I N the outer courtyard of a great Chinese temple there once lived a horse which many pilgrims came many miles to see. He was—or they believed him to be—a sacred horse, and no doubt the ordinary horses, who had to bear heavy burdens along the road that led past the temple, envied him greatly, and thought that he must be perfectly happy. But the sacred horse was not happy at all. He was lonely, and he was dull. Sometimes he was even hungry as well, for most of the bean-cakes offered to him by the pilgrims were carried away and eaten by his groom, and that same groom sometimes forgot to give him his feed of oats at the proper time.
So the sacred horse felt very doleful in his enclosed courtyard behind high bronze bars, over which pale purple trails of wistaria fell in summer-time. He was haunted by a dim, hazy idea that once, long ago, life had been very different for him, and that he himself had been very different in those days. Even when the priests covered him with gorgeous housings of embroidered silk and led him in procession through the temple, he never lost that sense of loneliness and discontent. He knew, too, that the pilgrims did not offer him bean-cakes because they wanted to make him any happier, but simply because they believed that his sacredness might bring them good luck.
One day the sacred horse was feeling even more than usually depressed. He had had no dinner, and he said to himself that he would far rather do the hardest work, or bear the heaviest loads, than remain any longer in solitary—and hungry—glory in the temple court. Presently he became aware that a little girl was looking at him through the bronze bars. She was a quaint slip of a child, and her gown was of thin and faded blue cotton.
"Oh, holy horse," said this quaint little girl, "why are you so sad this morning?"
"What is the use of being holy, when that rascal of a groom of mine has forgotten to bring me my oats?"
The child thrust her hand between the bars, and the sacred horse saw with astonishment that she was offering him a small lump of coarse dry bread.
"Will you not share my dinner, poor horse?" asked the little girl.
After a moment's hesitation the horse accepted her offering, and ate it out of her hand
"Thank you," he said, "but if you give me this bread because you think I can bring you good luck, I may as well warn you that you are mistaken. And I suppose that was why you did it."
"No," answered the little girl, earnestly, "that was not why. I thought that if you were hungry, you might think even this rough bread worth having."
"You are a good child," said the sacred horse, "a very good child. I don't remember seeing you here before. Whose child are you?"
"Whose child?" repeated his new friend, "I cannot tell. I cannot remember ever belonging to anybody. Sometimes I wonder if I dropped from the moon."
"But where do you live?"
"Wherever I can get some work to do, and a little rice or bread to eat. My last home was in a village beyond the mountains yonder. I have come here because I hoped I might be allowed to work in the rice-fields."
"Have you no one to look after you? No place in which to sleep?"
"People seem to think I am old enough to look after myself. I am nine years old now. When it is fine, I sleep out of doors. When it rains, I take shelter in some temple."
"And you can wander where you will, up and down, and to and fro? Lucky little girl!"
"I did not know before that I was lucky," said the little girl.
"Well, then, you are. Think what an unlucky fellow I am, barred in here so that a lot of foolish folk can come and gaze at me. They think I am sacred! Did you ever hear such nonsense?"
"Are you not sacred, then?" asked the little girl, surprised.
"Not a bit of it."
"But surely you are not like other horses! They can't talk."
"What is the use of being able to talk if nobody understands what you say? You are the only person who has ever understood my language—the only one."
"Poor sacred horse!" said the little girl, "but don't you like being worshipped?"
"I did at first. Then I saw that nobody cared two copper coins about me. It was only because they wanted good luck, and they thought I could give it to them, that the pilgrims came round and offered me bean-cakes. I soon saw that. And then what was their worship worth? I would rather have had one pat from a friendly hand any day."
"Don't the bean-cakes taste nice?" asked the little girl.
"Very—when I am allowed to taste them. But that rascal of a groom of mine gets seven for every one that I get. And he's fearfully careless. He forgets to bring me my oats."
"Not every day. That would be too much. Once in five days, perhaps."
"You are lucky," said the little girl, "to know what it is to be hungry only once in five days."
"And you are lucky to be able to go up and down, and to and fro. I say! I have an idea! Supposing we change places, you and I!"
"How could we?"
"Easily. You need only unbar that bronze gate. Then you could step in and I could step out."
"But the priests of the temple would beat me if they found me here, and you gone."
"Not they. They would think you really had dropped from the moon. And then you might know what it feels like to be worshipped."
