The Phoenix Scarf
Part One


 
The dual principles yin, negative, and yang, positive, permeate the universe in Chinese philosophy. Certain events occurring in the spring of 1908 so embodied them that it could be seen clearly that these elemental forces changed the course of Fragrance's life dramatically.
Old Fu died.
He had lived a long life in service to the Kang family. In this he had achieved more satisfaction from living than most men do, for he had fulfilled the destiny he believed to be his. The negative, yin, of his passing, therefore, was not to be found in his death, but in the sense of loss suffered by his granddaughter. The last surviving member of her family, except for herself, was dead.
It was near this time that Old Buddha, in response to political pressure, rescinded the law forbidding intermarriage between Manchu and Chinese. Thus, Fragrance, a Chinese, also experienced the positive, yang: Old Fu's death freed her to marry Ta-Loong's friend, the handsome, quick-witted Manchu bannerman Jung Pao.
A second event in that spring of 1908, although more complex, likewise embodied yin and yang .
The Empress Dowager went with her ladies-in-waiting to the theater on an April afternoon. In her private theater in the gardens of the Summer Palace, classical drama was performed by eunuchs who took the parts of both sexes, as did males in the Western world of Shakespeare's day, a tradition continued through the twentieth century by Kabuki theatre in Japan. They also hand-painted the scenery and accomplished marvelous special effects such as flying through the air on wires and causing actors to appear and disappear in clouds of smoke.
As the party approached the theater through an arbor of her favorite wisteria, the Empress Dowager spoke at length, and not unkindly, of these eunuchs and their centuries of service to the dynasty. "Perhaps it was with these beings in mind," she concluded with a smile, "that a distinguished French gentleman once referred to me as 'le seul homme de la Chine!' "
All the ladies tittered uncertainly except Shabara, who dared to laugh out loud in unbridled mirth. She understood the remark clearly, her French having been whittled to perfection under Ta's daily tutoring.
"Translate that for them, Lady Shabara," suggested Old Buddha, "so that all may share the joke."
"Of course, Majesty," Shabara replied. "I think the Frenchman must have known you well, for he said that you are the only man in China!"
"Chin Baba!" cried the other ladies in unison, with reference to the Empress Dowager's eccentricity of preferring to be addressed as a man.
"Yes, I am truly your 'dear father,' your chin baba among the capons of the court!" Old Buddha laughed.
"Oh, Majesty, surely you don't think he referred only to the eunuchs," ventured Shabara. "He obviously knew both you and our countrymen well. There's not a real man in it, save you alone!"
The other ladies, stunned into silence by her boldness, fell behind in fear of an outbreak of royal wrath at her insolence.
"Does that include the Great Dragon, your husband, and the Emperor, too?" The Empress Dowager's voice held no hint of emotion, pro or con.
"It does," said Shabara, "and if such a remark be unwifely in the case of my husband and treasonous in the case of His Majesty, well, so be it! Who has held this government together for the past fifty years? Whose is the power? Who has earned the glory? The Imperial Selfhood, the Empress Dowager, Tz'u Hsi T'ai Ho! Were this country full of such men as she, China would rule the world!"
"Where can such men be found?" asked Old Buddha slyly. "Perhaps you are another such as I, a man mistaken for a woman. I must tell you that none of those 'women' of my court whom the world mistakes for men have spoken so boldly as you do. Perhaps I am no longer le seul homme de la Chine. Are there two of us now?"
Undaunted, Shabara pressed her point home: "No, Majesty, there is an entire army of real men in the high country on the Mongolian plateau!"
"And if this army of real men were to march, in whose name would they set out? Mine...or yours?" Old Buddha's voice was sweet, but cunning. Her greatest sport lay in setting traps and springing them to her own advantage.
Having made the point in favor of her countrymen, Shabara was prepared now to withdraw. "There is only one sun in Heaven, Majesty, and may you shine ten thousand years!" Her manner had changed abruptly to endearing humility.
The Empress Dowager laughed, breaking the web of apprehension that had quickly bound the other ladies into a tight knot on the walkway behind her. None had ever witnessed anyone push the imperial lady so far. Then she pursed her lips and whistled a light call. A dainty thrush flew down from a peach tree and came to rest on her outstretched hand, letting her draw it slowly closer for a delicate kiss before it flew up to the sky.
