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CHAPTER XII

I would have you now see her as I see her, standing before Li Po, the great poet, in her green costume. And Li Po, big, fat, with sad eyes and a twisted mouth, uncomfortable as be damned. The sun shone in the garden, the butterflies, the red and black and golden butterflies, flitted from blossom to blossom. And the bees droned. And on the banks of the green lake the kingfisher tunneled his wee house, and the wind shook the blossoms of the apple-trees. And Li Po sat on the marble slab and was very uncomfortable. And in a dark bower was Sanany, the magician, brooding like an owl. And Golden Bells stood before Li Po, and there were hurt tears in her eyes.

"Did my father or I ever do anything to you, Li Po, that you should make a song such as they sing in the market-place?"

"What song?"

"The Song of the Cockatoo."

"I don't remember."

"I'll remind you, Li Po. 'There alighted on the balcony of the King of Annam,' the song goes, 'a red cockatoo. It was colored as a peach-tree-blossom and it spoke the tongue of men. And the King of Annam did to it what is always done to the learned and eloquent. He took a cage with stout bars, and shut up inside.' And wasn't that the cruel thing to write! And are you so imprisoned here, Li Po? Ah, Li Po, I'm thinking hard of you, I'm thinking hard."

"Well, now, Golden Bells, to tell you the truth there was no excuse for it. But often times I do be feeling sad, and thinking of the friends of my youth who are gone. Yuan Chen, who might have been a better poet nor me, if he had been spared; and H'sieng-yang and Li Chien, too. Ah, they were great poets, Golden Bells. They never sang a poor song, Golden Bells, that they might wear a fine coat. And they'd write what was true, wee mistress, were all the world to turn from them. And I'm the laureate now, the court singer, living in my glory, and they're dead with their dreams. I'm the last of the seven minstrels. And, wee Golden Bells, I do be thinking long.

"And sometimes an old woman in the street or a man with gray in his hair will lift a song, and before the words come to me, there's a pain in my heart.

"And I go down to the drinking booths, and the passion of drinking comes on me -- a fury against myself and a fury against the world. And the folk do be following me to see will I let drop one gem of verse that they can tell their grandchildren they heard from the lips of Li Po. And when my heart is high with the drinking, I take a lute from a traveling poet, and not knowing what I'm saying, I compose the song. Out of fallow sorrow bloom the little songs. You mustn't be hard on an old man, wee Golden Bells, and he thinking long for his dead friends."

"Ah, poor Li Po," she said, and she had grown all soft again. "Is it so terrible to be old?"

"Now you ask me a question, Golden Bells, and I'll give you an answer. Besides, it's part of my duties to teach you wisdom. Now, it is not a terrible thing, at all, at all, to be old. I see the young folk start out in life, and before them, there's the showers of April, there's wind and heat and thunder and lightning. But I'm in warm, brown October, and all of it's gone by me. And in a little while I'll sleep, and 'tis I need it, God help me! The old don't sleep much, wee Golden Bells, so 'tis a comfort to look forward to one's rest after the hardness of the world. In a hundred or more years or five hundred, just as the fancy takes me, I'll wake up for a while and wander down the world to hear the people sing my songs, and then I'll go back to my sleep."

And she was going to ask him another question when the Sanang came up. The magician was a thick man with merry eyes and a cruel mouth.

"Golden Bells," he says, "there's rare entertainment in the crystal glass."

"What is it, Sanang!"

"The warlocks of the Gobi have a young lad down, and they're waiting until the soul comes out of his body. Come, I'll show you."

And in the crystal glass he showed her Marco Polo, and the knees going from under him in the roaring sands. She gave a quick cry of pity.

"Oh, the poor lad!"

Sanang chuckled. "He started out with a big caravan to preach what he thought was a truth to China. I've been watching him all along, and it's been rare sport. I knew it would come to this."

"Couldn't you save him, Sanang?" she cried. "O, Sanang, he's so young, and he set out to come to us. Couldn't you save him?"

"Well, I might." Sanang was not pleased. "It'll be a while before the shadow comes out of him. But it would be rare sport to watch and see the warlocks and the ghouls and the goblins set on it the way terriers do be setting on an otter."

"Oh, save him, Sanang! Save him!"

"Now, Golden Bells, I might be able to save him, and again I mightn't."

"Save him, Sanang!" Li Po broke in. "Save him the way the wee one wants. For if you don't, Sanang, I'll write a song about you that'll be remembered for generations, and they'll point out your grandchildren and your grandchildren's grandchildren, and they'll laugh and sing Li Po's song:

"'There was a fat worm who considered himself a serpent -- '"

"Oh, now, Li Po, for God's sake, let you not be composing poems on me, for 'tis you have the bitter tongue. Promise me now, and I'll save him. We'll send for the keeper of the khan's drums."

And they sent for the keeper, and Sanang gave a message to be put on the Speaking Drums.

"Let you now," he told his helper, "get me the Distant Ears."

And the helper brought him the Golden Ears, which were the like of a great bird's wings, and he put them on his head and he listened.

"I hear the drums of the battlements," he said, ". . .and I hear the Drums of the Hill of Graves. . ."

And he listened a while, and Golden Bells was white.

"I hear the Drums of the Dim Mountain,". . .and for a while he said nothing.

"Those would be the drums of Yung Chang. . ."

"I hear the Drums of Kai Yu Kwan," he said.

"Yes, Sanang, yes." Little Golden Bells was one quiver of fear.

"I hear the Drums of the Convent of the Red Monks," said Sanang. "I hear drums calling the Tatar tribes. . .I hear the slap of saddles. I hear the jingle of bits. . .I hear galloping ponies. . ."

"Yes, Sanang, Oh, hurry, Sanang! hurry!"

He listened a little while longer, and then he took off the Distant Ears.

"Your man's saved," he said.

Then little Golden Bells laughed and then she cried. She caught Li Po's hand and laughed again and again she cried. Sanang shook his head to get out of his ears the deafening noises of the world. And Li Po smiled out of his sad eyes.

"I think I'll go and write a marriage-song, Golden Bells.

"Whom will you write the marriage-song for, Li Po?"

"I'll write it for you, Golden Bells."

"But I'm not going to be married, Li Po. There is no one. I love no one, Li Po. I do not. I do not, indeed."

"Then take your lute and sing me the 'Song of the Willow Branches,' which is the saddest song in the world."

She shook her head, and blushed. "I cannot sing that song, Li Po. I don't feel like singing that song."

"Then I must write you another song, Little Golden Bells. . ."




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