The Two Jugglers
Summary
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Story
One beautiful spring day two men strolled into the public square of
a well-known Chinese city. They were plainly dressed and looked like
ordinary countrymen who had come in to see the sights. Judging by their
faces, they were father and son. The elder, a wrinkled man of perhaps
fifty, wore a scant grey beard. The younger had a small box on his
shoulder.

At the hour when these strangers entered the public square, a large
crowd had gathered, for it was a feast day, and every one was bent on
having a good time. All the people seemed very happy. Some, seated in
little open-air booths, were eating, drinking, and smoking. Others were
buying odds and ends from the street-vendors, tossing coins, and playing
various games of chance.

The two men walked about aimlessly. They seemed to have no friends among
the pleasure-seekers. At last, however, as they stood reading a public
notice posted at the entrance of the town-hall or yamen, a bystander
asked them who they were.

"Oh, we are jugglers from a distant province," said the elder, smiling
and pointing towards the box. "We can do many tricks for the amusement
of the people."

Soon it was spread about among the crowd that two famous jugglers had
just arrived from the capital, and that they were able to perform many
wonderful deeds. Now it happened that the mandarin or mayor of the city,
at that very moment was entertaining a number of guests in the yamen.
They had just finished eating, and the host was wondering what he should
do to amuse his friends, when a servant told him of the jugglers.

"Ask them what they can do," said the mandarin eagerly. "I will pay them
well if they can really amuse us, but I want something more than the old
tricks of knife-throwing and balancing. They must show us something
new."

The servant went outside and spoke to the jugglers: "The great man bids
you tell him what you can do. If you can amuse his visitors he will
bring them out to the private grand stand, and let you perform before
them and the people who are gathered together."

"Tell your honourable master," said the elder, whom we shall call Chang,
"that, try us as he will, he will not be disappointed. Tell him that we
come from the unknown land of dreams and visions, that we can turn rocks
into mountains, rivers into oceans, mice into elephants, in short, that
there is nothing in magic too difficult for us to do."

The official was delighted when he heard the report of his servant.
"Now we may have a little fun," he said to his guests, "for there are
jugglers outside who will perform their wonderful tricks before us."

The guests filed out on to the grand stand at one side of the public
square. The mandarin commanded that a rope should be stretched across
so as to leave an open space in full view of the crowd, where the two
Changs might give their exhibition.

For a time the two strangers entertained the people with some of the
simpler tricks, such as spinning plates in the air, tossing bowls up and
catching them on chopsticks, making flowers grow from empty pots, and
transforming one object into another. At last, however, the mandarin
cried out: "These tricks are very good of their kind, but how about
those idle boasts of changing rivers into oceans and mice into
elephants? Did you not say that you came from the land of dreams? These
tricks you have done are stale and shopworn. Have you nothing new with
which to regale my guests on this holiday?"

"Most certainly, your excellency. But surely you would not have a
labourer do more than his employer requires? Would that not be quite
contrary to the teachings of our fathers? Be assured, sir, anything that
you demand I can do for you. Only say the word."

The mandarin laughed outright at this boasting language. "Take care, my
man! Do not go too far with your promises. There are too many impostors
around for me to believe every stranger. Hark you! no lying, for if you
lie in the presence of my guests, I shall take great pleasure in having
you beaten."

"My words are quite true, your excellency," repeated Chang earnestly.
"What have we to gain by deceit, we who have performed our miracles
before the countless hosts of yonder Western Heaven?"

"Ha, ha! hear the braggarts!" shouted the guests. "What shall we command
them to do?"

For a moment they consulted together, whispering and laughing.

"I have it," cried the host finally. "Our feast was short of fruit,
since this is the off season. Suppose we let this fellow supply us.
Here, fellow, produce us a peach, and be quick about it. We have no time
for fooling."

"What, masters, a peach?" exclaimed the elder Chang in mock dismay.
"Surely at this season you do not expect a peach."

"Caught at his own game," laughed the guests, and the people began to
hoot derisively.

"But, father, you promised to do anything he required," urged the son.
"If he asks even a peach, how can you refuse and at the same time save
your face?"

