Thomas the Nestorian had been in many lands and in the midst of many dangers, but he had never before found himself in quite so unpleasant a position as now. Six ugly Tartar horsemen with very uncomfortable-looking spears and appalling shouts, and mounted on their swift Kirghiz ponies, were charging down upon him, while neither the rushing Yellow River on the right hand, nor the steep dirt-cliffs on the left, could offer him shelter or means of escape. These dirt-cliffs, or "loess," to give them their scientific name, are remarkable banks of brownish-yellow loam, found largely in Northern and Western China, and rising sometimes to a height of a thousand feet. Their peculiar yellow tinge makes every thing look "hwang" or yellow,—and hence yellow is a favorite color among the Chinese. So, for instance, the emperor is "Hwang-ti"—the "Lord of the Yellow Land"; the imperial throne is the "Hwang-wei" or "yellow throne" of China; the great river, formerly spelled in your school geographies Hoang-ho, is "Hwang-ho," the "yellow river," etc.
These "hwang" cliffs, or dirt-cliffs, are full of caves and crevices, but the good priest could see no convenient cave, and he had therefore no alternative but to boldly face his fate, and like a brave man calmly meet what he could not avoid.
But, just as he had singled out, as his probable captor, one peculiarly unattractive-looking horseman, whose crimson sheepskin coat and long horsetail plume were streaming in the wind, and just as he had braced himself to meet the onset against the great "loess," or dirt-cliff, he felt a twitch at his black upper robe, and a low voice—a girl's, he was confident—said quickly:
"Look not before nor behind thee, good O-lopun, but trust to my word and give a backward leap."
Thomas the Nestorian had learned two valuable lessons in his much wandering about the earth,—never to appear surprised, and always to be ready to act quickly. So, knowing nothing of the possible results of his action, but feeling that it could scarcely be worse than death from Tartar spears, he leaped back, as bidden.
The next instant, he found himself flat upon his back in one of the low-ceiled cliff caves that abound in Western China, while the screen of vines that had concealed its entrance still quivered from his fall. Picking himself up and breathing a prayer of thanks for his deliverance, he peered through the leafy doorway and beheld in surprise six much astonished Tartar robbers regarding with looks of puzzled wonder a defiant little Chinese girl, who had evidently darted out of the cave as he had tumbled in. She was facing the enemy as boldly as had he, and her little almond eyes fairly danced with mischievous delight at their perplexity.
At once he recognized the child. She was Woo (the "high-spirited" or "dauntless one", the bright young girl whom he had often noticed in the throng at his mission-house in Tung-Chow,—the little city by the Yellow River, where her father, the bannerman, held guard at the Dragon Gate.
He was about to call out to the girl to save herself, when, with a sudden swoop, the Tartar whom he had braced himself to resist, bent in his saddle and made a dash for the child. But agile little, Woo was quicker than the Tartar horseman. With a nimble turn and a sudden spring, she dodged the Tartar's hand, darted under his pony's legs, and with a shrill laugh of derision, sprang up the sharp incline, and disappeared in one of the many cliff caves before the now doubly baffled horsemen could see what had become of her.
With a grunt of discomfiture and disgust, the Tartar riders turned their ponies' heads and galloped off along the road that skirted the yellow waters of the swift-flowing Hwang-ho. Then a little yellow face peeped out of a cave farther up the cliff, a black-haired, tightly braided head bobbed and twitched with delight, and the next moment the good priest was heartily thanking his small ally for so skilfully saving him from threatened capture.
It was a cool September morning in the days of the great Emperor Tai, twelve hundred and fifty years ago. And a great emperor was Tai-tsung, though few, if any, of my young readers ever heard his name. His splendid palace stood in the midst of lovely gardens in the great city of Chang-an,—that old, old city that for over two thousand years was the capital of China, and which you can now find in your geographies under its modern name of Singan-foo. And in the year 635, when our story opens, the name of Tai-tsung was great and powerful throughout the length and breadth of Chung Kwoh—the "Middle Kingdom," as the Chinese for nearly thirty centuries have called their vast country—while the stories of his fame and power had reached to the western courts of India and of Persia, of Constantinople, and even of distant Rome.