"So gentle is my true nature," she said, "that even the birds have no fear of me. You perceive this, dear Shabara, and, like the bird, you place your life upon my hand, knowing that I will preserve all those who love me. Admit this is so, favored one, so that these ladies may hear that I read your heart."
Shabara paled, but managed to say: "I love you, Majesty, before my very life. It is true that you know every thought in my brain even as I prattle on like a silly child."
The Empress Dowager smiled with satisfaction.
Entering the theater, all were given leave to seat themselves in one of Old Buddha's sitting rooms. Two such rooms faced the stage, a third in the suite being set apart as a bedroom should the sovereign decide to nap during the long performances.
Upon the Empress Dowager's arrival, the curtains across the proscenium swung open immediately, and the play began. It was a religious allegory of ancient vintage. A chorus of boy-eunuchs dressed as angels had hardly begun to descend in a mass from the upper reaches of the stage when Shabara suddenly stood up from her chair and uttered a stifled cry. All the color drained from her face.
From a long couch in her bedroom, the Empress Dowager saw the girl rise and grip her stomach with her hands. She commanded two eunuchs near at hand to carry Shabara to her and lay her out on the same divan. Like a tender mother, the Empress Dowager stroked Shabara's brow and found it cool.
"No fever, child," she soothed. "What is it, my darling? What is wrong?"
"Oh, Majesty, I'm sure my body is turning on me for being so forward with you this afternoon. I'm an ungrateful beast. I deserve to die!"
The Empress Dowager's voice fell to a whisper. "No, no, dearest, you've done no wrong. You've no idea how I've hungered for a human being with a will as strong as my own! The world is full of weaklings. Such as we among women or men, we two, are rare. You haven't offended me at all. I admire your strength, and that is why I now worry so! Does this happen often, love?"
Shabara winced and sighed. "Never before, Ma'am, at least not before the past few days. I haven't been well lately, I fear. Not ill really, but not quite well. Perhaps the rich foods you pamper me with..."
"Ah, then it is always a matter of the tummy, dear? Most often in the mornings, perhaps, before you come to serve me?"
"Yes, Chin Baba," answered Shabara, "usually when I arise."
"Have you mentioned this to your husband or to anyone else?"
"No, Majesty, I've thought it unimportant."
"Well, then," smiled Old Buddha leaning forward to kiss a pale cheek, "let it be our secret, just we two. I'll have a physician examine you. Nothing must happen to my precious pearl. But you'll tell no one. Is that agreed?"
"Yes, Chin Baba, I understand."
The Empress Dowager sent for a litter to take Shabara to the imperial apartments and commanded a physician into attendance at once. That evening the young princess was given a sedative and sent to sleep in a room near the Empress Dowager's own, well apart from the suite assigned to Ta and Shabara after their arrival at the Summer Palace three years before.
Li Lien Ying received a summons earlier than usual that same night.
"Ho, old man," said the Empress Dowager as he massaged her in her chair, "there is an end to waiting after all. The Mongol princess is pregnant at last! Now there are things that must be done."
His fingers worked busily as he concentrated on every nuance of her words.
"I shall have to find a foreign mission for Prince Ta in the next few days," she continued. "I want him out of the country while his wife's belly swells. I have a special use for this oncoming child, particularly if it is male. And, of course, there is the matter of Jung Pao and his visits to the Kang mansion. This is a piece of news which must not reach Princess Jasmine. Not yet."
She lapsed into silence while the eunuch prodded her flesh.
"I suppose I could send Pao away as an aide to Ta," she said then, "but he has been such a naughty boy at these meetings you tell me he attends with other young revolutionaries. He is dangerous and disobedient, not to mention his desire to mix good Manchu blood with that of the Chinese slave, Fragrance! All this in a Banner-Family boy who has been allowed the glory of my personal patronage! Oh, his duplicity is horrible! If only I knew someone clever so that I, as a woman, would not have to mete out punishment to such a low person!"
Li Lien Ying gave her a jab in the ribs which made her shriek. He had understood her perfectly and wished to remind her that he was not, after all, a stupid man.
 

Table of Contents · Part 2

1998 Brockman Morris