by Frank Owen
Frank Owen confides to us that he himself has never been in China, that his vision of China is a poetic dream of his own. And yet he has been told by Orientals themselves that he embodies the romance and dreams of a yellow empire, a romance that unfortunately too often is denied to those whose vision of Celestial Asia is limited to the hustle of a shouting Shanghai marketplace or a commercial Canton street.
“WE GIVE too little thought to the forces which control life.” As Kwoh Fan spoke, he lifted the delicate cup of jasmine-scented tea to his lips and sipped slowly of the lush warm beverage. As he did so he closed his eyes as though he were praying. Drinking tea is as fine an art as etching or engraving.
“The real forces of life,” he continued musingly, “though seen are not realized. They are composed of lights and shadows, colors, tones, harmonies, rhythms, perfumes and sweet music. Color, I believe, is one of the main props of existence. Plants derive their gorgeous colors from the solar spectrum, especially in the Orient. That is why yellow predominates in China. The yellow-golden skin of gorgeous China girls—what could be more superb? Or the sacred yellow robes of Buddhist priests. China is different from all other countries primarily because of the presence of this pungent color. It swirls over everything like a flood. It brings on drowsiness and lassitude. My people are yellow people steeped in yellow. If white or red predominated, the whole history of China would be different. Its very existence is directly traceable to color, which in turn goes directly to the sun.”
As Kwoh Fan paused, Coutts Cummings surveyed him meditatively. After all, to a great extent, life was a mystical puzzle. It was odd to be sitting in that room in a house so immense and magnificent it was a veritable palace, and to know that it stood in one of the most silent, least inhabited spots in China far beyond the Western Hills of Peking. Every luxury of the Occident and the Orient had been drawn into its building until it had almost become as famous and mystical as Kwoh Fan himself, Kwoh Fan, the philosopher, the dreamer, Kwoh Fan who was fanatical in his pursuit of loveliness. About his house lingered lovely Chinese serving girls, golden-yellow girls with almond eyes, sleek black hair and vivid lips. Their gowns were silken and of every shade and hue, as soft as though they had been fashioned of moonbeams or flower petals. Flower petals they resembled in the manner in which they clove to the gorgeous golden bodies of the girls.
Kwoh Fan spoke English perfectly without the slightest suggestion of an accent, pronouncing each word distinctly as though it were a lovely jewel. His eyes were sombre languid, brooding, which was fitting; for he was a philosopher whose fame had spread throughout the length and breadth of China. In Mongolia, Manchuria and even into far Tibet and Nepal the Kwoh Fan legend was whispered unto little children. Some had it that he conversed with dragons, others that he disported with foxes in the moonlight, while again it was told how he climbed up the clouds in the evenings. Now as they sat sipping jasmine-scented tea, Coutts Cummings studied his host reflectively. At Peking he had heard the Kwoh Fan legend, though at Peking it had not been so fantastically distorted. According to the story there related, Kwoh Fan was a worshipper of all that was beautiful, of a dew-drenched blossom, of a glowing green emerald, or the pungent yellow body of an exquisite maiden. Kwoh Fan was intoxicated by loveliness. He tried to steep himself in it. Through loveliness he endeavored to banish everything harsh and sordid^from his life. Fortunately he was immensely wealthy so he could afford to be eccentric in his enthusiasms. His palace was a veritable poem of soft tones and harmonies.
“For variation,” said Kwoh Fan, “a cup of pearl-orchid scented tea and I will be content.”
A girl brought him the tea as he spoke. He sighed softly as the tips of his fingers lightly touched her hand.
“Life itself,” he meditated, “in its fullest sense is naught but a flower.”
He quaffed languidly at his tea. “The tragedy of existence,” he continued, “is that few of us ever realize the attainment of one perfect hour until it has passed. Each of us has an allotment of one perfect hour, one perfect hour in an entire life. It is the memory of that hour which makes the balance of life worth living. Memory is best preserved in sweet perfume. Perfume and light are the only two things in the Universe comparable to color. The three are interchangeable, collectively making that divine thing—perfection. No flower is ever lost that once has bloomed, nor can a perfume ever vanish that has been breathed into the air. Perfumes can absorb pictures to smallest details. Not infrequently a piquant perfume floating to one's nostrils recalls the exotic vision of some beloved woman. One of your poets, Baudelaire, I believe, has fashioned this truth into verse that is lyrically beautiful. Lavender makes one think of old English ladies creeping softly through the ancient halls of gabled houses. Aloeswood brings poignantly to mind Oriental princesses. The bazaars of every country have their own particular odors. And in those odors are preserved pictures of the incidents and occurrences that have emerged from embryo there. Perfume possesses more divinity than any religion or any creed.”
