Read LETTER IX of The Mirror of Kong Ho, free online book, by Ernest Bramah, on ReadCentral.com.

Venerated sire, Among these islanders there is a proverb, “Do not place the carte” (or card, the two words having an identical purport, and both signifying the inscribed tablet of viands prepared for a banquet,) “before the horse.” Doubtless the saying first arose as a timely rebuke to a certain barbarian emperor who announced his contempt for the intelligence of his subjects by conferring high mandarin rank upon a favourite steed and ceremoniously appointing it to be his chancellor; but from the narrower moral that an unreasoning animal is out of place, and even unseemly, in the entertaining hall or council chamber, the expression has in the course of time taken a wider application and is now freely used as an insidious thrust at one who may be suspected of contrariness of character, of confusing issues, or of acting in a vain or illogical manner. I had already preserved the saying among other instances of foreign thought and expression which I am collecting for your dignified amusement, as it is very characteristic of the wisdom and humour of these Outer Lands. The imagination is essentially barbaric. A horse doubtless well-groomed, richly-caparisoned, and as intellectual as the circumstances will permit, but inevitably an animal of degraded attributes and untraceable ancestry a horse reclining before a lavishly set-out table and considering well of what dish it shall next partake! Could anything, it appears, be more diverting! Truly to our more refined outlook the analogy is lacking both in delicacy of wit and in exactitude of balance, but to the grosser barbarian conception of what is gravity-removing it is irresistible.

I am, however, reminded of the saying by perceiving that I was on the point of recording certain details of recent occurrence without first unrolling to your mind the incidents from which it has arisen that the person who is now communicating with you is no longer reposing in the Capital, but spending a period profitably in observing the habits of those who dwell in the more secluded recesses on the outskirts of the Island. This reversal of the proper sequence of affairs would doubtless strike those around as an instance of setting the banquet before the horse. Without delay, then, to pursue the allusion to its appropriate end, I will return, as it may be said, to my nosebag.

At various points about the streets of the Capital there are certain caverns artificially let into the bowels of the earth, to which any person may betake himself upon purchasing a printed sign which he must display to the guardian of the gate. Once within the underneathmost parts he is free to be carried from place to place by means of the trains of carriages which I have already described to you, until he would return to the outer surface, when he must again display his talisman before he is permitted to pass forth. Nor is this an empty form, for upon an occasion this person himself witnessed a very bitter contention between a keeper of the barrier and one whose token had through some cause lost its potency.

In the company of the experienced I had previously gone through the trial without mischance, so that recently when I expressed a wish to visit a certain Palace, and was informed that the most convenient manner would be to descend into the nearest cavern, I had no reasonable device for avoiding the encounter. Nevertheless, enlightened sire, I will not attempt to conceal from your omniscience that I was by no means impetuous towards the adventure. Owing to the pugnacious and unworthy suspicions of those who direct their destinies, I have not yet been able to penetrate the exact connection between the movements of these hot-smoke chariots and the Unseen Forces. To a person whose chief object in life is to avoid giving offence to any of the innumerable demons which are ever on the watch to revenge themselves upon our slightest indiscretion, this uncertainty opens an unending vista of intolerable possibilities. As if to emphasise the perils of this overhanging doubt the surroundings are ingeniously arranged so as to represent as nearly as practicable the terrors of the Beneath World. Both by day and night a funereal gloom envelops the caverns, the pathways and resting-places are meagre and so constructed as to be devoid of attraction or repose, and by a skilful contrivance the natural atmosphere is secretly withdrawn and a very acrimonious sulphurous haze driven in to replace it. In sudden and unforeseen places eyes of fire open and close with disconcerting rapidity, and even change colour in vindictive significance; wooden hands are outstretched as in unrelenting rigidity against supplication, or, divining the unexpressed thoughts, inexorably point, as one gazes, still deeper into the recesses of the earth; while the air is never free from the sounds of groans, shrieks, the rattling of chains, dull, hopeless noises beneath one’s feet or overhead, and the hoarse wordless cries of despair with which the attending slaves of the caverns greet the distant clamour of every approaching fire-chariot. Admittedly the intention of the device is benevolently conceived, and it is strenuously asserted that many persons of corrupt habits and ill-balanced lives, upon waking unexpectedly while passing through these Beneath Parts, have abandoned the remainder of their journey, and, escaping hastily to the outer air, have from that time onwards led a pure and consistent existence; but, on the other foot, those who are compelled to use the caverns daily, freely confess that the surroundings to not in any material degree purify their lives of tranquillise the nature of their inner thoughts.

