NININ was reading in a newspaper: "They are beginning to pull down the great wall of China."
"Is that so? What! Does the newspaper say so?"
"Look at it yourself," says Ninin showing me the paper where the news was printed.
"Well," I answered, "I am glad, because of what use ... Would you like me to tell you a story?"
"Is it about the Chinese wall?"
"You will see. Once there was a king in the country called Tsi-Ching-Hoang-Ti (what a name!) with a very long pigtail. The Chinese are recognised by their pigtails, while, in Spain, we only know toreadors for the same reason.
"Well, the king in my story had few teeth, but a very long pigtail, and had a stomach which could have held half his kingdom. What a wolfish appetite! Every five minutes he yawned, and in every room of the palace there were attendants whose only mission was to place a boiled egg in the monarch’s mouth as soon as he commenced to open it. And what a mouth! Once some one absent-mindedly placed his memorial in it thinking he was putting it in the letter box. One night, while he was sleeping, Tsi-Ching-Hoang-Ti (Dear me! what work to call a person thus!) gave a tremendous kick and, sitting up in bed, shouted:
"’I have an idea!’
"The guards, electrified, shouted:
"’The emperor has an idea!’
"And all the functionaries of the palace and the imperial family came to the regal room to congratulate their emperor.
"’What a happy day!’ they exclaimed. ’It is the first time that such a thing has happened in China. To have an idea.’
"’Yes, dear subjects,’ said the monarch tenderly, ’I have an idea to prevent the disasters caused by the Tartars who fall upon us every Monday and Tuesday. And this idea is...’ (they all knelt down to hear the sublime words) ’... to ask you if anything has occurred to you to avoid them.’
"’Well thought out!’ said the courtiers in a chorus.
"’Therefore I will begin by asking the minister of war.’
"The minister touched the floor with his head and says:
"’Sire, between now and to-morrow I will answer your majesty: but I have heard briefly that, in order to avoid being overrun, what we ought to do is not to let them into the country.’
"’Eureka!’ exclaimed the emperor. ’This being the idea of a minister of war is not at all bad. Let the audience rise; good-bye till to-morrow.’
"And chewing a boiled egg which they had just put into his mouth he lay down in bed again and went to sleep, after having formed that tremendous idea which had been forty years in coming.
"That very night the minister of war consulted the captain-generals, these their lieutenant-generals, these the camp-marshals, and so on until they came to the sergeants, and these asked the soldiers, without finding any who dared to propose a plan, until a soldier of the awkward squad, and the most awkward of the squad, said, ’Well, close the way with a mud-wall.’
"’Enough, stupid!’ shouted the officer, and gave him a punch.
"The officer gave the idea as his own to the major, and the latter passed it on to the lieutenant. The major also appropriated the idea and they made him a colonel, and so all were advanced except the poor soldier, who rubbed his face with sand to take away the mark of the blow.
"When the minister of war explained how convenient it would be to build a wall the emperor was charmed, the court was charmed, and everybody was charmed.
"’And they said that my army was a flock of geese!’ exclaimed the king.
"Following up the plan, the dimensions of the wall and the materials it was to be made of were discussed. One engineer said that it had to be six hundred leagues in length, and that to collect materials for it, it was necessary to ask the genie of stones for them, this being the only one who could help them in such an extraordinary enterprise.
"Moreover, the difficulty was that the emperor himself had to go and ask this aid: and who would disturb his majesty with such a long journey!
"’That does not matter!’ exclaimed Tsi-Ching-Hoang-Ti, ’provided there are boiled eggs on the way.’
"The emperor and the engineer entered a palanquin and shortly afterwards set out to look for the genie of the stones. Behind followed another palanquin with a kitchen and then a hundred more palanquins full of boiled eggs. After twenty days’ march the expedition arrived at the foot of the mountains of Chuang and rested there. Only the emperor and the engineer could go up to the abode of the genie, situated between horrible precipices, and therefore his majesty and his companion filled their pockets with boiled eggs for the journey. When they arrived at the foot of the grotto where the genie dwelt, a rain of rubbish met them which nearly swept them away. A bump appeared on the emperor which looked as if one of the hundred thousand eggs he had eaten had come out there; a wicked tile had torn out the architect’s plait by the roots which caused the poor man much pain, because his pigtail was already three yards long and was still growing. The king became angry and went on valorously disposed to behead the daring rascal who had stoned him, and at last they found themselves in the chamber of the genie Marmolillo. The latter received them with great courtesy, asking them the object of their visit. When the emperor told him, the genie gave his forehead a slap, which sounded like stones knocking together.
"’Well, it is true!’ he exclaimed. ’And it had not occurred to me! The truth is that I have a head of stone. Well, all right,’ he added, ’I will help you, and with my aid and that of all the Chinese it may be that within twenty days you will see it finished.’
"And so, when Tsi-Ching-Hoang-Ti returned to the court, he arranged that all Chinamen from fifteen to fifty years should go to the frontier to begin the work: and in a few days sixty million workmen were working on the wall and setting themselves to work with truly Chinese ardour.
"That was twenty-one centuries ago, Mr. Ninin, so that you had not yet studied the map when the wall was already finished, which, as was seen afterwards, was of no use only to make the Tartars carry ladders. They came back and invaded China and made themselves kings of it. The present dynasty is Tartar, the same as the celebrated sauce which you like so much."
"Good, but I should like the story to have some sort of a moral."
"Well, here is one: that the real walls to defend ourselves from our enemies are our faith in God and in the justice of our cause."