Kwoh Fan rose abruptly to his feet.
“If you wish,” he said impulsively, “I will take you to a room like unto none other you have ever beheld. Nobody ever enters it but myself, though now I am moved to escort you there.”
Coutts Cummings needed no second bidding. Slowly he followed Kwoh Fan down marvelous halls dim-lit with glimmering lanterns. Occasionally draperies fluttered in the breeze emitting a wondrous purple fragrance. Once or twice a slim girl disappeared around one of the many curves of that winding hall. The floor was covered by rugs of velvet softness. Everything was hushed. At last Kwoh Fan stopped. He drew a key from the sleeve of his coat and unlocked a great door. The next moment they were in a room entirely hung in dark blue draperies. At one end was a huge glass window through which the sun gleamed like an orange-gold lantern. It blended perfectly with the blue-soft sheen of the draperies.
“It is like living in the skies,” said Coutts Cummings softly.
“It is far better,” said Kwoh Fan, “for in this room is the famous ‘Jade Jar of Ilibar.’ ”
As he spoke, he parted the velvet curtains at one end of the room and there in a crypt stood a huge jar covered with carvings and fantastic designs. Its extreme age could not be questioned. Centuries had passed over it like years.
Kwoh Fan clutched Coutts Cummings by the shoulder, “It is the rarest antiquity of earth,” he breathed intensely. “It is of more value than all the famed jewels of India. No rajah has treasure like unto this. For sealed within this jar are a few drops of the rarest perfume ever drawn from flowers. Within the perfume are hidden all the wondrous scenes and adventures through which this jar has passed. Some day I will remove the cover, permitting the sweet perfume to issue from it. I have purposely had this room builded for that precious day. Can you imagine that perfect hour when all those wondrous scenes will loom up before me even as they appeared more than a thousand years ago?”
Late in the evening after the daylight had expired, Coutts Cummings wandered alone in the Chinese garden which surrounded the palace. The air was heavy with the breath of countless flowers. A soft breeze blew lyrically through the treetops. From the distance came the sound of music and the sing-song drone of celestial chanters. Overhead a yellow moon shimmered down, throwing the fronds of the trees into strong silhouette. It was a night of magic. The air was so cool it brushed his cheek like the soft hand of a Manchu princess.
Coutts Cummings breathed deeply of the fragrant air. The memory of that ancient jar in the blue-velvet room haunted him. He sighed softly as he re-entered the palace. In a lounging room he found Kwoh Fan listlessly drinking tea.
At his entrance, Kwoh Fan looked up drowsily. “Come linger here awhile with me,” he said. “Before retiring I always drink a few cups of the supreme liquor of all—blue-poppy scented tea. It brings happiness through forgetfulness. Drink with me until the night grows old.”
Kwoh Fan clapped his hands and a girl as frail as a flower brought a cup of the fragrant-scented tea and placed it on the table before Coutts Cummings. For a moment he breathed of the pungent vapor, then slowly he lifted the jade cup to his lips. The tea was odd but not unpleasant to the taste. It coursed through his veins like old wine. He glanced toward Kwoh Fan. Life at that moment seemed very good, A perfect languidity hung over the room.
Kwoh Fan was dozing. He was breathing contentedly. But Coutts Cummings' perceptions seemed doubly clear. He drank once more of the blue-poppy scented tea, and as he drank fantastic thoughts crammed through his comprehension.
Before him lounged Kwoh Fan. He was sleeping. Within his sleeve was the key to the velvet room wherein the antique jar reposed. Coutts Cummings leaned toward his sleeping host. He touched his hand but Kwoh Fan did not move. He touched his cheek. But still he stirred not. Finally Coutts Cummings sprang to his feet. Stealthily he drew the key from Kwoh Fan's sleeve. The next moment he was gliding down the heavy-carpeted hall. Not a sound stirred within the palace.