In this emergency I did not neglect to write out a diversity of charms against every possible variety of evil influence, and concealing them lavishly about my head and body, I presented myself with the outer confidence of a person who is inured to the exploit. Doubtless thereby being mistaken for one of themselves in the obscurity, I received the inscribed safeguard without opposition, and even an added sum in copper pieces, which I discreetly returned to the one behind the shutter, with the request that he would honourably burn a few joss sticks or sacrifice to a trivial amount, to the success of my journey. In such a manner I reached an awaiting train, and, taking up within it a position of retiring modesty, I definitely committed myself to the undertaking.

At the next tarrying place there entered a barbarian of high-class appearance, and being by this time less assured of my competence in the matter unaided, both on account of the multiplicity of evil omens on every side, and the perverse impulses of the guiding demon, whereby at sudden angles certain of my organs had the emotion of being left irrevocably behind and others of being snatched relentlessly forward, I approached him courteously.

“Behold,” I said, “many thousand li of water, both fresh and bitter, flow between the one who is addressing you and his native town of Yuen-ping, where the tablets at the street corners are as familiar to him as the lines of his own unshapely hands; for, as it is truly said, ’Does the starling know the lotus roots, or the pomfret read its way by the signs among the upper branches of the pines?’ Out of the necessities of his ignorance and your own overwhelming condescension enlighten him, therefore, whether the destination of this fire-chariot by any chance corresponds with the inscribed name upon his talisman?”

Thus adjured, the stranger benevolently turned himself to the detail, and upon consulting a book of symbols he expressed himself to this wise: that after a sufficient interval I should come into a certain station, called in part after the title of the enlightened ruler of this Island, and there abandoning the train which was carrying us, I should enter another which would bring me out of the Beneath Parts and presently into the midst of that Palace which I sought. This advice seemed good, for a reasonable connection might be supposed to exist between a station so auspiciously called and a Palace bearing the harmonious name of the gracious and universally-revered sovereign-consort. Accordingly I thanked him ceremoniously, not only on my own part, but also on behalf of eleven generations of immediate ancestors, and in the name of seven generations who should come after, and he on his side agreeably replied that he was sure his grandmother would have done as much for mine, and he sincerely hoped that none of his great-great-grandchildren would prove less obliging. In this intellectual manner, varied with the entertainment of profuse bows, the time passed cordially between us until the barbarian reached his own alighting stage, when he again repeated the various details of the strategy for my observance.

At this point let it be set forth deliberately that there existed no treachery in the advice, still less that this person is incapable of competently achieving the destined end of any hazard upon which he may embark when once the guiding signs have been made clear to his understanding. Whatever entanglement arose was due merely to the conflicting manners of expression used by two widely-varying races, even as our own proverb says, “What is only sauce for the cod is serious for the oyster.”

At the station indicated as bearing the sign of the ruler of the country (which even a person of little discernment could have recognised by the highly-illuminated representation bearing the elusively-worded inscription, “In packets only"), I left this fire-chariot, and at once perceiving another in an attitude of departure, I entered it, as the casual barbarian had definitely instructed, and began to assure myself that I had already become expertly proficient in the art of journeying among these Beneath Regions and to foresee the time, not far distant, when others would confidently address themselves to me in their extremities. So entrancing did this contemplation grow, that this outrageous person began to compose the actual words with which he would instruct them as the occasion arose, as thus, “Undoubtedly, O virtuous and not unattractive maiden, this fire-engine will ultimately lead your refined footsteps into the street called Those who Bake Food. Do not hesitate, therefore, to occupy the vacant place by this insignificant one’s side”; or, “By no means, honourable sir; the Cross of Charing is in the precisely opposite direction to that selected by this self-opinionated machine for its inopportune destination. Do not rebuke this person for his immoderate loss of mental gravity, for your mistake, though pardonable in a stranger, is really excessively diverting. Your most prudent course now will assuredly be to cast yourself from the carriage without delay and rely upon the benevolent intervention of a fire-chariot proceeding backwards.”