Agile little Woo was quicker than the tarter horseman.
It was a time of darkness and strife in Europe. Already what historians have called the Dark Ages had settled upon the Christian world. And among all the races of men the only nation that was civilized, and learned, and cultivated, and refined in this seventh century of the Christian era, was this far eastern Empire of China, where schools and learning flourished, and arts and manufactures abounded, when America was as yet undiscovered and Europe was sunk in degradation.
And here, since the year 505, the Nestorians, a branch of the Christian Church, originating in Asia Minor in the fifth century, and often called "the Protestants of the East," had been spreading the story of the life and love of Christ. And here, in this year of grace 635, in the city of Chang-an, and in all the region about the Yellow River, the good priest Thomas the Nestorian, whom the Chinese called O-lo-pun—the nearest approach they could give to his strange Syriac name—had his Christian mission-house, and was zealously bringing to the knowledge of a great and enlightened people the still greater and more helpful light of Christianity.
"My daughter," said the Nestorian after his words of thanks were uttered; "this is a gracious deed done to me, and one that I may not easily repay. Yet would I gladly do so, if I might. Tell me what wouldst thou like above all other things?"
The answer of the girl was as ready as it was unexpected.
"To be a boy, O master! she replied. "Let the great Shang-ti, whose might thou teachest, make me a man that I may have revenge."
The good priest had found strange things in his mission work in this far Eastern land, but this wrathful demand of an excited little maid was full as strange as any. For China is and ever has been a land in which the chief things taught the children are, "subordination, passive submission to the law, to parents, and to all superiors, and a peaceful demeanor."
"Revenge is not for men to trifle with, nor maids to talk of," he said. "Harbor no such desires, but rather come with me and I will show thee more attractive things. This very day doth the great emperor go forth from the City of Peace, to the banks of the Yellow River. Come thou with me to witness the splendor of his train, and perchance even to see the great emperor himself and the young Prince Kaou, his son."
"That I will not then," cried the girl, more hotly than before. "I hate this great emperor, as men do wrongfully call him, and I hate the young Prince Kaou. May Lung Wang, the god of the dragons, dash them both beneath the Yellow River ere yet they leave its banks this day."
At this terrible wish on the lips of a girl, the good master very nearly forgot even his most valuable precept—never to be surprised. He regarded his defiant young companion in sheer amazement.
"Have a care, have a care, my daughter!" he said at length. "The blessed Saint James telleth us that the tongue is a little member, but it can kindle a great fire. How mayst thou hope to say such direful words against the Son of Heaven and live?"
"The Son of Heaven killed the emperor, my father," said the child.
"The emperor thy father!" Thomas the Nestorian almost gasped in this latest surprise. "Is the girl crazed or doth she sport with one who seeketh her good?" And amazement and perplexity settled upon his face.
"The Princess Woo is neither crazed nor doth she sport with the master," said the girl. "I do but speak the truth. Great is Tai-tsung. Whom he will he slayeth, and whom he will he keepeth alive." And then she told the astonished priest that the bannerman of the Dragon Gate was not her father at all. For, she said, as she had lain awake only the night before, she had heard enough in talk between the bannerman and his wife to learn her secret—how that she was the only daughter of the rightful emperor, the Prince Kung-ti, whose guardian and chief adviser the present emperor had been; how this trusted protector had made away with poor Kung-ti in order that he might usurp the throne; and how she, the Princess Woo, had been flung into the swift Hwang-ho, from the turbid waters of which she had been rescued by the bannerman of the Dragon Gate.
"This may or may not be so," Thomas the Nestorian said, uncertain whether or not to credit the girl's surprising story; "but even were it true, my daughter, how couldst thou right thyself? What can a girl hope to do?"
The young princess drew up her small form proudly. "Do?" she cried in brave tones; "I can do much, wise O-lo-pun, girl though I am! Did not a girl save the divine books of Confucius, when the great Emperor Chi-Hwang-ti did command the burning of all the books in the empire? Did not a girl—though but a soothsayer's daughter—raise the outlaw Liu Pang straight to the Yellow Throne? And shall I, who am the daughter of emperors, fail to be as able or as brave as they?"