Finally he arrived at the great door that led to the blue-draped chamber. His hands shook so he could scarcely insert the key in the lock. But at last the ponderous door swung open and closed behind him and he found himself in that room of romance and enchantment. There was no lantern lighted but the yellow moonlight streamed through the great glass window. It lighted up the blue folds of the draperies. Now more than ever they resembled the open sky. It was as though he stood beneath an immense inverted blue bowl. Softly he walked toward the green jar. He caressed it for a moment with his hands. Then from his pocket he drew a knife. Bit by bit he chipped away the wax that sealed the top; until all had been removed.
For a moment he hesitated before reverently lifting the cover. As he did so he sprang back, falling among the cushions and gazing in awe at the jar. At once a perfume like unto nothing in his experience commenced to pervade the room. Stronger and stronger it grew. It stirred up a thousand emotions within him.
And as he watched the jar it seemed as though a strange light were coming from it, a yellow golden glow as soft as the mist of rainbows. Gradually it increased in volume until it filled the room. It was a shower of soft gold that enmeshed him like a web. The room was quaintly brilliant now, yet it was not a room at all but a golden sunlit street. In the distance camels and mules were ambling toward a purple-golden sunset. Gone was the room of pungent draperies, while this strange city loomed up to take its place. Only the jar still remained. And now from the jar there stepped a maiden so peerless in beauty that his eyes burned at the sight of her. She was formed as perfectly as the rarest flower. Her silk-soft waist was of rose-petal texture. Her garments were simple, though not without some trace of costliness. The firm lines of her lovely body were accented by them rather than concealed. Like old ivory was her face and her lips crushed pomegranates. They were more scarlet than rubies and sweeter than wild honey. Her eyes were blacker than the black dungeon beneath Wan Shou Shan, and her cheeks were faintly pink as are coral beaches at sunrise.
Coutts Cummings gazed at her and his mind forsook him. So lovely she was, his reason snapped. He crouched among the cushions and whimpered like a child. And as he sobbed she danced. And as she danced she slowly cast aside her garments until she stood before him a slim golden statue of a loveliness to ruin kingdoms.
He sprang toward her. But as he grasped at her his fingers closed on thin air. She existed only in the charming golden mist of the perfume. Again and again he tried to grasp her to draw her lovely form to his that he might kiss those lush red lips.
But ever he failed. He was reaching back through the dust of a thousand years to kiss a once famous dancer, the memory of whom had long vanished from mortal minds.
Above that dream of long ago there came a frightful din. Kwoh Fan had awaked from his slumbers. He had discovered the key was missing. And now he was outside the door pounding upon it and bellowing like a wounded forest animal. But his pounding availed him not. It could not seep through to Coutts Cummings' consciousness.
Finally it occurred to Kwoh Fan to try the door. It yielded to his touch. As he rushed blindly into the room he heeded not the exotic perfume nor did he see the gorgeous picture which hung in the perfumed golden mist.
He was consumed by hatred, hatred of the guest who had dared to enter his sacred blue chamber. He felt as though he were stifling, as though every bit of air had been drawn from the room. He was nauseated, strangling. In a paroxysm of frenzy he drove his arm through the great glass window.
At once there came a draft of clear cold night air. It stirred the golden mist. The lovely dancing girl shuddered, then slowly the whole picture commenced to dissolve, to float toward the open window. It was a perfumed vision only and the perfume was fading at the onslaught of the air.
Coutts Cummings crouched on the cushions. His eyes were wide with wonder. And now he beheld his gorgeous girl, the girl who had made prisoner his consciousness, dissolving into the very air. He emitted a wild cry and rushed to the window, just as the perfumed mist of the little dancer floated silently past. He grasped frantically at her form. As he did so he leaned far out of the window, so far that he lost his balance and fell. Down, down, down his body dropped until it was grasped in the cool soft arms of the river far below.
Kwoh Fan remained by the window. He gazed far off toward the stars. At last his anger had vanished. It had floated away like the mist of perfume. Kwoh Fan was a great philosopher. Throughout China his fame was legendary. He had devoted years of his life to study and profound meditation. He had lived for that one perfect hour when he would be able to view the visions which lay hidden in the jar. And now that hour had come and gone. The pictures had been before him but he had seen them not. He had always loved beauty, endeavored to drench himself in it. Yet in the supreme moment of his existence his hatred quite outweighed his love.
Kwoh Fan sighed softly. He returned to the tearoom.
“Life,” he reflected, “is very strange.” And he poured himself a cup of pearl-orchid scented tea.