Alas, it is truly said, “None but sword-swallowers should endeavour to swallow swords,” thereby signifying the vast chasm that lies between those who are really adroit in an undertaking and those who only think that they may easily become so. Presently it began to become deeply impressed upon my discrimination that the journey was taking a more lengthy duration than I had been given to understand would be the case, while at the same time a permanent deliverance from the terrors of the Beneath Parts seemed to be insidiously lengthening out into a funereal unattainableness. The point of this person’s destination, he had been assured on all hands, was a spot beyond which even the most aggressively assertive engine could not proceed, so that he had no fears of being incapably drawn into more remote places, yet when hour after hour passed and the ill-destined machine never failed in its malicious endeavours to leave each successive tarrying station, it is not to be denied that my imagination dwelt regretfully upon the true civilisation of our own enlightened country, where, by the considerate intervention of an all-wise government, the possibilities of so distressing an experience are sympathetically removed from one’s path. Thus the greater part of the day had faded, and I was conjecturing that by this time we must inevitably be approaching the barren and inhospitable country which forms the northern limit of the Island, when the door suddenly opened and the barbarian stranger whom I had left many hundred li behind entered the carriage.

At this manifestation all uncertainty departed, and I now understood that to some obscure end witchcraft of a very powerful and high-caste kind was being employed around me; for in no other way was it credible to ones intelligence that a person could propel himself through the air with a speed greater than that of one of these fire-chariots, and overtake it. Doubtless it was a part of this same scheme which made it seem expedient to the stranger that he should feign a part, for he at once greeted me as though the occasion were a matter of everyday happening, exclaiming genially

“Well, Mr. Kong, returning? And what do you think of the Palace?”

“It is fitly observed, ’To the earthworm the rice stalk is as high as the pagoda,’” I replied with adroit evasion, clearly understanding from his manner that for some reason, not yet revealed to me, a course of dissimulation was expedient in order to mislead the surrounding demons concerning my movements, and by a subtle indication of the face conveying to the stranger an assurance that I had tactfully grasped the requirement, and would endeavour to walk well upon his heels, “and therefore it would be unseemly for a person of my insignificant attainments to engage in the doubtful flattery of comparing it with the many other residences of the pure and exalted which embellish your Capital.”

“Oh,” said the one whom I may now suitably describe by the name of Sir Philip, “that’s rather a useful proverb sometimes. Many people there?”

At this inquiry I could not disguise from myself an emotion that the person seated opposite was not diplomatically inspired in so persistently clinging to the one subject upon which he must assuredly know that I experienced an all-pervading deficiency. Nevertheless, being by this more fully convinced that the disguise was one of critical necessity, and not deeming that the essential ceremonies of one Palace would differ from those of another, no matter in what land they stood (while through all I read a clear design on Sir Philip’s part that the opportunity was craftily arranged so that I might impress upon any vindictively-intentioned spirits within hearing an assumption of high protection), I replied that the gathering had been one of unparalleled splendour, both by reason of the multitude of exalted nobles present and also owing to the jewelled magnificence lavished on every detail. Furthermore, I continued, now definitely abandoning all the promptings of a wise reserve, and reflecting, as we say, that one may as well be drowned in the ocean as in a wooden bucket, not only did the sublime and unapproachable sovereign graciously permit me to kow-tow respectfully before him, but subsequently calling me to his side beneath a canopy of golden radiance, he conversed genially with me and benevolently assured me of his sympathetic favour on all occasions (this, I conjectured, would certainly overawe any Evil Force not among the very highest circles), while the no less magnanimous Prince of the Imperial Line questioned me with flattering assiduousness concerning a method of communicating with persons at a distance by means of blows or stamps upon a post (as far as the outer meaning conveyed itself to me), the houses which we build, and whether they contained an adequate provision of enclosed spaces in the walls.

Doubtless I could have continued in this praiseworthy spirit of delicate cordiality to an indefinite amount had I not chanced to observe at this point that the expression of Sir Philip’s urbanity had become entangled in a variety of other emotions, not all propitious to the scheme, so that in order to retire imperceptibly within myself I smiled broad-mindedly, remarking that it was well said that the moon was only bright while the sun was hid, and that I had lately been dazzled with the sight of so much brilliance and virtuous condescension that there were occasions when I questioned inwardly how much I had really witnessed, and how much had been conveyed to me in the nature of an introspective vision.

It will already have been made plain to you, O my courtly-mannered father, that these barbarians are totally deficient in the polite art whereby two persons may carry on a flattering and highly-attuned conversation, mutually advantageous to the esteem of each, without it being necessary in any way that their statements should have more than an ornamental actuality. So wanting in this, the most concentrated form of truly well-bred entertainment, are even their high officials, that after a few more remarks, to which I made answer in a spirit of skilfully-sustained elusiveness, the utterly obtuse Sir Philip said at length, “Excuse my asking, Mr. Kong, but have you really been to the Alexandra Palace at all?”