"And what would you do?" asked the little girl, softly stroking the long white mane of the sacred horse.
"I? Oh, I would gallop away as far as I could, so far that no one could possibly recognize me. Perhaps I might enter the service of some mandarin—perhaps of the Emperor of China himself. Who knows? And there is something else I should like to do."
"What is that?"
"To find the place I came from, before I was brought here. I was different in those days. Maybe it is only a dream—but I sometimes think that I had two legs, not four."
"I have never seen a horse with only two legs," remarked the little girl.
"You have seen a boy with two legs, haven't you?"
"Very often," agreed the little girl, with a smile; and then she added curiously, "Do you think you were once a boy?"
"Maybe it is only a dream," returned the sacred horse, "but I have an idea that there is a spell upon me, and that it might be broken, if only I could discover the way. And how can I discover it, imprisoned here?"
"Listen," said the little girl, "I will do as you wish. When shall I come and unbar the gate for you?"
"To-night, when all the priests are asleep. Now you must leave me. Some pilgrim might draw near who would recognize you afterward. And that would be decidedly awkward for both of us. At moonrise. Don't forget."
The little girl promised not to forget, and slipped softly away just as a group of pious people, led by a priest, approached the bronze bars.
Soon after moonrise that same night she returned and tiptoed through the hushed and deserted courts of the temple, where gods and demons grinned weirdly in the brilliant moonlight and the long trails of wistaria cast filmy shadows on the ground. Her four-legged friend was waiting anxiously for her.
"You are a good child," he said, approvingly. "And now, listen to me. Whatever anybody says to you, you must always answer in the same words. 'The gods know.' Say nothing else. Say nothing more. And you will be safe."
"Thank you, dear sacred horse. I shall not forget."
"Yonder you will find my embroidered housings," the horse went on, "fold them round you, and you will look quite fine. Fear nothing. And the gods protect you! You are the first friend I have ever had—but maybe I shall find others in the great wide world beyond those bars."
The little girl now unbolted the bronze gate, and the sacred horse passed out.
"Good-bye, dear sacred horse," said his deliverer, throwing her arms round his neck, "I shall never forget you. And some day, if you grow weary of wandering up and down the world, come back to this temple and I will take care of you."
The horse dropped his head on to her shoulder for a moment.
"Good-bye, child," said he, "I hope you will be happy—I know I shall."
Then, with a soft whinny and a flick of his long white tail, he galloped off into the moonlit meadows.
"When he had disappeared the little girl slipped into the temple court, barring the great bronze gate behind her, and tiptoed into the deserted stable. There she found a carved lacquer chest full of the most beautiful embroidered silken stuffs, all wrought with corals, and tiny seed-pearls, and kingfisher-feathers. In these she wrapped herself before she lay down upon a heap of clean straw and fell fast asleep.
A couple of hours later she was aroused by two rough voices whispering just outside the bars.
"Never mind whether the beast be sacred or no," said one, "how can we get away with our plunder if we have no horse? If we had pluck enough to break into the mandarin's house and carry off his treasures, surely we have pluck enough to steal this white nag!"
"That's all very well," returned the other voice, doubtfully. "Supposing it isn't really a sacred horse at all—but if it is——"
"Don't be a fool, Wang. Who is to know?"
"The gods know!" said a clear little voice.
"The gods know!"
Terror-stricken the two robbers looked round. In the moonlight they saw what seemed to them a sacred image wakened into life—the image of a small, grave-eyed goddess draped in many-coloured embroideries. With a loud howl of dismay the rascals took to flight, leaving behind them all the treasures they had stolen from the mandarin's house that same night. When they were out of sight the little girl crept softly forth and, one by one, seized the mandarin's belongings in her arms and dragged them inside the barred enclosure. Never had she seen such wonders—candlesticks and incense-burners of gilded bronze, vases of milk-white jade, rosaries of amber and amethyst, crystal and ivory, tablets of emerald engraved with elephants and dragons.
When she had gathered all these marvels into the centre of the courtyard, she brought out a heap of straw, spread it near by, and fell asleep again. She was awakened some hours later by the sun falling on her eyelids and by a hum of many voices. Beyond the bronze bars were excited groups of people; beside her stood the mandarin, very magnificent in his yellow jacket, with a coral button on his cap and peacock's feather sprouting from it. The little girl rose to her feet and stood calmly before him.
