The Incomparable Lady: A Story of Ancient China


IT is recorded that, when the Pearl Empress (his mother) asked of the philosophic Yellow Emperor which he considered the most beautiful of the Imperial concubines, he replied instantly, ‘ The Lady A-kuei ’; and when the Royal Parent, in profound astonishment, demanded how this could be, having regard to the exquisite beauties in question, the Emperor replied, —

‘ I have never seen her. It was dark when I entered the Dragon Chamber, and dusk of dawn when I rose and left her.'”

Then said the Pearl Empress, ‘Possibly the harmony of her voice solaced the Son of Heaven?’

But he replied, ‘She spoke not.’

‘Her cheeks then are doubtless softer than the kingfisher’s plumage?’ rejoined the Pearl Empress.

But the Yellow Emperor replied, ‘Doubtless. Yet I have not touched them; I have been immersed in reflection upon the Yin and the Yang.’

The Pearl Empress was silent from very great astonishment, not daring to question further, but marveling how the thing might be. And seeing this, the Yellow Emperor recited a poem to the following effect, —

‘ It is said that Power ruleth the world and who shall gainsay it?
But Loveliness is the head-jewel upon the brow of Power.’

And when the Empress had listened with reverence to the Imperial Poet, she quitted the August Presence.

Immediately, having entered her own palace of the Tranquil Motherly Virtues, she caused the Lady A-kuei to be summoned to her presence, who came, habited in a purple robe and with pins of jade and coral in her hair. And the Pearl Empress considered her attentively, recalling the perfect features of the White Jade Concubine, the ambrosial smile of the Princess of Feminine Propriety, and the willow-leaf eyebrows of the Lady of Chēn; and her astonishment was excessive, because the Lady A-kuei could not in beauty approach any one of these ladies. Reflecting further, she then placed her behind the screen and summoned the Court Artist, Lo Cheng, who had formerly been commissioned to paint the heavenly features of the Emperor’s ladies mirrored in still water, though he had naturally not been permitted to view the beauties themselves.

Of him the Empress demanded, ‘Who is the most beautiful — which the most priceless jewel of the dwellers in the Dragon Palace?’

And with humility Lo Cheng replied, ‘What mortal man shall decide between the white crane and the swan, or between the peony flower and the lotus?’ Having thus said, he remained silent, and in him was no help.

Finally, and after exhortation, the Pearl Empress condescended to threaten him with the loss of a head so useless to himself and to Her Majesty. Then, in great, fear and haste he replied, —

‘Of all the flowers that adorn the garden of the Son of Heaven, the Lady A-kuei is the fittest to be gathered by the Imperial Hand, and this is my deliberate opinion.’

Now, hearing this statement, the Pearl Empress was submerged in bewilderment, knowing that the Lady A-kuei had modestly retired when the artist had depicted the reflection of the assembled loveliness of the Inner Chambers, as not counting herself worthy of immortality, and her features were therefore unknown to him. Nor could the Empress question the artist further, for when she had done so, he replied only, ‘This is the secret of the Son of Heaven.’ And, having gained permission, he swiftly departed.

Nor could the Lady A-kuei herself aid her Imperial Majesty; for on being questioned, she was overwhelmed with modesty and confusion, and with stammering lips could only repeat, ‘This is the secret of his Divine Majesty,’ imploring, with the utmost humility, forgiveness from the Imperial Mother.

The Pearl Empress was unable to eat her supper. In vain were spread before her the delicacies of the Empire. She could but trifle with a shark’s fin, and a ‘silver-ear’ fungus, and a dish of slugs entrapped upon roses with the dew-like pearls upon them. Her burning curiosity had wholly deprived her of appetite, nor could the amusing exertions of the palace mimes or a lantern fête on the lake restore her to any composure.

‘This circumstance will cause my flight on the Dragon [death],’ she said to herself, ‘unless I succeed in unveiling the mystery. What, therefore, should be my next proceeding?’