"Hear the boy talk," mumbled the father, "and yet, perhaps he's right.
Very well, masters," turning to the crowd, "if it's a peach you want,
why, a peach you shall have, even though I must send into the garden of
the Western Heaven for the fruit."

The people became silent and the mandarin's guests forgot to laugh. The
old man, still muttering, opened the box from which he had been taking
the magic bowls, plates, and other articles. "To think of people wanting
peaches at this season! What is the world coming to?"

After fumbling in the box for some moments he drew out a skein of golden
thread, fine spun and as light as gossamer. No sooner had he unwound a
portion of this thread than a sudden gust of wind carried it up into the
air above the heads of the onlookers. Faster and faster the old man
paid out the magic coil, higher and higher the free end rose into the
heavens, until, strain his eyes as he would, no one present could see
into what far-region it had vanished.

"Wonderful, wonderful!" shouted the people with one voice, "the old man
is a fairy."

For a moment they forgot all about the mandarin, the jugglers, and the
peach, so amazed were they at beholding the flight of the magic thread.

At last the old man seemed satisfied with the distance to which his cord
had sailed, and, with a bow to the spectators, he tied the end to a
large wooden pillar which helped to support the roof of the grand stand.
For a moment the structure trembled and swayed as if it too would be
carried off into the blue ether, the guests turned pale and clutched
their chairs for support, but not even the mandarin dared to speak, so
sure were they now that they were in the presence of fairies.

"Everything is ready for the journey," said old Chang calmly.

"What! shall you leave us?" asked the mayor, finding his voice again.

"I? Oh, no, my old bones are not spry enough for quick climbing. My son
here will bring us the magic peach. He is handsome and active enough to
enter that heavenly garden. Graceful, oh graceful is that peach tree--of
course, you remember the line from the poem--and a graceful man must
pluck the fruit."

The mandarin was still more surprised at the juggler's knowledge of a
famous poem from the classics. It made him and his friends all the more
certain that the newcomers were indeed fairies.

The young man at a sign from his father tightened his belt and the bands
about his ankles, and then, with a graceful gesture to the astonished
people, sprang upon the magic string, balanced himself for a moment on
the steep incline, and then ran as nimbly up as a sailor would have
mounted a rope ladder. Higher and higher he climbed till he seemed no
bigger than a lark ascending into the blue sky, and then, like some tiny
speck, far, far away, on the western horizon.

The people gazed in open-mouthed wonder. They were struck dumb and
filled with some nameless fear; they hardly dared to look at the
enchanter who stood calmly in their midst, smoking his long-stemmed
pipe.

The mandarin, ashamed of having laughed at and threatened this man
who was clearly a fairy, did not know what to say. He snapped his long
finger nails and looked at his guests in mute astonishment. The visitors
silently drank their tea, and the crowd of sightseers craned their necks
in a vain effort to catch sight of the vanished fairy. Only one in all
that assembly, a bright-eyed little boy of eight, dared to break the
silence, and he caused a hearty burst of merriment by crying out, "Oh,
daddy, will the bad young man fly off into the sky and leave his poor
father all alone?"

The greybeard laughed loudly with the others, and tossed the lad a
copper. "Ah, the good boy," he said smiling, "he has been well trained
to love his father; no fear of foreign ways spoiling his filial piety."

After a few moments of waiting, old Chang laid aside his pipe and fixed
his eyes once more on the western sky. "It is coming," he said quietly.
"The peach will soon be here."

Suddenly he held out his hand as if to catch some falling object, but,
look as they would, the people could see nothing. Swish! thud! it came
like a streak of light, and, lo, there in the magician's fingers was a
peach, the most beautiful specimen the people had ever seen, large and
rosy. "Straight from the garden of the gods," said Chang, handing the
fruit to the mandarin, "a peach in the Second Moon, and the snow hardly
off the ground."

Trembling with excitement, the official took the peach and cut it open.
It was large enough for all his guests to have a taste, and such a taste
it was! They smacked their lips and wished for more, secretly thinking
that never again would ordinary fruit be worth the eating.

But all this time the old juggler, magician, fairy or whatever you
choose to call him, was looking anxiously into the sky. The result of
this trick was more than he had bargained for. True, he had been able to
produce the magic peach which the mandarin had called for, but his son,
where was his son? He shaded his eyes and looked far up into the blue
heavens, and so did the people, but no one could catch a glimpse of the
departed youth.

