Toward the Royal Tombs

NIGHT, deep and still, lay over the country west of Peking. Under a handful of stars, the palace road flowed wanly between black willows. Black and still, the fields stole away at either side. On that dark plain lay palaces and ruined palaces and the adorable, wild gardens of dead princes; there were rosy-hued temples there, and a great military camp, and towns, and the huts of farmers. But all alike were swallowed up in night, all things erased, save the handful of stars and the black blot of the plain. In some far village a watchman’s rattle clacked, ceased, and all was still again.

On the palace road under the willows fell the soft tread of camels and the slap of slippered feet. And all at once the road was full of torches burning white holes upon the night, of ghostly white funereal robes, and the flash of gilded banners. Tongues of light fled away hither and thither among the willow branches. And on the flickering fringe of the torches’ glare came a host of shadowy shapes — monstrous beasts riding high on the shoulders of men, troops of plumes and fronds and garlands, dark palanquins bearing I know not what mysterious mourners, guards mounted on slow-stepping ponies, a catafalque whose ninety bearers staggered under its weight. It was the funeral procession of the Little Emperor’s mother. Silently — how silently! — it glided out of the night. No whine of bamboo flutes, no groan of funereal drums — as though it were more fitting thus for a ruined dynasty to pass to the tombs in silence.

Slowly and dimly a pale light moved in the sky and filtered down through the branches of the willows; the torches drew in their glare, colors came forth. Green and gold were the robes of the attendants, red and gold the canopy of the catafalque.

Then suddenly, as if to heighten that last gesture of regality, dawn flung across the east a banner of imperial yellow. The breeze of dawn sprang up. The willows shivered. Across that trembling screen of black and gold passed in semi-silhouette the phantasmagoria of the funeral procession — silent, undulating camels bearing with majestic deliberation their loads of burial trappings; towering guardian lions made of cedar leaves; palanquins of papier-mâché for the imperial mother’s goings and comings in Paradise; offerings to be burnt before the gods. In a last flare of yellow light the dawn poured forth upon the gold-embroidered canopy of the catafalque.

Stop, O Memory! Stop before the cold light of day, before the camels grow lean and dingy, before the emblems droop and the robes of the attendants turn to faded tatters, before the torches grow cold. Stop, above all things, before the procession arrives at a tea house. For then the imperial lions will be abandoned in the dust, and the catafalque left in the middle of the road. The emblems will be flung aside, and the holy offerings. The funeral cortège will sit at the side of the road, drinking tea and laughing.