The nobility and wealthy persons who can afford it, dress in rich gayly colored silks, and even the common people add alittle blue or green to their outside robes, so that when they wander about over the beautiful green hills in their favorite pastime of admiring the natural beauties of a remarably beautiful and well preserved landscape, their bright gowns but add to the general effect. And a long procession of monks emerging from their high mountain temple and descending along the green mountain path might be taken for a company of the spirits with which their literature abounds; especially will this be the case if, as is common, the region of the temple is shrouded with clouds.
But little of home life is seen along the streets, and the favored ones who may pass the great gates and traverse the many courts which lead to the fine inclosures of the nobility would see but little of home life, as the women have quarters by themselves, and are only seen by the men of their own family.
It is pleasant, however, to seethe little groups of the working class sitting around the fire which is cooking their evening meal and at the same time heating the platform of paper and cement-covered stones which form the floor of their bed chamber, and on which they will spread their mats and sleep. They will all be found to be smoking, and if tobacco was ever a blessing to any people it is to the lower classes in Korea, who find in it their greatest comfort. No one could see the solid enjoyment taken by a Korean coolie with his pipe without blessing the weed.
As the fires burn low, and one by one the smokers have knocked the ashes from their pipes and sought the warm stone floor, a deep stillness settles over the profoundly dark city. The rich, deep notes of a great centrally located bell ring out as the watchman draws back a huge suspended beam of wood, and releasing it, lets it strike the bronze side of the heavy bell, from which vibration after vibration is sent forth upon the still night-air.
Some weird music, which has been likened to that of Scotch bagpipes, is heard from the direction of the city gates, and the traveller, who is still threading the streets to his abode, feels thankful that he has arrived in time, for now the massive gates are closed, and none may enter without royal permission. The street traveller will also hasten to his home or stopping-place, for between the ringing of the evening chimes and the tolling of the bell to announce the approach of dawn, all men must absent themselves from the streets, which then are taken possession of by the women, who even then, as they flit about from house to house with their little paper lanterns, go veiled lest some passing official should see their faces.1
The midnight stillness is broken by the barking of countless dogs, but as cats are in disfavor their serenades are seldom heard. Another sound is often, in busy times heard throughout the whole night. It is peculiar to Korea, and to one who has lived long in the country it means much. It is the drumming of the Korean laundry. To give the light-colored gowns their highly prized lustre they must be well pounded; for this purpose the cloth is wrapped around a long hard roller which is fixed in a low frame, two women then sit facing each other with, in each hand, a round, hard stick, something like a small base-ball bat, and they commence beating the cloth, alternating so as to make quite a musical tinkle.
Heard at some distance this rhythmic rattle is not unpleasant, and one is assured that in the deep night that has settled so like a pall over the city, two persons are wide-awake and industriously engaged, while, when the tapping ceases for a bit, one is comforted with the thought that the poor things are enjoying a rich bit of gossip, or welcoming a friend who is more fortunate in having finished her ironing in time to enjoy the freedom of the night.
1 This law has recently been repealed owing to the fact that bad men often molested the women, who are usually possessed of costly jewels. The husbands are now allowed on the streets as a protection, since even the police were unable to suppress the outrages alone.
Inside the Palace the night is turned into day as nearly as can be done by the electric light. The business of the government is mostly transacted at night that the wheels of administration may run smoothly during the day. At sundown several lights may be seen on the summit of the beautiful ever green south mountain which forms the southern limit of the city ; as does a grim stony peak on the north serve a similar purpose on that side. The south mountain faces the Palaces. It also commands a good view of the outlying peaks, upon some of which, situated in suitable localities, are stationed watchmen, so placed as to command a view of others farther and farther removed; thus forming lines from the distant borders of the country to the capital. On these peaks small signal-fires are nightly kindled, and as the lights are seen by the watchman on the south mountain, he builds the proper number of fires upon little altars in full view of the Palace. Then a body of gray old officers go in before His Majesty, and bowing their heads to the floor,make known the verdict of the signal-fires, as to whether peace reigns in the borders or not.