"Whence did you come, my child?" asked the mandarin.
"The gods know," replied the little girl, in a clear and steady voice.
"And where is the sacred horse?"
"The gods know," she answered, undismayed.
At the repetition of these mysterious words a thrill ran through the beholders, and people whispered to each other, "She is a goddess!"
"Tell me," the mandarin went on, "how did these objects come here, which were stolen from my house last night?"
"The gods know," said the little girl.
"The gods know all things," cried the mandarin, dropping upon his knees before her. "They have wrought a miracle. I see, and I worship!"
And all the crowd which had gathered knelt down beyond the bars, saying, "We see, and we worship!"
Soon the tidings went abroad that a goddess had descended in the temple, in the place where the sacred white horse had formerly dwelt. Pilgrims came from far and near, incense was burned and prayers were muttered before her.
At the suggestion of the grateful mandarin whose treasures had been restored to him, a new and noble temple was built in honour of the goddess, with gardens and fountains, lakes and bridges.
At first the little girl was happy. It seemed wonderful to her, after the hardships of her childhood, to have a fine red lacquer bed to sleep in, and as much rice, and bird's-nest soup, and shark's-fin pie, and pickled fir-cone salad, as she liked to eat. But after a year or two had passed she began to feel lonely and dull, just as her friend the sacred horse had done. Everyone honoured her as a goddess, no one loved her as a sister, a daughter, or a friend. Life seemed blank and useless, one long, empty day was just like another. Her faithful worshippers gave her the name of Pao Sheng, which means "inexpressibly precious," and it grieved them to see her looking pensive and sad. Sometimes the priests of the temple would ask her the reason for her sadness, but she always answered in the same words, "The gods know!"
Ten years had passed, and Pao Sheng had grown from a child into a slender and beautiful maiden. The green bamboos and the silver willows were in full leaf in her sacred garden, and the holy goldfish flickered to and fro in the dark blue ripples of the lake. As she stood on a little bridge of carved white stone looking down with wistful eyes into the water one of the priests drew near.
"O, divine Pao Sheng," said the priest, "did you not give the commandment that if a white horse, such a horse as the sacred horse which returned to heaven on the night of your descent among us, should appear at the outer gate, it should be brought to you?"
"I did. Has such a horse appeared?"
"Not such a horse, O, Pao Sheng. But a sorry old nag, with a rough coat that may once have been white is standing there, and refuses to be driven away."
"Bring it hither," commanded Pao Sheng.
So the priest went to the outer gate, and returned leading a most dejected-looking animal, gaunt and uncared for, which stood with drooping head before her.
"Leave me alone," said Pao Sheng.
When the priest had vanished she went up to the horse and spoke gently to it.
"Oh, poor thing—can it be that you are my old friend, the sacred horse?"
"Yes, it is I," returned the horse, "I have come back to you. For you are the only person in the world to whom I can look for pity."
"And were you not happy in the wide world, poor horse? Did you find no friends there?"
"I found many masters, but not one friend. Much pain, and no joy. And you, my child? Are you happy?"
Pao Sheng shook her head. "No. I have much that would make many people happy, but something is lacking. What it is, the gods know."
"I am no god, but I know. It is companionship. You are alone—as I was."
"It may be. The gods know! But at least I shall have you to bear me company now, and we can talk to each other. And tell me, old friend. Have you found the secret you were so anxious to find?"
The horse's head drooped lower still as it answered, "No. A wizard told me that in leaving this temple I had left behind me the one person who had power to break the spell."
"Is that why you came back?"
"No, oh, no. Perhaps that person is here no longer, perhaps he would not help me if he had the power. I came back simply because I hoped I might find you here. I was sure that you would have pity upon me."
"Old friend," said Pao Sheng, throwing her arms round the neck of the white horse, "I am glad you have come! I wish the power were mine to break the spell!"
There was a brilliant flash of lightning at that moment, followed by a great crash of thunder. Pao Sheng hid her face against the horse's mane. And then she heard a voice which she had never heard before, saying, "The power was yours, Pao Sheng,—the spell is broken!"
Pao Sheng opened her eyes. The white horse had vanished. She was clinging to a tall Chinaman in the rich robes of a mandarin.
"Pao Sheng," he said, "you have delivered me a second time—never let us part again. Pao Sheng, we have found what we sought. Are you happy at last, my child?"
"The gods know!" whispered Pao Sheng.