The wise Nestorian was shrewd enough to see that here was a prize that might be worth the fostering. By the assumption of mystic knowledge, he learned from the bannerman of the Dragon Gate, the truth of the girl's story, and so worked upon the good bannerman's native superstition and awe of superior power as to secure the custody of the young princess, and to place her in his mission-house at Tung-Chow for teaching and guidance. Among the early Christians, the Nestorians held peculiarly helpful and elevating ideas of the worth and proper condition of woman. Their precepts were full of mutual help, courtesy, and fraternal love. All these the Princess Woo learned under her preceptor's guidance. She grew to be even more assertive and self-reliant, and became, also, expert in many sports in which, in that woman-despising country, only boys could hope to excel.
One day, when she was about fourteen years old, the Princess Woo was missing from the Nestorian mission-house, by the Yellow River. Her troubled guardian, in much anxiety, set out to find the truant; and, finally, in the course of his search, climbed the high bluff from which he saw the massive walls, the many gateways, the gleaming roofs, and porcelain towers of the Imperial city of Chang-an-the City of Continuous Peace.
But even before he had entered its northern gate, a little maid in loose silken robe, peaked cap, and embroidered shoes had passed through that very gateway, and slipping through the thronging streets of the great city, approached at last the group of picturesque and glittering buildings that composed the palace of the great Emperor Tai.
Just within the main gateway of the palace rose the walls of the Imperial Academy, where eight thousand Chinese boys received instruction under the patronage of the emperor, while, just beyond extended the long, low range of the archery school, in which even the emperor himself sometimes came to witness, or take part in, the exciting contests.
Drawing about her shoulders the yellow sash that denoted alliance with royalty, the Princess Woo, without a moment's hesitation, walked straight through the palace gateway, past the wondering guards, and into the boundaries of the archery court.
Here the young Prince Kaou, an indolent and lazy lad of about her own age, was cruelly goading on his trained crickets to a ferocious fight within their gilded bamboo cage, while, just at hand, the slaves were preparing his bow and arrows for his daily archery practice.
Now, among the rulers of China there are three classes of privileged targets—the skin of the bear for the emperor himself, the skin of the deer for the princes of the blood, and the skin of the tiger for the nobles of the court; and thus, side by side, in the Imperial Archery School at Chang-an, hung the three targets.
The girl with the royal sash and the determined face walked straight up to the Prince Kaou. The boy left off goading his fighting crickets, and looked in astonishment at this strange and highly audacious girl, who dared to enter a place from which all women were excluded. Before the guards could interfere, she spoke.
"Are the arrows of the great Prince Kaou so well fitted to the cord," she said, "that he dares to try his skill with one who, although a girl, hath yet the wit and right to test his skill?"
The guards laid hands upon the intruder to drag her away, but the prince, nettled at her tone, yet glad to welcome any thing that promised novelty or amusement, bade them hold off their hands.
"No girl speaketh thus to the Prince Kaou and liveth," he said insolently. "Give me instant test of thy boast, or the wooden collar in the palace torture-house, shall be thy fate."
"Give me the arrows, Prince," the girl said, bravely, "and I will make good my words."
At a sign, the slaves handed her a bow and arrows. But, as she tried the cord and glanced along the polished shaft, the prince said:
"Yet, stay, girl; here is no target set for thee. Let the slaves set up the people's target. These are not for such as thou."
"Nay, Prince, fret not thyself," the girl coolly replied. "My target is here!" and while all looked on in wonder, the undaunted girl deliberately toed the practice line, twanged her bow, and with a sudden whiz, sent her well-aimed shaft quivering straight into the small white centre of the great bearskin—the imperial target itself!
With a cry of horror and of rage at such sacrilege, the guards pounced upon the girl archer, and would have dragged her away. But with the same quick motion that had saved her from the Tartar robbers, she sprang from their grasp and, standing full before the royal target, she said commandingly:
"Hands off, slaves; nor dare to question my right to the bearskin target. I am the Empress!"