So, deeply reflecting, she caused the Chief of the Eunuchs to summon the White Jade Concubine, the Princess of Feminine Propriety, and all the other exalted beauties of the Heavenly Palace.

In due course of time these ladies arrived, paying suitable respect and obeisance to the Mother of his Divine Majesty. They were resplendent in kingfisher ornament s, in jewels of jade, crystal, and coral, in robes of silk and gauze, and still more resplendent in charms that not the Celestial Empire itself could equal, set ting aside entirely all countries of the foreign barbarians. And in grace and elegance of manners, in skill in the arts of poetry and the lute, what could surpass them?

Like a garden of flowers they surrounded Her Majesty, and awaited her pleasure with perfect decorum, when, having saluted them with affability, she thus addressed them: —

‘Lovely ones, ladies distinguished by the particular attention of your Sovereign and mine, I have sent for you to resolve a doubt and a difficulty. On questioning our Sovereign as to whom he regarded as the loveliest of his garden of beauty, he benignantly replied, “The Lady A-kuei is incomparable”; and though this might well be, he further graciously added that he had never seen her. Nor, on pursuing the subject, could I learn the Imperial reason. The artist, Lo Cheng, follows in the footsteps of his Master, he also never having seen the favored lady; and he and she alike reply to me that this is an Imperial secret. Declare to me, therefore, if your perspicacity and the feminine interest properly taken by every iady in the other can unravel this mystery, for my liver is tormented with anxiety beyond measure.’ As soon as the Pearl Empress had spoken, she realized that she had committed a great indiscretion. A babel of voices, cries, questions, and contradictions instantly arose. Decorum was abandoned. The Lady of Chēn swooned, nor could be revived for an hour, and the Princess of Feminine Propriety and the White Jade Concubine could be dragged apart only by the efforts of the palace matrons, so great was their fury the one with the other, each accusing each of having encouraged the pretensions of the Lady A-kuei. So also with the remaining ladies. Shrieks rang through the Apartment of Virtuous Tranquillity, and when the Pearl Empress attempted to pour oil on the troubled waters by speaking soothing and comfortable words, the august voice was entirely inaudible in the tumult.

All sought at length, in united indignation, the Lady A-kuei; but she had modestly withdrawn to the Pearl pavilion in the garden, and, foreseeing anxieties, had there secured herself, on hearing the opening of the Royal speech.

Finally, the ladies were led away by their attendants, weeping, raging, lamenting, according to their several dispositions, and the Pearl Empress, left with her own women, beheld the floor strewn with jade pins, kingfisher and coral jewels, and even with fragments of silk and gauze; nor was she any nearer the solution of the desired secret.


That night she tossed upon her bed, sleepless though heaped with down, and her mind raged like a fire up and down all possible answers to the riddle; but none would serve. Then, at the dawn, raising herself upon one august elbow, she called to her venerable nurse and foster-mother, the Lady Ma, wise and resourceful in the affairs and difficulties of women, and, repeating the circumstances, demanded her counsel.

The Lady Ma, considering the matter long and deeply, slowly replied, —

‘This is a great riddle and dangerous; for to intermeddle with the Divine secrets is the high road to the Yellow Springs [death]. But the child of my breasts and my August Mistress shall never ask in vain, for well I know that a thwarted curiosity is as dangerous as a suppressed fever. I will conceal myself nightly in the Dragon Chamber, and this will certainly unveil the truth. And if I perish, I perish.'

It is impossible to describe how the Empress heaped the Lady Ma with costly jewels and silken brocades and taels of silver beyond measuring; how she placed on her breast the amulet of jade that had guarded herself from all evil influences; how she called the ancestral spirits to witness that she would provide for the Lady Ma’s remotest descendants if she lost her life in this sublime devotion to duty.

