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Indiscreet Letters From Peking

Tung Fu hsiang is an invincible one


Late

in the afternoon it transpired that the Empress Dowager was not in the Imperial city at all, but out at the Summer Palace on the Wan-shou-shan--the hills of ten thousand ages, as these are poetically called. Tung Fu-hsiang, whose ruffianly Kansu braves were marched out of the Chinese city--that is the outer ring of Peking--two nights before the Legation Guards came in, is also with the Empress, for his cavalry banners, made of black and blue velvet, with blood-red characters splashed splendidly across them, have been seen planted at the foot of the hills. Tung Fu-hsiang is an invincible one, who stamped out the Kansu rebellion a few years ago with such fierceness that his name strikes terror to-day into every Chinese heart. As for P'i Hsiao-li--the false eunuch--he is everywhere, they say, sometimes here, sometimes there, and quite defying search. The eunuch has a mighty fortune at stake, and all natives believe that he will betray himself. Half the pawnshops and banks of Peking belong to him, and he will not sacrifice his thirty million taels until he is convinced that his head is at stake. The Summer Palace lies but a dozen miles beyond Peking's embattled walls, and from the top, straining your eyes to the west, you can vaguely see the Empress's plaisaunce. A journey in and out is nothing by cart, and this favoured eunuch has the best mules in the Empire--black jennets fifteen hands high--and is using them night and day. And so everyone is asking again and again whether the
Empress has arranged with Prince Tuan, since that is the burning question; and did this eunuch of eunuchs have his fateful confidential interview with the secret Boxer leaders, which was to decide finally on extermination.

The families of other palace eunuchs say yes, and the wife of one eunuch, living near the South Cathedral, is quite positive, my servants inform me. Wife of a eunuch, did I say? You will think me mad, but it is nevertheless true, for Chinese eunuchs have wives. Why have they wives, you will ask, since they are only half men, and cannot perform the duties of the male? Well, I can only answer as did my teacher once when I asked him years ago. "Eunuchs are still men," he said, smiling doubtfully, "insomuch as they like homes of their own beyond the Palace walls and desire children to play with. Since their wives can bear no children they buy children from poor people, and these duly become their own. Thus when the eunuch dies he has children to worship at his grave." In this land of mystery even eunuchs can correctly become ancestors. Yet this is a trivial detail which I should not speak of.

So the eunuch's wife living near the South Cathedral, who gossips with her Black Catholic neighbours, and whose gossip gives me news many times a day, avers most positively that the chief eunuch has been in town--that the whole matter has been decided--and that every foreigner will die. And very late in the evening my Manchu servant rushed in on me with his eyes sparkling strangely, and his voice so hoarse with excitement that he did not speak, but shout. "Master," he cried, "I have seen myself this time; three long carts full of swords and spears have passed in from the outer city through the Ha-ta Gate. The city guards stopped and questioned the drivers--then let them go. They had a pass from the Governor of Peking, and the people all say it is now coming." Now do you wonder about our clocks and our watches, and our time? Nothing can ever be normal again until this terrible question is solved.


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