about him. “I am about to be born,” cried his father; “I am not going to die. Why do you weep?” He also told the priests that if later on they should see a red shoot, with five leaves, thrusting itself forth alongside of the peony, that would be himself. This was all he said, and his son proceeded to convey him home, where he died immediately on arrival.
Next year a shoot did come up exactly as he had mentioned; and the priests, struck by the coincidence, watered it and supplied it with earth. In three years it was a tall plant, and a good span in circumference, but without flowers. When the old priest died, the others took no care of it; and as it did not flower they cut it down. The white peony then faded and died; and before long the camellia was dead too.