That night the Lady Ma concealed herself behind the Imperial couch in the Dragon Chamber, to await the coming of the Son of Heaven. Slowly dripped the water-clock as the minutes dragged away; sorely ached the venerable limbs of the Lady Ma as she crouched in the shadows and saw the rising moon scattering silver through the elegantly carved traceries of ebony and ivory; wildly beat her heart as delicately tripping footsteps approached the Dragon Chamber, and the Princess of Feminine Propriety entered, attended by her maidens, and dismissed them.

Yet no sweet repose awaited this lovely lady. The Lady Ma could hear her smothered sobs, her muttered exclamations — nay, could even feel the couch itself tremble as the Princess uttered the hated name of the Lady A-kuei, the poison of jealousy running in every vein. It was indeed impossible for the Lady Ma to decide which was the more virulent, this, or the poison of curiosity in the heart of the Pearl Empress. Though she loved not the Princess, she was compelled to pity such suffering.

But all thought was banished by the approach of the Yellow Emperor, prepared for repose and unattended, in simple but divine grandeur. It cannot indeed be supposed that a Celestial Emperor is human, yet there was mortality in the start which his Augustness gave when the Princess of Feminine Propriety threw herself at his feet and with tears that flowed like that river which is known as ’the Sorrow of China,’ demanded to know what she had done that another should be preferred before her, reciting in frantic haste such imperfections as she could recall — or invent— in the hurry of that agitating moment.

‘That one of her eyes is larger than the other, no human being can doubt,’ sobbed the lady; ‘and surely your Imperial Majesty cannot be aware that her hair reaches but to her waist, and that there is a brown mole on the nape of her neck? When she sings, it resembles the croak of the crow. It is true that most of the palace ladies are chosen for anything rather than beauty, yet she is the most ill-favored. And it is this — this bat-faced lady who is preferred to me! Would I had never been born! Yet even Your Majesty’s own lips have told me I am fair.’

The Yellow Emperor supported the form of the Princess in his arms. There are moments when even a Son of Heaven is human.

‘Fair as the rainbow!’ he murmured, and the Princess faintly smiled. Then, gathering the resolution of the philosopher, he added manfully, ‘But the Lady A-kuei is incomparable. And the reason is — ’

The Lady Ma eagerly stretched her head forward with a hand to either car. But the Princess of Feminine Propriety, with one shriek, had swooned, and in the hurry of summoning attendants and causing her to be conveyed to her own apart ments, that precious sentence was never completed.

Still Lady Ma groveled behind the Dragon Couch, as the Son of Heaven, left alone, approached the balcony and, apostrophizing the moon, murmured, —

‘ O loveliest pale watcher of the destinies of men, illuminate the beauty of the Lady A-kuei, and grant that I, who have never seen that beauty, may never see it, but remain its constant admirer! ’

So saying, he sought his solitary couch and slept, while the Lady Ma, in a torment of bewilderment, glided from the room.

The matter remained in suspense for several days. The White Jade Concubine was the next lady commanded to the Dragon Chamber, and again the Lady Ma was in her post of observation. Much she heard and much she saw that was not to the point; but the scene ended, as before, by the dismissal of the lady in tears, and the departure of t he Lady Ma in ignorance of the secret.

The Emperor’s peace was ended.

The singular circumstance was that the Lady A-kuei was never summoned by the Emperor. Eagerly as the Pearl Empress watched, no token of affection for her was ever visible. Nothing could be detected. It was inexplicable. Finally, devoured by curiosity that gave her no respite, she resolved on a stratagem that should dispel the mystery, though it carried with it a risk on which she trembled to reflect.


It was the afternoon of a languid summer day, and the Emperor, almost unattended, had come to pay a visit of filial respect to the Pearl Empress. She received him with all the ceremony due to her sovereign, in the porcelain pavilion of the Eastern Gardens, with the Lotus Fishponds before them, and a faint breeze occasionally tinkling the crystal wind-bells that decorated the shrubs on the cloud- and dragon-wrought slopes of the marble approach. A bird of brilliant plumage uttered a cry of reverence from its golden cage as the Son of Heaven entered.

