One hot summer afternoon as I lay in the hammock trying to take a nap after a hard forenoon's work and a hearty lunch, I heard the same old nurse who had told me my first Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes, telling the following story to the same little boy to whom she had repeated the "Mouse and the Candlestick."
She told him that the Chinese call the Milky Way the Heavenly River, and that the Spinning Girl referred to in the story is none other than the beautiful big star in Lyra which we call Vega, while the Cow-herd is Altair in Aquila.
THE HEAVENLY RIVER, WITH THE PEOPLE WHO DWELL THEREON.
Once upon a time there dwelt a beautiful maiden in a quiet little village on the shore of the Heavenly River.
Her name was Vega, but the people of China have always called her the Spinning Maiden, because of her faithfulness to her work, for though days, and months, and years passed away, she never left her loom.
Her diligence so moved the heart of her grandfather, the King of Heaven, that he determined to give her a vacation, which she at once decided to spend upon the earth.
In a village near where the maiden dwelt there was a young man named Altair, whom the Chinese call the Cow-herd.
Now the Cow-herd was in love with the Spinning Girl, but she was always so intent upon her work as never to give him an opportunity to confess his affection, but now he determined to follow her to earth, and, if possible, win her for his bride.
He followed her through the green fields and shady groves, but never dared approach her or tell her of his love.
At last, however, the time came. He discovered her bathing in a limpid stream, the banks of which were carpeted with flowers, while myriad boughs of blossoming peach and cherry trees hid her from all the world but him.
He secretly crept near and stole away and hid her garments made of silken gauze and finely woven linen, making it alike impossible for her to resist his suit or to return to her celestial home.
She yielded to the Cow-herd and soon became his wife, and as the years passed by a boy and girl were born to them, little star children, twins, such as are seen near by the Spinning Girl in her heavenly home to-day.
One day she went to her husband, and, bowing low, requested that he return the clothes he had hid away, and he, thinking the presence of the children a sufficient guaranty for her remaining in his home, told her he had put them in an old, dry well hard by the place where she had been bathing.
No sooner had she secured them than the aspect of their home was changed. The Cow-herd's wife once more became the Spinning Girl and hied her to her heavenly abode.
It so happened that her husband had a piece of cow-skin which gave him power over earth and air. Snatching up this, with his ox-goad, he followed in the footsteps of his fleeing wife.
Arriving at their heavenly home the happy couple sought the joys of married life. The Spinning Girl gave up her loom, and the Cow-herd his cattle, until their negligence annoyed the King of Heaven, and he repented having let her leave her loom. He called upon the Western Royal Mother for advice. After consultation they decided that the two should be separated. The Queen, with a single stroke of her great silver hairpin, drew a line across the heavens, and from that time the Heavenly River has flowed between them, and they are destined to dwell forever on the two sides of the Milky Way.
What had seemed to the youthful pair the promise of perpetual joy, became a condition of unending grief. They were on the two sides of a bridgeless river, in plain sight of each other, but forever debarred from hearing the voice or pressing the land of the one beloved, doomed to perpetual toil unlit by any ray of joy or hope.
Their evident affection and unhappy condition moved the heart of His Majesty, and caused him to allow them to visit each other once with each revolving year, -- on the seventh day of the seventh moon. But permission was not enough, for as they looked upon the foaming waters of the turbulent stream, they could but weep for their wretched condition, for no bridge united its two banks, nor was it allowed that any structure be built which would mar the contour of the shining dome.
In their helplessness the magpies came to their rescue. At early morn on the seventh day of the seventh moon, these beautiful birds gathered in great flocks about the home of the maiden, and hovering wing to wing above the river, made a bridge across which her dainty feet might carry her in safety. But when the time for separation came, the two wept bitterly, and their tears falling in copious showers are the cause of the heavy rains which fall at that season of the year.
From time immemorial it has been known that the Yellow River is neither more nor less than a prolongation of the Milky Way, soiled by earthly contact and contamination, and that the homes of the Spinning Maiden and the Cow-herd are the centres of two of the numerous villages that adorn its banks. It is not to be wondered at, however, that in an evil and skeptical world there should be many who doubt these facts.
On this account, and to forever settle the dispute, the great traveller and explorer, Chang Ch'ien, undertook to discover the source of the Yellow River. He first transformed the trunk of a great tree into a boat, provided himself with the necessities of life and started on his journey.
Days passed into weeks, and weeks became months as he sailed up the murky waters of the turbid stream. But the farther he went the clearer the waters became until it seemed as if they were flowing over a bed of pure, white limestone. Village after village was passed both on his right hand and on his left, and many were the strange sights that met his gaze. The fields became more verdant, the flowers more beautiful, the scenery more gorgeous, and the people more like nymphs and fairies. The color of the clouds and the atmosphere was of a richer, softer hue; while the breezes which wafted his frail bark were milder and gentler than any he had known before.