Admittedly there are few occasions in life on which it is not possible to fail to see the inopportune or low-class by a dignified impassiveness of features, an adroitly-directed jest, or a remark of baffling inconsequence, but in the face of so distressingly straightforward a demand what can be advanced by a person of susceptible refinement when opposed to one of incomparably larger dimensions, imprisoned by his side in the recess of a fire-chariot which is leaping forward with uncurbed velocity, and surrounded by demons with whose habits and partialities he is unfamiliar?

“In a manner of expressing the circumstance,” I replied, “it is not to be denied that this person’s actual footsteps may have imperceptibly been drawn somewhat aside from the path of his former design. Yet inasmuch as it is truly said that the body is in all things subservient to the mind, and is led withersoever it is willed, and as your engaging directions were scrupulously observed with undeviating fidelity, it would be impertinently self-opinionated on this person’s part to imply that they failed to guide him to his destination. Thus, for all ceremonial purposes, it is permissible conscientiously to assume that he has been there.”

“I am afraid that I must not have been sufficiently clear,” said Sir Philip. “Did you miss the train at King’s Cross?”

“By no means,” I replied firmly, pained inwardly that he should cast the shadow of such narrow incompetence upon me. “Seeing this machine on the point of setting forth on a journey, even as your overwhelming sagacity had enabled you to predict would be the case, I embarked with self-reliant confidence.”

“Good lord!” murmured the person opposite, beginning to manifest an excess of emotion for which I was quite unable to account. “Then you have been in this train your actual footsteps I mean, Mr. Kong; not your ceremonial abstract subliminal ego ever since?”

To this I replied that his words shone like the moon at midnight with scintillating points of truth; adding, however, as the courtesies of the occasion required, that I had been so impressed with the many-sided brilliance of his conversation earlier in the day as to render the flight of time practically unnoticed by me.

“But did it never occur to you to ask at one of the stations?” he demanded, still continuing to wave his hands incapably from side to side. “Any of the porters would have told you.”

“Kong Li Heng, the founder of our line, who was really great, has been dead eleven centuries, and no single fact or incident connected with his life has been preserved to influence mankind,” I replied. “How much less will it matter, then, even in so limited a space of time as a hundred years, in what fashion so insignificant a person as the one before you acted on any occasion, and why, therefore, should he distress himself unnecessarily to any precise end?” In this manner I sought to place before him the dignified example of an imperturbability which can be maintained in every emergency, and at the same time to administer a plain yet scrupulously-sheathed rebuke; for the inauspicious manner in which he had first drawn me on to speak confidently of the ceremonies of the Royal Palace and then held up my inadequacy to undeserved contempt had not rejoiced my imagination, and I was still uncertain how much to claim, and whether, perchance, even yet a more subtle craft lay under all.

“Well, in any case, when you go back you can claim the distinction of having been taken seven times round London, although you can’t really have seen much of it,” said Sir Philip. “This is a Circle train.”

At this assertion I looked up. Though admittedly curved a little about the roof the chariot was in every essential degree what we should pronounce to be a square one; whereupon, feeling at length that the involvement had definitely passed to a point beyond my contemptible discernment, I spread out my hands acquiescently and affably remarked that the days were lengthening out pleasantly.

In such a manner I became acquainted with the one Sir Philip, and thereby, in a somewhat circuitous line, the original purpose which possessed my brush when I began this inept and commonplace letter is reached; for the person in question not only lay upon himself the obligation of leading me “by the strings of his apron-garment” in the characteristic and fanciful turn of the barbarian language to that same Palace on the following day, but thenceforth gracefully affecting to discern certain agreeable virtues in my conversation and custom of habit he frequently sought me out. More recently, on the double plea that they of his household had a desire to meet me, and that if I spent all my time within the Capital my impressions of the Island would necessarily be ill-balanced and deformed, he advanced a project that I should accompany him to a spot where, as far as I was competent to grasp the idiom, he was in the habit of sitting (doubtless in an abstruse reverie), in the country; and having assured myself by means of discreet innuendo that the seat referred to would be adequate for this person also, and that the occasion did not in any way involve a payment of money, I at once expressed my willingness towards the adventure.

With numerous expressions of unfeigned regret (from a filial point of view) that the voice of one of the maidens of the household, lifted in the nature of a defiance against this one to engage with her in a two-handed conflict of hong pong, obliges him to bring this immature composition to a hasty close.

Kong Ho.