As was his occasional custom, and after suitable inquiries as to his parent’s health, the attendants were all dismissed out of earshot, and the Emperor leaned on his cushions and gazed reflectively into the sunlit garden. In this posture had the Court Artist represented him as ‘The Incarnation of Philosophic Calm.’

‘These gardens are fair,’ said the Empress after a respectful silence, moving her fan, illustrated with the emblem of immortality, the Hō Bird.

‘Fair indeed,’ returned the Emperor. ‘It might be supposed that all sorrow and disturbance would be shut without the Forbidden Precincts. But it is not so, and although the figures of my ladies moving among the flowers appear at this distance instinct with joy, yet — ’

There was a painful silence.

‘They know not,’ resumed the Empress with solemnity, ‘that Death entered the Forbidden Precincts last night. A disembodied spirit has returned to its place and doubtless exists in bliss.’

‘Indeed?’ returned the Yellow Emperor with indifference. ‘Yet if the spirit is absorbed into the source whence it came, and the bones crumbled into nothingness, where does the Ego exist? The dead are venerable, but no longer of interest.’

‘Not even when they were loved in life?’ asked the Empress, caressing the bird in its cage with one jeweled finger, but attentively observing her son from the corner of her august eye.

‘They were; they are not,’ he remarked sententiously and stifling a yawn; it was a drowsy afternoon. ‘But who is it that has abandoned us? Surely not the Lady Ma, Your Majesty’s faithful foster-mother?’

‘A younger — a lovelier spirit has sought the Yellow Springs,’ replied the trembling Empress. ‘I regret to inform Your Majesty that a sudden convulsion last night deprived the Lady A-kuei of life. I would not permit the news to reach you lest it. should break your august night’s rest.’

There was a silence during which she tried in vain to decipher the Emperor’s expression. Could it possibly be one of relief? He turned his eyes serenely upon his Imperial Mother.

‘That the statement of my august parent is merely — let us say — allegorical does not detract from its interest, But had the Lady A-kuei in truth departed to the Yellow Springs, I should none the less have received the news without uneasiness. What though the sun set — is not the memory of his light all-surpassing?’

No longer could the Pearl Empress endure the madness of her curiosity. Deeply kow-towing, imploring pardon, with raised hands and tears which no dutiful son dare neglect, she besought the Emperor to enlighten her as to this mystery, recounting his praises of the lady, followed by his admission that he had never seen her, and all the circumstances connected with this remarkable episode. She omitted only, from motives of delicacy (and others), the vigils of the Lady Ma in the Dragon Chamber.

The Emperor, sighing, looked upon the ground and for a time was silent; then he replied as follows: —

‘ Willingly would I have kept silence, but what child dare withstand the plea of a parent? Is it necessary to inform the Heavenly Empress that beauty seen is beauty made familiar, and that familiarity is the foe of delight? How is it possible that I should see the Princessof Feminine Propriety, for instance, by night and day, without becoming sensible of her imperfections as well as her graces? How partake of the society of any woman without finding her chattering as the crane, avid of admiration, jealous, destructive of philosophy, fatal to composure, fevered with curiosity; a creature, in short, a little above the gibbon but infinitely below the sage: useless, indeed, save as a temporary measure of amusement in itself unworthy the philosopher? The faces of all my ladies are known to me. All are fair and all alike. But one night, as I lay on the Dragon couch, lost in speculation, absorbed in contemplation of the Yin and the Yang, the night passed for the solitary dreamer as a dream. In the darkness of the dawn I rose, still dreaming, and departed to the Lotus Pavilion in the Garden, and there remained an hour, viewing the sunrise and experiencing ineffable opinions on the destiny of the race. Returning then to a couch which I believed to have been that of the solitary philosopher, I observed on it a jade hairpin such as is worn by my junior beauties, and, seeing it, recalled that the usual command for attendance had not been canceled. Petrified with amazement, I perceived that, lost in my thoughts, I had had an unimagined companion and that this gentle reminder was from her timid hand. But whom? I knew not. I then observed Lo Cheng, the Court Artist, in attendance, and immediately despatched him to make a secret inquiry and ascertain the name and circumstances of that beauty who, unknown, had shared my vigil. I learned on his return that it was the Lady A-kuei. I had entered the Dragon Chamber in a low moonlight, and guessed not her presence. She spoke no word. Finding her Imperial Master thus absorbed, she invited no attention. Scarcely did she draw breath. The night passed, and I remained entirely unconscious of her presence; yet out of respect she would not sleep, but remained reverently and modestly awake, assisting, if so it may be expressed, at a humble distance, in the speculations that held me prisoner. What a pearl was here! On learning these details by Lo Cheng from her own roseate lips, I despatched an august rescript to this favored lady, conferring on her the degree of Incomparable Beauty of the First Rank — on condition of secrecy.’