Despairing at last of reaching the source he stopped at a village where he saw a maiden spinning and a young man leading an ox to drink. He alighted from his boat and inquired of the girl the name of the place, but she, without making reply, tossed him her shuttle, telling him to return to his home and inquire of the astrologer, who would inform him where he received it, if he but told him when.
He returned and presented the shuttle to the noted astrologer Chun Ping, informing him at the same time where, when and from whom he had received it. The latter consulted his observations and calculations and discovered that on the day and hour when the shuttle had been given to the traveller he had observed a wandering star enter and leave the villages of the Spinning Girl and the Cow-herd, which proved beyond doubt that the Yellow River is the prolongation of the Milky Way, while the points of light which we call stars, are the inhabitants of Heaven pursuing callings similar to our own.
Chang Ch'ien made another important discovery, namely, that the celestials, understanding the seasons better than we, turn the shining dome in such a way as to make the Heavenly River indicate the seasons of the year, and so the children sing:
Whene'er the Milky Way you spy, Diagonal across the sky, The egg-plant you may safely eat, And all your friends to melons treat.
But when divided towards the west, You'll need your trousers and your vest When like a horn you see it float; You'll need your trousers and your coat.
It is unnecessary to state that I did not go to sleep while the old nurse was telling the story of the Heavenly River. The child sat on his little stool, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his hands, listening with open lips and eyes sparkling with interest. To the old nurse it was real. The spinning girl and the cow-herd were living persons. The flowers bloomed, -- we could almost smell their odor, -- and the gentle breezes seemed to fan our cheeks. She had told the story so often that she believed it, and she imparted to us her own interest.
"Nurse," said the child, "tell me about
" 'THE MAN IN THE MOON.' "
"The man in the moon," said the old nurse, "is called Wu Kang. He was skilled in all the arts of the genii, and was accustomed to play before them whenever opportunity offered or occasion required.
"Once it turned out that his performances were displeasing to the spirits, and for this offense he was banished to the moon, and condemned to perpetual toil in hewing down the cinnamon trees which grow there in great abundance. At every blow of the axe he made an incision, but only to see it close up when the axe was withdrawn.
"He had another duty, however, a duty which was at times irksome, but one which on the whole was more pleasant than any that falls to men or spirits, -- the duty indicated by the proverb that 'matches are made in the moon.'
"It was his lot to bind together the feet of all those on earth who are destined to a betrothal, and in the performance of this duty, he was often compelled to return to earth. When doing so he came as an old man with long white hair and beard, with a book in his hand in which he had written the matrimonial alliances of all mankind. He also carried a wallet which contains a ball of invisible cord with which he ties together the feet of all those who are destined to be man and wife, and the destinies which he announces it is impossible to avoid.
"On one occasion he came to the town of Sung, and while sitting in the moonlight, turning over the leaves of his book of destinies, he was asked by Wei Ku, who happened to be passing, who was destined to become his bride. The old man consulted his records, as he answered: 'Your wife is the daughter of an old woman named Ch'en who sells vegetables in yonder shop.'
"Having heard this, Wei Ku went the next day to look about him and if possible to get a glimpse of the one to whom the old man referred, but he discovered that the only child the old woman had was an ill-favored one of two years which she carried in her arms. He hired an assassin to murder the infant, but the blow was badly aimed and left only a scar on the child's eyebrow.
"Fourteen years afterwards, Wei Ku married a beautiful maiden of sixteen whose only defect was a scar above the eye, and on inquiries he discovered that she was the one foretold by the Old Man of the Moon, and he recalled the proverb that 'Matches are made in heaven, and the bond of fate is sealed in the moon.' "
"Nurse, tell me about the land of the big people," whereupon the nurse told him of
THE LAND OF GIANTS.
"There was in ancient times a country east of Korea which was called the land of the giants. It was celebrated for its length rather than for its width, being bounded on all sides by great mountain ranges, the like of which cannot be found in other countries. It extends for thousands of miles along the deep passes between the mountains, at the entrance to which there are great iron gates, easily closed, but very difficult to open.
"Many armies have made war upon the giants, among which none have been more celebrated than those of Korea, which embraces in its standing army alone many thousands of men, but thus far they have never been conquered.
"Nor is this to be wondered at, for besides their great iron gates, and numerous fortifications, the men are thirty feet tall according to our measurement, have teeth like a saw, hooked claws, and bodies covered with long black hair.
"They live upon the flesh of fowls and wild beasts which are found in abundance in the mountain fastnesses, but they do not cook their food. They are very fond of human flesh, but they confine themselves to the flesh of enemies slain in battle, and do not eat the flesh of their own people, even though they be hostile, as this is contrary to the law of the land.
"Their women are as large and fierce as the men, but their duties are confined to the preparation of extra clothing for winter wear, for although they are covered with hair it is insufficient to protect them from the winter's cold."
While the old nurse was relating the tale of the giants I could not but wonder whether there was not some relation between that and the Brobdingnagians I had read about in my youth. But I was not given much time to think. This seemed to have been a story day, for the nurse had hardly finished the tale till the child said:
"Now tell me about the country of the little people," and she related the story of
THE LAND OF DWARFS.
