June 4, 1864.]
ONCE A WEEK.
seventeen years of age, becoming harassed by continual solicitations, hit upon a scheme to relieve herself from her suitors. It was this: she proposed three conundrums, which I will tell you presently, and promised to marry the man who should succeed in guessing them, annexing as a penalty, death to the rash man who should venture and fail in the attempt. To this artful device the emperor, in a weak moment, consented; and the horrible consequences of this Machiavellian scheme I am going to relate to you.
It may be expected, as was the case, that this scheme, which was publicly proclaimed, thinned the number of suitors rapidly, but not to so great an extent as Chang Pang had expected, such was her transcendent beauty and so great the pecuniary value of the prize to the successful guesser. The proclamation, of which I have a copy in Chinese in my pocket, given to me by a Chinese antiquarian, is as follows:—
“BY THE EMPEROR. A PROCLAMATION.
“Whereas, divers princes and other persons of suitable rank have demanded in marriage the hand of our well-beloved daughter and heiress, Chang Pang, but none of them has engaged the affections of our aforesaid daughter, and whereas it is hereby proclaimed and declared unto every person or persons who might, would, should, or could, at present or in future, be desirous of demanding in marriage the aforesaid daughter, that in the event of such person or persons satisfactorily answering three riddles, enigmas, conundrums, charades, or other diverting questions to be propounded or otherwise laid before them by our aforesaid daughter, that person or persons shall forthwith receive, take, or otherwise become possessed of our aforesaid daughter’s hand in marriage, and be made co-heir of this our Celestial Empire of all the Chinas: but and on the other hand, if such person or persons fail to solve or otherwise answer the aforesaid diverting questions, they shall be immediately hanged by the neck until they die or otherwise expire, and their goods, chattels, or other personal and real property, if there be any, be forfeited to our Celestial Exchequer. Given at our Court of Pekin.
About this period there arrived in Pekin a young man, to all outward appearance mean and poor, and by trade a photographic artist, an art known many centuries ago, and much practised in the early period of the Chinese Empire, though since lost, and lately re-discovered. I may as well tell you at once, he was son and heir to their Emperor of Thibet, just then dispossessed by a horde of barbarians, led by an unscrupulous usurper. This young man (who was at present in the most strictly anonymous incognito, but of whose name we do not scruple to betray as much as the letters, Ch-ng P-ng) took up his abode at a small hostel in Pekin, to which were attached large gardens, a great resort of the nobility for opium and tobacco. On seeing the proclamation, which was displayed in the gardens, he at once made up his mind to become a suitor to the Princess, but resolved also to maintain a strict incognito. He had a formidable rival in the prime minister of the Emperor, Chong Pong, a man whose sensual unscrupulous character and stupid administration had gained him the hatred and contempt of every good Chinese (a rara avis, indeed, in China, but no matter). The two rivals met at the public gardens. The minister was seated at a table, inhaling opium and tobacco from a jewelled hookah, and to all appearance in a state of comfortable ease, when his eyes happened to light upon the ill-dressed and unshaven stranger. The sight for a moment disturbed him, and he swallowed a mouthful of smoke, which brought on a terrible fit of coughing. The ill-dressed stranger remarked that he seemed to have a wretched cough, by way of commencing a conversation. Upon which, the minister was pleased to inquire who he was, for there was something in the bearing of the stranger which betrayed the nobleness of his birth. The minister seemed scarcely satisfied with the reply that he was a photographic artist, and being again seized with coughing, frowned severely on him, and after five minutes’ more smoking, laying aside his hookah, and taking from his side some jewelled tablets, said to the stranger, who was eating a scanty meal of radishes and water,—
“Young man, I would have had you punished for vagrancy, but know that this morning she smiled on me.”
Chyng Pyng, his mouth full of radishes, said, “Did she? Who is she?” in a tone quite void of curiosity.
The minister, apparently rather puzzled what to think of the stranger, proceeded to read aloud, the stranger having retired into the house, the following, which I have translated, and endeavoured to preserve the metre:—
O Chang Pang! O Chang Pang!
Thou art like the clarion’s clang,
Through the air thy accents rang,
And the tune thy sweet lips sang
Flew and fixed me with a bang,
Yes, on me, severe Chang Pang.