The Pearl Empress, still in deepest bewilderment, besought His Majesty to proceed. He did so, with his usual dignity.

‘Though my mind could not wholly restrain its admiration, yet secrecy was necessary, for had the facts been known, every lady, from the Princess of Feminine Propriety to the Junior Beauty of the Bedchamber, would henceforward have observed only silence and a frigid decorum in the Dragon Chamber. And though the Emperor be a philosopher, yet a philosopher is also a man.’

The Emperor paused discreetly; then resumed: ‘The world should not be composed entirely of A-kueis; yet in my mind I behold that Incomparable Lady fair beyond expression. Like the moon, she sits glorious in the heavens, to be adored only in vision as the one woman who could respect the absorption of her Emperor, and of whose beauty the philosopher could remain unconscious and therefore untroubled. To see her, to find her earthly, would be an experience for which the Emperor might have courage, but the philosopher never! And attached to all this there is a moral! ’

The Pearl Empress urgently inquired its nature. ‘ Let the wisdom of my August Parent discern it,’ said the Emperor sententiously.

‘And the future?’ she asked.

‘The — let us call it — parable, with which Your Majesty was good enough to entertain me,’ said the Emperor courteously, ‘has suggested a precaution to my mind. I see a lovely form moving among the flowers. It is possible that it may be the Incomparable Lady, or that at any moment I may come upon her and risk the shattering of my ideal. This must be safeguarded. I might command her retirement to her native province, but who shall ensure me against the weakness of my own heart, demanding her return? No. Let Your Majesty’s own words, spoken — well — in parable, be fulfilled in truth. I shall give orders to the Chief Eunuch that the Incomparable Lady to-night shall drink the Draught of Crushed Pearls, and be thus restored to the sphere that alone is worthy of her. Thus are all anxieties soothed, and the honors offered to her virtuous spirit shall be a glorious repayment for the ideal that shall forever illuminate my soul.’

The Empress was speechless. She had borne the Emperor in her womb, but the philosopher outsoared her comprehension. She retired, leaving the Emperor in a reverie, endeavoring herself to grasp the moral of which he had spoken, for the guidance of herself and the ladies concerned. But whether it. inculcated reserve or the reverse in the Dragon Chamber, and what the Imperial ladies should follow as an example, she was to the end of her life totally unable to say. Philosophy, indeed, walks upon the heights. We cannot all expect to follow it.

That night the Incomparable Lady drank the Draught of Crushed Pearls.

The Princess of Feminine Propriety and the White Jade Concubine, learning these circumstances, redoubled their charms, their coquetries, and their efforts to occupy what may be described as the inner sanctuary of the Emperor’s esteem. Both lived to a green old age, wealthy and honored, alike firm in the conviction that if the Incomparable Lady had not shown herself so superior, the Emperor might have been on the whole better pleased, whatever the sufferings of the philosopher. Both were assiduous in their devotions before the spirit tablet of the departed lady, and in recommending her example of reserve and humility to every damsel whom it might concern.

It will probably occur to the reader of this unique but veracious story that there is more in it than meets the eye, and more than the one moral alluded to by the Emperor, according to the point of view of the different actors.

To the discernment of the reader it must, therefore, be left.