It needed but this to cap the climax. Prince, guards, and slaves looked at this extraordinary girl in open-mouthed wonder. But ere their speechless amazement could change to instant seizure, a loud laugh rang from the imperial doorway and a hearty voice exclaimed: "Braved, and by a girl! Who is thy Empress, Prince? Let me, too, salute the Tsih-tien!" Then a portly figure, clad in yellow robes, strode down to the targets, while all within the archery lists prostrated themselves in homage before one of China's greatest monarchs—the Emperor Tai-tsung, Wun-woo-ti.
But before even the emperor could reach the girl, the bamboo screen was swept hurriedly aside, and into the archery lists came the anxious priest, Thomas the Nestorian. He had traced his missing charge even to the imperial palace, and now found her in the very presence of those he deemed her mortal enemies. Prostrate at the emperor's feet, he told the young girl's story, and then pleaded for her life, promising to keep her safe and secluded in his mission-home at Tung-Chow.
The Emperor Tai laughed a mighty laugh, for the bold front of this only daughter of his former master and rival, suited his warlike humor. But he was a wise and clement monarch withal.
"Nay, wise O-lo-pun," he said. "Such rivals to our throne may not be at large, even though sheltered in the temples of the hung-mao. The royal blood of the house of Sui flows safely only within palace walls. Let the proper decree be registered, and let the gifts be exchanged; for to-morrow thy ward, the Princess Woo, becometh one of our most noble queens."
"I am the empress."
And so at fourteen, even as the records show, this strong-willed young girl of the Yellow River became one of the wives of the great Emperor Tai. She proved a very gracious and acceptable stepmother to young Prince Kaou, who, as the records also tell us, grew so fond of the girl queen that, within a year from the death of his great father, and when he himself had succeeded to the Yellow Throne, as Emperor Supreme, he recalled the Queen Woo from her retirement in the mission-house at Tung-Chow and made her one of his royal wives. Five years after, in the year 655, she was declared Empress, and during the reign of her lazy and indolent husband she was "the power behind the throne." And when, in the year 683, Kaou-tsung died, she boldly assumed the direction of the government, and, ascending the throne, declared herself Woo How Tsih-tien—Woo the Empress Supreme and Sovereign Divine.
History records that this Zenobia of China proved equal to the great task. She "governed the empire with discretion," extended its borders, and was acknowledged as empress from the shores of the Pacific to the borders of Persia, of India, and of the Caspian Sea.
The Golden Horn.
Her reign was one of the longest and most successful in that period known in history as the Golden Age of China. Because of the relentless native prejudice against a successful woman, in a country where girl babies are ruthlessly drowned, as the quickest way of ridding the world of useless incumbrances, Chinese historians have endeavored to blacken her character and undervalue her services. But later scholars now see that she was a powerful and successful queen, who did great good to her native land, and strove to maintain its power and glory.
She never forgot her good friend and protector, Thomas the Nestorian. During her long reign of almost fifty years, Christianity strengthened in the kingdom, and obtained a footing that only the great Mahometan conquests of five centuries later entirely destroyed; and the Empress Woo, so the chronicles declare, herself "offered sacrifices to the great God of all." When, hundreds of years after, the Jesuit missionaries penetrated into this most exclusive of all the nations of the earth, they found near the palace at Chang-an the ruins of the Nestorian mission church, with the cross still standing, and, preserved through all the changes of dynasties, an abstract in Syriac characters of the Christian law, and with it the names of seventy-two attendant priests who had served the church established by O-lo-pun.
Thus, in a land in which, from the earliest ages, women have been regarded as little else but slaves, did a self-possessed and wise young girl triumph over all difficulties, and rule over her many millions of subjects "in a manner becoming a great prince." This, even her enemies admit. "Lessening the miseries of her subjects," so the historians declare, she governed the wide Empire of China wisely, discreetly, and peacefully; and she displayed upon the throne all the daring, wit, and wisdom that had marked her actions when, years before, she was nothing but a sprightly and determined little Chinese maiden, on the banks of the turbid Yellow River,