Chapter 44: Telling Tales
“This is aristocracy!” The three simple words hung over the classroom.
Unconsciously Jin Tao had sat a little straighter and a twinkle invaded his eyes, stirred by the exciting speech. It was a sentiment shared by almost all in attendance.
Wu Junyi’s hard expression had softened perceptibly, and beside him Jin Yan’s breath had quickened to match her flushed face.
Tang Mi’s jade green eyes shone. Beside her sat Zhou Qianlin, and though her expression was unchanged, her heart was beating with excitement.
“Before the eighteenth century of the Former Era, nobles were still an integral part of society. They were important. Even today the older families protect and pass on their titles of nobility, and grant them to subsequent generations. When the nobility became the common citizenry, the bourgeoisie didn’t rise up, didn’t rail against their culture. On the contrary they sent their sons and daughters to finishing schools in the hopes of becoming aristocrats themselves. They bought titles, figures and insignia’s, anything they could to inherit the mantle of ‘noble’. The reason why the noble institution has continued until today is because it has earned the approval of the people. Because the people believe that the noble spirit represents a certain honor… A certain dignity.”
“In the old days battles were all more or less the same; on the field they were enemies. Back home they were neighbors. Looking back on them now people see these fights like schoolyard scuffles.”
“Long ago in the former era a king died. Both his grandson, Henry, and his sister’s son Stephen thought they were entitled to the throne of England. Stephen had already been in the country when the king passed, so he was first to arrive. He rushed forth to claim the throne as his own. Henry, meanwhile, was on the mainland and upon hearing the news grew resentful. So he raised an army of mercenaries to confront Stephen. But Henry was young, inexperienced, and he deployed his troops without the proper planning or strategy. His mercenary army arrived from afar to land on his native shores, and disembarked to find that he had spent all of his money. Their food, too, was gone. What was he to do? It was then he came up with something a normal citizen couldn’t; he wrote to his adversary Stephen begging for aid. I have embarked on an expedition, he claimed, but have failed to bring the proper provisions. I ask you to send financial assistance so that I might disperse the mercenaries and send them home. Surprisingly, Stephen acquiesced and sent his second-cousin some funds. And in response Henry later began a second bid for the throne.”
As he related the story Lan Jue had returned to his normal, soft-spoken persona. A small smile was on his face, and as he continued he had the attention of every ear in the hall.
“Someone offers you financial assistance, and you return the favor by trying to murder them. Most would call this ungrateful at the very least, but nobles believe that affording your enemies a measure of leniency is a matter of course. If competition is required, then there will be competition. And so a few years later Henry lead his armies against Stephen in a second go. At this point he had grown older, wise, and this resulted in Stephen’s defeat. He had won his victory, but the result was quite interesting. The two signed a treaty wherein they agreed Stephen would remain upon the throne, but Henry would become his successor. Not long after Stephen succumbed to age and Henry became king. To the average man earning only a successor’s title after winning such a difficult victory hardly seems worth it. But this is precisely the spirit of nobility. Henry use the code of aristocracy to repay Stephen for his earlier leniency.”
Lan Jue paused as though lost in thought. Gradually the look in his eyes grew more serious. “In regards to the noble spirit there is yet another story that makes me shiver, an unforgettable tale. It was back when I was still a student, a story my own professor told me. Today I’ll tell it to you.”
“In the former era mankind had produced a massive cruise ship. They christened it the Titanic.”
“The name Titanic had been borrowed from Greek mythology, referring to the giants called Titans. The Titans wished to wage war against the god Zeus on behalf of the mysterious forces of nature. They were ultimately defeated, and banished to the depths of the Atlantic ocean, buried deeper than the eighteenth level of hell itself. Thus it was people said the name ‘Titanic’ was poorly chosen, ominous, and would invite catastrophe.”
“And as predicted, the ship sank to the bottom of the sea in an accident.”
At the mention of Zeus, Zhou Qianlin inadvertently raised her head. Her eyes found Lan Jue’s looking directly back at her.
Lan Jue continued. “But the difference between this great ship and the titans of lore was that the only thing that sunk was it’s steel.. it’s bolts… it’s people. It’s spirit was never conquered. That is to say that the titanic sunk, taking with it the lives of one thousand five hundred passengers. But the invincible spirit of human civilization remained. Unsinkable.”
Lan Jue’s voice grew louder as he pressed on.
“As the boat sank eight musicians calmly stood upon the deck, playing their instruments. Those notes embodied the dignity and honor of the human spirit, refusing to bow it’s head to the ruthless acts of nature. Just as the famous writer Hemmingway wrote in his book The Old Man and the Sea: A man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated. The sharks following the old man could gnaw on the fish lashed to his boat until there was nothing but bone, but they couldn’t gnaw the sailor’s undaunted spirit. This was the burning fire of the inner spirit, the will of man, that not even the entire ocean could extinguish.”
“Even many years later people still laud the actions of those musicians and sailors. How could they have so much courage when they faced drowning in the brine? How is it they could adhere to their duties when death lay in those tumultuous waters? How is it they could retain the noble sentiment to wait until all the women and children had filled the lifeboats before thinking of themselves? Statistics state that seventy-six percent of the sailors died in the accident, a ratio that outstripped the first, second and third class passenger deaths combined. The sailors even had evacuation preference over the passengers – but they gave their opportunity to others. They took on that hopelessness for themselves. Nor was it one, or two sailors who did this. All nine hundred staff, including sailors, waiters, firemen and even the cook all chose to stay behind; so many people, willing to do what they did. As we think on it today, this sort of towering spirit of humanity is not unlike what they said about the sinking of that great ship. It is almost unbelievable.”