Soon after this the officials assemble and the business of the government begins, the King giving his personal attention to all matters of importance.
There are three palace inclosures in the city, only one of which is occupied. One is an old ruined place that was built for the use of a ruler who chanced to be regent for his father, and as he could not reside in the Palace proper this smaller place was prepared for him. The buildings now are in ruins, while the large grounds are used by the foreign silk expert as a nursery for mulberry-trees.
The present Palace includes some hundreds of acres, and is the home of more than three thousand attendants. The grounds are beautifully diversified by little lakes of several acres in extent, one of which surrounds a magnificent and stately pavilion, supported on great stone pillars, - a fine picture and description of this, and other parts of the Palace, may be found in Mr. Lowell's "Chosen." The other lake possesses a bright little pagoda-like pavilion, around which plays a steam launch, dividing the lotus flowers which grow in the water, and startling the swan, duck, and other aquatic animals that make this their home.
These lakes are fed and drained by a mountain stream that enters and leaves the Palace inclosure, through water-gates built under the walls. Some of the bridges spanning this brook are quaint pieces of artistic masonry, having animals carved in blocks of stone, represented in the act of plunging into the liquid depths below. This carved stonework abounds throughout the Palace buildings; the largest of which is the great Audience-Hall, with its mast-like pillars supporting a ceiling at an elevation of near one hundred feet above the tiled floor.
The dwelling-houses of the Royal Family are built upon the banks of one of the small lakes, and are surrounded by walls for greater seclusion. The rooms are furnished with costly articles from European markets, together with the finest native furniture. Foreign-trained cooks are employed, and the dinners sometimes given to distinguished foreign guests are in entire accord with modern western methods. Royalty is never present at these banquets, which are presided over by one of the heads of departments; the Royal Family, maybe, witnessing the novel sight from a secluded place where their presence may not be known.
The King only leaves the Palace upon certain occasions, as when he goes to bow before the tombs of his ancestors. On these occasions the streets are cleared of the little straw-thatched booths of the petty retail merchants as well as of all other unsightly objects. The street is roped off and sprinkled with fresh earth, and the people don their holiday garb, for it is indeed a great gala day to them. The procession is a gorgeous relic of mediaeval times, with bits of the present strangely incorporated. There may be regiments of soldiers in the undent fiery coats of mail, preceded or followed by soldiers dressed in the queer hybrid uniforms of the modern army, and bearing the bayoneted rifles of the present day, instead of the quaint matchlock-guns and ugly spears of the ancient guard. The wild, weird music of the native bands may be followed by the tooting of the buglers of the modern soldiery.
The strange one-wheeled chair of an official, with its numbers of pushers and supporters, will probably be followed by an artillery company dragging Gatling guns. His Majesty himself will be borne in a great throne-like chair of red work, supported on the shoulders of thirty-two oddly attired bearers, while high officials in the government service may be mounted on horse back, or borne in less pretentious chairs. The length of the procession varies, but it is seldom less than an hour in passing a given place.
The King is thirty-eight years of age. The Queen is one year his senior. The Crown Prince is fifteen years old, and hits no brothers or sisters. Foreigners who have been granted an audience with the King are always pleased with his affability and brightness. He is quick of perception and very progressive. By having foreign newspapers translated to him he keeps fully abreast of the times. He is kind-hearted to a fault, and much concerned for the welfare of his people. His word is law, and an official would never think of failing to carry out his instructions or perish in the attempt. Owing to his great seclusion and the amount of ceremony with which he is hedged in, and the fact that, as a rule, nothing disagreeable must be brought to his notice, he is somewhat at the mercy of bis favorites; and a trusted eunuch, having the King's ear continually, may become a great power for good or bad as the case may be. As decapitation is the usual punishment for most crimes, however, and as an official who should deceive the King would probably meet with such an end, the responsibility of the place is apt to sober an otherwise fickle mind and insure honest reports.