WOO OF HWANG-HO.: THE GIRL OF THE YELLOW RIVER.
(Afterwards the Great Empress Woo of China.) A.D. 635.
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.
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.