"The country of the little people is in the west, where the sun goes down.
"Once upon a time a company of Persian merchants were making a journey, when by a strange mishap they lost their way and came to the land of the little people. They were at first surprised, and then delighted, for they discovered that the country was not only densely populated with these little people, who were not more than three feet high, but that it was rich in all kinds of precious stones and rare and valuable materials.
"They discovered also that during the season of planting and harvesting, they were in constant terror lest the great multitude of cranes, which are without number in that region, should swoop down upon them and eat both them and their crops. They soon learned, however, that the little people were under the protecting care of the Roman Empire, whose interest in them was great, and her arm mighty, and they were thus guarded from all evil influences as well as from all danger. Nor was this a wholly unselfish interest on the part of the Roman power, for the little people repaid her with rich presents of the most costly gems, -- pearls, diamonds, rubies and other precious stones."
I need not say I was beginning to be surprised at the number of tales the old woman told which corresponded to those I had been accustomed to read and hear in my childhood, nor was my surprise lessened when at his request she told him how
THE SUN WENT BACKWARD.
"Once upon a time Lu Yang-kung was engaged in battle with Han Kou-nan, and they continued fighting until nearly sundown. The former was getting the better of the battle, but feared he would lose it unless they fought to a finish before the close of day. The sun was near the horizon, and the battle was not yet ended, and the former, pointing his lance at the King of Day caused him to move backward ten miles in his course."
"When did that happen?" inquired the child.
"The Chinese say it happened about three thousand years ago," replied the old nurse.
"Now tell me about the man who went to the fire star."
The old woman hesitated a moment as though she was trying to recall something and then told him the story of
MARS, THE GOD OF WAR.
"Once upon a time there was a great rebel whose name was Ch'ih Yu. He was the first great rebel that ever lived in China. He did not want to obey the chief ruler, and invented for himself warlike weapons, thinking that in this way he might overthrow the government and place himself upon the throne.
"He had eighty-one brothers, of whom he was the leader. They had human speech, but bodies of beasts, foreheads of iron, and fed upon the dust of the earth.
"When the time for the battle came, he called upon the Chief of the Wind and the Master of the Rain to assist him, and there arose a great tempest. But the Chief sent the Daughter of Heaven to quell the storm, and then seized and slew the rebel. His spirit ascended to the Fire-Star (Mars) -- the embodiment of which he was while upon earth, -- where it resides and influences the conduct of warfare even to the present time."
"Tell me the story of the man who went to the mountain to gather fire-wood and did not come home for such a long time."
The old nurse began a story which as it progressed reminded me of
RIP VAN WINKLE.
"A long time ago there lived a man named Wang Chih, which in our language means 'the stuff of which kings are made.' In spite of his name, however, he was only a common husbandman, spending his summers in plowing, planting and harvesting, and his winters in gathering fertilizers upon the highways, and fire-wood in the mountains.
"On one occasion he wandered into the mountains of Ch'u Chou, his axe upon his shoulder, hoping to find more and better fire-wood than could be found upon his own scanty acres, or the adjoining plain. While in the mountains he came upon a number of aged men, in a beautiful mountain grotto, intently engaged in a game of chess. Wang was a good chess-player himself, and for the time forgot his errand. He laid down his axe, stood silently watching them, and in a very few moments was deeply interested in the game.
"It was while he was thus watching them that one of the old men, without looking up from the game, gave him what seemed to be a date seed, telling him at the same time to put it in his mouth. He did so, but no sooner had he tasted it, than he lost all consciousness of hunger and thirst, and continued to stand watching the players and the progress of the game, thinking nothing of the flight of time.
"At last one of the old men said to him:
" 'You have been here a long time, ought you not to go home?'
"This aroused him from his reverie, and he seemed to awake as from a dream, his interest in the game passed away, and he attempted to pick up his axe, but found that it was covered with rust and the handle had moulded away. But while this called his attention to the fact that time had passed, he felt not the burden of years.
"When he returned to the plain, and to what had formerly been his home, he discovered that not only years but centuries had passed away since he had left for the mountains, and that his relatives and friends had all crossed to the 'Yellow Springs,' while all records of his departure had long since been forgotten, and he alone remained a relic of the past.
"He wandered up and down inquiring of the oldest people of all the villages, but could discover no link which bound him to the present.
"He returned to the mountain grotto, devoted himself to the study of the occult principles of the 'Old Philosopher' until the material elements of his mortal frame were gradually evaporated or sublimated, and without having passed through the change which men call death, he became an immortal spirit returning whence he came."
Just as the old woman finished this story, my teacher, who always took a nap after lunch, ascended the steps.
"Ah, the story of Wang Chih."
"Do you know any of these stories?" I asked him as I sat down beside him.
"All children learn these stories in their youth," he answered, and then as if fearing I would try to induce him to tell them to me he continued, "but nurses always tell these stories better than any one else, because they tell them so often to the children, for whom alone they were made."