"Oh, my son, my son," cried the old man in despair, "how cruel is the
fate that has robbed me of you, the only prop of my declining years! Oh,
my boy, my boy, would that I had not sent you on so perilous a journey!
Who now will look after my grave when I am gone?"

Suddenly the silken cord on which the young man had sped so daringly
into the sky, gave a quick jerk which almost toppled over the post to
which it was tied, and there, before the very eyes of the people, it
fell from the lofty height, a silken pile on the ground in front of
them.

The greybeard uttered a loud cry and covered his face with his hands.
"Alas! the whole story is plain enough," he sobbed. "My boy was caught
in the act of plucking the magic peach from the garden of the gods, and
they have thrown him into prison. Woe is me! Ah! woe is me!"

The mandarin and his friends were deeply touched by the old man's grief,
and tried in vain to comfort him. "Perhaps he will return," they said.
"Have courage!"

"Yes, but in what a shape?" replied the magician. "See! even now they
are restoring him to his father."

The people looked, and they saw twirling and twisting through the air
the young man's arm. It fell upon the ground in front of them at the
fairy's feet. Next came the head, a leg, the body. One by one before the
gasping, shuddering people, the parts of the unfortunate young man were
restored to his father.

After the first outburst of wild, frantic grief the old man by a great
effort gained control of his feelings, and began to gather up these
parts, putting them tenderly into the wooden box.

By this time many of the spectators were weeping at the sight of the
father's affliction. "Come," said the mandarin at last, deeply moved,
"let us present the old man with sufficient money to give his boy a
decent burial."

All present agreed willingly, for there is no sight in China that causes
greater pity than that of an aged parent robbed by death of an only son.
The copper cash fell in a shower at the juggler's feet, and soon tears
of gratitude were mingled with those of sorrow. He gathered up the money
and tied it in a large black cloth. Then a wonderful change came over
his face. He seemed all of a sudden to forget his grief. Turning to the
box, he raised the lid. The people heard him say: "Come, my son; the
crowd is waiting for you to thank them. Hurry up! They have been very
kind to us."

In an instant the box was thrown open with a bang, and before the
mandarin and his friends, before the eyes of all the sightseers the
young man, strong and whole once more, stepped forth and bowed, clasping
his hands and giving the national salute.

For a moment all were silent. Then, as the wonder of the whole thing
dawned upon them, the people broke forth into a tumult of shouts,
laughter, and compliments. "The fairies have surely come to visit us!"
they shouted. "The city will be blessed with good fortune! Perhaps it is
Fairy Old Boy himself who is among us!"

The mandarin rose and addressed the jugglers, thanking them in the name
of the city for their visit and for the taste they had given to him and
his guests of the peach from the heavenly orchard.

Even as he spoke, the magic box opened again; the two fairies
disappeared inside, the lid closed, and the chest rose from the ground
above the heads of the people. For a moment it floated round in a circle
like some homing pigeon trying to find its bearings before starting on
a return journey. Then, with a sudden burst of speed, it shot off into
the heavens and vanished from the sight of those below, and not a thing
remained as proof of the strange visitors except the magic peach seed
that lay beside the teacups on the mandarin's table.

According to the most ancient writings there is now nothing left to tell
of this story. It has been declared, however, by later scholars that the
official and his friends who had eaten the magic peach, at once began to
feel a change in their lives. While, before the coming of the fairies,
they had lived unfairly, accepting bribes and taking part in many
shameful practices, now, after tasting of the heavenly fruit, they began
to grow better. The people soon began to honour and love them, saying,
"Surely these great men are not like others of their kind, for these men
are just and honest in their dealings with us. They seem not to be
ruling for their own reward!"

However this may be, we do know that before many years their city became
the centre of the greatest peach-growing section of China, and even
yet when strangers walk in the orchards and look up admiringly at the
beautiful sweet-smelling fruit, the natives sometimes ask proudly, "And
have you never heard about the wonderful peach which was the beginning
of all our orchards, the magic peach the fairies brought us from the
Western Heaven?"